Minorities in the Middle East: Muslim Minorities in Arab Countries 1843–1973

  (13) 978-1-84097-180-4   Extent:   4 volumes, 2,400 pages
Editor: B. Destani    Published: 2007
Paper: Printed on acid free paper
Binding: Library bindings with gilt finish
See sample pages: not available

These four volumes, concerning Muslim minority communities from 1843 to 1973, consist of contemporary political despatches, correspondence and reports composed by British diplomats, some of whom were resident in the country under debate. The papers are written very clearly from a British perspective but this authoritive voice of government allows us an insight into high politics at a time when the British were inextricably involved in the government of the Middle East. The kind of information and insight that the documents provide is aptly illustrated in the extracts below but what is also evident, from even a quick reading, is the extent to which the position and treatment of minority cultures is a central consideration in achieving peace and good governance. Perhaps inevitably the material concerning minorities is partial and unsatisfactory in some ways; but taken together these volumes provide a continuity of evidence for how little has changed from historical to modern times.


Although the historical record covering the situations of diverse Muslim minorities within host Islamic countries is at best intermittent, the evidence found in these volumes provides a series of glimpses of conditions within different Arab states, over more than a century, and also addresses, to some extent, the status of the Palestinians remaining within Israel after 1948. The documents include evidence, from 1843 onwards, of tensions between settled and Bedouin tribes under Ottoman administration in Syria and Lebanon. From 1920 onwards the record is more varied, including: the effects of French actions in post-Ottoman Syria in the 1920s, with particular reference to British Indian Muslim subjects; the Shiah movement in Iraq from 1927, including tensions between the Baha’is and Shiahs during the 1920s and early 1930s; the disputes of the Yezidis and Muslims during the 1940s; minorities of the Levant in the 1940s, including the arrest of the Alawite leader, Suleiman Murshid, in 1944; the plight of the Palestinian refugees displaced by the hostilities following the end of the British mandate in 1948; and the status of the Shiah Iranians in Bahrain in the 1960s.


In the extracts featured below, drawn from volume one of the work, we see the historical parallels quite clearly: a relatively secular Syria being stirred into religious intolerance; Palestine a mere cipher in an international political arena; and here too is Iraq whose Sunni and Shiah population must be considered equally lest preferential treatment of one group should lead the other into open revolt.
Extract from : Confidential despatch from Mr Kirby Green, British Consulate, Damascus, to the Earl of Granville, Foreign Secretary, 17 September 1873.
…I made direct allusion to the existence of a feeling among the Mohammedans of Syria of the approaching opportuneness of reasserting Moslem ascendancy. This feeling, however, I do not think can be attributed to an increase of religious fervour partaking anything of the nature of a revival. The vast majority of Mohammedans here appear to me to consider it sufficient to belong to the Moslem faith without feeling it necessary to follow strictly its precepts, and practise with impartiality all western as well as Eastern views… however… occurrences and rumours, coupled with frequent articles in the native Press inciting Mohammedans not to stand idle and allow Christian interlopers to appropriate benefits and advantages of right belonging to Moslems, have raised a feeling of antagonism between the two creeds in Syria which has not been apparent for many years past…
Extract from : Despatch from Sir R. Storrs, British Agency, Cairo, to Foreign Office, 28 December 1914.
…We are all heartily relieved to have got the new Sultan on his throne without any untoward incident…With regard to Palestine, I suppose that while we naturally do not want to burden ourselves with fresh responsibilities such as would be imposed upon us by annexation, we are, I take it, averse to the prospect of a Russian advance Southwards into Syria, or of too great extension of the inevitable French Protectorate over the Lebanon, etc. … A buffer State is most desirable, but can we set one up? There are no visible indigenous elements out of which a Moslem Kingdom of Palestine can be constructed. The Jewish State is in theory an attractive idea; but the Jews, though they constitute a majority in Jerusalem itself, are very much in a minority in Palestine generally, and form indeed a bare sixth of the whole population. Again would not Islam be extremely indignant at the idea of handing over our conquests to a people which has taken no part as a nation in the war…
Secret minute from Chief Staff Officer to "C" Branch, 6 May 1927.
In the event of any troubles created by the Shi’ahs, such troubles … will probably be directed, primarily, against the Iraq Government and its officials. There appears no reason, at present, to suppose that they will be directed against the British Government as such.
Disturbances in towns are most likely to occur in places such as Baghdad, Basrah or Mosul, where neither the Shi’ah nor the Sunni element entirely predominates. … Unrest amongst the Shi’ah tribes in the country is unlikely to turn to open revolt until some incident has occurred to alarm or irritate them. Such an incident might be created by an attempt to enforce an unpopular measure…