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What role do minorities play in Middle Eastern regimes?

Support for democratic elections should be balanced by an emphasis on pluralism and individual rights, Concordia research shows
August 3, 2016
By Cléa Desjardins


In recent weeks, Turkey has taken centre stage in global politics, with all eyes on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the military's attempted coup.

But is it possible that Turkey and other Middle Eastern nations might one day turn towards less authoritarian types of government? Recent research from Concordia University confirms that such a shift would be intricately connected to ethnic and religious tensions.​

In a study published by Political Research Quarterly, Ceren Belge, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, examined whether Kurds in Turkey, Berbers in Morocco and Christians in Egypt and Jordan differ in their backing of authoritarianism.

Ceren Belge | Photo courtesy of Ceren Belge Ceren Belge | Photo courtesy of Ceren Belge

Belge and her co-author, Ekrem Karakoç from Binghamton University, found that among largely secular current regimes, religious minorities tend to be more supportive of authoritarianism and linguistic minorities less so.

A significant policy implication of these results, according to Belge and Karakoç, is that support for democracy in the region should be balanced by an emphasis on pluralism and a strong assurance of individual rights.

“Without such guarantees, calls for competitive elections risk alienating minorities, who are already politically marginalized.”

Using data gathered from thousands of respondents to the World Values Survey, Belge and Karakoç discovered marked differences:

Members of Christian religious minorities in Egypt and Jordan were significantly more likely to support authoritarianism than members of the Muslim majorities in these states.

Members of Muslim linguistic minorities — the Berbers in Morocco and Kurds in Turkey — were significantly less likely to support authoritarianism than Moroccans and Turks who spoke the majority language.

Belge and Karakoç concluded that “minorities can generally be expected to be pro-democracy, especially if they have experienced marginalization in the existing regime, because they can expect to have greater voice and protection in a more democratic state.”

But in countries with ethnic and religious divisions, “minorities whose status and security is threatened by a transition to majoritarian institutions will be more supportive of authoritarianism,” Belge says. 

She explains that this is because democratization has varying implications for differently situated minorities.

A shift to majoritarian decision-making brings with it the possibility of electoral victories by Islamist parties and Islamization of public life, which affects religious minorities more harshly than their linguistic counterparts. Non-Muslim minorities are therefore more likely to be threatened by democratization, while Muslim linguistic minorities are not.

According to Belge and Karakoç’s study, there are historical reasons for these divisions.

“The Ottoman-Islamic legacy of recognizing non-Muslims as distinct communities entitled to protection has resulted in greater autonomy for non-Muslim groups in post-independence states. But linguistic Muslim minorities have not been recognized as distinct communities until very recently.”

Moreover, they concluded that “non-Muslim minorities have been able to retain a certain degree of economic power into the post-independence period, despite a host of discriminatory policies aimed to confiscate and redistribute their wealth, while linguistic minorities tend to come from marginalized economic backgrounds and have not experienced substantial upward mobility.”

Read “Minorities in the Middle East: Ethnicity, Religion, and Support for Authoritarianism,” the study by Ceren Belge and Ekrem Karakoç.

Find out more about research in Concordia’s Department of Political Science.

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