Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private.

Many countries print religious affiliation on ID cards which people carry around with them at all times.  If any group decides to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation, they start asking to see ID cards.  In Lebanon, one’s religious affiliation even operates something like a voting district in the USA: it determines the range of candidates one is voting for.  Different religious affiliations may also appear in varying clothing patterns, names, and preferred languages of speech (in Aleppo four years ago, the Armenians spoke to me in French, the Kurds and the Syrian Orthodox in English, and the Arab Sunnis in Arabic).

Such a fixed public display of religious affiliation cannot, of course, convey the vicissitudes of individual belief.  People with the same official religious affiliation will range from devout believers of that religion to complete secularists who reject everything the religion claims, but list it on their ID cards (often “atheist” is not an allowed category).  Converts from one religion to another typically have difficulty changing their ID cards (especially, of course, converts from Islam to anything else, though even converts to Islam sometimes face challenges).

With such a range of personal beliefs within any given religious affiliation, there are also always debates in the Middle East about what religion should mean.  Should it be simply an ethnic activists’ club (which it often is in practice)?  Or should it be a charitable organization?  Should it have beliefs (and if so, which), and how should it relate to those who disagree?  What is its relationship to the past as well as the present?  All of these questions are hotly debated in the contemporary Middle East.

So in the Syrian Civil War, the Assad family advocates a pan-confessional secularism in which religious minorities are treated equally with the majority Sunni Arabs (unsurprising given Assad’s own Alawite affiliation), and religion is relatively freely practiced in public as long as it stays away from politics except to preach loyalty to the regime.  Conservative Muslim women were welcome to cover up however much their modesty or their husbands demanded (unlike in France), and conservative Muslim men were permitted to observe whatever purification and dietary laws they liked.  Different neighborhoods in the same city could feel like completely different worlds.  But some conservative Muslims believe that Muhammad said a lot about righteous government by orthodox Muslims, which the Assad family is not.  So Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar labeled them terrorists and tried to exterminate them; Hama hasn’t recovered in a generation.  But the Syrian rebels include secularists like Salim Idris and George Sabra (those which the USA likes to hope will somehow win) as well as radical Muslims from al-Qa’ida affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra.  And no doubt many Syrian rebels are practicing Muslims to varying degrees who simply want Bashar al-Assad out, without wanting the imposition of al-Qa’ida’s vigilante enforcement of an idiosyncratic interpretation of Shari’a.

In Iraq’s escalating sectarian conflict, al-Qa’ida regards the Shiism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as a problem.  But the main complaint of most Sunnis is not that the prime minister is a Shiite; the main complaint is that Sunnis are being passed over for government contracts and favors, and being targeted for investigations of terrorism.  In other words, the complaint is about patronage and sectarian profiling.  Many of these Sunnis wish to continue practicing their religion their way, and reject al-Qa’ida’s interpretation of Islamic law so as to allow suicide bombers (causing one’s own death is prohibited by all Sunni legal schools, I believe).

Egypt’s waffling revolution is often portrayed in Western media as the conflict between secularists (represented by two such disparate forces as Tamarod and the army, which has just elected the new strongman Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi) and Islamists (represented by the Muslim Brotherhood).  But the army is supported by the chief shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib of al-Azhar Mosque, the traditional highest Islamic authority in Egypt, and it was (briefly) supported in the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president Muhammad Mursi by an Islamist party more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, namely al-Nur.  The so-called “Islamism” of the Muslim Brotherhood side is questioned by the fact that “Islamist” is a vague word for which there is no good counterpart in Arabic.  As Arabic members of the Muslim Brotherhood or other parties labeled “Islamist” frequently state, the Arabic term al-islami means “Islamic.”  And arguing in favor of Islam can attract broader support in Egypt and in much of the Middle East than arguing in favor of a caliphate (the goal of al-Qa’ida and other extremist organizations).

Western news media should not overlook the importance of religion in the contemporary Middle East.  But Western observers also need to pay attention to the (highly contested) nature of religion in those developments, if we are to understand what is going on.

3 thoughts on “Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

  1. Michael

    Especially in the USA, religion appears to be considered a very private matter and questions about one’s religion are about as intimate as questions about one’s sex life. In the Middle East, on the other hand, the religion of a person has a profound influence on the person’s life, on all levels. It is much more than just a matter between the believer and his God. It is a lifestyle, a diet, a family, a community, even a country. That is something the West and most Westerners have great difficulties comprehending. And of course the media don’t have time (or capacity) to present complex situations in anything else than black-and-white.

    So I think you’re making an important point and your post provides an interesing insider’s view on the topic. Many media persons could profit from reading such accounts.

      1. Michael

        True. Religion-based countries are not limited to Iran though. Most countries in the Middle East have Islam as a stated state religion.

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