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Belief and Strife in the Middle East

The Middle East is bent on its own timed destruction; this is taking place slowly but surely. The next two or three decades, or even maybe more, will see the irreversible deconstruction of the Middle East prior to the emergence of a new region, totally different and totally metamorphosed into numerous small states created either along sectarian lines or ethnic identity. The military dictatorships, the traditional monarchies, and the petro-dollar entities have since independence kept the region volcano under control through various artifices: brutal oppression, material persuasion, or religious legitimacy. But then two things happened: the digital revolution that empowered the powerless and the oppressed, this led to the Arab uprisings that set the stage for the chaos that will increase with time. As such, the Arab volcano has blown its top and entered into activity spewing dense fumes and tons of molten rock and will certainly go doing that for some time to come. The magma is not about to solidify soon.

The Middle East today is undoubtedly ridden by a multitude of conflicts those that are currently in progress and many awaiting the propitious time to declare themselves officially in existence. The ultimate question of identity has never been raised and never considered. In the Arab world, everyone was Arab even if he was Amazigh, Kurd, Copt, Druze, or else. The Pan-Arab ideology negated all identities that existed in this region either by persuasion, dictatorship, or religion.

If you were from the Arab region, by definition you could be nothing else but Arab. Arab is an ideology, a language but also a religion in itself. The Arabists like to repeat on and on that the Arab language is the idiom spoken in paradise, in other words, it means that if you reject Pan-Arabism you will end up in hell. This is obviously a very simplistic and racist argument, bearing in mind that the majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic. The number of Muslims worldwide is estimated at 1.5 billion of which there are only 250 million Arabs, a simple calculation will send 1.25 billion Muslims to hell because they don’t speak Arabic but Persian, Urdu, Malay, Swahili, Pulaar, Mandinka, Tamazight, etc. Even with the fires of uprisings ravaging the whole region, many Arab ideologues still believe blindly in Arab supremacy, come what may.

Sectarian strife

If you believe that the Arab world is safe from religious wars, you are totally wrong. Prior to the Iranian revolution, the Arab world enjoyed a period of Nahda, a renaissance during which religion coexisted peacefully with secularism. Most political regimes were military dictatorships with socialist tendencies that strived to keep citizens away from politics by means of a welfare system like in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Yemen. Then, the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, the Shah was overthrown and replaced by a theocracy that had for ultimate goal the re-Islamization of the local society and the exportation of the revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. The whole of the Arab world felt threatened by the Persian religious onslaught and especially the petro-dollar monarchies that have in their ranks marginalized Shi’ite minorities. To mobilize political support in the Arab world, these countries invoked pre-Islamic Arab-Persian enmity and wars.

Islamic religious sects in the Middle East

Austere Wahabism

Wahhabism, as a movement, is generally associated with Saudi Arabia, and followers of this conservative ideology are inspired by the teachings of the fundamentalists of the kingdom. Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, was a local ruler in the Arabian Peninsula when World War I began. Following the outbreak of war, the British, who were fighting against the Ottomans, established diplomatic ties with Abdulaziz, and the two sides signed the Treaty of Darin as early as 1915, which made the territory controlled by the House of Saud a British protectorate. Abdulaziz was a descendent of Muhammad Al Saud, who ruled the Najd area of the peninsula in the 18th century and was a friend of the Wahhabism founder Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.  Wahhabism is a popular revivalist movement instigated by an eighteenth-century theologian, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703–1792) from Najd, Saudi Arabia. It is a religious movement among fundamentalist Islamic believers, with an aspiration to return to the earliest fundamental Islamic sources of the Quran and Hadith, with inspiration from the teachings of medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah and the early jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal.  Muhammad Al Saud was the one who first chose Wahhabism for his tribe.

Feeling threatened by the Iranian grand project, the Saudis, with the help of billions of petro-dollars tried to bring the inter-governmental Islamic organizations under its influence, institutions like OIC, IDB, ISESCO, etc, and export its brand of Islam: Wahabism through civil society organizations in the Muslim world. Because of the monetary incentive, many Muslims adopted Wahabism, in spite of its harsh ideology. To counter combative Iranian Shi’ism, the Saudis bankrolled Bin Laden in his Afghan Jihad against the Soviets. The Americans blessed the enterprise and provided sophisticated weaponry to defeat the Soviets. Bin Laden recruited Jihadists from all over the Muslim world. Once the war was won, Bin Laden and the Jihadists felt forgotten and marginalized by the Saudis and the Americans. The Jihadists returned to their respective countries and tried to put their military experience to use to overthrow existing regimes, they were either killed or sent to prison. As for Ben Laden, to inscribe his name in gold in the annals of history, he masterminded the unfortunate and condemnable 11 of September events that changed the world.

Salafiyya

Originating in medieval Islamic texts, the concept of Salafiyya has come to refer to a wide variety of things over the years. The Arabic word derives from the terms “as-salaf as-sâlih,” which means “the venerable ancestors” or “the venerable predecessors.”

The dominant tradition in Salafiyya has to do with “getting back to the roots” of Islam and restoring traditional beliefs and practices as well as the rule of the Caliphate. Sometimes, this effort is moderate and can even incorporate modernist influences, as with the case of al-Afghani (a Salafist reformer from the 1800s who tried to reconcile modernism and Islam).

Salafiyya thrives on the economic hardships endured by most Muslims in the Middle East. Religious leaders tell them that the earliest Muslims knew no such hardships because they faithfully applied the principle of zakât, or alms for the poor. Because of this, even the richest and most powerful Muslims had to donate to ensure that the poorest were sustained.

Unhappy with the religious state of affairs in the Arab world, a more violent Islamic sect came into being: the Salafiyya Jihadiya, it had in mind a return to the ancient times of the Caliphate by the means of blood and fear. After terrorist attacks in Morocco in May 2003 and various other counties, this movement was decapitated and is leaders imprisoned, as for the remaining they adopted a vociferous attitude making use of verbal violence only.

However, it does not mean that the Salafiyya Jihadiya is disarmed; it is resuscitating in troubled spots such as Syria and Iraq where they can indulge in their violent religious ideology without the fear of retribution. Their vision of the future is the re-Islamization of society and the return to the past model of caliphate. Beyond that, they have no model of society, other than the orthodox Islamic way of life based on the strict application of shari’a law. So the basic concept of return to the good past can only be achieved through religious violence in three ways:

  • Takfir of all those who are against the main trend of Salafiyya, meaning their ex-communication from the religious community, this could actually mean unfortunately most of the time the call for their assassination because they are seen as a hazard to this school of thought. The assassination is often undertaken by religious zealots by firing at blank range point or by utilizing the al-Qaeda notorious terrorists;
  • Tarhib, terrorizes the population by letting them know that if they don’t carry out what their sheiks tell them they would be committed to go to hell for not following the edicts of the Islamic religion. This approach works very well with the illiterate poor whose knowledge of religion and the world is very limited; and
  • Jihad, the holy war to eliminate all the miscreants and the infidels to make way to Islam

Salafiyya Jihadiya is active and prospering in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mauretania, Tunisia and Libya. It has tried to get a foothold in Morocco but was defeated by the government anti-terrorist laws and lack of following among the population.

Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brothers movement was founded in Ismailia, Egypt in March 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, along with six workers of the Suez Canal Company, as a pan-Islamic, religious, political, and social movement.

Hassan al-Banna was influenced by the reformers Mohammed Abdou and Rachid Reda, he believed that renaissance can only be achieved through the return to the orthodox religion and the application of the tenets of Islam faithfully.

The Brotherhood’s credo was and is, “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” The submission of the brotherhood’s members under these credo is the unquestionable proof to their absolute obedience to the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership.

Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood has been very close to the aspirations of the poor and working-class of Egypt and its actions in favor of the rank and file has earned it sympathy all over the Arab region and the Muslim World and led to the creation of local chapters of this institution in various countries:

  • Justice and Development Party in Turkey –AKP-, currently in power;
  • Justice and Development Party in Morocco, currently leading the government;
  • In Bahrain, the Muslim Brotherhood is represented by the al-Islah Society and its political wing, the al-Manbar Islamic Society. Following parliamentary elections in 2002, al-Manbar became the largest joint party with eight seats in the forty seats of the Chamber of Deputies. Prominent members of Al Menbar include Dr Salah Abdulrahman, Dr. Salah Al Jowder, and the outspoken MP Muhammad Khaled. The party has generally backed government-sponsored legislation on economic issues, but has sought a clampdown on pop concerts, sorcery, and soothsayers. It has strongly opposed the government’s accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the grounds that this would give Muslim citizens the right to change religion, something which is not acceptable at all in dar al-Islam.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the 1930s (according to lexicorient.com) or in 1945, a year before independence from France, (according to the journalist Robin Wright). In the first decade or so of independence it was part of the legal opposition, and in the 1961 parliamentary elections, it won ten seats (5.8% of the house). But after the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power, it was banned. It played a major role in the mainly Sunni-based movement that opposed the secularist, Pan-Arab Baath Party. This conflict developed into an armed struggle that continued until culminating in the Hama uprising of 1982 when the rebellion was crushed by the military of Hafed al-Assad.
  • The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1942, and is a strong factor I in Jordanian politics. While most political parties and movements were banned for a long time in Jordan such as Hizb at-Tahrir, the Brotherhood was exempted and allowed to operate by the Jordanian monarchy. The Jordanian Brotherhood has formed its own political party, the Islamic Action Front, which has the largest number of seats of any party in the Jordanian parliament.
  • The Iraqi Islamic Party was formed in 1960 as the Iraqi branch of the Brotherhood but was banned from 1961 during the nationalist rule of Abdelkarim Qasem. As government repression hardened under the Baath Party from February 1963, the group was forced to continue underground. After the fall of the Saddam Husain regime in 2003, the Islamic Party has reemerged as one of the main advocates of the country’s Sunni community. The Islamic Party has been sharply critical of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but participates in the political process. Its leader is Iraqi Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi.
  • In 1987, following the Intifada, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas was established from Brotherhood-affiliated charities and social institutions that had gained a strong foothold among the local population. During the first Intifada (1987–93), Hamas militarized and transformed into one of the strongest Palestinian militant groups.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait is represented in the Kuwaiti parliament by Hadas.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood is the political arm of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, commonly known as Islah. Former President Ali Abdellah Saleh made a lot of effort to entrench the accusations of Islah being in league with al-Qaeda, but he failed to present any, even weak, evidence to support his claims.
  • Like their counterparts elsewhere in the Islamic world in general, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has influenced the Tunisian One of the notable organizations that was influenced and inspired by the Brotherhood is Ennahda (The Revival or Renaissance Party), which is Tunisia’s major Islamist political grouping. An Islamist founded the organization in 1981. While studying in Damascus and Paris, Rashid Ghannouchi embraced the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he disseminated on his return to Tunisia.
  • The Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1949, but it was not able to operate openly until after the 2011 Libyan civil war. It held its first public press conference on 17 November 2011, and on 24 December the Brotherhood announced that it would form the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) and contest the General National Congress the following year.
  • In 2007 the National Rally for Reform and Development, better known as Tawassoul, was legalized as a political party. The party is associated with the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other religions of the book

In the cultural mosaic of the Middle East, besides Islam, the predominant faith in the region, we also find other religions of the book: Christianity and Judaism and not to forget, of course, Druze. The faithful of theses religions are certainly minority groups numerically but culturally they have quite an important imprint on society and they are economically and politically very potent.

The Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all monotheistic religions that grew from the same tradition. Each religion used the texts from earlier groups, and so they share many rules and beliefs. For example, Islam and Judaism observe the same dietary rules and have a similar focus on religion as a foundation for civil law. All three share a tradition of prophets, from Adam and Abraham to Solomon and Joseph. Jesus is significant for both Christianity and Islam, and Muslims in addition follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Christianity

The lack of official data on the Christian populations of the Middle East makes it difficult to confirm, but it is estimated that there are between 12 and 16 million Christians living in this area. Christianity is also a monotheistic religion with its origins in the Middle East, and its teachings are based on the old and new testaments of the Bible. Many different Christian sects have their origins in the Middle East and are still present in the region. Just a few examples of these sects include Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic and Chaldean Christians, among many others.

The Copts

Copts in Egypt constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region, accounting for an estimated 10% of the Egyptian population. Most Copts adhere to the Coptic Church of Alexandria. The remainder of around 800,000 is divided between the Coptic Catholic and various Coptic Protestant churches.

Their position improved dramatically under the rule of Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century. He abolished the jizya (a tax on non-Muslims) and allowed Egyptians (Copts as well as Muslims) to enroll in the army.

Copts participated in the Egyptian national movement for independence and occupied many influential positions. Two significant cultural achievements include the founding of the Coptic Museum in 1910 and the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies in 1954. Some prominent Coptic thinkers from this period are Salama Moussa, Louis Awwad and Secretary General of the Wafd Party Makram Obayd.

The Arab Christians

The Arab Christians are an estimated 13 million Christians still living in the Middle East in countries like Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Israel and Lebanon. They are in Business, education, finance, banking, and politics.

The Christian presence in the Middle East dates back, of course, to the advent of Jesus Christ during the Roman Empire. That 2,000-year presence has gone uninterrupted since, especially in the countries of the Levant: Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Syria, and Egypt. But it’s been far from a unified presence.

The Eastern and Western Church don’t quite see eye to eye, haven’t for about 1,500 years. Lebanon’s Maronite split off from the Vatican in some huff centuries ago, then agreed to return to the fold, preserving to themselves rites, dogmas and customs of their choice.

Much of the region either forcibly or voluntarily converted to Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the Middle Ages, the European Crusades attempted, brutally, repeatedly but ultimately unsuccessfully, to restore Christian hegemony over the region.

Since then, only Lebanon has maintained a Christian population approaching anything like a plurality, although Egypt maintains the single-largest Christian population in the Middle East.

Judaism

The historical predecessor of both Christianity and Islam is Judaism, and it is practiced by approximately 6 million people in the Middle East. It is also a monotheistic religion based on the Torah, which is also the old testament of the Christian Bible. Judaism is the official religion of the state of Israel.

Judaism is the religious culture of the Jewish people. It is one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths and one of the oldest religious traditions still practiced today. The tenets and history of Judaism are the major part of the foundation of other Abrahamic religions, including Christianity and Islam. For all of these reasons, Judaism has been a major force in shaping the world.

Judaism originated as the religion of nomadic people in the western part of the Fertile Crescent. The Hebrew people believed that there was only one God. Monotheism was a unique idea in the world when it originated 3,500 years ago.

By the 1980s Jews of Middle Eastern origin – adot ha-mizrah – comprised well over half of Israel’s Jewish population. Migration to Israel by Jews from the former Soviet Union made the percentages of Middle Eastern and European origin groups equal in the 1990s. By 2000 the Jewish community in Turkey stood at about 20,000. Iranian Jewry functioned actively until the revolution of 1979 that established the Islamic republic. Jews then immigrated to Israel, Europe, and the United States, and in 1989 about 22,000 remained in Iran. Very few Jews now reside in the Arab world; the largest group – about 3,500 – lives in Morocco. Since the 1980s Morocco has encouraged Jewish tourists from Israel and elsewhere, and Tunisia has done the same since the 1990s.

The poor relations between Israel and most of its Arab neighbors are sometimes described in terms of a perpetual religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. This reading, however, is too simplistic. Although control over important historical sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a factor in the disagreements, many of the details that stall negotiations have to do with control of land and access to water resources. Furthermore, many Palestinians who demand restitution for their property are Christian, not Muslim, and Egypt’s historic treaty with Israel provides a model for how Muslim and Jewish neighbors can live peaceably.

Druze

The Druze populations live primarily in Lebanon and Syria, and they are another monotheistic religion of the Middle East. Although commonly not regarded as Muslims by others, the Druze do consider themselves a sect of Islam that split from the Shi’a. The Druze believe that the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim was an incarnation of God who disappeared in 1021 but will return, bringing a Golden Age to believers.

Conclusion

The times are changing in the Middle East region and the Arabs have to come to term to many hard realities if they want to survive as a race and civilization:

  • They have to solve the identity issue once for all by accepting the cultural and political rights of the ethnic and religious minorities in their ranks;
  • They have to opt for full democracy if they want to survive;
  • Provide equal opportunity to everyone and especially women and the youth;
  • Stop justifying everything by religion;
  • Empower the youth and women;
  • Abolish tribal practices and patriarchal traditions; and
  • Accept the tenets of diversity in faith, ethnicity, and language.

If these principles are not implemented soon, the region will be engulfed in serious strife and conflicts that will take decades to settle.


You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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