The true role of religion in the Middle East

While religion is an important factor in the Middle East, it’s not the whole story.

Map of Middle East (photo credit: Courtesy)
Map of Middle East
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While some countries in the Middle East ally with Shi’ite elements such as Iran, the Houthis in Yemen and the Syrian regime, others ally with Sunni elements, making the divide in the region seem more sectarian than political.
In addition, the Middle East is flooded with media coverage describing the whole context in religious terms.
However, while religion is an important factor in the Middle East, it’s not the whole story.
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While it is true that Sunnis are more likely to support other Sunni factions and Shi’ites more likely to pledge allegiance to Shi’ite factions, in the Syrian conflict, for example, both opposition and regime forces consist of individuals from both sects, in variable numbers. The mendacious Islamic State, for instance, a Sunni element in Iraq and Syria, has killed more Sunni Muslims than it has any other group.
While religious conflict and the involvement of religion in politics isn’t novel in the Middle East, the trend has become more pronounced in the recent decades, partially due to advances in media and communications networks, and is likely to remain on the rise. However, while the conventional wisdom attributes to Islamic movements the employment of religion for political ends, in reality things work the other way around: in the Middle East, religion is the tool of military, political and economic elites.
Going back not too far in history, we see the cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1940s to fight against the imperial power – Britain – followed by Islamists’ attempt to assassinate Nasser 1954, based more on a power struggle than religious grounds.
While Nasser was working hard to consolidate his power against the Muslim Brotherhood, he enforced two important policies: he banned the Brothers and shoved them into prisons, and strengthened his power with Al-Azhar University to solidify his control over ideological sources and networks. He also made the head of Al-Azhar a presidential appointee, making sure that the institution would not be out of step with the government.
Egypt has been suffering from this ideological polarization and competition to control ideological power sources and networks since the 1920s. Repeating the same cycle Nasser started, president Anwar Sadat released the Muslim Brotherhood in the ‘70s, giving them cultural and ideological autonomy in exchange for their support against leftist forces in Egypt. Unfortunately, a long run as the “Hero of the Crossing” didn’t save his life; based on a fatwa, Sadat was assassinated by Khalid Islambouli in 1981 after a peace deal with Israel in 1979, which angered Islamists, especially the al-Jihad group in Egypt.
While oppression of the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood continued under president Hosni Mubarak’s rule, latent but rather coherent and organized ideological groups were forming, away from the official Egyptian power networks. Mubarak, too, allied with Al-Azhar, moving to control an ideological source and mobilizing its network to serve not the downtrodden or believers, but the regime.
The Sinai peninsula insurgency in 2011 and the tentative outburst of violence in Egypt in 2013 after the coup d’état are a repetition of the same cycle.
While the oppression of President Abdel Fattah Sisi’s rule is tremendous, Sisi seems to be aware of the rules of the game, and is following in the footsteps of his predecessors by allying with Al-Azhar and sending Muslim Brotherhood members into prison or exile.
Sisi even went further, declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and invoking a religious revolution, according to the state’s understanding of theology.
Moving to other examples in the Middle East and North Africa, we find that the first and the second Sudanese civil wars in (1955-1972, 1983-2005) reflect this pattern of secular power instrumentalizing religion.
This vicious cycle has been boosted by key developments in modern Middle East history. Here are just a few: •The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 • Iran’s war with Iraq between 1980-1989 • The rise of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and the Saudi alliances in the Afghani wars, the Iraq- Iran war, the Gulf war and the Syrian civil war • The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 • The violent incidents and unrest in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Tunisia As the region destabilizes, the various power blocs are all once again playing the dangerously game of cynically using religion in the pursuit of power.
The author is a political scientist and analyst works as a lecturer for politics and culture of the Middle East, intercultural communication and journalism at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. He is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Duisburg- Essen, specializing on the political instrumentalization of Islam in the Middle East and its implications on political development, and the founder and editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal (MPC Journal).