Religion and Politics in the Middle East

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In 1979, a popular revolution in Iran toppled a ruthless
dictator backed by the United States and replaced him
with a regime that gave supreme political authority to a
traditionally-trained scholar of Islam, something unprecedented
in Islamic history. Suddenly Islam was at the forefront
of discussions on politics in the Middle East, and its
political revival provoked both fascination and fear. The
Iranian government’s open desire to export its revolutionary
ideology led to strategic American alliances with other
players in the region, regardless of their anti-democratic
ideology or record of human rights abuses, most notably
Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein, and the Mujahideen fighting
the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Iranians of all social classes and political ideologies participated
in the revolution of 1978-79 that toppled the Shah,
and many of them neither desired nor expected the “Islamic”
regime that took power. Under the Shah and many
other authoritarian governments of the Middle East, freedom
of assembly and rival political parties were banned,
leaving the mosque and other religious institutions as the
only venue for political gatherings and the formation of
political opposition. ‘Ali Shari‘ati is sometimes described
as “the ideologue of the Iranian revolution,” though he
died in 1977 and did not live to see it. He captured the
imagination of young intellectuals by redefining key concepts
in Shi‘ite Islam, using Marxist terminology, and promoting
opposition to American imperialism. Ayatollah
Khomeini, who sent fiery sermons on tape cassettes from
exile in Iraq and Paris, used Shari‘ati’s terminology and
masked the rigid and highly authoritarian nature of his
Islamic ideology in order to become the symbol of resistance
to the Shah. Many women wore a chador in public
demonstrations against the Shah, as a symbol of their solidarity
with the religiously-led opposition, although in
daily life they did not wear it and had no intention of
doing so. Islamic history has no tradition of direct rule by
religious scholars; they had always served only in a consultative
capacity. Who could have anticipated the shape of
the new Islamic Republic of Iran, or the brutality with
which it suppressed all opposition? It is interesting to note
that a sociological study conducted in the 1990s in Egypt,
Jordan and Iran found that Iranians were far more liberal
and secular in their attitudes than Egyptians or Jordanians,
although only Iran is ruled by an “Islamic” regime.
Except for Saudi Arabia, which was never colonized and has
been dominated since the 1920s by the rigidly fundamentalist
ideology of Wahhabism, Muslim-majority states that
acquired independence in the twentieth century looked to
Western political systems as the model of modern statehood.
Turkey, recognized as a republic in 1923, declared
itself secular, avoiding all references to Islam in its constitution
and patterning its laws after European codes. Other
Muslim-majority countries typically declared Islam to be the
national religion, but nonetheless followed Western models
of government and law. The domain of the Shari‘a (Islamic
law) had gradually diminished over the centuries, leaving
only family law under the authority of religious scholars.
Europeans were very critical of the treatment of women
in Muslim societies, citing polygamy, female seclusion, and
the exclusively male right of extra-judicial divorce as evidence
of Islam’s inferiority as a religion. This prompted
“Islamic modernists” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries to propose new interpretations of family law
that would grant women more rights and prioritize the welfare
of society. Modernist interpretations influenced family
laws in the new Muslim states, which often granted women
modest improvements over their status in traditional law.
Modernists also argued successfully for the necessity of
female education: Egypt’s 1924 constitution made primary
education compulsory for both girls and boys.
Most Muslim-majority states that attained independence
in the twentieth century adopted parliamentary governments,
but the continued subjection of these governments
to Western interference, and the Western commitment to
the establishment of Israel on Arab land, led to the emergence
of “revolutionary” socialist regimes in the 1950s and
60s: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, South Yemen and Libya all
embraced pan-Arab nationalism and socialist economic
reforms—a socialism, however, that was defended by stateappointed
religious spokesmen as “Islamic,” to distinguish
it from communism. Industries were nationalized, the
power of the old aristocracy was broken through reforms
distributing their lands to peasants, and the government
became the main employer of all those who earned wages.
Despite the description of their policy as “Islamic,” these
regimes imposed very strict controls on the religious establishment.
Religious institutions were also nationalized, and
religious scholars were instructed to teach that Islam is
socialism. Islamic institutions were to serve government
policy, rather than the other way around. The Suez Canal
crisis of 1956 made Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt a hero
not only in the Arab world, but throughout the Third
World, as a symbol of resistance to imperialism.
But the presence of a Jewish state created by European fiat
on Arab land and at the cost of Arab dispossession remained
a symbol of Arab subjugation and humiliation. In spring
1967 Egypt, Syria and Jordan planned a joint attack on
Israel, which the Israelis preempted by air strikes on all
three countries. Arab defeat in the Six-Day War of June
1967 was swift and total: Jordan lost the West Bank and east
Jerusalem, Syria lost the Golan Heights, and Egypt lost the
Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. The defeat prompted many
Arabs, especially in Egypt, to ask why God had allowed
them to suffer such a defeat: the Qur’an promised Muslims
that, with divine assistance, they could defeat a force ten
times larger than themselves, yet a small country had defeated
three larger and more populous Muslim countries. Was
God punishing them for subordinating religion to secular
ideologies? The religious revival had begun.
The religious revival also encompassed Egypt’s ancient
Coptic church, whose members constitute about ten percent
of the country’s population. Every year at Easter time, some
Copts would make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre in east Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have been
buried. But in spring 1968, all of Jerusalem was under Israeli
rule, making pilgrimage impossible. In April 1968 an apparition
of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus was sighted
on a church dome in a Cairo suburb,
and returned every night for two and
a half years, attracting millions of
Egyptians, including Muslims, who
also revere Jesus as a prophet born
from a virgin. When the government
asked the Coptic pope to comment
on the miracle, he said that Mary had
come to comfort the Egyptians in
their sorrow and to assure them that
Jerusalem would return to Arab rule.
The religious revival in the Middle
East may be seen as part of a worldwide
phenomenon of renewed interest
in religion in the 1970s and 80s.
Anxiety over the apparent breakdown
of the family and a rise in
crime led to public discourse on
morality as much here in the U.S. as
in the Muslim world. In the Middle
East, the religious revival, which
began in the most Westernized parts
of the Muslim world, was part of a
search for a more authentic cultural
identity; people felt they had lost their moral moorings
through blind imitation of the West, which was seen as
characterized by soulless materialism and crass individualism.
Many who were troubled by corruption and immorality
felt that the solution lay in making the Shari‘a the law of
the land.
Because Muslims see Islam as promoting kindness and
justice, and are often unfamiliar with the specifics of traditional
Islamic law, their endorsement of the Shari‘a does
not necessarily mean an endorsement of stonings, beheadings,
and the seclusion of women; people want religion
because they want justice and morality rather than a society
that runs on patronage and bribery. The movement to
make Islam the organizing principle of society and politics
is called Islamism. Islamists cover a broad spectrum from
simple piety to radical militancy, but all agree with the slogan
of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt that “Islam is the
answer.” The election of Islamist politicians in Algeria, Jordan,
and Palestine does not necessarily indicate approval
of Islamic radicalism: just as the recent Democratic electoral
victory demonstrated public disapproval of the war
in Iraq, so Islamists are sometimes elected as an alternative
to an existing political elite that is regarded as ineffective
and corrupt. Another reason for Islamist electoral victories,
as in Pakistan in 2002 and Iran in 2005, is that existing
authorities disallowed the candidacy of many non-
Islamist candidates.
American Christian fundamentalism also plays a role in
Middle Eastern politics: although Israel is a secular state
founded as a homeland for Jews rather than a truly “Jewish”
state, many American Christians see Israel as the fulfillment
of God’s promises to Abraham; indeed, American
Christians are often more zealous Zionists than Israeli
Jews. President Bush’s religious ardor is matched by the
zeal of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad feels
called to prepare for the return of the twelfth Shi‘ite Imam,
who, after an absence of eleven centuries, will return as the
Mahdi, a messiah figure who will defeat God’s enemies and
fill the world with justice—a belief not unlike Christian
expectations of the second coming of Christ. Until the
Mahdi returns, the Shi‘a expect an increase in worldly turmoil
and moral deterioration—just as many Christians
believe regarding the return of Christ. Bush has also
claimed that God told him to invade Iraq. The implications
of such certainty of divine calling, and the belief that
chaos is an inevitable precursor to divine rescue, raise disturbing
questions regarding such leaders’ willingness to
place world security at risk beyond all reason.

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