Religion and Politics in the Middle East
Which one comes first?
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.