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Published onJun 21, 2022

What counts as a “minority”?

The term minority can refer to fractions or groups that construct themselves or are constructed by others as racially, ethnically, religiously, sexually or politically different from a numerically larger group. It can also refer to a state of being minor in the sense of being inferior. Often, the numeric and social dimensions converge. However, ample examples in history and in the present show that minority is not simply a numeric category, if we think for example of the fact that women have frequently been framed as a minority. Moreover smaller groups can dominate and oppress numerically larger ones. Obvious examples are settler colonialism, Apartheid or prevalent privileges of white Americans in neighborhoods with higher percentages of African-American, Native Americans, or Hispanic populations.1

If one agrees that numeric definitions are insufficient, can minorities be defined on any “objective” grounds in order to turn into legal or at least political category? By which means is a dominant or majoritarian group defined as such and by whom? By which means is a minority defined as racially, religiously, sexually, ethnically or politically minor or at least “minoritarian”? How to account for the tension between self-ascription as an identifiable minority and discrimination involved in ascriptions from a dominant group?

This set of questions indicate that the term minority is first and foremost a relational, enabled and defined by structures and relations of power. For example, one barely speaks either of settler colonists or of white Apartheid rulers as “minorities”. A focus on relations of power allows for an understanding of minority less as a quantitative category than as social construction and as tied to unequal distribution of political power, economic and/or cultural resources. The ways in which hierarchical structures of power operate is, however, contingent and related to concrete times and spaces and so are the different forms of marginalization. It matters, for example, if a minority is spatially dispersed or bound by a territory within a polity. It matters too, if a minority is economically strong/potent or not to govern itself. Finally, it also matters on which grounds the minority is defined or defines itself – social, political, religious, sexual, cultural, ethnic, racial. These markers are themselves not stable or objective but contingent, often overlapping and dependent on political and historical contexts.

Synthesizing the contemporary scholarship on religious, national and ethnic minorities, Saba Mahmood provides a useful working definition of minorities bringing two central but distinct processes together: “a group comes to acquire a cohesive collective identity based on certain shared social characteristics, and the process by which the group becomes cognizant of its marginality in a polity”.2 In this entwined sense minority is a political term that denotes hierarchized difference instead of as an objective or neutral or merely quantitative category.

History or historical narratives?

Etymologically, the term minority is rooted in medieval Latin [minōritās]. It referred first to religious groups that were numerically smaller, distinct from and considered inferior to the Roman Catholic Church. The three elements – numeric, distinctive and minor - still run through contemporary political definitions of minorities. European historiography conventionally relates the emergence of the legal and political concept of minority is conventionally related to the Post-Westphalian order.3 The first minorities denoted and partly protected as such, were internal to Christianity deriving from Reformist movements. From this point of view, the Peace of Westphalia 1648 marks the cornerstone regarding principles of toleration of first religious and gradually other kinds of minorities. The notion of minorities gradually secularized and expanded to denote national, ethnic or - especially in the peak of biologically defined racism – racial minorities. In the late 18th century, the focus of politics and law moved from communities, or groups, to the individual and his or her rights, inspired by Enlightenment notions of the individual and society.4 Post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment morality has indeed contributed to the protection of the abstract individual through natural law and later universal rights which gradually became institutionalized and legally codified.

Linear historical narratives of the gradual consolidation and diffusion of minority protection from Europe to the rest of the globe is, however, neither innocent nor unproblematic. They carry a number of omissions, the most obvious one is that it replicates a Eurocentric view that minority protection started from within Western Europe and then spread – partly successfully, partly with failure – throughout the world. Historiographies that start from the Westphalian order not only lack a curiosity for minority regulations in other parts of word.

Most importantly, what Historians conventionally narrated as the gradual rise of minority protection in the course of the Post-Westphalian order in Europe – with several genocidal “accidents” in-between - cannot be disentangled from a global geopolitical order that was simultaneously established and consolidated. Imperial and colonial entanglements secured European and North-American powers a political, cultural, religious, economic and epistemological presence in many parts of Asia and Africa and left enduring footprints both in the colonized world and within Europe. Of particular importance for the minority question was the appropriation of the principle of national sovereignty with a centralized state under the rule of law. The political principle of nationality, superseding that of territorial belonging in religious terms, that is, the idea that the nation is the legitimate basis of sovereign statehood, keeps on reproducing minorities (foreigners, immigrants, refugees) who are not included as full members of the national polity. In other words, the nation-state produces the vulnerability that it then vows to protect. This tension has prevailed until today: While the minority needs to be part of a national polity in order to have rights, it simultaneously represents an exception from the national whole. Imperial powers, moreover, operated with different standards, imposing minority protection in so-called “weak states”, often colonized territories while not always keeping up with these international standards themselves. Blatant examples are the condemnation of persecution and genocide of religious or national minorities by Turkish rulers in the early 20th century and the long silence of the genocide in the Congo (1891-1908) ordered by Belgian colonial forces5 or that of the Nama and Herero in the German colonies.6

Politics of Recognition and its Critiques

A remaining controversial issue in political-theoretical debates has been the status of guaranteed minority rights as group or individual rights.7 In the post-1945s United Nation’s recourse to universal rights, group rights had been discarded altogether.8 The very idea of minorities as groups sits uncomfortably with conceptions of the abstract citizen, emerging from Enlightenment universalist ideals of individual rights and freedoms. As feminist critiques, amongst others, started to elucidate from the 1970s onwards, the subject of individual rights was modeled upon premises of male, white, Christian and bourgeois sensibilities.9 The feminist critique on the gendered impregnations of an allegedly universal subject of abstract universalism resonates with the critique of its alleged color-blindness. Formal legal equality and indifference to religious, ethnic, national or sexual differences in, other words, has not prevented inequalities that often proliferate unaddressed in civil humanity.10

This discrepancy between formal equality and de facto inequality lead political theorists mainly from Anglo-American contexts to conceptualize pluralism in the framework of “minority recognition”.11 or legal recognition of culturally defined groups (Taylor 1992). Even if with different philosophical justifications, these theories have been deeply indebted to the liberal ideal of personal choice and self-determination. While politics of recognition were to compensate for the blind spots in liberal rights by bringing to the fore the needs of vulnerable minoritized groups, the dichotomy between majority and minority generated by a nation-state framework ultimately remains intact and unproblematized. Most such approaches to minority recognition are predicted on a Hegelian understanding of a centralized state. They hence depart from the assumption of a sovereign, yet unmarked majority entitled to manage recognition and to decide what is be recognized and under which conditions. In this reading it is through the act of recognition itself that the state recovers sovereignty.12

Moreover, conceiving of minorities as subjects of recognition necessarily implies that the minority to be recognized must be legible within a specific political order. Drawing on the example of gay rights and gay marriages in the 1990s, Judith Butler argues in that vein that the legalization and institutionalization of gay and lesbian marriages might compensate marginalized sexual minorities for inequalities before the law.13 The very institution of marriage, however, would emulate majoritarian normativity and sacrosanctity of the heterosexual couple and family, instead of questioning the very political power enabled by the state to financially and symbolically favoring and promoting married couples as the unquestioned normative model.

The example of Jews as a recognizable group in late 19th, early 20th century Germany provides another case in point to illustrate how Jewish emancipation comprised new forms of subordination, domestication, and reshaping.14 While the promise of emancipation was that Jewishness would no longer define one’s status as citizen, legal rights, and personal identity, Jewishness was constantly highlighted and persistently emphasized.15 This eventually turned into the antisemitic formula: “The Jews is most Jewish when he is not seen”. The guarantee of civil rights for Jews, moreover, was coupled with the conditions to become compliant citizens and to turn into a “religion” proper.16 This paradox gains actuality, for example, in the excessive calls voiced towards Muslim minorities throughout Europe to first adopt liberal secular values before being aptly recognized as full members of society.17

In a more general vein such examples reveal that minorities do not exist as natural entities prior to the law and politics but also created by contingent relations of power. The include the powers to categorize and classify. As much as classificatory systems of knowledge production through numbers have contributed to “make people”18, they have contributed to setting “minorities” apart apart as sub-populations, as Arjun Appadurai has succinctly analyzed for the colonial context in India.19 As a consequence, sensitivity towards multilayered forms of power not only implies to enhance or proliferate rights but also to explore the specific historically and culturally specific grounds of these very rights.20 Such critiques of minority rights point to a more structural conundrum for minority questions in any given time and space, which Mahmood aptly characterizes:

“For a minority to draw attention to its plight, it must necessarily highlight its difference from the identity of the nation, exacerbating the fissure that produces the group’s exclusion in the first place. Furthermore, a minority’s demand for redress requires that the group’s subordination be thematized in the laws of the nation-state (whether through affirmative action, proportionate representation, quotas, or special protection). This often elicits the majoritarian charge that the state is biased toward minorities, thereby contravening its commitment to treat all citizens equally. While no doubt an expression of majoritarian supremacy, this accusation is also symptomatic of a system of governance that renounces difference politically even as it sustains it socially”. 21   

There are no easy solutions to the re/productions of minority questions. However, one path consists in shifting the focus from the minority to the majority. This entails the ongoing questioning and de-naturalizing of what is usually associated with the “majority”, including an awareness of tacit techniques of power that lead to its unmarked reproduction through the very marking of minorities as minor populations. Shifting for the context of Europe would imply, for example to pose the “European Question” instead of the “Immigrant Question” or the “Refugee Question”22, or to raise the “Christian” or “Secular Question” instead of the “Jewish” or “Muslim” Question23 etc. Such moves towards shifting the gaze also resonates with recent decolonial approaches24 and their efforts to go beyond territorial definitions of communal bonds, while at the same time not replicating the shortcomings of abstract universalism. These – still rather idealistic - suggestions envision a polity not as a division into vertically organized majorities and minorities but as rhizomes, assemblages or multiple diasporas.



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