Religious minorities in the Middle East – It’s complicated

AP Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University … Continued


Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University on Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

The challenges of delivering peace to the Middle East emerged in the third and final presidential debate. President Obama mentioned religious minorities in the Middle East three times during the debate.

The first question of the night addressed the Middle East and terrorism. Republican challenger Mitt Romney maintained that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess” and argued for economic development and a “robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism.”

Obama countered that his policies in the region relay balance, certainty and consistency. He listed as one of five points: “we do have to make sure that we’re protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can’t develop unless all the population, not just half of it, is developing.”

Ten minutes later, Obama noted the challenges of supporting democracy when a country’s majority practices tyranny over minorities or women: “But what I’ve also said is that now that you have a democratically elected government in Egypt, that they have to make sure that they take responsibility for protecting religious minorities. And we have put significant pressure on them to make sure they’re doing that; to recognize the rights of women, which is critical throughout the region.”

Obama’s third mention of religious minorities was during his response to an old Romney complaint that the president had conducted an “apology tour” by visiting Muslim nations early in 2009. The president retorted that such travels were laden with symbolic stops and strong rhetoric intended to mend relations, build alliances and U.S. credibility on a range of issues “whether Iran sanctions, whether it’s dealing with counterterrorism, whether it’s supporting democracy, whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities.”

Of course, the religious minorities in the Middle East vary from nation to nation. A glance at the breakdown of sects throughout the Middle East and Central Asia follow from the Central Intelligence Agency Factbook and the Congressional Research Service. In some countries like Syria, a minority sect is privileged and holds power over the majority. In other countries like Saudi Arabia, the majority can marginalize the minority sect.

Religious Sects in Middle East

Researchers point out that some official tallies can’t be trusted, undercounting or over-counting some sects to downplay strength of marginalized groups, particularly when oil and other resources are in play.

The break between the Sunnis and Shias emerged soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the year 632 with the transition in leadership. Significant sub-sects, including Alawites among the Shia and Wahhabi among the Sunnis emerged later.

Worldwide Muslims about 10 percent are Shia and 90 percent are Sunni. Most Shias, up to 80 percent, live in Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq, according to a Pew Forum report, and one out of five of the world’s Muslims live as religious minorities in their home countries.

Understanding the sects and their tensions is crucial in crafting any foreign policy for the region.

Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department has cut back on its valuable background notes. Instead a new note awaits: “Background Notes are no longer being updated or produced. They are being replaced with fact sheets focusing on U.S. relations with countries and other areas and providing links to additional resources.”

The notes have long provided a quick study of any country’s demographics, history, economy, culture as well as relations with the United States – informing and enriching the work of countless policymakers, journalists, writers, business travelers, students and staff of multinational companies.

The State Department did not return an Oct. 3 call to respond about why the cuts were made.

Susan Froetschel is the author of Fear of Beauty, a novel set in Afghanistan, about a woman’s struggle to learn to read with the help of the Koran.

Written by

  • aby2

    To understand the entrenched policy of Islamic societies towards the minorities read the “Omar Pact.”
    This is a revered document instituted by the second Caliph of Islam regulating the treatment of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule. All items were enforced till the middle of 19th Century, and Islamists are now calling for reactivating ALL its provisions.

  • aby2


    You state “Omar Pact* is a fabrication document.” I do not really know what that means. The important thing to keep in mind is that Muslims believe in its authenticity as proven by the fact that it was enforced in all Muslim societies till the mid 19th Century and Islamists are now clamoring to reintroduce it.