Why Tharwa? Why Now?
Raising such a sensitive issue as Minority Rights in such a troubled part of the world as the Middle East (especially the Arab World) at this point in time, when external forces are once again actively involved in reshaping the region and when many of their officials and “experts” are loudly and unambiguously calling for “regime changes” and new Sykes-Picot arrangements of one type or another, is bound to raise some eyebrows as well, both as a reflection of confusion and dismay.
But then, what’s new? Leaving it to the policymakers of the region (who, in this case, may indeed reflect certain true “popular” sentiments, at least as far as the particular majority population involved), there has never been and there will never be an opportune historical moment for raising this issue. The ethnically and religiously charged atmosphere of the various constituent countries and enclaves of the region has made it all but too certain that the issue of Minority Rights is consistently viewed with much suspicion and fear.
The historical interaction between minority groups and majority populations throughout the history of the region (especially during the 20th Century), coupled with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Millet System, the sudden influx of nationalist ideologies, and the continuing intervention of external powers (often using the need for safeguarding the rights of one minority group or another as a pretext) have all combined to help make this issue one of the most forbidden political and cultural taboos in the region.
What this amounted to in practice is a wholesale negligence of potentially (and historically) one of the most destabilizing forces in regional development, thus contributing to the continued souring of relations between minority groups and majority populations (not to mention relations between the minority groups themselves) making it even harder in the process for this issue to be raised.
Yet, here we are, nonetheless, raising this issue very clearly if not bluntly through the Tharwa Project.
Why? Why now? And who are we exactly?
The answers are simple. For, at a time when there is so much interest in spreading democratic values in the ME and encouraging greater respect for basic human rights, and at a time when the region seems so hard-pressed to tackle its basic developmental problems and challenges and unleash its creative potential, the issue of Minority Rights, being one the major sources of unrest and instability and one of the major justifications for continued authoritarian practices, cannot be ignored anymore.
Indeed, the demands and concerns of minority groups need to be seriously considered and addressed so that the end product of the democratization processes currently taking place in the region should be growth and prosperity for all, not chaos.
This region desperately needs win-win solutions to its problems and cannot afford to continue to preserve the system of “selective empowerment” that it has fostered for so long and whereby only certain segments of the population is taking into account in the decision-making process.
Democratization should seek to empower all societal forces and all groups, as any attempt at limiting its scope will be counterproductive and will serve to undermine the very concept and legitimacy of the process, as the recent history of the region can attest.
The Tharwa Project should, therefore, be viewed as part and parcel of the ongoing democratization efforts in the region, one with special interest in helping to “foster better relations and establish a free channel for communication and dialogue between minority groups and the majority population in each Arab country and across the Arab World” (See the Tharwa Project Mission Statement).
This special focus on the Arab World, and the Arab Mashreq in particular (that is on the Arab Gulf States, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Egypt), is no way meant to deny the importance and relevance of the issue in other parts of the Middle East as well. Rather, the purpose of this limitation is to help establish a sense of perspective in the early stages of the Project by focusing on that particular part of the region where the issue of Minority Rights is becoming increasingly more critical and is receiving more and more attention both locally and internationally.
Indeed, it is in the hope of transforming this newly (re)gained attention into a constructive force, a force capable of supplying the necessary vision and tools for the improvement of minority-majority relations in the Arab World and across the region that the decision to launch the Tharwa Project was taken.
In due course of time, the scope of the Project will be expanded to gradually include other parts of the Middle East as well.
Meanwhile, the Tharwa Project will slowly integrate itself into the various peace-building activities taking place in the region, and will attempt to play an effective role in conflict resolution and prevention.
In this, the Tharwa Project’s website only represents a small, though important, part of the overall scope of the Project. The articles that could be found here, some of which are written specifically for the site, are mainly meant to highlight some of the Project’s concerns and activities and to play an educational role of sorts for the general readership both in the Arab World and abroad, and advisory role as well for policymakers interested in the region.
Other activities of the Tharwa Project will include organizing conferences, seminars and workshops, on both the grassroots and leadership levels meant to help dispel some of the negative stereotypes that plague minority-majority relations and cast some dark shadows on the issue of Minority Rights, and create some guidelines and recommendations for regional and international policymakers.
Moreover, a newsletter will soon be issued highlighting some of the various methods that could be applied to help improve community relations and participation in the centralized decision-making process so that the interests and needs of the various local populations are accommodated.
Special studies and polls seeking to assess the degree of integration of minority groups in the overall socioeconomic and political life of various Arab countries are also planned for the upcoming year.
Emerging as a result of an independent regional initiative and being implemented in cooperation with various regional and international scholars, activists and organizations, the Tharwa Project could also serve as a barometer of sorts with regard to the region’s increasing willingness (or lack thereof) to seriously tackle some of its lingering problems and to allow for private initiatives to play an important role in this regard.
The fact that this Project can be launched from a country such as Syria, of all places, without any governmental approval or intervention is indeed indicative of the kind of progress that can be made when private initiative insists on playing its role in regional development even in the hardest of circumstances.
So, who are we exactly? Well, we are simply just a small group of regional and international observers and activists who think that this region and its peoples deserve a better future than the one that seems to be looming overhead should certain problems continue to be ignored.
If our modest efforts should end up playing even a tiny part in rekindling interest in minority issues in the region and establishing the basis for a constructive dialogue between all concerned, then our basic mission will have been accomplished.
But this is not a task that we can achieve by ourselves. Indeed, the Tharwa Project will go nowhere without material and moral support from all those who can identify with its stated mission and its declared goals. By launching this project and this website, a tiny seed has indeed been planted in a rather rough terrain, much nurture will be required to ensure its proper growth. For this, we cannot solely rely on our own resources, but we have to extend an appeal to you, the reader of these words, as well. For, indeed, community-oriented endeavors cannot aspire to flourish without community acceptance and support.
For more information on how you can support the Tharwa Project, please visit our Membership Page.
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus. He is the Consulting Director of DarEmar and the Tharwa Project Coordinator.
Reprinted with permission of the author from the website at http://www.tharwaproject.com/English/Main-Sec/Editorial/e-3_10_04.htm