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Religious Polarization in Middle Eastern Politics

By Patrick Balbierz

The battles in Cairo's Tahrir Square highlighted a populist call for democracy and an end to authoritarian rule - an underlying motive of the broader Arab Spring. While the political transition was broadcasted widely across the globe, international media  failed to highlight the growing trend within the Middle East -- increasing polarization within the Muslim community. Growing religious rifts between secular and conservative parties threaten the political future of a region at a critical point of transition.

Many are familiar with the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam, but beyond this separation is a rapidly growing divide between moderate Muslims and radical jihadists. Conservative parties are once again calling for an Islamic state and the restoration of a once expansive Caliphate. At the same time, secular sentiments have been rising, with some liberals in the Middle East calling for religion-free government. Examples of this polarization are evident in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq among other Middle Eastern nations. This developing battle in wake of the Arab spring is pitting fundamental Islamists against their moderate counterparts who, along with secularists, are pushing for a democratic government without Sharia.
 

Islamic fundamentalism has recently come to the forefront with power vacuums following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and the on-going attempt to oust Bashar al-Assad. These dictators established secular style governments, but often utilized oppressing religious movements to maintain a stronghold over their population. The Arab Spring provided an opportunity for secular and Muslims citizens alike who had been pushed down, radicalized, and abused.

The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to institute an Islamic state in Egypt after Mubarak, but was met with a fervent opposition that demanded freedom of religion and a rejected authoritarian government like they had just overthrown. Within a year, the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown and deemed a terrorist organization. In recent weeks, the interim government tried hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supports in what many call rigged hearing, condemning many to death for treason. Parties like the Wafd and the Egyptian Social Democrats are rallying behind secular, liberal minded political parties to combat the remaining threats from radicalized Islamic opponents.

Syria’s ongoing struggle continues to be a mixture of political opposition, religious conflict, and total breakdown of law. Assad’s secular government, comprised of Alawite minorities, battle the Sunni majority which contains both liberal Muslim groups and al-Qaeda sponsored organizations. The opposition groups have failed to unite on a common ground, as groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are championing the religious doctrine of Islam and the glory of jihad. They have been cited using brutal tactics including beheading soldiers, Christians, and innocent civilians. There has been strong opposition to such gruesome tactics in Syria and in the wider global community. A strong force fighting for freedom of religion and oppression against al-Assad and al-Qaeda is the Free Syrian Army, but their numbers are small and fragmented. As the country's civil war rages on, demands for religious and political freedom are muted.

In Iraq, which will host elections in April, new challengers have arisen in face of religiously grounded candidates. Fadel al-Dabbas, chairman of Dabbas International group, who made his fame in banking and investment, is running on a secular, non-religious platform. Though one of many candidates, Fadel offers hope for the secular groups in Iraq fighting for change. At the same time, religious factions in the country recently moved to create a bill lowering the legal marriage age for women to nine. They bill's sponsors cited old religious teachings as justification, and moved ahead with the legislation despite protests across the country. This violation of women’s and children’s rights begs the question, how can this occur in today’s world?

Faisal al-Mutar, an Iraqi refugee and founder of Global Secular Organizing and Strategy, argues the pervasiness of literal interpretations of Islamic religious text is due to the lack of a secular enlightenment. He says the issue “is concerning because modern technology allows religious literalists and fundamentalist to cause more damage on the planet.” Faisal highlights a concern held by many in the Middle East; the jihad movement isn’t only damaging Western interests, but also the livelihood of Middle East citizens.

The Saudi Arabian government recently issued a declaration outlawing the “calling for atheist thought in any form.” This edict was issued together with decrees outlawing numerous radical fundamentalist groups who are recruiting Saudis to fight in the Syrian war and overthrow governments. The response by the house of Saud seems to be as follows - address both the religiously radicalized and progressive secularists who challenge authority. The threat of challenging the government is twofold. The secular front calls for greater equality and democracy, while the radical Islamic counterpart calls for an even more conservative state.

There are outside of the region working to challenge the jihadist ideology. Hannah Stuart and Rashad Ali from The Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think-tank, compiled “A Guide to Refuting Jihadism: Critiquing Radical Islamist Claims to Theological Authenticity” which aims to discredit the historical basis of violent and oppressive Islamic ideology. They represent a growing movement by liberal Muslims to prevent the jihadi movement from spreading. Education remains a driving force in the critique of such a violent and aggressive ideology.

Jihad Watch, founded by director Robert Spencer, also attempts to curtail the influence of jihad by addressing it academically. Spencer notes the threat of jihad is real, even outside the Middle East, “The global jihad against the West today also helps Islam gather converts in the West from among groups that feel themselves to be oppressed of marginalized.” The debate between Middle East citizens extends globally, bringing in concerns and ideas from both inside and out the region.

Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, and others are voicing their demands for representative government. Years of oppression have created a generation begging for opportunity. Shifting dynamics among the youth in the Middle Easts are questioning both religious institutionalism and authoritarian leadership. The fight for political transformation will be closely tied to conflicts among different religious groups.

While secularists call for greater democratic reform, oppressed conservative Islamists are calling for greater input in how they are governed. While their oppression and lack of voice mirrors secularist experiences, their goals oppose on another. The great threat to stability in the Middle East seems to come from among differences between the citizens themselves. The question remains, how will religion fit into a new Arab generation’s idea of governance? 

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Patrick Balbierz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Seton Hall University.

[Photo Credit: flickr.com

 

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