A halal Muslim butcher recently opened shop in Beirut's traditionally Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh. While insignificant by itself, this piece of news tells of an ongoing trend: The Christian community in the Levant is vanishing. In countries like Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon, Christians are often violently harassed by Muslim majorities. In Saudi Arabia, Christian residents are punished if found with a bible on them.
But Christians in the Middle East are not targeted because of their faith. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Kurds in Syria are not allowed to obtain identity cards. They are often driven out of their villages and replaced by Muslim Arab settlers. In Iraq, Sunni Muslims kept Sunni Shiites out of government until America toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since then, the two groups have been locked in a bloody conflict. In Sudan, the Islamic government demolishes thousands of houses of its opponents, while Persian Iran oppresses two million Arab Iranians in the south, and thousands of Kurds in the north, along political opponents at large.
Ethno-religious conflicts have always shaped the Middle East. With the exception of the Jewish minority, living as a majority in Israel, three ethnicities have dominated the scene: The Turks, the Persians and the Arabs.
These ethnicities are divided into two Islamic groups, the Sunni majority and the Shiite minority. The Sunnis and the Shiites have been the only two groups on the rise, often displacing minorities, and displacing each other during their 14-century ongoing conflict. But within the Sunni realm, Turks, Arabs and Kurds have been brutalizing each other for centuries. Within the Shiite world too, Arabs and Persians have been jockeying for power.
The Israelis, for their part, know that the region is a tough neighborhood. They know that the principles of a modern secular state based on equal rights for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or faith, mean little anywhere in the region. When in the Middle East, Israelis do like Middle Easterners do, gang up ethno-religiously and bully everybody else.
In the Middle East, you either kill, or get killed. Whenever there is no killing, it does not mean peace has come. It rather means the regional conflict has moved from high to low intensity or, in political jargon, from "hot" to "cold" war.
When the conflict is "cold," the different communities indoctrinate their youngsters, stock arms, build alliances with world powers, and - most importantly - try to expand demographically and settle territories of their opponents.
Starting 2008, the Middle East went into "cold" war mode. Yet every Middle Easterner knows it is not lasting. Every group is waiting for the coming twist, whether it is a US strike on Iran against its potential buildup of a nuclear arsenal, a possible implosion of the Iranian regime, a UN tribunal on the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that might indict Syria and Hezbollah, or a second Israeli attempt to wipe out Hezbollah.
During the Middle East's cold war, the demographic conflict reaches a climax. Whether it is the Muslim butcher in Beirut's Christian quarter, Shiite encroachment into Sunni West Beirut or Druze Mount Lebanon, or whether it is Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, Kurds trying to retrieve what they claim was their territory in oil-rich Kirkuk before Saddam displaced them, everybody is trying to settle the land of everybody else, before the next round of fighting breaks out again.
When the West blows its whistle against displacement of civilians anywhere in the Middle East, the region's players -- like in any sports match -- all raise their hands crying foul and claiming rights to the land. Meanwhile, all the players reiterate their calls for peace, probably only to look good in the eyes of the West.
Peace in the Middle East will never come through territorial swaps no matter how many times President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or with Arab leaders.
For peace to strike root, every state in the Middle East should become blind to the ethnicity and faith of its citizens. When people start having equal rights, they will forget their need to gang up in tribes that require defined territory to defend for their livelihood.
In Israel, a state-run agency owns all the land. In Lebanon, the Maronite Christian church
recently created a fund to buy any land Christians might want to sell in order to prevent Muslim encroachment.
These Jewish and Christian trust funds, their fight to survive as minorities in a predominantly Muslim Middle East, and the dominant bloody ethno-religious politics will always prevent the different groups from mixing and melting into states where citizens enjoy equal rights.
Absent modern secular states, like in the US or Europe, peace will never come. Like roses that cannot grow among thorns, modern states in the Middle East cannot coexist next to Islamic theocracies, whether they call themselves "republics" or "kingdoms." It is either all modern states, or none.
In the Middle East, peace will come only comprehensively, and unfortunately we're not even on the right track yet.