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The Problem of the “Religious Minority”

In the first part of his article, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Saba Mahmood addresses the history of the concept of “religious minority,” and specifically how it developed in the Middle East. Mahmood makes the purpose of this section clear when he states: “My intention in this section of the paper is not so much to give a chronological account as to offer a critical reading of key historical developments that have been well documented by historians of the Middle East.”1 Mahmood wants to argue that the development of the “religious minority” concept in the Middle East was heavily influenced by “Western Christian powers,” and specifically “…to analyze how this history transforms our theoretical understanding of the concept of religious liberty and the collective goods it is supposed to facilitate.”2

According to the article, the common European historical understanding of when the concepts of religious liberty and state sovereignty, which gives rise to the concept of religious tolerance, appeared was a direct result of the Treaty of Westphalia signed in 1648. This is then commonly understood to be a switch from terming people “religious dissidents” which implies that they are problematic and gives some level of precedent for these people’s persecution, to “religious minorities” which have some level of protection guaranteed to them by the state. However, Mahmood wants to point out that this concept was imposed to the detriment of the legitimacy of its sovereignty, on the Ottoman empire as the Western Christian empire gained power and forced the Ottomans to grant this conceptual understanding to the Christian minority groups, in opposition to Ottoman common law, but was indifferent to the policy’s enforcement on other groups that could be considered “religious minorities.”

This imposition of Western Christian ideals on the declining Ottoman empire was reinforced by the signing of the treaties of Paris and Berlin, and the pressure applied by the growing Western Christian empire to accept the provisions contained within the documents. Mahmood mentions how the Ottoman scholarship contemporary to the signing of these documents demonstrates that “…the discourse on religious liberty in Ottoman territories at the end of the nineteenth century was linked to geopolitics and questions of sovereignty and territorial control”3 Specifically, the Tanzimat reforms of this time period demonstrate this focus. However, the adoption of these treaties still did not end up applying to non-Christian “religious minorities” in practice. Using the designation “religious minority,” is actually a more recent product of discourse and was not present during this period. The theme that was applied is more accurately labeled “religious liberty,” but this freedom of religious choice was only practically applied to practitioners of Christianity minority groups within the Ottoman empire, and then, as mentioned before, as a result of the declining Ottoman empire acquiescing to the will of the more powerful Western Christian empire.

The term “religious minority,” which also implies its opposite, “religious majority,” developed as a result of Versailles Peace Conference of 1919, and was utilized in regards to people (citizens, specifically) that reside within the borders of a given nation. Hence, Mahmood adopts the concept “national minority” and discusses a tension that is inherent in this problematic understanding. From the Versailles Peace Conference, an understanding of “national minority” was developed that was meant to extend mainly to refugees and migrant workers who had no claim to membership in a “national polity.” Mahmood advances an understanding of this definition of “national minority” that calls its legitimacy as a useful distinction into question: “The concept of ‘national minority’ is built…on a fundamental tension: on one hand, it signifies the membership of a minority group in a national polity; on the other, the minority group by virtue of its cultural, racial, religious, ethnic or linguistic difference from the majoritarian culture also represents an incipient threat to national unity”4 This is an interesting claim, but it is not clear that a conception of “national polity” implies that those who do not fit into this mold necessarily represent a “threat” to national unity. It seems likely that there will always be some form of majoritarian group present within a given nation, and possible that national unity could include an acceptance of all those who do not necessarily fit this mold. This may not be what played out historically, but the definition itself does not necessarily set up the harsh distinction that Mahmood is trying to advance.

1Saba Mahmood, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies in Social History 54, no. 2 (2012): 419-420.

2Ibid. 420

3Ibid. 422-423

4Ibid. 424

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