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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 important—and a point unlikely on Houses's mind at the time—was 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 better—as power generally does—but 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 States—in areas of Western Europe it is worse than it is here—I've chosen to focus on the United States for purposes of location and my citizenship.)

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 summer—including the public discourse on the subject—made 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 opinions—opinions 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 history—and 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 repetition—is 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 post-1945 period.

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 energies—that 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 summarized—and summarized well—the circumstances as they currently exist in the twenty-first century:

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 Syria—to 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 religiosity—for 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 increasing—and still is—the 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 at checkpoints.

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), and—along with Israel—opposes 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 competitions—competitions 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 contexts—regional politics, sectarian divisions, resistance organizations, jihadist groups and networks, Islamism, the increased social conservatism—we 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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© MMXIV Gregory Harms