WASHINGTON, DC – Throughout history, mistreatment of minorities – whether ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, regional, ideological, sexual, or other – has fueled violence and devastated societies worldwide. Egregious cases in the last century include the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia, and the genocide in Rwanda.
The abuse of minorities, and reactions to it, often are linked to fault lines in conflicted societies. Minorities tend to experience economic inequality and political marginalization. This negative trend shows no sign of waning. While international treaties, national laws, more and stronger institutions, improved education, and efforts by organized religious groups to foster respect for minorities can help to ameliorate the problem, collective efforts have so far fallen woefully short.
The problem will not disappear until people stop tolerating intolerance. And recent history – from the indiscriminate killings by the Lord’s Resistance Army in central and eastern Africa to the attacks against Christians by the Pakistani Taliban – shows that bigotry remains deeply embedded.
Moreover, globalization and instantaneous communication technologies have made it impossible to contain conflict within national borders. Domestic economic and political grievances can now buttress discontent across regions and continents.
Ethnic conflict in countries such as Kenya, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and the former Yugoslavia underscores the challenge of reducing – and eventually eliminating – intolerance. But some other multiethnic societies such as Tanzania and Burkina Faso have largely escaped communal conflict. Others, including Belgium and Cameroon, have avoided serious conflict, but have experienced significant acrimony over the treatment of linguistic and regional minorities. And, in different periods, Lebanon has managed and mismanaged official policy toward religious and ethnic minorities. Understanding the factors at play in these countries can help policymakers and religious and civil-society leaders to address intolerance.
Intolerance emanating from organized religion is perhaps the most inexcusable. On the one hand, all organized religions teach peace and love for others, and they have often intervened successfully to prevent or mitigate conflict. On the other hand, at certain times in their history, organized religions have allowed, encouraged, and even propagated hatred and violence. And fringe elements often use religion to espouse violence against particular groups.
In recent decades, Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders failed to speak out early and effectively against the genocide in Rwanda. Similarly, rather than condemning the adoption of terrorist tactics by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the destruction of Sufi shrines in Mali by Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist sect, Muslim leaders have remained largely silent. While none of these groups represents a majority point of view, they do exert significant influence and probably believe that they are acting in the interest of the majority.
Developments following the Arab Spring might provide some indication of the prospects for religious tolerance. In Egypt, with its 10% Coptic Orthodox Christian minority, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won the presidency in a free and fair election, after which Morsi resigned from the party, saying that this would allow him to represent all Egyptians more effectively, and promised that he would respect minority rights. Yet subsequent actions designed to give him unprecedented executive power raise concerns about these early positive steps.
By protecting minorities, Morsi could demonstrate to other governments and political movements the importance of minority rights and encourage them to behave likewise. But it remains to be seen whether his Islamist political base, including hardline Salafists, who won some 20% of the parliamentary vote, will be tolerant of the Christian minority in the months and years to come.
Syria will be an even more important test. The Alawites, who comprise only 11% of the population, dominate President Bashar al-Assad’s crumbling regime. While the ruling minority has been generally tolerant of Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Turks, who together comprise 29% of the population, the regime has long oppressed the Sunni majority. If a Sunni-controlled government replaces the current leadership, its decision to protect minorities’ rights would be particularly encouraging.
Democratic governments are often perceived as more respectful of minorities, given that, unlike autocratic regimes, a democratic system with an elected legislature, independent judicial system, strong civil society, and free press provides citizens with opportunities to express their views and pursue justice. But, while democracies do have a better record of protecting minorities, a democratic system does not guarantee respect for minorities any more than autocracy ensures their repression. An enlightened autocrat can be just as protective of minority rights as a solidly democratic government.
That said, when it comes to respecting minority rights, democracies have a far better record than autocracies. This is one of the main reasons why, throughout history, democracies have rarely fought each other.
David H. Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. This commentary is part of the Carnegie Council Centennial projects.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.