Re­li­gion and Pol­i­tics in the Mid­dle East

Which one comes first?

The Kurdish Globe - - NATIONAL - Go­ran Sabah Ghafour

Dr. Jil­lian Sch­wedler is As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts, Amherst. Be­gin­ning Septem­ber 2013, she will be Pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence at the City Univer­sity of New York's Hunter Col­lege. She re­ceived her PhD in Pol­i­tics from New York Univer­sity in 2000. Dr. Sch­wedler was for­merly the Chair of the Board of Direc­tors (2001-2009) and mem­ber of the Ed­i­to­rial Com­mit­tee (1995-2001) of the Mid­dle East Re­search and In­for­ma­tion Project (MERIP), pub­lish­ers of the quar­terly mag­a­zine, Mid­dle East Report.

Jil­lian Sch­wedler, in a chap­ter pub­lished in a book ti­tled “Pol­i­tics in the Mid­dle East” (2010), mainly talks about the three main Abra­hamic re­li­gions: Is­lam, Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity as well as their im­pact and re­flec­tion on pol­i­tics through the course of recorded his­tory. To un­der­stand the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of the Mid­dle East­ern po­lit­i­cal process, one should have a bit of a back­ground on how re­li­gion, specif­i­cally Is­lam, was driven into pol­i­tics in the po­lit­i­cal, tribal, monarch and sec­u­lar sys­tems in the Mid­dle East. I’m not writ­ing to sum­ma­rize the chap­ter but rather fo­cus on one point, which I be­lieve Sch­wedler mainly built her chap­ter on: Politi­ciza­tion of Re­li­gion—Is­lam.

Re­li­gion has been the core as­pect of pol­i­tics in the en­tire Mid­dle East. The Zion­ism move­ment was es­tab­lished to pro­tect the Jews po­lit­i­cally and es­tab­lish a re­li­gious home­land for the Jews. Ju­daism is an iden­tity and Zion­ism is a means to pro­tect the racial and re­li­gious com­mu­nity to live on the land. The whole state is re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal. Chris­tian­ity through the pa­pacy’s rule was strictly po­lit­i­cal. Through­out his­tory, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers wanted to weaken the other re­li­gion, be it Is­lam or Ju­daism. Dur­ing Cru­sader era, 11th to 13th cen­tury, af­ter cap­tur­ing Jerusalem, they changed mosques to churches like Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. The other way around is also true: Omayyad mosque in Da­m­as­cus was built in 705. It was orig­i­nally a tem­ple of Ro­man god­dess Jupiter.

The colo­nial­ism of France and Bri­tain brought Chris­tian­ity and spread it world­wide. Ac­tu­ally pol­i­tics was used to serve re­li­gion and spread it. Colo­nial­ism was on a par­al­lel path with Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies and emis­saries.

The re­li­gious wars be­tween Chris­tians and Mus­lims, even among Mus­lims in Iraq, Le­banon and Su­dan em­pha­size my point as they un­der­line how re­li­gion was politi­cized. Look at what Hitler did to the Jews. Th­ese are all indi­ca­tions of politi­ciz­ing re­li­gion. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Is­rael are re­li­gious states.

Let me go back to the gist of ar­gu­ment which is the politi­ciz­ing of Is­lam. Is­lam is the cor­ner­stone of the con­sti­tu­tions in most of the coun­tries in the Mid­dle East. All po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of the Mid­dle East have politi­cized re­li­gion and used it to fo­ment and con­trol peo­ple – a harsher ex­pla­na­tion would be “fool­ing peo­ple out” by re­fer­ring to the Is­lamic rule as the source of so­lu­tions, char­ity and greater good for the great num­ber. How­ever, do th­ese lead­ers do good for peo­ple be­hind us­ing Is­lam as a po­lit­i­cal tool to win power? For in­stance, peo­ple top­pled down the regime of Muham­mad Raza Pahlavi and sup­ported the Is­lamic rule in 1979. How did that hap- pen? It was Khome­ini and other cler­ics who im­planted con­cepts of a politi­cized Is­lam in the minds of peo­ple be­fore and af­ter 1979. Es­tab­lish­ing the state of Saudi Arabia by the house of Saud is also an­other ex­am­ple of this po­lit­i­cal re­li­gious state.

Po­lit­i­cally driven Is­lamists in Iran did not stop af­ter they cre­ated the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran, per­haps they en­cour­aged other peo­ple from the Mid­dle East to rise up against their regimes and es­tab­lish an Is­lamic state. This failed pol­icy is still felt in hav­ing Iran sup­port­ing Hizbul­lah in Le­banon. The pol­icy did af­fect Su­dan to be an Is­lamic coun­try when Jaa­far Nimeiri an­nounced an Is­lamic Su­dan to com­mit only Sharia law in 1983. An­other ex­am­ple of politi­ciz­ing Is­lam is when Sad­dam was pray­ing dur­ing the wars (Iran-Iraq and Gulf war) and that was tele­vised for peo­ple to see so that they would sup­port him. And he added words “God is Great” to the Iraqi flag. Sad­dam won peo­ple’s heart by th­ese deeds.

Sch­wedler talks about two groups of politi­cized re­li­gious move­ments. The first is mod­er­ate re­li­gious ac­tivists who care about grad­ual po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial re­forms. Best ex­am­ple of th­ese groups is the Mus- lim Brother­hood founded by Has­san Al- Banna in Egypt in 1928. The sec­ond is ex­trem­ist re­li­gious groups who seek to rapidly over­throw the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal or­der through vi­o­lence.

My most in­flu­en­tial ex­am­ple to clar­ify my point is the Mus­lim Brother­hood, which has been us­ing Is­lam as a po­lit­i­cal tool to win power par­tic­u­larly in Egypt but also around the Mid­dle East. Its slo­gan “Is­lam is the so­lu­tion” is a key in­di­ca­tor to un­der­stand how they smartly and emo­tion­ally politi­cized Is­lam to se­cure the peo­ple’s vote and then win power. The group was harshly cracked down by Hosni Mubarak in the 1980s with many of whom ex­iled, jailed and killed. I be­lieve the Arab Spring serves this group the most and in the best way. Af­ter Mubarak’s regime was top­pled down, the group be­came the most pow­er­ful Is­lamic po­lit­i­cal move­ment in the coun­try, which is far the most likely to win the elec­tions. The le­niency, mod­er­ate and peace­ful as­pects of the group not only bought peo­ple’s heart and mind but also at­tracted the West­ern pow­ers that have al­ways been against an Is­lamic state around the world, specif­i­cally in the Mid­dle East.

Sayid Qutb, the founder of Is­lam ex­trem­ism, was ex­e­cuted with two oth­ers in Egypt in 1965. That had a sig­nif­i­cant and pro­found ef­fect on his fol­low­ers. When An­war Sa­dat came to power and re­leased most of the mem­bers of the Mus­lim Brother­hood, among them were many mem­bers of Sayid Qutb who later es­tab­lished small groups of Is­lamic ex­trem­ists such as Is­lamic Group (Jamaha Al-Is­lamia) and Is­lamic Ji­had. This trend was later picked up by Osama bin Laden who es­tab­lished Al-Qaeda, the world’s largest and most vi­o­lent Is­lamic move­ment. My take on Is­lamic ex­trem­ism, and ex­trem­ism of any other re­li­gion, is that the path they use to get to power does not serve Is­lam and Mus­lims at all. It (the path) rather serves the west and weak­ens Is­lam by mak­ing an ugly and bad im­age on it across the world. Peo­ple around the world now judge Is­lam on the ac­tions done by the ter­ror­ist groups, above them all, Al-Qaeda. I won­der how a small fa­nat­i­cal, God­less and na­tion­less group lack­ing prin­ci­ple, can shake, desta­bi­lize and ter­ror­ize the world be­hind the cur­tain of Is­lam, which has been a mask on their face.

The Is­lamic ex­trem­ists’ only pre­text for their vi­o­lent path is they claim that it’s the best way to up­root threats by the west on their faith. This makes no sense to any sin­gle ed­u­cated in­di­vid­ual through­out the en­tire Mus­lim world. This makes me even more sur­prised how a group like this has no proper un­der­stand­ing of the Qu­ran, which says “killing one in­no­cent man equals killing the whole hu­man­ity.” As we all know they have killed thou­sands of chil­dren, women and in­no­cent peo­ple around the world through sui­cide at­tacks.

Turkey is far the most suc­cess­ful Is­lam state, which man­aged to adapt into the mod­ern times. Sec­u­lar­ism and Is­lam has been at blog­ger heads since the ex­is­tence of sec­u­lar­ism, first by the French. The re­cent Turk­ish elec­tions are a clear and proper ex­am­ple of this ar­gu­ment. An Is­lam po­lit­i­cal party, the AKP headed by the Turk­ish PM Er­do­gan, won 50 per­cent while the sec­u­lar (CHP) party won only 26 per­cent of the votes. Though con­tro­ver­sial, Turkey’s democ­racy is still con­tin­u­ally hailed by West­ern pow­ers.

Re­tired men play­ing domi­nos in the Baghi Shar Park in Er­bil Down­town.

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