Religious nationalism finds a footing in the Middle East

tags: Middle East, Religious nationalism

Brian A. Catlos is a religious studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

One of the most tragic aspects of the present explosion of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and northern Iraq is the ethno-religious cleansing being perpetrated under this self-proclaimed Sunni “caliphate.” This echoes the recent repression of Coptic Christians in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood and the increasing vulnerability of Syria’s religious minorities, including Christians, Druze and the Alawite ruling elite. 

With many reports of this violence come adjectives such as “barbarous” and “medieval,” along with the intimation that this sort of intolerance is particularly characteristic of Islam and antithetical to the enlightened and rational secularism of the West.

But brutal as this sectarian violence may be, the fact that there are so many religious minorities in the Middle East stands testament to the reality that, despite long-standing antagonisms, myriad ethnic groups and religious denominations have not only survived but even thrived in this region through some 1,500 years of Islamic domination. The richness of the culture, where many of the ancient sects and arcane languages — often surviving only in small, highly localized communities — predate Christianity, Islam and even modern Judaism, has no parallel in Europe. The Yazidi religion, for example, goes back to Mesopotamia; Aramaic, the language of Jesus, continues to be spoken in a clutch of villages near Damascus.

This is not to say that the Islamic Middle East has been a Shangri-La of tolerance; its history has been punctuated by outbreaks of ethno-religious violence. But on the whole, these have been rare, and rarer still have they been fatal to the communities concerned. Sunnis and Shiites have intermarried and intermingled for a thousand years, and Alawites and Druze, considered heretical by Sunnis, have prospered. Aside from occasional, localized bouts of oppression, Judaism flourished in the Muslim Middle East until only very recent times, and Christianity has a diversity unequaled elsewhere.

In modern Western Europe, on the other hand, as the idea of nationalism took shape and populist democracy emerged, the notion was established that each nation had one language, one people and one religion. European rulers staked their legitimacy on their claim to universal moral authority and religious orthodoxy. By extension, all those who were not religiously orthodox were considered suspect, persecuted and, in some cases, eliminated. Muslim and Jewish communities were targeted for elimination; heretical Christian groups were eradicated; and the Protestant-Catholic split led to a series of bloody wars. The secularized ideologies that emerged in the last century, like Stalinism and fascism, were no more forgiving....

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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