By MARY-JANE DEEB
On Jan. 30, the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division and the Office of Scholarly Programs co-sponsored a conference on "Globalization and Minorities in Muslim Societies." The conference was the last in a five-part series of international symposia on globalization in Muslim societies, made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Carolyn Brown, assistant librarian for Library Services and acting director of Area Studies, welcomed the more than 80 guests and Library staff members during her opening remarks.
The first panel, chaired by this writer, focused on "Minorities: Trends and Regional Patterns." Majid Fakhry, professor emeritus of Islamic philosophy at the American University in Beirut, addressed the issue of minorities in the pre-Islamic and Islamic civilizations that dominated the Middle East. While the concept of the "other" existed in the Greek, Roman and Phoenician civilizations, it was based primarily on the national or ethnic identities of minorities that lived within the respective empires. With the advent of Islam, national and ethnic boundaries disappeared, and the "other" became the religious other: the Muslim as distinct by faith from the non-Muslim. Among non- Muslims, the "People of the Book," i.e. Christians and Jews, became "protected" minorities, who in the Ottoman empire operated within a system that allowed them autonomy in all matters related to personal status. Mr. Fakhry maintained that this status still exists today in many countries of the Middle East where Christians and Jews are minorities.
Dunstan Wai, a senior adviser to the vice president of the World Bank, described the impact of globalization on ethnic, racial and religious minorities in Eastern Africa. He argued that globalization affected them differently: While some thrived, like the Asian minorities in Kenya and Tanzania because of their traditionally important role in business and trade, others did not. In the particular case of the southern Sudanese, for example, globalization made it possible for the state to increase its control and means of repression over its ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, exposure of the mistreatment of minorities through the worldwide media has led to global assistance for these minorities.
Magda Gohar-Chrobog, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, addressed the issue of religious diversity in Middle Eastern societies and focused on the problem of the Coptic minority in Egypt. Ms. Gohar-Chrobog maintained that Islamic fundamentalism has eroded the status of Copts in Egypt, and whereas they played a very important role in government and politics in the first half of the 20th century, their role has been severely curtailed by the government today under Islamic pressure. She said she hoped that with globalization and the economic and technological advances made in Egypt, there would be a greater liberalization and democratization of the political system and that all citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliation, would become equal under the law.
The second panel, chaired by Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, began with a presentation by Suheil Bushrúi, Bahái chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, on globalization and the Bahái community. He maintained that the founder of the Bahái faith believed in "the creation of a truly global society and ... emphasized the necessity of creating a universal global consciousness, a new spiritual awareness and a new responsibility." For Baháis, Mr. Bushrúi said, a future global system would include such global institutions as "a democratically elected world parliament," an international judiciary, an international police force, a worldwide communications system and many other features that would ensure that such a system would be a just one and benefit the whole of humanity.
The next speaker was Claire Mouradian, a research professor at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who discussed the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although the conflict is often described in ethnic and religious terms, Ms. Mouradian argued, it is the result of the breakup of the Soviet "empire," whereby new and old nations emerged from "colonial" rule. She maintained that Russia also was interested in perpetuating the conflict to maintain its control over a "geo-strategically" important region of the world.
The final speaker was Edmund Ghareeb, a specialist on Kurds, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. He provided an overview of the problem for Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, noting that they are one of the largest minorities in the Middle East without a national homeland. Although more than 90 percent of the Kurds are Muslim, they are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Turks, Arabs and Persians. Mr. Ghareeb told how the Kurds have not been integrated into the social and political fabric in any of these countries, and they have suffered for it. He said he hoped that with globalization and the new economic and political opportunities available in the region, some solution to the Kurdish problem would be found.
Mary-Jane Deeb is the Arab world area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.