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Middle East Roundtable

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Religion and the Middle East
by Umit Ozdag

Professor Umit Ozdag is the chairman of the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara, Turkey. He is coeditor of The Review of International Affairs and Ankara Papers, published by Frank Cass.

Throughout history the effect of religion on politics has been of fundamental importance. From time to time religion, or politics under the influence of religion, has actually been a determining factor. It can be argued that the Middle East is probably the sole geographic region that is situated on the axis of politics-religion-war. Even though the pax-areas, meaning the regions of pax-Romana and pax-Ottomana, influenced the region for centuries by bringing peace, it can still be argued that regional wars have been a determining factor.

Despite the fact that religion was the major factor in converting the region into a battlefield, religion was supported by other elements. These are closely related to the technological/sociological structure of the area. The nature of conflict has been determined by the region's location at a crossroads, coupled with the existence of oil, and adding the religion factor. Another element that has provoked conflict is the fact that the three major religions emerged in this region and their centers, which are considered to be holy, are located in the Middle East.

The dynamics of conflict also emerge from the overlap of the existing and the claimed borders of these groups. They are based not only on the differences among three major religions, but also on relationships among different groups within a single religion. These conflicts all influence political processes.

Religion-based conflicts in the Middle East need to be examined within the context of the interactions among three religions: Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Christians, and differences among Muslims.

Muslim-Jewish relations. It is possible to group the differences between Muslims and Jews under several titles: geopolitical, ethnic and religious. The Jews in theory--and a few in reality--believe that Middle East lands, including those they are living on now, were given to them by Jehovah and need to be recovered from others. On the other hand, the Arabs also have no intention of sharing their land with the Jews.

Despite ethnic kinship with the Arabs, Jews perceive them as second class (partially due to religious beliefs and partially for cultural reasons) and do not accept them as equals in interpersonal relations. Judaism is perceived as a religion that unites its people and God at the point of belief. Any other religion that has emerged after Judaism is seen as heretical. The historical events that have occurred between Jews and Muslims also form grounds for conflict. The Prophet Mohammed expelled the Jews from Medina, had one of the three Jewish tribes massacred and deported all the Jews from Saudi Arabia. The Koran contains anti-Semitic statements.

Muslim-Christian relations. From the Christian perspective, religions were born in the Middle East. Jesus and his apostles lived in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region. These lands were considered for 700 years as the center of Christendom and were perceived as a region that needed to be rescued from the unbelievers. As a matter of fact, throughout history, primarily the Crusades but also other wars in the Middle East emerged due to religion. Christians who perceived the Muslims as usurpers took on a mission to free these lands from the unbelievers. However, the Christian population was never strong enough to control the region. Even in Lebanon where Christians held political power, they were defeated by demographic realities.

The power conflict among Christians is highly important for the region. The Nestorians, Syrian Orthodox, Catholics, Maronites and the newly active Protestants argue their priority and superiority in the region. In the case of Iraq, different ethnic groups such as Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syrian Orthodox can be seen as an opportunity for Christendom in the region; however, all these groups harbor distinctive causes conducive to conflict.

Differences among Muslims. The Middle East is perceived as the first region where Islam commenced to spread, and as its first cultural center. In addition to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Damascus, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Cairo are very important cultural and settlement centers. In the history of Islam, the importance of these locations is not only appreciated by the regional societies but by other Muslim countries as well.

Due to oppressive totalitarian regimes that united with religion, these regions never had the opportunity to display their own religious identities. Currently they have been transformed by the emergence of a political and radical Islam under the influence of Wahabism. The ruling class in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf has accepted Wahabism as the official ideology. In addition, there are distorted relations between the ruling class and the governed. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni leader ruling a Shi'ite majority; Hafez Asad was a Shi'ite leader and a representative of the Nusayri (Alawites) ruling a Sunni majority.

When seen from this larger perspective, differences among religions and sects have created a region where the satisfied and the dissatisfied reside together. The Middle East, with its internal problems and conflicts among states, alongside the possession of economic wealth, is constantly open to provocations and conflict.

In conclusion, it does not seem possible that religion-centered conflicts will come to an end. The conflicts in the region are closely tied to the existence of these groups in the Middle East, and this makes a durable peace difficult. In the Middle East war, like peace, is a process. Peace, like war, will be difficult and painful.

Published 31/7/03 © bitterlemons-international.org, an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 05-08-2003



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