Posted tagged ‘Sunni’

Why Understanding the Middle East is Hard for Westerners; Demystifying Critical Elements

August 18, 2015

The political tensions in the Middle East have always been difficult for me to understand. The cultural and religious nuances and customs are unfamiliar. The names, political parties and language are removed from my own native tongue making my usual memory techniques difficult to use. Sometimes it honestly just becomes a swirled mush and I am not sure where to start since most news is event or crisis driven. For me it helps to return to basics and unwind some of the geographic, ethnic, religious and government elements before applying them to tensions within the Middle East.

I think back to lessons in early geography where I struggled to understand the differences between countries and nations.

  • A country is defined through political geography
  • A nation is defined through ethnic boundaries

This makes a country rather simple to understand since most maps are denoted this way. It is easy to pick out where the United States, Britian, France, Russia, Australia, Japan, etc. are located and clearly defined. Generally, these are established and internationally agreed upon. There are exceptions: the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India is an example of territory disputed between two countries.

A nation though can be a bit fuzzier. The classic example in American classrooms is some of the Native American Indian tribes. For example the Cherokee Nation exists within the political geographic boundaries of the United States and maintains its own government. The Cherokee Nation practices self-determination, is governmentally separate from the United States and is comprised of those who are ethnically Cherokee. The seat of government is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the National’s territory geographically falls within the state Oklahoma and there is a representative office in Washington DC. (http://geodata.cherokee.org/CherokeeNation/)

Another example of a nation would be Tibet. While deemed an autonomous region by China and within its political borders this is not universally accepted within the international community. Additionally, the political boundaries asserted by China are disputed by India which also claims part of Tibet. This tension is seen when foreign heads of government receive the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, for state visits to the protests of the Chinese government. It should be noted the Tibetan people are not afforded the same freedoms and autonomy as the Cherokee Nation. This notes the important point that being identified as part of a nation does not guarantee political rights or freedoms.

There is another important combination to mention here; when both a nation and a country coincide, this is called a nation-state. While there is not full scholarly agreement, loosely the defining threshold is approximately 95% of the population is of the same ethnicity. Japan and Iceland would be examples of nation-state countries familiar to Western readers while the Jewish population within Israel (75%) does not rise to this threshold. While there are not explicit legal implications or rights for being a nation-state, it is conceptually useful in understanding a country, its people and its interaction with its neighbors.

Applying these understandings of countries and nations, conflicts seems likely to occur where political lines (countries) unnaturally split ethnic groups such that rival groups can exert unchecked political control or power and dominate another ethnic group. In my mind this helps explains the conflicts citizens of western nations commonly misunderstand, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina (fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbians) and conflicts in the Middle East. At a glance it appears that ethnic allegiance (nationalism) seems to trump political allegiance to a country when the two are in conflict.

Below are some excellent maps from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project which show the ethnic composition of the Middle East:

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Ethnic_sm.png

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Ethnic_lg.png

(note: the large map, which permits zooming, will not always load from the project’s host for reasons unknown)

While educating, the maps do not seem to fully explain the explosive tensions in the region. Some of the countries are relatively homogeneous, for example much of the Arabic peninsula including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen. Others are more ethnically diverse such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Visually seeing Iraq and Syria ethnic minorities split by political boundaries from larger populations in Turkey helps me understand the tensions. A single ethnic people being treated differently across the political boundaries, especially if treated harshly by the ethnic majority in a country, would very reasonably draw strong emotional reactions. This helps me but does not fully satisfy why there is such intense, consistent fighting within this part of the world.

So I look to religion, of which Islam is the dominate religious in this geography. In the Middle East governments generally intertwine religion and politics. A secular government is non-religious while a non-secular government is religious based. The later may have laws or its governing hierarchy directly pulled from religious texts. For those familiar with the rule of law common in many secular governments (e.g. the United States) a government who’s leader claims to be the Almighty’s representation on earth and having absolute authority may feel uncomfortable with this. Further it becomes more complicated when within that one country you have two or conflicting religions and the rights of the minority may or may not be protected. Islam, like Christianity, has several branches, with the main ones being Sunni Islam (~85%) and Shia Islam (~15%). While the point of this piece is not to elicit the finer differences or place judgement, sufficient to say there are meaningful theological and spiritual differences between the two.

The following excellent maps, again from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project, show the religious composition of the Middle East:

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Religion_sm.png

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Religion_lg.png

The dark green areas denote Shia concentrations while the lighter green areas denote Sunni concentrations.

This startles me. Iran is a non-secular (religious) government based in Shia Islam while most of its non-secular neighbors are followers of Sunni Islam. To what extent the violence we see today is directly attributable to these differences, I do not know. However when the ethnic and religious maps are overlaid, it clearly shows friction points in the middle east today: northern Iraq, Yeman, northern Syria, Afghanistan.

Where this torques my perspective is my context and experience is that the various branches of Christianity, in modern times, do not engage in brutal sectarian violence. Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Protestants—if members of each can explain the differences between—do not seem to engage in violence due to these differences. I do not see Catholics murdering Episcopalians because the later permits female priests and priests with non-heterosexual sexual preferences to openly hold those beliefs.**

It is possible that politically motivated actions are cloaked in religious trappings. Possibly it is the actions of a very small number of extremists that, due to the foreignness and propensity of humans to overly generalize things not well understood, is inaccurately extrapolated to the entire religion or area. This intent of this article is to articulate some of the conceptual drivers to start the conversation on these themes

  • Countries, Nations, and Nation-states
  • Ethnic diversity and concentrations
  • Religious diversity and concentrations
  • The impact of secular and non-secular governments

and how these interact.

 

**Note: I acknowledge this does dismiss the Catholic Church endorsed military campaigns, the Crusades, during the Middle Ages; however, this piece aims to focus on the current day tensions and conflicts within the Middle East.