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opinion

If you had toured the Middle East two generations ago, you would have been struck by its quilt of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Large Jewish and Christian populations played prominent roles in Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo. Lebanon and Syria were ruled by minorities who tolerated plural multifaith populations. Kurds and Arabs and Druze and Turks and Jews, and competing sects of all three Abrahamic faiths, lived shoulder to shoulder, not in idyllic peace but in generally stable tolerance.

If you crossed the Mediterranean during those mid-century years, you would have found Europe on the opposite end of the diversity spectrum. That century's militarism and nationalism had made previously polyglot countries, including France and Germany, much more homogeneous. Then came the pogroms and the Holocaust, followed by the mass ethnic relocations and forced marches at the end of the Second World War, followed by closed borders: For a brief, sad period, the myth of the uniethnic country, born only in the 19th century, flickered into semi-reality in a beaten Europe.

In 2015, we are witnessing a startling reversal of this pattern, as the West continues to become more polyglot and diverse, while the Middle East is descending into a fragmented array of ethnically and religiously homogeneous states and regions.

That became painfully evident after the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a majority last Sunday in Turkey's second national election this year. You could watch his country, and the region around it, begin to shatter into monochromatic fragments.

In the first election, in June, Mr. Erdogan was deprived of a majority by the Kurdish-dominated HDP party. In response, he led a campaign of harsh ethnic division, fear and repression, obliterating the gains he had made a decade earlier toward making Turkey recognize its multiethnic identity (including legalizing the Kurdish language and parties such as HDP).

Any hope that this was just a re-election ploy were dashed this week when Mr. Erdogan escalated his bombing campaign against Kurdish militants, ending a ceasefire and pledging to "liquidate" them. Not only does this likely mean that ethnic-Turkish chauvinism will continue to escalate, but it also leaves Kurds with few other options but to fight for an independent territory in Iraq and Syria.

Subdividing Iraq and Syria into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni territories is not the official goal of the United States, Russia, Iran, Europe and Saudi Arabia in the rough-hewn coalition to fight the Islamic State, which they began negotiating last week in Vienna. The preferred outcome seems to be a stable state and some sort of dotted line tracing a transition to some new regime.

But the voices calling for ethnic partition, within the United States and Europe, are getting louder. And so are the forces making this more likely. With limited military contributions, many countries are relying on the Kurds to do the bulk of the fighting (this is where Canada's small military contribution was largely directed). They expect to be rewarded. And a postwar, postdictatorship Syria will be difficult to hold together.

Next door, Iraq's U.S.-imposed, Shia-led regime has lost the support of most Sunni and Kurdish members and is seen by many as being on the verge of becoming a loose federation of three ethno-regions with a nominal capital. Israel's right-wing government, meanwhile, has excluded or alienated the Arabs who make up a fifth of its population to the point that many of them do not consider themselves Israeli any more.

And in Egypt, as Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid noted in a report this week, the military-imposed regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has driven out (and radicalized) the Muslim Brotherhood using the same sort of Islamic laws and clerics – and thus is almost equally alienating and repressive to minorities. Christians and Jews who fled Egypt won't be returning soon.

The U.S. and Russian goal may be to maintain the borders and dictators who kept the region stable decades ago, at the price of having the worst-performing economies and worst human-rights records in the world. But these outcomes seem doomed to exacerbate the problem.

If the only options we want to support and assist are either the old-style dictatorships or an angry scattering of closed ethnic enclaves, then we are denying the Middle East's citizens exactly the sort of pluralism that has allowed our societies to thrive.