Religious Identity and Conflict in the Middle East

The Arab Spring reignited a debate within the Middle East and in academic circles about the universality of human rights and their compatibility, or incompatibility, with culture and religion. Although the Arab Spring was marked by the rise of Political Islam movements, it also opened the door  to discussions on topics that had long been taboo, such as sectarianism, racism and gender equality in the Arab world.

Religion has dominated politics in the Middle East for centuries, and plays a significant role in the lives of individuals: their rights, opportunities and social status are all impacted by it.

Constitutions, laws, education systems and even art and sport are viewed through the lens of religion, and every effort is made to ensure that these elements of society comply with religious norms and symbolism.

Sectarianism remains a powerful political, social and cultural force, and the source of most conflicts in the Middle East. Many of the current conflicts in the region have deep historical roots – most notably the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shi’a division.

The relationship between religions in the region

Despite the fact that the three ‘Abrahamic Religions’ – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – share many spiritual and cultural similarities, the relationship between these religions in the Middle East has been shaped by competition, conflict and resentment. In the case of the Sunni-Shi’a divide, intolerance and violence remain the main characteristics of the relationship between these two branches of Islam.

This situation has led to a mass exodus of religious minorities from the Middle East: less than 30,000 Jews remain in the entire Middle East outside of Israel, around 17,000 of whom live in Turkey and 8,000 in Iran. Syriac, Assyrian, Armenian and Yazidi communities are on the verge of disappearing in Syria and Iraq following years of sectarian conflict which have also caused massive displacements of Sunnis and Shi’a in both countries.

In the same context, decades of Arab-Israeli conflict have caused millions of Sunni Arab Palestinians to suffer: millions have been displaced and forced to live under harsh circumstances in neighbouring countries, and tens of thousands have lost their lives. Meanwhile, the percentage of Palestinian Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza has dropped from 15% to around 2%.

Case study: Iran

The different interpretations of religion and its position in public life play an important role in Middle Eastern politics, affecting the course of ongoing conflicts significantly. This is evident in attempts by Iran to use its religious, financial, political and military influence to create sectarian militias and expand its presence and influence in the Arab world. This has led to an increased levels of violence, including in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more significantly, since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Political elites in the Middle East exploit religion, using sectarianism as a means to keep the religious factions to which they adhere in power, and to maximise their control of wealth and political influence.  Religious texts and narratives of historical victimhood and grievances, and even conspiracy theories, are used to further this end. The case of Iran is illustrative of this.

Whilst most Arab countries stood firmly against the uprising of Shi’a civilians in Bahrain, they empathised with the Shi’a civilian uprising in Iran itself. And whilst Iran supported the uprising in Bahrain, it also helped the Assad regime in Syria to crush the peaceful civilian uprising in Syria.

Iranian nationalists resent the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century, and hold the Arabs responsible for the collapse of the Sassanid Empire and the destruction of the Persian civilisation. Under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 to 1979, a Farsi national identity was emphasised in Iran. In 1976, the Royal Farsi Calendar was adopted, which replaced the Islamic one, and began with the day of the coronation of Cyrus the Great.

Targeting of ethnic and religious minorities

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ethnic and religious minorities have been targeted by successive governments. They are viewed with suspicion and treated as a threat to a theocratic regime that promotes a strict interpretation of Shia Islam. The Twelver Jaafari School of Islam is the official religion, and the constitutional theocracy systematically discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion and ethnicity.

Most Islamic scholars view the concept of ‘nationalism’ as contradictory to the concept of ‘Umma’, a term referring to a united Islamic nation in which all Muslims are equal regardless of their ethnic origins.

The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, described nationalism as “the source of miseries of the Muslims”.  He said that nationalism is “propagated by the agents of imperialism, and it places the Iranian nation up against other Muslim nations. The plan of the great powers and their affiliates in the Muslim countries is to separate and divide the various strata of Muslims, whom God has declared brothers, under the guise of Kurd, Arab, Turk, and Persian nations, and even make them regard themselves as enemies of one another. This is against the path of Islam and the Qur’an.”

During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 to 2013), a new discourse combining Farsi nationalism with Islam emerged. As a result, Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Baha’is, and Sunni Muslims suffered increased harassment, imprisonment, torture and even death, and anti-Baha’i, anti-Arab and anti-Semitic rhetoric was widely used by the clerical establishment.

After the Arab Spring, a need for reforms

Following the Arab Spring, the debate on whether or not Islam is compatible with human rights forced many governments in the region to introduce important reforms, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  However, the general trend is still slow or resistant to change in the entire region.

There remains an urgent need for radical reforms, especially in the fields of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and women’s rights, to contain and hopefully reverse the rapid deterioration and destabilisation which is not only affecting the Middle East, but the entire international community also.

In a region where dictatorship, sectarianism and sectarian politics are often the main contributors to conflict and violence, plans to democratise and empower human rights frameworks in the Middle East will take time, but are the only lasting way forward for this troubled region.

By CSW’s Middle East Advocacy Officer.

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