The Arab Spring sparked a wide debate within political and academic circles about the universalities of concepts like “equal citizenship” and “human rights” and whether they are compatible, or indeed incompatible, with religious and cultural norms in the Middle East. Despite the rise of Political Islam Movements, the Arab Spring unleashed a “process (or a wave) of questioning (or intellectual questioning or debate)” of issues that had long been considered “red lines”, such as racism, sectarianism, and women’s rights in the Arab World.
Religion plays an important (or prominent) role in Middle Eastern Politics, it also has a direct impact on the lives of individuals in general. In some countries, religion or sect (denomination) play a vital role in determining someone’s place (or status) in politics or public life, as well as their right to work and education. Most (if not all) Middle Eastern countries make sure that their constitutions, laws and education curricula comply with the religious norms dominant in each society, this sometimes fuelled (or inflamed) sectarian divisions and conflict, like what is currently happening in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Lebanon, let alone the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict which has a prominent religious aspect to it.
We had the pleasure of visiting Iraq last December 2019, we met with politicians, religious and community leaders from different religious and ethnic groups. And despite the disappointment, desperation, and skepticism many of them expressed (which we share to some extent) we sensed a glimpse of hope in a better future for all, especially in Kurdistan.
Iraq and Syria represent good examples of the complex relationship between the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although the three religions share many spiritual, social, and cultural roots, the relationship between them was marred by competition, conflict, and resentment during different periods in history. As a result, different ethnic and religious groups developed their own narratives of victimhood.
The Arab-Israeli conflict caused the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, tens of thousands of them still live in neighboring countries as refugees. Sectarian politics and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria caused the death and displacement of millions of Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Yazidis, and many other ethnic and religious groups. As for Middle Eastern Jews, only 30.000 still live in the region (outside Israel): 17.000 in Turkey and 8000 in Iran.
During our time in Iraq, we visited the site of Simele massacre which took the lives of nearly 5000 Iraqi Assyrians at the hands of the Iraqi army in 1933. It is still possible to see the remains of their bones (skeletons) at that neglected hill just outside the city of Duhok (the hill of martyrs as locals call it). It was the Simele massacre that inspired the Polish Lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term “genocide”. It comes from the Greek word “genos” (race) and the Latin word “cide” (killing). Later, Raphael Lemkin lost many members of his own family during the holocaust.
Unfortunately, Simele massacre was not the last in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein, millions of Shiite Arabs, Sunni Kurds, and Assyrian Christians suffered widespread military operations which caused the displacement of millions and the death of tens of thousands in Ahwar, Halbja, and Barwar. And following the fall of Saddam, revenge, Iranian influence and sectarian politics marginalized and discriminated against the Sunni Arabs, this contributed to the emergence of extremist organizations such as Qaeda and ISIS which caused death and havoc that affected everybody.
In Syria (under the rule of Assad family since 1970), where a sectarian regime (supported by Iran and Russia) caused the death of nearly half a million and the displacement of approximately 10 million Syrians, the vast majority of them are Sunni Muslims.
At Bardarash refugee camp in the northern part of Nineveh Plain, we met with many Syrian Kurdish refugees who were forced to flee following the latest Turkish military operation in NE Syria. We listened to stories about random bombardment, the use of white phosphorus, and the grave human rights abuses committed by Islamist Military groups loyal to Turkey.
Almost every person (Iraqis and Syrians) we met with during our visit stressed the destructive role Iran is playing, and Turkey to a lesser extent, in fuelling sectarian sentiments and creating a state of polarisation and division to weaken Arab societies and further their own geopolitical interests.
Different interpretations of the role of religion in public life play an influential role in politics in the Middle East, this complicates the ongoing conflicts in the region. This is mostly evident in the attempts of Iran and Turkey to use their religious, political, financial, and military influence to create political and military groups loyal to them and their interests. These strategies caused a sharp increase in sectarian violence especially after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the start of the Arab Spring in 2011. Although the vast majority of Arabs, Turks and Iranians believe in Islam, many Iranian and Turkish political circles still remember (or haven’t forgotten) the roles the Arabs played in the collapse of the Persian Empire in the 7th century and the end of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. From Iraq to Libya and from Syria to Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen, Iran and Turkey compete not only to further their influence and interests in the Arab World, but also on the leadership of the Muslim World; and Israel is monitoring both countries very closely.
This complex situation presents serious and existential challenges to the political, religious and social elites in the Arab World. These elites should respond immediately by launching radical reforms to combat sectarianism and corruption, to reform laws and education systems to promote human rights, women rights and equal citizenship, if they really want to stop this rapid deterioration which is threatening peace and stability not only in the Arab World but in the entire world too.
In a region that had long suffered from dictatorship, corruption, sectarianism, and violence, democratic reforms may take a long time. But this remains the only hope for this complex region which witnessed the birth of the three Abrahamic religions.
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