Dictators: Assad, Qaddafi, Hussein, Ahmadinejad, Abidine Ben Ali. You’d think that these perpetrators of horrid human rights atrocities all have one thing in common: The Middle East. And from that one could extrapolate that the geopolitical region of the Middle East provides some sort of support system for extremism and violent dictatorship. Believing this, however, does a disservice to the nearly 400 million people living in the Middle East, each of whom has their own understanding of politics, authority and religion.
I am not basing these conclusions on journalistic anecdotes or scholarly assertions. I am basing them on the fact that, for the month of January, I lived and learned in the country of Jordan. The course was called Religion and Politics in Jordan and, through our experiences interviewing activists, political and religious leaders and government officials, we explored the complex relationship between religion and politics. This included speaking to an group named the We Are All Jordan Youth Commission, a royally funded and operated organization whose goal is to provide an outlet for youth’s political engagement. In this exchange of opinions, which lasted two and a half hours, a number of passionate and divergent viewpoints arose:
“I don’t understand why politics and religion should mix,” Fidaa stated. “We have our own history, and Islam has provided us with a lot of positive things, but the time for those two to be together is over. It seems like all the government and its supporters say is that ‘we don’t want to be like the West, Islam stays as significant.’ But that doesn’t satisfy me. Secular government isn’t just a Western phenomenon; we can organically raise it up.” Several hands, both American and Jordanian, shot into the air at the end of her statement, and the next person to speak was Amir.
“We need it. It’s plain and simple. Religion has formed the basis for our society, and politics and religion are connected in Islam from the very beginning.” Amir then looked around as his fellow Jordanians were nodding and shaking their heads in equal measure and intensity. “There is nothing wrong with having Islam influence politics. It’s the best we can do to try and represent the ideals and positivity of Islam.”
This was by no means the majority viewpoint, however, and many of the Jordanian youth rejected both the view that Islam should influence policy and the view that policies should be dictated by the United States.
The arguments went further than this and were even complicated by the simple fact that Christians are also involved in this national dialogue. This throws a wrench in the ideas of many Americans, who see the entire region as representing “Islamic” values. Christians in the region interact with religion in much the same way as Muslims and, for all of our talk of inter-religious dialogue, they live this inter-religious dynamic every day. This relationship has obviously been complicated further by the September 11th attacks and their aftermath.
Too often, the Middle East is invalidated politically in one of two ways. The first is by being classified as politically impotent and awash in a sea of ambivalence. This view has grown less popular in the wake of the Arab Spring but has resurfaced somewhat as an unfortunate result of reassertions by oppressive and sometimes internationally supported regimes like Qaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria.
The second critique centers on a presupposition that all those who are involved in politics in the Middle East are extremists fighting wars on freedom, secularism, women’s rights, capitalism and/or Christianity, to name a few.
The first critique is more insulting, but the second is more incisive and, in fact, obscures legitimate concerns associated with each of the aforementioned topics. Homogeneity is declining in prominence everywhere, and this fact should be recognized.