As Islamic State (IS) and Shi’a militias backed by Iraq and Iran continue their missions to create “pure” sectarian enclaves, changing demographics throughout the region could be a harbinger of more conflict to come. Large flows of refugees and disparate birth rates not only have the propensity to prolong violence in Iraq and Syria, but could drastically reconfigure the make-up of strong states like Turkey and Israel. Lebanon’s perennially fragile sectarian balance is also at risk.
As the civil war in Syria intensified, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s claim to be fighting al-Qaeda became a self-fulfilling prophecy with the rise of the al-Nusra Front and IS. Their atrocities resulted in many Syrian minorities coalescing around the ostensibly secular Assad regime.
In Iraq, minority Christians and Yazidis have been brutally targeted. Shi’a militias have responded in kind towards Sunnis as they retake territory from IS. On both sides of the schism, ethnic cleansing has become de rigeur.
A state that dare not hold a census
Lebanon, a state carved out of Syria by the French to protect the then-Christian majority, has already been dramatically reconfigured by the phenomena of demographic change and refugees. Lebanon is governed by a consociational model of sectarian power-sharing. This is based on the notion that Sunni, Shi’a and Christians each approximate roughly the same percentage of the population.
Lebanon has not conducted an official census since 1932 because the issue of demographics is so sensitive. In other words, it’s better not to know.
The pre-war population of Lebanon was only around four million. Of this, around 10% are believed to be stateless refugees of Palestinian descent, un-integrated and subject to restrictive rights.
Conflict between the Lebanese Army and Islamist militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007, which led to at least 446 deaths, could presage things to come should the recent influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees remain. This has already led to tensions with the local community, including armed clashes.
Smoke rises from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon after it was hit by a helicopter missile during clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants in 2007. EPA/Adel Karroum
Kurdish minority may become a majority
Even strong states like Turkey and Israel face a drastic reconfiguration of their populations. Recent studies, for instance, have suggested that Kurds in Turkey will outnumber ethnic Turks by 2038.
The affluent Turks in the west of the country have similar birth rates to Western Europe, whereas rates in the poorer and underdeveloped Kurdish areas of the south-east are much higher. President Tayyip Erdogan responded to this news by admonishing Turkish women for committing the “treason of birth control … seeking to dry up our bloodline”.
Turkish birth rates are so sensitive politically that Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the ‘treason of birth control’. EPA
The question is: what will these changes mean for Turkish nationalism and Turkey’s national identity? That identity has been firmly centred on Turkish ethnicity since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
For decades, Turks refused to recognise Kurds as a distinct ethnic identity, referring to them as “mountain Turks”. It was illegal to speak the Kurdish language until 1991, for instance, and Kurdish names were banned until 2003.
Early on in its tenure, the ruling AKP party could take credit for instituting reforms. These included abolishing emergency rule in the south-east and teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish. The government also held peace talks with the separatist PKK movement.
However, the whiff of authoritarianism is ever present. The death of around 40 Kurds protesting the government’s inaction when IS besieged Kobane, just over the border from Turkey, was not a promising sign. Nor was the government’s proclamation equating PKK/YPG fighters defending the city with IS.
Turkey also must deal with questions raised by its Kurdish neighbours in Iraq and Syria. Despite good relations with the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, it seems unlikely that Turkey would (could?) support any bid for full independence. Ditto for self-declared Kurdish cantons of Syria, especially given Turkish antagonism towards the PKK and its affiliates.
But how might these relationships change should a strong Kurdish presence emerge in the Turkish parliament? Will Turkey eventually need to make a choice between nationalism and democracy? Modern Turkey, after all, has seen its fair share of military coups.
Can Israel cope with a Jewish minority?
Israel has contemplated such a dilemma for decades. In 2012, the government reported that Jews are no longer the majority in territories controlled by the Israeli state. A recent report by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics predicts a similar result by 2016. What, then, will happen should Palestinians demand civil rights rather than an independent state?
Also, what does this say about Israel’s claim to be both Jewish and democratic? Already, millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip don’t have the right to vote in Israeli elections, and are subject to military rather than civil law.
The current election campaign in Israel is in some ways a battle for the nation’s identity and soul. Proposals emanating from the “right” to legally enshrine Israel as a Jewish state indicate that Jewishness is preferable to democracy for a sizeable portion of the Jewish polity.
Altering the Basic Law to define Israel as a Jewish state would mean that national holidays would be Jewish religious holidays, traditional Jewish law would be the basis for the legal system and communal rights would be reserved for Jews only. A more radical original version would have stripped Arabic of official language status and highlighted the importance of settling the rest of the land without defining its borders. Individual Arabs would still technically be equal before the law, but their communal rights would not be recognised.
Individual legal equality, however, is one thing, but any woman or minority member will tell you it does not necessarily lead to social equality. Social stratification between Jews and non-Jews is already a reality. In Israel (as opposed to the West Bank and Gaza), David Lloyd and Laura Pulido observe:
Palestinians have Israeli citizenship (ezrahut, in Hebrew) but not ‘nationality’ (le’om), on which crucial rights to property, movement and settlement depend.
Formally defining Israel as a Jewish state would also leave secular Israeli Jews at the mercy of religious proclivities. Again, demographics are a factor as the Orthodox Jewish population is growing much faster than that of their secular compatriots. Existing tensions between the two groups are likely to increase as Orthodox-backed parties gain more influence and flex their political muscles to further “Judaise” Israel’s political, social and legal spheres.
Lebanon, Turkey and Israel have often been held up as models of more modern or cosmopolitan states in the region, but demographic shifts threaten these portrayals. Poor old Lebanon is once again the repository of refugees from foreign wars, which threaten to upset the sectarian status quo.
Turkey and Israel have suffered from a lurch towards authoritarianism and the religious right in recent years. Such trends are likely to exacerbate any conflicts associated with demographic change.
One hundred years on from the Allied landing at Gallipoli, demographic shifts are testing the tendentious borders set by the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Old tensions are now on a slow timer set to explode once more.