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Sam Fouad

To defeat terrorism, state-sponsored discrimination must end

'Governments often act with the same ignorance and intolerance as terrorist groups' [AFP]

Date of publication: 12 September, 2017

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Comment: Governments must take a stand and stem the institutionalised discrimination that exists in their own policies and societies, writes Sam Fouad.
One of the most toxic and potent scourges to plague the Middle East today is, undoubtedly, the Islamic State (IS). 

Rooted in its ideology is the need to cleanse the Earth of non-believers. The example of people who fall under its definition of "non-believer" is sprawling and far-reaching. It essentially includes anyone who does not adhere to its sadistic and nihilistic version of Sunni Islam.

As a result, Shias, Christians, Yazidis and Sunnis who are sympathetic to the survival of their neighbours are legitimate targets of murder, rape, discrimination, harassment or extortion.

While IS is today's scariest and most headline-grabbing iteration of intolerance in the Middle East, its message of sectarian hatred is not new. That same message, deeply embedded and legalised into the policies of many Middle Eastern countries, does not even invoke a batting of an eyelid from those who are quick to condemn the actions of IS.

While groups such as IS unleash horror and terrorism on those who do not adhere to its version of Sunni Islam, neighbouring countries in the region often act in almost the same manner. These actions do not share the brutality of those committed by groups like IS, but the premise upon which they are taken is essentially the same.

This is all to say that intolerance towards minority communities has long been a cancerous and destabilising force in the Middle East. From the Armenian genocide to various Sunni-Shia conflicts, and from ISIS' genocide of Yazidis in Iraq to the consistent campaign of terror and institutionalised discrimination against Egypt's Copts, the Middle East has a major problem.

Intolerance towards minority communities has long been a cancerous and destabilising force in the Middle East

It isn't enough to militarily attack non-state actors such as IS, which will only continue to replace one another. 

A more lasting and sustainable solution to the problem of Islamist terrorism requires a societal and legalised shift to values that encourage and require sympathy and understanding.

While military solutions are necessary to deal with present dangers, they do not resolve the persistent issue of governments often acting with the same ignorance and intolerance as terrorist groups, albeit in more subtle or institutionalised ways.

For groups such as Copts, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities to enjoy their basic human rights of equality under the law and in opportunity, governments need to take a stand and stem the institutionalised discrimination that exists in their own policies and societies.

Read more: The Rohingya: Southeast Asia's Palestinians

Such a shift in attitude requires a combined effort from across civil society. It requires universities working with non-profits, mosques and churches working with politicians and ordinary citizens working among themselves.

A good first step would be for governments to stop infringing upon freedoms of the press and of association. Their time would be better spent initiating changes within their laws that would save their countries much bloodshed and turmoil.

However, it is not only incumbent upon governments to make this shift in attitude and policy. It is also paramount for civil society to also undertake these changes. The educational system can be key in achieving this. In many instances, the histories and languages of minorities have been all but erased from curricula in countries such as Egypt and Turkey.

Unfortunately, many religious and political institutions would rather foment misunderstanding and intolerance

The Coptic faith, language, and role in Egypt's history is usually not taught in public schools. The same can be said of the Kurdish language and role in Turkey's public education.

A more sympathetic shift towards minorities would also be very beneficial in the religious sphere. Religion plays a massive role in these nations and many Islamic centres of learning, such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt, need to take on a larger role in fostering understanding and tolerance of minority religions and ethnicities.

Civil groups throughout the region need to play a much larger role in facilitating this shift in attitude, alongside the governments of these countries.

While this may seem to be a daunting undertaking, reinventing the wheel would be a mistake. In many areas of the Middle East, diverse peoples have lived together in harmony for centuries. Unfortunately, many religious and political institutions would rather foment misunderstanding and intolerance in order to gain, or hold power, than act in the best interests of their people and nation.

Whereas much of the world has taken a whack-a-mole strategy to terrorism, substantial changes in society and within the law would result in much greater rates of efficiency and success. Such an effort would save many lives, millions of dollars and give the region a better chance at a sustainable peace.


Sam Fouad is a political consultant and a global affairs analyst based in Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @_saf155


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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