How do religion and politics currently interact?
A few months ago, the Prime Minster of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was visiting President Putin, attempting to illustrate a political point by using an ancient Jewish religious story. Putin had no patience for it and responded: “We now live in a different world. Let us talk about that.”.
We indeed live in a world in which adult men, who should know better, try to use or misuse God to support military aggressions. This subject could easily fill volumes of books, but I will discuss only a few thoughts on the matter.
There are many religions in the Middle East, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Yazidism, Zoroastrianism, Bahaism & Druidism. We might also add to this list agnostics and atheists – depending on whether or not you believe that the absence of a metaphysical entity constitutes a belief. Some might add secularists because they equate secularism with atheism. There are some people who cannot fathom that government can exist without being tied to a religion. This mindset exists as easily in some Western Christian minds as it does the ultra-orthodox Middle Eastern Muslim.
Islam is the majority religion throughout the Middle East, and the larger number often equates to institutional power and dominance of the religion. As with all majorities, members often show a blind spot to their own privilege or higher position, or simply cannot fully relate to others of a different perspective. We can guess that no one can fully feel the vulnerability of being a minority, unless they are the minority. Minorities are subsequently not often treated fairly and are, at best, neglected.
Some of the smaller religious groups are not much heard about. They do not often wish to draw attention to themselves. Minorities in general have little political power and are usually at risk of discrimination anywhere in the world, including in the Middle East. This was very apparent with the horrific torture and slaughter the Yazidis of Iraq.
Not only were the Yazidi people targeted by Daesh, but some of their previous neighbours even assisted in their abuse. Additionally, government and military officials did not immediately come to aid them, as they may have if they were of the majority religious or ethnic group. This is a danger of being a minority in any larger society, particularly in an unstable, postcolonial Middle East. We have heard other stories of betrayal delivered on marginalised groups. It is not exactly uncommon in the history of civilisations, and definitely not specific to any one region.
Not always, but in the wider Middle East, the general rule seems to be country before religion, at least institutionally. However, in the hearts and minds of the people, it is not clear whether the general priority lays with religion or the state – or both at once. For example, Morocco is a secular state, but its national anthem contains the famous quote “God, the country, the King” – as if to hint at some order of priority in the hearts and minds of the people.
At the same time, one’s sect within Islam does not necessarily buy transnational favouritism. In the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, an Iraqi Shiite prisoner of war reportedly received no better treatment than an Iraqi Sunni in an Iranian prison – that is, according to prisoner of war survivors.
More recently, violence on Syrian and Iraqi Assyrian Christians by Daesh has been bad enough, and yet there was obvious emphasis in the “Western” media about the deaths of Christians over the deaths of others; especially ignoring the fact that Daesh has killed more Muslims than any other religious adherents worldwide, and that Yazidis followed suite percentage-wise. Interestingly enough, although US under the Trump presidency has issued statements expressing priority to Iraqi Christian refugees, not many of them wish to leave their homeland to come to America. This is surprising to many western Christians; that Iraqi Christians may feel more comfortable with their Muslim countrymen than with American Christians. Is this a case of “country before religion”? Or is this an understandable evasion to the risks associated with travelling through migrant routes in terms of violence and abduction?
Towards the end of Saddam’s reign in Iraq, the Baath Party was largely overshadowed by Sunni Salafism which became a political entity in its own right. The country had already polarised somewhat as a result of Iraq’s war with Iran, and with Saddam’s “Faith Program” in which he was photographed in promotion of religious observance and for the apparent sake of loyalty from the religious. He had also sent his generals into mosque attendance; this resulted in fundamentalist religion becoming a major influence in the previously largely secular politics of Iraq. By 2003, these generals had set up networks of benefits for Sunni nationalists at the expense of Iraqi Shiites.
There is currently a worldwide wave of attraction to authoritarian order as an answer to desperately worried citizens. People are wishing for security after waves of violence have become a part of everyone’s life even at a distance. Additionally, the face of the world is changing at such a fast rate, people are confused. There is mob sentiment in the air and the voices of the religious are strong. People everywhere long for “good old days” when everything was seemingly better even if only in their imaginations.
For Syrians and Iraqis especially, a metaphor for their homelands might be a house on fire from which they have had to flee. Much of the Middle East has shown up on the doorstep of Europeans, along with embers of conflicts that variably smoulder and flame for decades. The assault and revenge and drama of war has now brought hundreds of thousands of hurt children, mothers, and desperate fathers looking for safety. They are mostly now running from an extreme and violent authoritarianism that borrowed the name of Islam but completely forgot the mostly common Quranic adjective for God: “merciful”. But this more recent version of a terroristic crusade is not exactly unique.
The US fought Russia in Afghanistan by the proxy use of religious fundamentalists who were predominantly from Saudi Arabia, and when those fellows didn’t win in the way they thought they should, they conspired, planned and eventually punished the US by crashing hijacked jet planes into the skyscrapers named after world trade. The US, crazy with pain and rage, swarmed like a hive of bees to attack “radical Islam”; having a grand plan to beat it down in many place, beginning with unlucky Iraq.
At that time, President George W. Bush was quoting justification by way of passages from the book of Revelations in the Christian Bible, conveying apocalyptic undertones. Attempting to engage France as an ally, Bush told their then President Jacques Chirac that the matter was concerning the Biblical “Gog and Magog”. Chirac needed to consult a religious scholar familiar with Christian fundamentalism to understand what Bush was saying. He was speaking about “doomsday”; religious prophecy about the end of times, which is written of in both the Bible and the Quran.
So people began or continued to talk about doomsday from both the fundamentalist mosque and the fundamentalist church. Like reflections in a mirror, as a dog might frighten and growl at itself; both proclaiming the same battle of the end of times; the same story from the same book, as both Christians and Muslims are “people of the book” according to Islam.
George Bush aside, fear and/or hate of Islam continues to be expressed in the United States by Islamophobic and fundamentalist Christian ministers. Certainly not all ministers are preaching hate, but the voices of the hateful are loud, and fearful individuals are attracted to a perceived “strength” in those voices that echo their own concerns. This is a phenomenon that happens everywhere, as history repeats itself in the Middle East where hate is also preached against Westerners across many fundamentalist mosques.
War feels an obvious answer to many, regardless of the fact that violence has proven, across history, to breed more violence. The populist religious mind is dogmatic and takes comfort in being led, albeit into war or maybe especially into war.
It is important to realize Saddam Hussein (cruel dictator though he was) had largely kept the military and religious tentacles of Saudi Arabia and Iran out of his territory. After his removal, and even before the US had left Iraq, militias from these places were venturing into Iraq. Perhaps more harmful, Saudi and Iranian religious clerics were being sent to preach messages strongly divisive within Iraq, and especially hateful of the West. As one Iraqi friend recently told me, Saudi Arabia and Iran want to fight each other but do not wish to make a mess in their own countries. So they have fought their war over the top of the people of Iraq; and after Americans left Iraq the hate built further.
Most Iraqis born between the 50s and the 90s divide their lives in terms of pre- and post-American invasion Iraq. Pre-invasion, there were actually quite a few Shia/Sunni marriages; it continues today but to a lesser extent. Children were friends with others across nonexistent sectarian lines, with no awareness on their part and no concern on the parts of their parents. But by the time of the American invasion of Iraq, this tolerance and integration was beginning to deteriorate.
Now people will remember recent mass assassinations of Shia adherents by Daesh and, conversely, killings of Sunni adherents and their suspected torture at the hands of both Daesh and extreme Shia militias. I have been told that one of the reasons some Sunnis in Kurdistan didn’t resist (and sometimes helped) Daesh in the beginning was that they felt they were being treated unfairly by a predominantly Shia controlled government, who Americans had helped install. Surely, many didn’t realise how hellish it would all become.
Into this mix step hateful religious clerics who pour salt into the wounds of people to prevent any prospect of healing. The betrayal of the Yazidis by some Sunnis pretty well ensures their hurt and alienation as others stand apart and look away rather than admit guilt or apathy. Many Iraqi Muslims admit that they cannot blame Yazidis for feeling that they will never trust Muslims again.
Many Yazidis have fled Iraq. Many are in Europe and the United States, and some are metaphorically barely breathing under a grief too strong. Others are filled with a rage that wants to kill in revenge. As one Yazidi told me, “I want to die fighting them”. This is his idea of a perfect death.
I interviewed another Yazidi man (also immigrant to the US) who lost nearly every relative on that one day in Sinjar, Iraq, when Daesh came charging into their town. This man had already been in the US for several years when he learned about 30 of his male relatives in Iraq who were made to kneel before being shot in the backs of their heads. He was told of old friends (Muslims he knew and went to school with) having helped restrain his brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. It was obvious that some Sunni neighbours had expected Daesh’s arrival. It is possible that, in doing so, they had made their choice to assist in the genocide of the Yazidi people. On the other hand, we must consider the fact that Sunnis who are caught opposing Daesh face a similar fate to the Yazidi people.
The elephant in the room: Israel & Palestine
Jews have almost disappeared from Iraq. They were either exiled or made aliyah to Israel, or both. Surprisingly, outside of Israel, most of the Jews in the Middle East live in Iran, but the number of them is down to about a third of what they were before the Shah was overthrown and fundamentalist ayatollahs took control in the 1970s. Farther back, about ninety years ago, Jews were a strong subculture within larger Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo and Baghdad. In the late 1800s, Egypt and other places in the Middle East were seen as a safe haven for Jews trying to escape persecution in other parts of the world.
Not long before the end of his 8 year term, President Barack Obama finally took a stand against Israel’s theft of Palestinian land. This was a brazen thing to do in the face of the future Trump administration which is backed by Evangelical Christians. It was obvious, and more so now, that President Obama had withheld his tongue many times about Israel, and only in the homestretch of his presidency did he dare call Benjamin Netanyahu out. John Kerry pointedly said that Israel can be a democracy or a theocracy, but it cannot be both. This was a view Obama obviously held the whole time, but he did not pick that battle until the end, when it sadly could not really count as a battle, and only counts as an on the record opinion – almost a passing “by the way”. At the end he had nothing to lose, especially as the progressive framework he had built was being dismantled by fundamentalist conservatives coming into power.
For fundamentalist Evangelical Christians, Israel is the “motherland” of Christianity to where Jesus must and will return in the final days as a completion of the Biblical prophecy. On the other hand, progressive Christians will tell that the geography of Israel is not important within the metaphoric scripture of the Bible, but fundamentalists will hunker down in their stubbornness, citing passages from the Old Testament claiming that Jews are God’s chosen (favoured) people, and hence must be protected. In this respect, Fundamentalist Christian religion is aiding and abetting theft of land (according to the International Court of Justice and the United Nations) in the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Back in Egypt, we see the post-mortem (or continuation?) of their Arab Spring… the boilings over of unrest are now dried but apparent, like stains on the streets with no rain to wash them away. After the ousting of Mubarak, the Egyptians voted into power the religion focused Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. There had been a yearning for strength, security and wholesomeness; another wish for a simpler way of life in a history of lives that have never been all that simple (without wanting to sound too orientalist). The pattern we see over and over.
Morsi was not all bad or without spirit of cooperation; in fact, he had invited opponent candidate General Sisi to be his head of military. The new and inexperienced administration floundered; trying to apply righteous and religious principles to the development of new government. Sisi the secularist (but primarily authoritarian) became very convinced that Morsi was a disaster and felt strongly in his heart that he must overthrow Morsi, to take the lead and protect from religious fundamentalism. So he did, and in doing so, SIsi became another but different definition of “fundamentalist”; the law enforcer; the authoritarian who will imprison suspected extremists for being “too religious”.
In the course of events, young men were killed. They had sat with solid resistance but with almost entirely peaceful protest, and were met with bullets. President SSiri now controls national religion as if he were a lion tamer with a whip and a chair. In Egypt, no imam is currently allowed to give a sermon that is not the same one created and approved by the government on a weekly basis. There is no toleration for dissenting voice.
Partly out of frustration and a feeling that Sisi is supported by “the West”, some Egyptians have taken to attacking the only vaguely foreign seeming peoples within their reach; the Coptic Christians. Minorities often take the brunt of national tensions.
Over in Iran, the ayatollahs maintain their grip on their society by keeping the hangman’s noose handy and prisons full of critics. Iranian secularists live with the realistic worry of being put in prison if they speak out against this regime, and perhaps sentenced to death. A major voice in this matter is Maryam Rajavi, whose two sisters were killed years ago for activism against the government; one by order of the Shah of Iran before he was deposed, and another later by Ayatollah Khomeini. A brother-in-law was also killed.
Maryam was a teenager when she met her future husband, Massoud Rajavi, at university, and they were involved in a political movement to overthrow the then Shah. These days Maryam speaks out from her home in Europe. Her husband is seen as the leader of the movement, and Maryam is seen as the face of it, and she is currently popular with many Iranian youth. The political group is called the “Mujahedeen-e Khalq” (MEK), also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), and was internationally classified as a terrorist group for a period before it was removed from that classification in 2012. This party and movement is experiencing influence after decades of persistence. There is evidence that Ms. Rajavi has the support of important people in the US.
Rajavi is a practicing Muslim and wears a headscarf in religious observance. She has said of her political party: “We follow the true Islam, the tolerant and democratic Islam”, although it is unclear for many what exactly is the true Islam. Mrs. Rajavi speaks out from relative safety in Europe. She seems to seek to put an end to the fundamentalist tyranny of the ayatollahs, and if her efforts are as altruistic as they seem, may she be blessed with success. But there is some worry about her forming alliance with the US, as the US is, itself, currently under fundamentalist influence.
Mrs. Rajavi says: “So long as this regime is in power, the people of Iran and other nations in the Middle East will not experience freedom and democracy. A regime that continues to persist on acquiring the nuclear bomb, despite [the] opposition of the Iranian people and the international community, is a global threat.” She has met with US representatives as possible allies, but the danger of alliance with fundamentalist Christians is that most see the entirety of Islam as a threat; as they do not seem to distinguish between the fundamentalists and progressives of the religion. While fundamentalist Christians may not be as abusive as the ayatollahs (and this is debated by some), any type of fundamentalist is limited in their capacity to live peacefully with others.
Returning to the earlier discussed meeting between Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, PM Netanyahu was trying to drum up support to counter Iranian aggression (imagined or not). As Putin is currently allying with Iran on the issue of Syria, it would have to be a very selective alliance.
While it’s very easy to hate the murderous Assad of Syria, it’s notable that he does not emit much religious rhetoric. Torture is against international law and it seems unconscionable that any self proclaimed religious persons would try to justify torture, but it has happened as close to US soil as an American military base in Cuba. This is just one more way in which religion has been misused by morally deficient people to do wrong things. These were crimes religious people deemed were necessary; the lies they told themselves.
It seems an important thing that people should speak out, even if they must do so anonymously, about the people who misuse religion, or even severe authoritarianism, as a means to hurt and control others. Importantly, we should also protect minorities. Very recently at the United Nations headquarters, a young woman named Nadia Murad, who is a survivor of the kidnapping and rape of the Yazidi women discussed about, has been speaking before a conference.
Nadia was able to escape from Daesh slavery and has healed her body and mind to a great extent, and she demands justice for the Yazidis. There should be no toleration for people who will manipulate religion to justify ugly deeds. There may be no solution or cure to treat such madness. We can have some patience with those who will not compromise their beliefs to adjust with modernity. But we should not tolerate when they begin hurting others. A case of not tolerating intolerance.
People continue to speak out against these things within the United Nations. The UN has been described by many as a toothless tiger, but this is progress nonetheless, and the UN will hopefully become stronger and more influential as an international court. At any rate, it gives a historical record of votes for every one of the acts of atrocity called to its attention.