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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
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
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 ©
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