Leave Religion Out of It
Times have changed. The days when the West condemned Moscow-sponsored communist subversion and the East celebrated class struggle and anti-imperialism are over: Now we talk in terms of religious, ethnic and even tribal struggles. This new interpretation has acquired exceptional force in the last 20 years, since the US political scientist Samuel Huntington popularised the idea of the “clash of civilisations,” suggesting that different cultural, religious, moral or political values were at the root of most conflicts. Huntington was merely reviving the old racist dichotomy, popularised by Ernest Renan in the 19th century, between the supposedly civilised and refined Aryan race and the anarchic, violent Semites.
Invoking “values” in this way encourages a return to simplistic identities, which successive waves of modernisation had driven back, and which have returned to favour with globalisation, the homogenisation of lifestyles and consumption, and the social upheavals much of the world suffered because of neoliberalism. It allows international public opinion to be mobilised in favour of one side or the other, and is greatly helped by certain academic traditions steeped in colonial-era cultural essentialism.
As European-style secular liberalism and socialist ideology (both of which had spread beyond Europe) have receded, conflicts have become reduced to their anthropological and cultural dimension. Few journalists or academics bother to maintain an analytical framework based on classical political science, taking into account demographic, economic, geographic, social, political, historical and geopolitical factors, as well as the ambitions of leaders, neo-imperial structures and regional powers’ desire for influence.
Conflicts are generally presented in a way that disregards the multiplicity of causes, caricatures the issues, and makes it a matter of “good guys” and “bad guys”. The main players are defined according to their ethnic or religious affiliations, as if opinion and behaviour were homogeneous within these groups.
This started to happen towards the end of the cold war. The players in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), for example, were classed as either Christian or Muslim. The Christians were said to belong either to the Lebanese Front or the rightwing Phalange Party. The Muslims were lumped together as “Palestino-progressives,” and later “Islamo-progressives.” This did not take into account the fact that many Christians belonged to the anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli coalition and supported the right of Palestinians to attack Israel from Lebanon, which many Muslims opposed. The problem posed by the presence of armed Palestinian groups in Lebanon, and Israel’s massive and violent reprisals against the population, was not religious in nature, and had nothing to do with the denomination of the Lebanese people.
There were many other manipulations of religious identity during this period that media experts did nothing to denounce. The Afghan war, the result of the Soviet invasion of December 1979, was reported to have mobilised “Islamists” against “atheist” invaders, obscuring the nationalist dimension of the resistance. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan trained and radicalised thousands of young Muslims of all nationalities (though most were Arab), creating the conditions for a lasting international Islamist jihad.
The 1979 Iranian revolution caused a major geopolitical misunderstanding: Western powers believed that the best option for replacing the shah, and avoiding a nationalist middle-class government (like the experiment led by Muhammad Mossadegh in the early 1950s) or a socialist and anti-imperialist one, was for religious leaders to come to power. The examples of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- two very religious states closely allied to the United States -- led them to assume that Iran would also be a reliable and staunch anti-Soviet ally. Subsequently the perspective changed. Iran’s anti-imperialist and pro-Palestinian policies were denounced as Shia, anti-western and subversive, as opposed to “moderate” Sunni policies. Inciting rivalry between Sunnis and Shia, and Arabs and Persians, became a major preoccupation for the United States (a trap Saddam Hussein fell into when he invaded Iran in September 1980), particularly after the failure of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to an increase in Iran’s influence.
Since then, there have been many articles about the danger of the “Shia crescent” -- Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbullah -- trying to destabilise Sunni Islam, export terrorism and eliminate Israel. No one bothers to recall that some Iranians were only converted to Shia Islam in the 16th century, encouraged by the Safavid dynasty so that Persia could more effectively resist Ottoman expansionism. We choose to forget that Iran has always been a major regional power and that the regime is pursuing, in a different guise, the same policies as the shah, who saw himself as the gendarme of the Gulf. He too had strong nuclear ambitions, encouraged at the time by France. Despite these non-religious historical facts, everything in the Middle East is now analysed in terms of Sunni and Shia.
The simplification continued with the Arab revolutions of 2011. The protesters in Bahrain were described as Shia and manipulated by Iran against their Sunni rulers, ignoring those Shias who supported the regime and those Sunnis who sympathised with the opposition. In Yemen, the Houthi rebellion (Zaydis from the northwest province of Saada) is seen as a Shia phenomenon, and due to the influence of Iran.
Lebanon’s Hizbullah is considered just a tool of Iranian ambition, despite the opposition to it within the Shia community, and its popularity among many Christians and Sunni Muslims. It is often forgotten that the movement arose from Israel’s occupation (1978-2000) of mainly Shia southern Lebanon, which would have lasted much longer without its resistance. That Hamas in Gaza is a purely Sunni product, stemming from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, does not trouble analysts who support the idea of “moderate” Sunni Islam: The movement must be denounced because its arms are supplied by Iran and used in attempts to end Israel’s blockade.
There is a lack of nuance. Oppression and socio-economic marginalisation are not mentioned. Parties in conflict do not have hegemonic ambitions: they are either good or bad. Communities that incorporate a variety of opinions and behaviour are characterised with hollow anthropological generalisations and essentialist cultural stereotypes, even if they have absorbed other socio-economic and cultural influences for centuries.
New concepts have taken over our discourse: In the West, “Judeo-Christian” values have replaced the secular invocation of our “Graeco-Roman” roots. The promotion of Muslim or Arab-Muslim values, peculiarities and customs has replaced the anti-imperialist, socialist and “industrialist” demands of secular-inspired Arab nationalism, which had long dominated the regional political scene.
The individualistic and democratic values that the West claims to embody are contrasted with the supposedly holistic, patriarchal and tribal values of the East. Until recently, leading European sociologists maintained that Buddhist societies could never attain industrial capitalism, since it is supposedly dependent on the specific values of Protestantism.
The Palestinian question is no longer perceived as a war of national liberation that could be resolved by creating a single country where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together as equals, as the PLO has long called for. Instead it is regarded as Arab-Muslim opposition to a Jewish presence in Palestine and so, for some, a symbol of enduring anti-Semitism that must be opposed. But if Palestine had been invaded by Buddhists, or post-Ottoman Turkey, resistance would have been just as strong.
Tibet, Xinjiang, the Philippines, the Russian Caucasus, Burma (where we have just discovered a Muslim population in conflict with its Buddhist neighbours), the former Yugoslavia (broken up along sectarian lines between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians), Northern Ireland (Catholics and Protestants) and now Mali: Can the conflicts in all these regions really be seen as a clash of religious values? Or are they in fact secular, anchored in a social reality that hardly anyone bothers to analyse, while self-appointed sectarian leaders seize the opportunity to realise their personal ambitions?
Exploiting identity in clashes between large and small powers has a long history. One might have thought that political modernity and the republican principles that have spread around the world since the French Revolution would mean that secularity was firmly installed in international relations, but this is not the case. There has been an increase in the claims of some countries to speak on behalf of transnational religions, particularly the three monotheistic ones.
These countries use religion to serve their policies of power, influence and expansion. They use it to justify ignoring fundamental human rights defined by the UN: The West has supported the continued occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967, while some Muslim countries allow flogging, stoning and the maiming of thieves. The sanctions applied to those who contravene international law also vary: The international community imposes strict punishments in some cases (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Serbia) and does not reprimand at all in others (the Israeli occupation, the US detention system in Guantanamo). Ending this manipulation of religion, and the simplistic analyses that try to conceal the secular reality of conflict, particularly in the Middle East, is essential if we want to bring peace to this tormented region. Georges Corm is an economist and historian of the Middle East, a former minister of finance in the Lebanese government, 1998-2000, and author of Le Proche-Orient éclaté (Gallimard) and Le Nouveau gouvernement du monde (La Découverte). © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global