It's Not about Religion: Lecture at University of Chicago
Talk given at the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Apr. 18, 2014
Woodrow Wilson's trusted adviser, Colonel Edward House, made a remark after World War I that was
quite prophetic. While watching Western Europe divide the Ottoman Empire into separate
nation-states, House stated: "They are making it a breeding place for future war." As is
unmistakably clear, his assessment turned out to be correct. But what is just as importantand a
point unlikely on Houses's mind at the timewas the use of the word "future."
It is a common assumption that the instability typical of the Middle East is not only a permanent
fixture, but one dating back millennia. From roughly Abraham forward, the Middle East has been in a
state of conflict, warfare, and blood-shed. The connecting thread across these imagined centuries of
Arab infighting has been religion. Despite the specific disagreements or causes for
revenge"so-and-so's ancestors killed so-and-so's ancestors"what is always at least running in the
background is religious fervor. Therefore, the thinking goes, in the Middle East you have a lunatic
culture and ancient disputes, all of which can be summed up in a word: Islam.
Colonel House knew betteras power generally doesbut Americans frequently conceive of the Arab
Middle East within these distortions and fictions. The region gets plugged into the reductive
equation: foreign culture + instability = defective culture. This has been the thinking for over 200
years. (Though Islamophobia is not peculiar to the United Statesin areas of Western Europe it is
worse than it is hereI've chosen to focus on the United States for purposes of location and my
During the summer of 2010, a number of stories appeared in the news concerning Islam in the United
States. One was the so-called Ground Zero mosque. Another was a poll revealing that 18 percent of
Americans believed President Obama to be a Muslim. Another still was a threat made by a fanatical
pastor in Florida to burn copies of the Quran, which garnered even the attention of the White House.
The subject of Islam was in the air and much discussed that summer.
At that time, I had been writing about the Middle East and US involvement in it for about eight
years, but the events of that summerincluding the public discourse on the subjectmade it even
clearer that Americans lack basic information on the Middle East. I soon after set to writing It's
Not about Religion. My writing is geared for a general adult audience, and most of my talks are for
college undergraduates and occasionally high school students. What I notice again and again is that,
even when presented with just the basic contours of the Middle Eastern history and US foreign policy
and how they connect, they immediately begin processing it and the questions come. Young people are
frequently open to entertaining ideas that undermine previously held opinionsopinions commonly
inherited from their parents, elders, and the ambient culture.
This inheritance is just the most recent bequeathment of a set of ideological assumptions, passed
down through American historyand originally inherited from Western Europe.
Functionally, the United States exists as an island, which happens to share a border with two
countries not altogether on its radar. Over the course of US history, and owing to a number of
factors, Americans have been encouraged to view themselves as a kind of chosen people. Tocqueville
wrote in the early nineteenth century about how the inhabitants of the United States believe "they
form a species apart."
Within this mindset, the Middle East has existed as something exotic, an oddity, for this has been
the received image. Though the first thought on the region has generally been the Bible story, the
Middle East was also presented to Americans in theater productions and pictures and paintings, but
mostly books. A classic example is of course Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. Though no one is
safe from Twain's pen, his commentary on the Middle East is revealing. In essence, he is
disappointed twice: First, because of his immediate experience: the lack of cleanliness, lack of
urbanity, and the "swarms of animated rags," as he describes the people. Second, because the area
doesn't measure up to the Middle East of his childhood imagination, the Middle East of A Thousand
and One Nights.
The late Edward Said did the heavy lifting in this area, specifically European writing and
perceptions. In his book, Orientalism, Said cites a large passage from Lord Cromer's Modern Egypt.
In it, Cromer proceeds in identical fashion, paying homage to the "ancient Arabs," while being less
than gracious toward their "descendants."
Said's work basically takes an uncontroversial point and reinforces it with meticulous documentation
and analysis. The point itself is plainly visible in the history. As stated in Thomas Greer's
standard survey of Western civilization, one used by undergraduates for some 40 years now, Europe's
crossing of the globe
... had a profound effect on the outlook and psychology of Western men and women. By confirming the
usefulness of curiosity, daring, and ruthlessness, it raised the value they placed on these
traits.... It broadened the intellectual horizons of Europeans to some degree but contributed little
to their respect for non-Western ideas and institutions. On the contrary, the startling victories of
the Europeans fortified their optimism and strengthened their faith in their own superiority.
Naturally, when Country A establishes imperial control or hegemony over Country B, reductive, racist
views of B won't be hard to find in A.
The United States did not formally become involved in the Middle East until well after World War II.
By then, Europe had already (as of 1920) divided up the Ottoman Empire into separate nation-states,
ushering in the modern Middle East. Though on the surface the mandate system of tutelage was to
create independent states that could "stand alone," what was created in reality was a subservient
geopolitical system that would answer to European authority.
Up to this point, any American involved with the Middle East was likely a traveler, a tourist, or a
missionary. (As a side note: Some of the missionaries providing education in liberalism
inadvertently contributed to a growing sense of Arab nationalism.) A crucial point that bears
emphasis•and repetitionis that the United States was viewed rather favorably up until the 1940s. It
was only after Washington stepped in for London and Paris that Uncle Sam developed the reputation he
had already cultivated in places like Central America.
Expansionism had long characterized elite opinion, well before 1776. According to historian Walter
LaFeber, expansionism has been "the central theme of the American experience since 1607." But as of
the postwar period, the United States was in a position to globalize what had first been a
continental and then hemispheric project. In a sense, Manifest Destiny had been extended into the
After becoming the new foreign authority in the Middle East, the United States sought to continue
the system established by Europe, but by remote control methods honed in the Western Hemisphere, as
opposed to direct, British-style imperialism. US goals, like Europe's before it, were driven by
geostrategy and economic interests. In this case, at the center was oil (an increasingly important
resource) as well as the stated fears of possible Soviet encroachment all the way to the
Mediterranean Sea. Much alarm and dramatization were produced over the Soviet threat, which served
as a lever and marketing tool for selling various policy initiatives to the American public. As for
the actual threat, George F. Kennan, a key US policy architect, put it in perspective in a lecture
at the Naval War College in 1949, saying the United States should not
... get too violently indignant over the fact that such a complication [as communism] exists. ... As
one of my associates recently said: "If it had never existed, we would have had to invent it, to
create the sense of urgency we need to bring us to the point of decisive action."
The language of urgency and decisive action is consistent with the language used by Kennan's
nineteenth-century predecessors like the American academic Frederick Jackson Turner and many others.
On account of the US agenda in the Middle East, Washington needed to maintain regional clients,
whose job was to facilitate US interests, namely, provide muscle in the event of interstate
conflicts and keep a lid on democratic energiesthat is, maintain order in their own houses, as the
State Department worded it. Saudi Arabia and Iran were early sign-ons and became the "twin-pillars"
of US geostrategy. The United States would also forge a relationship with the new state of Israel on
account of its military aggression, success, and eagerness to operate in such a capacity.
US policy and behavior in the Middle East has been relatively constant over the last sixty years or
so. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the nationalization and marketization of petroleum,
the White House from Eisenhower to Obama has ensured that the United States maintain a
"preponderance of power" in the Arab world.
There is much to say on this subject. But a good evaluation of Washington's general policy
orientation toward the Middle East was published in 1902 by the English economist J. A. Hobson in
his classic book Imperialism, who was addressing British imperialism. This is a longer quote but
bears reading; a full fifty years before the United States became involved in the Middle East,
Hobson had summarizedand summarized wellthe circumstances as they currently exist in the
Seeing that the Imperialism of the last six decades is clearly condemned as a business policy, in
that at enormous expense it has procured a small, bad, unsafe increase of markets, and has
jeopardised the entire wealth of the nation in rousing the strong resentment of other nations, we
may ask, "How is the British nation induced to embark upon such unsound business?" The only possible
answer is that the business interests of the nation as a whole are subordinated to those of certain
sectional interests that usurp control of the national resources and use them for their private
gain. This is no strange or monstrous charge to bring; it is the commonest disease of all forms of
government. The famous words of Sir Thomas More are as true now as when he wrote them: "Everywhere
do I perceive a certain conspiracy of rich men seeking their own advantage under the name and
pretext of the commonwealth."
Although the new Imperialism has been bad business for the nation, it
has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation. The vast
expenditure on armaments, the costly wars, the grave risks and embarrassments of foreign policy, the
stoppage of political and social reforms within Great Britain, though fraught with great injury to
the nation, have served well the present business interests of certain industries and professions.
Hobson is looking back on sixty years of British policy just as we now look back on sixty years
of US policy in the Middle East. It's a pretty good fit.
For the last ninety years, the Middle East has, in a sense, been unfolding as Colonel House
predicted. The region's political creation set it on a path perfectly visible in places like Egypt,
Iraq, and Syriato say nothing of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Repeated coups across the region
ushered in military rule in Egypt in the 1950s; in Iraq, Baath Party rule in the 1960s and, shortly
thereafter, Saddam Hussein's regime; and in Syria in 1970, the Assad dynasty. Alongside these
nationalists were monarchies that are still intact today, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the
Persian Gulf states.
Resistance also emerged in the form of political Islam, or Islamism, for example, the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Across the region, stretching into Iran and Pakistan, Islamist groups
and ideologists, in general, sought the overthrow of the nationalist regimes which had promised much
and delivered little. Though Islamism never achieved broad popular appeal, the leaderships began
appropriating the concept, using religiosity as a means of reestablishing lost credibility.
Furthermore, this assertion of religiosityfor example, Anwar Sadat's transformation into the
"Believer-President"was folded into the preexisting and constant interstate rivalries.
All the while, the people of the Middle East merely desired stable economies, stable political
systems, and stable lives. Though social conservatism did start increasingand still isthe core
grievances were secular and practical. As quoted in a standard survey of Middle Eastern history, a
woman in Egypt stated at this time:
We have problems with housing, with budgets, with the schools, with transportation, with
electricity, butagas [cooking gas] and water, and the telephone doesn't work. When we put on ziyy
shari [lawful dress], we feel that at least here is one problem we can solve for our families and
society for ourselves. At least we've done something.
So, it's not about religion. It's about housing, schools, transportation, electricity, cooking gas,
water, and telephones. One need only spend five minutes in the Gaza Strip, and you'll hear similar
lists. In my experiences in the Palestinian territories, I have never, while talking with friends
and acquaintances, heard someone vent along religious lines; this is not to suggest it never
happens, I've just never heard it. I have, however, heard venting aplenty concerning things like
lack of mobility, lack of an economy, the wall running through the West Bank, and being humiliated
Nevertheless, increased devoutness and social conservatism have transpired, encouraged in a region
where Islam plays an important social, cultural role, and where the rhetoric is used in the
political realm. However, political scientist Gilles Kepel summarizes:
All Muslims were offered a new identity that emphasized their religious commonality," but "[t]his
proposition did not necessarily correspond to any kind of demand on the part of the people to whom
it was presented. It often stimulated such a demand, however, when it appeared to promise some kind
of upward social mobility, political progress, or economic advantage.
What attracts the most media attention, however, is the rhetoric, along with the images of militants
marching with guns, and the spectacle of terrorism. It's little wonder Americans assume the region
is seething with fanaticism.
Another item that receives much in the way of commentary and analysis is sectarianism. Especially
with the reduction of Iraq to something less than a functional nation-state, there now exists severe
tensions that divide along Sunni and Shiite lines, among others. Groups that, prior to the US
invasion, lived as neighbors and intermarried, have now suffered a rift. Under occupation and an
atmosphere of near-constant terrorism and violence, Iraq as a country was stressed to the breaking
point; unsurprisingly, the cracks formed at the sectarian boundaries. People commonly band together
according to commonality, and when the political order was destroyed and the country convulsing with
terrorism, Iraqi society relied on shared religious identities.
Predominantly Shiite, Iraq is now part of a region-wide contest, allied with Shiite Iran, which
sponsors the Shiite organization Hizballah in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad's Allawite leadership in
Damascus. This so-called "Shiite crescent," stretching from Bahrain to Beirut, lies in competition
with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis support the opposition in the Syrian civil war, the military
leadership in Cairo (in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood), andalong with Israelopposes Western
dealmaking with Iran concerning Tehran's nuclear program.
The sectarian alliances in the Middle East merely offer a map of the region's interstate
competitionscompetitions that are solely political and, depending on the actor, involve resistance,
survival, and/or prestige.
In the case of resistance, be it organizations like the Palestinian Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim
Brotherhood, or terrorist networks like al-Qaida and the Salafist groups fighting in Syria, religion
is routinely invoked. The grievances of these groups, again, are political; but the grievances are
expressed in the language of Islam.
However, the ongoing Arab Spring demonstrations, beginning in 2011, have mostly been secular
expressions of dissent and a desire for political reforms. Across the Maghreb, Egypt, Syria (early
on), to the Persian Gulf, popular uprisings have made it clear that their concerns are political as
are the desired solutions, allowing for elements of sharia law, as would be expected.
In each of these contextsregional politics, sectarian divisions, resistance organizations, jihadist
groups and networks, Islamism, the increased social conservatismwe see responses induced by largely
external factors: how the region was politically arranged after World War I and how it has been
managed and manipulated ever since. The populations can tell us what we need to know. And we would
do well to listen; we stand to better understand the Middle East, and ourselves in the process.
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