The Middle East's Conflicts Are About Religion
February 13, 2016
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 (butneither 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.
Polls are instructive. In 2013, Pew—one of the world’s leading pollsters—conducted a survey of thirty-eight thousand people in thirty-nine Muslim-majority countries. The results showed an overwhelming majority backed the implementation of Islamic law, particularly in countries that are some of the primary hubs of terror groups: 99 percent in Afghanistan, for example, and 91 percent in Iraq.
third rail to call for the removal of religion from public life, let alone to call into question God’s existence. In Egypt, according to Pew, just 6 percent of respondents said the Quran need not be consulted in drafting laws, while more than eight in ten said those who leave the faith should be stoned to death (the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan and Pakistan yielded similar results). In these countries at least, the community of secular-minded individuals, let alone atheists, is exceedingly small. Why then we do conclude that it is precisely those most loudly trumpeting their religious convictions who belong to it? I see three factors at play.
Second, from a policy perspective, nonreligious motives are more comforting. Addressing terrestrial motivations (money, land, grievance) is far easier than confronting a person’s closest-held beliefs and the immutable scripture that underlies them. That’s particularly the case because scrutinizing specific religious doctrines remains one of the last great taboos, all the more so when the faith in question is Islam.
On January 4, Vox published a lengthy article on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that concluded, predictably, that “it’s not really about religion.” The very next day, the same author published a similar piece that offered this: “No one who seriously studies the Middle East considers Sunni-Shia sectarianism to be a primarily religious issue.” That article approvingly cited a video by the Washington-based Al Jazeera anchor Mehdi Hasan, asserting that faith-based sectarian conflict is a “myth” and that regional rivalries are actually about “power, not piety.”
It’s particularly rich for Hasan to dismiss the very notion of sectarianism’s sway. In an undated YouTube video (it’s since been scrubbed from the Internet but a description is here), Hasan, who is Shiite, descends into a prolonged, tearful wail when recounting the story of the seventh-century Battle of Karbala, a formative moment in Shiite history in which Muhammad’s grandson Hussain was killed. In another, he describes “kuffar” (non-Muslims) as “cattle. . . animals bending any rule to fulfill any desire” (that video is still online). So much for Hasan’s pieties, as it were, over the power of faith and faction.
The backlash was swift. In the same outlet, Wood was condemned for demonizing Muslims, and in the New Yorker for playing into the hands of extremists. Last month, responding to the second Vox piece, Wood tweeted: “Thought experiment: if these conflicts *were* about ‘ancient religious hatreds,’ how would they be different?”