The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned. As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended. Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized. As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.
Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive. The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.
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. Continue reading
It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel. (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.) But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals. There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements). Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.
Nor are all Muslims alike. Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations. Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran. These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam. Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated. This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.
When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East. The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.” That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region. In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.
But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole. Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople. With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace. Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian. Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy). George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe). The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.
Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique. They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation. Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks. And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century. Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey. Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them. Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today. We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250. That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.
Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century. Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government. And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.” People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity. For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.
In 1951, the British temporarily lost control of Iran’s oil fields, because they had refused to respond to Iranian complaints that the UK was not sharing the profits from the sale of oil with Iran. In response to Britain’s cold shoulder, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, to which Britain responded with a naval blockade and trade embargo. When economic sanctions failed to produce the desired de-nationalization of Iranian oil by 1953, the UK looked for more extreme possibilities. Due to UK support for the US during the Korean War, the US supported the UK in Iran by executing “Operation Ajax,” a covert operation to depose the popular Prime Minister and replace him with an Iranian military leader who would support greater power being held by the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi. As a result of the successful coup, the US secured a good share of Iranian oil and Iranian oil profits, and an ally against Soviet Russia to the north. The post-coup military rule crushed all political dissent and developed a much-hated secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA.
After 26 years of rule with Western support, the now widely-hated Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the American role in 1953 was well-remembered. When the US admitted the exiled Shah into the country nine months after he left Iran, a group of Iranian students supporting the Islamic Revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis (known in Farsi as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا, “The capture of the American spy lair”). Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution, the government in Tehran remains firmly opposed to the US.
In retribution against Iran for the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, during which Iraqi forces invaded Iran, were driven out, and Iran pressed the offensive onto Iraqi soil. The US supported Iraq with intelligence regarding bombing targets and engaged the Iranian navy directly, including shooting down the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, which the US claims was mistaken for a fighter jet. The US military also supplied arms to the Iraqi military during the war, arms which it would then face against itself during the two Gulf Wars. The government of Iraq is now pro-US, after two bloody US invasions of Iraq and a decade of even more deadly sectarian violence.
In the 2011 Arab Spring, protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrayn, and Syria. Of the rulers challenged by these protests, President Zayn al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen were US allies, despite their widely perceived autocratic and financially corrupt governments. By contrast, the US opposed President Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were deposed, and their elected replacements came from Islamist anti-US parties, while when ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen finally stepped down, he was able to name a pro-US successor who was ratified by a popular referendum. The US ally Bahrayn crushed the protests with support from another US ally, Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the US-aided ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the door to Libyan factional fighting and provided an excuse for Russian and Chinese intransigence regarding the government of Bashar al-Assad, with whom President Obama recently announced that he has lost patience and will “start” supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. The revelation this week that the CIA has already been supplying arms to and training the rebels since 2012 is hardly a surprise, as it is in keeping with the picture of covert CIA activities supporting American interests abroad.
I am not arguing that Bashar al-Assad is fine or Gaddafi was fine, or that the current president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, represents the “will of the Egyptian people” (there were election problems, including Morsi supporters violently intimidating people suspected of opposing Morsi, including Christians and liberals, in order to prevent them from voting at all). I am arguing that US foreign policy and CIA operations have pursued a narrow and short-term definition of “American interests” which have destabilized and impoverished Middle Eastern countries involved and stoked anti-American sentiments there, ultimately to the detriment of longer-term American interests abroad. An Eastern European recently said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”
In light of this perennial neglect of long-term interests, the US government needs to re-think its approach to the Middle East region as a whole. The short-term “solutions” employed by the US to respond to current crises have only succeeded in creating another round of crises. To take a particular current example, will US involvement in the Syrian Civil War against Bashar al-Assad actually create “a better Syria,” or will it simply supply arms to the next round of Middle Eastern forces that the US will then seek to dismantle five, ten, or thirty years down the road? The only way to avoid perpetuating the cycle of crises generated by previous crises is to view Middle Easterners as people with their own interests, rather than solely as possible calculi in American interests abroad. Unless Middle Easterners can be understood on their own terms, as people in their own right, the US will continue to “guess wrong” in its strategic initiatives in the region. These faux pas, to put it mildly, result in continual loss of life both to Americans and especially to Middle Easterners, and must be stopped.
Iran has been one of the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, even loaning Bashar al-Assad some of its elite Revolutionary Guards to protect him. But Iran just held a presidential election in which the victor was Hasan Ruhani, a moderate cleric who resigned his previous post shortly after current president Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected, due to clashes with the then-new president. How will last Friday’s election of Hasan Ruhani affect the intractable situation in neighboring Syria?
In the short term, not much. First, because he will not be inaugurated for two more months. Second, because as a moderate (not really a reformist) he will want to antagonize the conservative clerical establishment as little as possible, especially early in his tenure, until he can build political alliances to support his position. Third, because the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria’s civil war pushes Shi’ites to support the Assad regime, as seen in Islamic State of Iraq‘s killing of 60 Shi’ites in Hatla last Tuesday and their demolition of the Shi’ite husayniyya there on Friday. Ruhani is a Shi’ite cleric and Iran will remain the major Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Given that a large portion of the Syrian rebel forces is run by Sunni jihadis, Iran will continue to support Assad against them.
In the long term, the election of a moderate Iranian president might make something of a difference, although in precisely what form is unclear. Ruhani has promised increasing “integration” with the rest of the world in order to reverse the isolation Iran has experienced under Mahmud Ahmadinejad. While most US observers hear this and think of the stalled nuclear talks (Ruhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator until his resignation in 2005), increasing dialogue with the rest of the world may also serve to broaden international cooperation around Syria. What benefit may arise from that increased dialogue is unclear at this time, although reduced likelihood of an Iranian strike at Israel in the event of a US-supported military defeat of Assad is among them. Of course, any benefits derived from increased Iranian willingness to dialogue with other countries will only be realized slowly, if the Syrian conflict extends for more years. Given the current state of violence, and the threat of a post-Assad second war between jihadis and secularist Sunnis, such a scenario seems plausible.
The best thing I’ve read on Syria in a long while is this New York Times opinion piece, written by Alia Malek. It provides an excellent survey of the lead-up to the current revolt and poignant anecdotes revealing how can everyday life differ from what one reads in the headlines. There is also an amusing discussion about varieties of beards (Hezbollah, Salafi, cosmetic, or now loyalist), amusing in part based on how important the beard identification can be.
More importantly, Malek makes a crucial distinction between what started the Syrian Civil War and what sustains it. To paraphrase her piece, what started the peaceful demonstrations was complaints about financial corruption ruining the economy and impoverishing the vast majority of Syrians. She makes that point that most beneficiaries of the corruption were urban Sunnis, while most ‘Alawis (the sect to which Bashar al-Assad himself belongs) were also impoverished, unless they were close to the President himself. What sustains the revolt now is sectarianism, which has been used both by those who would lead the rebels and by the government to claim legitimacy. Although Malek does not bluntly spell out the import of the distinction she draws, it holds out the hope that non-sectarian help (help provided across sectarian lines and contingent upon eschewing sectarian rhetoric) could de-sectarianize the movement. The success of such interventions, of course, would depend heavily on who was receiving the aid, and who else they hoped to receive aid from.
There is nothing I could say to improve this thought-provoking and excellently written piece, so I will just refer you to her words.