The 21st century’s ignored tragedy: endangered minorities

If you thought Europe’s demography was sluggish, spare a thought for India’s Parsis, declining at such a rate that the government is allocating money for fertility clinics.

The Parsis are Zoroastrians who originally came from Persia to India to escape Islamic rule, and have often punched above their weight in commerce. The British, in particular, favoured them and they came to be especially dominant in education, banking and industry, and under the Raj they also expanded around the globe (Britain’s best-loved Parsi, Farrokh Bulsara, came from Zanzibar; the actress Nina Wadia was born in the Parsi heartland of Mumbai).

But for a long time they have had very low fertility rates, aggravated perhaps by their unwillingness to marry out (although lots of groups that practise endogamy thrive via high fertility rates, among them the Amish and Hutterites). Now they’re at risk of dying out, which strikes me as a terrible shame, but the Parsi are just one of many endangered minorities, although in most cases persecution rather than infertility is the great danger.

One of the most threatened minorities are the Assyrians, whose traditional homeland spans Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The Assyrian Genocide killed off the community in Turkey, and the US-led invasion of Iraq led to a massive exodus from the land of Nineveh. Syria is their final stronghold of this Aramaic-speaking community, with Ma’loula the last town where the language of Christ is still regularly spoken.

(The ethnicity of Assyrians is disputed and complicated. They claim descent from the ancient Assyrians, and although they have been Assyrian Orthodox for millennia, that name only seems to have been applied as an ethnic terminology in the 19th century by British explorers. Some Aramaic speakers call themselves Syriacs, while Catholic Iraqis are known as Chaldeans, and some identify as Christian Arabs rather than Assyrians. Whatever the terminology, Chaldean-Assyrians are certainly a people, and are certainly dying out.)

Iraq is a land rich in ancient, obscure ethnic-religious communities, the largest being the Yazidi, who face persecution, especially from hardline Islamists, who misinterpret their dualist faith as devil-worship. An attack in August 2007 killed almost 800 people, the second most deadly terrorist attack in history.

Far smaller in number are the Mandaeans, Gnostics who worship John the Baptist. Only 60,000 or so remain, and very few in Iraq, although they were a considerable force in late antiquity.

Likewise the Samaritans, who, as Tom Holland chronicled in his atmospheric In The Shadow of the Sword, were a major presence in Palestine until a revolt led to the Christian Byzantines virtually destroying them in the sixth century, shipping off most of the one-million strong population around the empire to a presumably ghastly fate working in mines. It’s what Jesus would have wanted.

Today just 751 remain in the Holy Land, and such is the demographic crisis that the community has taken to marrying out, importing wives from the Ukraine (once a community reaches below a certain size, continuing to marry in carries health risks).

And the Arab Spring presents huge dangers to the ancient minorities of the region. The Maronites, once dominant in Lebanon, continue to emigrate to the Americas, while the Copts in Egypt are leaving at an alarming rate. Likewise the Druze (Shia Muslims who believe in reincarnation and who do not accept converts) will be concerned about their future in Lebanon and Syria; even more so the Alawites, a Shia group who, since they ritually drink wine and celebrate Easter, are not considered proper Muslims by many people. They are not overly enthusiastic about majority rule in Syria.

We often talk about diversity in the West, but the last century has seen religious and ethnic diversity eliminated in much of the world, first in central Europe and then the Middle East, with very old Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities forced out of places like Egypt or Turkey. Those groups at least have homelands where the culture can survive – what about the world’s other endangered minorities?

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

Comments so far

  1. Extemely enlightening and thought provoking.  Can our leaders not follow basic project management principles and start prioritizing problems that we have in the country, and the world in order to  focus time and effort according to how many people’s lives are at risk and the real level of misery that inaction would result in ? Just one example of many … How many hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of pounds ( resources of British tax payer money presumably allocated to help with “multi-culturalism”)   were spend on the case of Steven Lawrence ?  Those resources, for example,  cound have been far better spend on other  more important  causes in the name of helping other cultures.

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