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Panel 3

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The Jihadi Threat to Minorities in the Middle East

  • Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representative to the United States
  • The Honorable Irwin Cotler, Member of the Canadian Parliament
  • Tony Badran, Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
  • Moderator: John Hannah, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Sectarian conflict is at the core of much of the instability spreading through the Middle East, and religious minorities are often caught in the middle. FDD Senior Fellow John Hannah led a panel discussion about how the rise and rapid spread of Islamic fundamentalism has imperiled these already vulnerable minorities, and whether they have a future in an increasingly unstable region.

On the lessons of history:

  • Hannah: This month marks the centennial of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. One would have hoped that a century afterward, we would be talking about universal citizenship regardless of religious and ethnic identity. Instead, we seem to see those receding behind a wave of faith-based extremism.
  •  Cotler: Every April 7, Canada marks a Day Against Genocide. Just as the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda was preventable, nobody can say “We did not know” about the mass ethnic killings in Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s scorched-earth policy.

On the plight and prospects of the Kurds:

  •  Hannah: The Kurdish region is now a haven for persecuted minorities. And while Kurds in Iraq still face significant threats from IS and other radical groups, they are able to protect themselves – a situation unthinkable decades ago.
  • Abdul Rahman: The 2014 U.S. air strikes against IS saved an untold number of lives, and “We are so grateful.” Still, the Kurdish region, with a population of 5 million, is sheltering approximately 1.6 million refugees from Syria and other parts of Iraq, including 124,000 of Iraq’s 600,000 Yazidis, as well as Turkmen and other minorities. The Kurdish region has a culture of tolerance and peaceful coexistence that is even enshrined in law. It is an oasis of stability in a violent region deserving stronger support from the West.

On minorities in the Islamic Republic:

  • Cotler: Iran is the “mother of state-sanctioned terrorism and jihadism.” The massive domestic oppression of human rights in Iran continues unabated and has even intensified under the supposedly moderate president Hassan Rouhani. Iran executes more people per capita than any country in the world, and the year 2014 saw a ten-fold increase in state-sanctioned incitement against the Baha’i minority. Iran’s oppression should “serve as a wake-up call to the international community,” and the current nuclear negotiations “should not ignore or marginalize, let alone sanitize, the country’s massive domestic oppression.”

On the domestic and international politics of minority rights:

  • Badran: All of these religious factions have politics and interests which “do not necessarily align with Western interests.” Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority is a prime example, as is Michel Aoun’s Christian faction in Lebanon, which is now in alliance with Hezbollah.
  • Hannah: The U.S. public backed air strikes against the Islamic State in 2014 not because of IS “knocking on the doors of Baghdad” but rather the threat it posed to two religious minority groups (Yazidis and Christians), thereby demonstrating the resonance minority rights have for the American public.
  • Katulis: The last decade has seen a stalling of the spread of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Radical ideologies are at the core of many regional conflicts, but the weakness of government institutions also plays a negative role.