Chapter 1 – The concept of minorities in Iraq and Syria

“’Minority’ could indicate second-class citizens. But internationally it’s accepted, and there are laws within the UN system regarding the rights of minorities, thus it’s alright to use the term.”
Male Shaback representative,
Erbil, Kurdistan region, Iraq, September 2016

“We are very annoyed with being called a ‘minority’ – that means we can be ignored. Our roots here are deeper than the ones [of people] who have become a majority here recently. Here in northern Iraq are the roots of Christianity. If you go one layer deep in the ground, you will find churches and crosses. If [you dig] deeper, there will be our Mesopotamian fathers.”
Christian religious leader, 
Erbil, Kurdistan region, Iraq, September 2016

Minorities: A difficult protection concept

No internationally agreed definition determines which groups constitute ‘minorities’. In general, minorities are defined as “groups differing […] in race, religion or ethnic background from the majority of a population”.4 The UN Minorities Declaration adopted in 1992 refers to minorities as groups based on national, ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic identity, and asserts that states should protect their existence.5 Any useful definition must include both objective factors – such as the existence of a shared ethnicity, language or religion – and subjective factors, including the fact that individuals must self-identify as members of a minority.

A considerable challenge when dealing with religious minorities in the Middle East is that categories of religious distinctiveness or separate religious identities sometimes overlap with ethnic identities. While some religious minorities are also identified as ethnic groups (such as Assyrians and sometimes Yezidis), others are not (such as Shia Muslims). The mosaic of ethno-religious groups in the Middle East therefore largely defies a stringent definition of religious minorities.

In addition, the term ‘minority’ is contextual and relative, so social groups categorised as minorities at the national level might be geographically concentrated and constitute a majority at the sub-national level. In the broader Middle East, the Shia Muslim community is a minority. But there is broad consensus that in Iraq it is the largest religious group, while the Muslim Sunnis constitute a minority. In the Iraqi Nineveh Province, however, Shia Arabs are a minority while Sunni Arabs are the Muslim majority, yet in a specific local community the relationship may shift yet again. Similar ‘alternations’ can be found in Syria, where religious minorities may be the majority in one region, but only have confessional brethren in small enclaves, villages or areas in other provinces.

Moreover, ‘minorities’ is not a label that social groups in Syria and Iraq are comfortable with.6 Objections to using the term revolve around the following:7

  • It is a source of vulnerability, indicating weakness or less value than the majority.
  • It shapes power relations and undermines a language of unity around citizenship.
  • For some groups, the concept overshadows their historical roots as indigenous peoples or descendants from ancient Mesopotamian peoples.

Since ‘minorities’ is a term anchored in human rights frameworks, many groups accept its use in the international discourse and debates abroad, while calling for caution and reflection when using it in their homeland. In Iraq and Syria, because of the implications that concepts have in shaping current realities and future alternatives for society, there is a noteworthy preference for employing a term like ‘social component’ (المكون الاجتماعي in Arabic), or ‘the components of the people’ (مكونات الشعب), referring to all the different groups that make up the population.8

Definition of minorities in this report

While acknowledging both the lack of clarity and challenges associated with it, in this report the term ‘minorities’ is used for analytical purposes, to refer to ethnic and religious groups different from what constitutes the numerical majority. As far as possible, the study is sensitive to differences and similarities between groups (the majority and minorities, and between different religious minorities) as well as within sub-groups (based on sex, age, etc.). Overviews of the different religious and ethnic minority groups in Iraq and Syria are provided on pages 12 and 18, respectively.

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Chapter 2 – The social and historical background to conflict in Syria and Iraq