RFI Senior Fellow Speaks at Middle East Minorities Event: Spark of Hope or Escalating Extremism?

September 28, 2020

On September 16, 2020, the Anti-Defamation League’s  Task Force on Middle East Minorities hosted an online event entitled, “A Spark of Hope or Escalating Extremism: The Middle East and the Plight of Vulnerable Minorities.”

Farahnaz Ispahani, a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, and former member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, highlighted the loss of pluralism across the Middle East and how it becomes the pretext for acts of violence and atrocities, including genocide. She reflected on the August commemoration of the International Day for Victims of Violence based on Freedom of Religion or Belief and noted how religious persecution, often motivated by the pursuit of religious homogeneity, robs a society of the benefits of historic pluralism. Everyone, even members of the majority religion, has something to lose in the decline of pluralism.

The discussion focused on the present status of the Middle East and how dynamics in the region are affecting vulnerable, religious minorities. Ispahani noted that although religious persecution is not unique to the Middle East, particularly in light of persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the significant loss of pluralism in the Middle East in recent years makes a change of course in this region that much more difficult.

She was the first, but not the last, to broach the topic of the recent normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. She offered cautious optimism, reminding the panel that after similarly significant diplomatic normalization between Israel and Egypt in 1979, “the world did not change.” Thus, she warned of complacency and highlighted the need for cultural progress and not diplomatic progress alone.

“There are a lot of geopolitical elements involved,” said Samuel Tadros, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, “but before that peace agreement could be signed, the toleration, the acceptance of minorities was a necessary step.” 

The peace agreement between Israel, UAE, and Bahrain is “bad news for Iran” said Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The Iranian regime has claimed that “Israel is going away,” but this has proven to be false. Furthermore, Iran’s economy is collapsing and its religious identity is changing, therefore the regime is creating fear. The regime recently executed wrestler Navid Afkari to send a “message to the public that if you do not obey us, you will face executions,” Nader stated.  

Nader went on to discuss the fate of religious minorities in the region. “Religious minorities suffer the most, especially during the pandemic,” Nader claimed. Additionally, the United States’ withdrawal from the Middle East would be “bad for religious minorities in the region.”

Shadi Martini, Executive Director of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, noted that U.S. disengagement from Iraq has given an opportunity to Turkey and Iran to increase their influence in the region. Iranian activity abroad continues to serve as a distraction from domestic challenges. As Nader previously mentioned, Iran is facing many problems, including economic challenges and the disenchantment of the Iranian people with the regime ideology. Hence, “the regime is trying to export its problems,” in order to “divert the focus from its own problems.” 

Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, coordinator of the ADL Task Force on Middle East Minorities and a scholar of cultural heritage, spoke about Turkey’s role in the region and recent discouraging developments in the country and its role in the region.

She emphasized the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque from its prior status as a museum of the building’s heritage as a Christian and Muslim site. She is concerned by the rhetoric of conquest and supremacy that has surrounded President Erdoğan’s Hagia Sophia policy.

“In this region, the road to peace goes through pluralism. Pluralism is not only precious, but it is vital for these communities,” said Tanyeri-Erdemir. Acts such as the Hagia Sophia conversion and President Erdoğan’s rhetoric of conquest not only create obstacles to meaningful co-existence but also put the lives of minorities at great risk. While she noted that Turkey has potential to be a role model in the region for secular democracy with equal citizenship and religious tolerance, the country seems to be headed in another direction. Turkey is the only NATO member state on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Special Watch List for human rights abuses. 

Finally, Ispahani highlighted the extreme suffering of Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq. She said, “Yazidis have faced 72 genocides and still managed to stay in their homeland,” noting they are a resilient people, especially Yazidi women. Ispahani mentioned the yet unsolved plight of the Yazidi people six years after the genocide, explaining that “thousands of Yazidis are still internally displaced in refugee camps in the Kurdistan region, many women and girls are still missing, and many mass graves have yet to be exhumed.” Ispahani reminded the panel that Yazidi women are “the vulnerable group within the vulnerable group.” Adding to the tragedy, children of Yazidi women and ISIS extremists are often “rejected by Yazidi communities.” 

American disengagement from the region continued to be a theme throughout the discussion. Ispahani worries that without robust American and international support, minorities like Yazidis will not be safe and their communities will not survive.