The Middle East’s Conflicts Are About Religion


Source: The National Interest

A meme is gaining traction within American government and media, and it goes like this: The conflicts of the Middle East aren’t about religion. Jihadist violence? Garden-variety criminality, the president says. Young people flocking to ISIS? “Thrill-seekers,” posits the secretary of state, who are desperate for “jobs,” per a State Department spokeswoman. Iran’s belligerence? A reaction to ostracization, a former embassy hostage insists. Sunni-Shiite bloodletting? Jockeying for power, the pundits conclude.

It’s not just a false narrative, but a dangerous one. It’s true that the Middle East offers no easy policy options: witness Syria, where the choice of sovereign increasingly appears to be between the Islamic State and Islamic Republic (but neither of which, we’re told, takes Islam all that seriously). Still, if we’re to even try to address the region’s maladies, we have to first correctly diagnose its disease.

It’s not that religion is the only force at play. It’s not that the ranks of jihadist groups don’t also include common criminals, or that leaders never use religion to their own cynical ends (Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign is one salient example). It’s that these phenomena are relatively minor compared to the vast influence religious belief still wields across much of the Middle East and the broader Islamic world.

It is, of course, near impossible to empirically demonstrate the motivations behind human actions, whether individual or collective. That doesn’t mean, however, that our only recourse is to project our own motivations onto societies for which they don’t fit. The debate over the religiosity of groups like ISIS, or of regimes like Saudi Arabia or Iran, is largely confined to the Western chattering classes. In the Islamic Middle East, the influence of faith is more often than not taken as a given.

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  1. I do not agree. In Israel / Palestine the conflict is not between Jews on one side and Arab Christians and Muslims on the other. The conflict is between those who had the land and those who came from outside the region and stole it. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about Sunni or Shiah. The conflict is between two powers who both would like to dominate the region. If it was a religious conflict we would see Missionaries trying to convert each other. Nothing like that is happening. I spent years in Baghdad. I observed the Shiah Government and the Sunni minorities. Nothing religious about it. Some tribes used to lead during Saddam’s time, now, due to ‘democracy’ they find themselves in the minority. Again, just power play – made more complicated with ‘democracy’ – nothing religious in it.

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