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Democratization of religion in the Middle East

If you were to ask many Americans who keep close track of world affairs the reasons for the wars in Syria and Iraq, they would probably say that Arabs do not like their leaders or their governments. While that might be true —and certainly more true after the Arab uprisings—there is another reason that is often overlooked.

The Arab societies in both of these countries are members of different communities within Islam; some are Sunni Muslims and others are Shi’a. Once governments in both places began to crumble, religious identity became more important than it was before the violence began. In other words, across the Middle East, Arabs began to identity themselves more often with their religion, rather than whether they are Iraqi, Syrian, or Bahraini.

Many scholars and analysts who are writing about this subject believe the wars are motivated primarily by power plays and control over territory. However, if you read the hostile and aggressive twitter feeds in Arabic and the Arabic press it is obvious religion has something to do with it. Both Shi’a and Sunnis believe the other is trying to extinguish their sect—and this is one of the many reasons the violence has increased.

The governments in the region—particularly Shi’a Iran, and Sunni Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates—fuel this perception because it serves their geo-political interests. All of these governments want the sect they lead to have more power in the Middle East. In some cases, the government propaganda campaigns were very effective in driving a wedge between Shi’a and Sunnis in their countries.

One of the many reasons that sectarianism is so intractable and will, unfortunately, plague the Middle East for years to come, is that all players in the violent conflict claim to have a monopoly on religious truth. Whose Islam is it?  Is it that of the Salafist who wants to return to how he says Islam was practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago; or that of the banned Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt; or the leader of a Shi’a militia in Iraq; or ISIS, the Islamic State? Each party believes its religious knowledge is sacred and true.

In the history of Islam, this question—Whose Islam is it?—has been debated for centuries. When I lived in Egypt in the late 1990s and wrote my first book for Oxford, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, I spent four years visiting mosques across the country.

What was clear then and is abundantly clearer now is this: religion is being democratized among Sunni Muslims. There is no one religious authority or religious leader who can say which interpretation of Islam should be supreme. Everyone has a say. In past decades in the Arab world, governments had more control over how Islam was being practiced and interpreted because they controlled state religious institutions. Governments also required the sheikhs in the mosques to be licensed by the state and their sermons approved by the state.

Muslim prayer beads by mrehan. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

However, this began changing in the 1970s. Today’s charismatic religious ideologues first began to make their presence felt in the 1970s. Shi’a and Sunni communities—the former in response to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the latter in response to the developing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—began to associate their long-established religious beliefs and practices with personal identity, supplanting a largely manufactured and fragile loyalty to the relatively new phenomenon of the nation state. Moreover, the Islamic Revolution offered a theocratic state as an alternative model for governance to the Western-style nationalism then on offer across the region.

In Sunni Islam, any freelance, self-appointment sheikh or the most educated renowned religious scholar can participate in debates online and in the media and on television. Are the Shi’a real Muslims or are they kufar?

Some Sunni Salafists with 12-14 million Twitter followers tweet against the Shi’a day and night. And they use major battles in the wars in Syria and Iraq to justify whatever religious claim they are making on Twitter that day.

Should a Shi’a cleric run a state? Should the texts that form the foundation for Islam—the Koran and the hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet, be applied in the meaning of the time they were written or should they be adapted for the modern world?

Understanding the role religion plays in conflicts in the Middle East is key to understanding the region, how to help end the wars, and how to relate to your Muslim-American neighbor.

The conflicts do not come out of nowhere. They are about religious history and memory.

Headline image credit: Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran by Valerian Guillot. CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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