(A version of this essay was recently published in The Jerusalem Report.)
Across the world in the last 40 years politically organized religious forces have played an increasingly important role in national politics. From India to Indonesia, from Lebanon to Israel, from the United States to Russia, organized religion has increased its impact on politics.
We are also aware of the frightening rise of very violent religion, expressed through terror groups. For this reason, it is easy to misunderstand the relationship between religion on the one hand and between states and ethnic groups and their very secular interests, on the other hand.
Precisely because so many millions of people care about religion, religion has become an essential tool of secular state and ethnic interests. Indeed, what may seem to be a religious issue often turns out to be very secular state interests. Missing this relationship, it becomes easy to miscalculate, to overlook where danger lies, to miss where opportunity lies, and to fail to distinguish between what politically is a mere nuisance and what is really dangerous. Religion does, indeed, have the potential for extremism, but, in fact, historically it also embraces all the ingredients to promote positive social change.
Let’s look at some examples. It is certainly the case that there is great, religiously-based prejudice in the Sunni world against Shiites. Yet a spectrum of prominent conservative authorities have changed direction. Take, for example, the 2004 Amman Message, calling for tolerance and unity in the Muslim world, which was embraced by an extraordinary range of the most prominent authorities in the Islamic world. And there are many more such agreements, unprecedented in Islamic history.
Why, then, the brutal suppression of the majority Shiites in Bahrain by the Sunni monarchy? And why did Saudi Arabia rush troops there to suppress the democratic rebellion? Is it because of Wahabi anti-Shiite prejudice? This assumption would completely overlook the immediate and raw struggle for power between wealthy ruling families and their majorities. It would also miss the geopolitical concerns that Saudi Arabia and Gulf States have about Iran since its 1979 revolution. There has been a resulting 30-year cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and vicious proxy warfare, from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Syria and Lebanon.
This very secular rivalry, as well as the legitimate concerns of the Saudi leadership about Iranian expansionism, are far more germane to understanding the funding of radical religion on both sides. Several countries have been wrecked as a result, especially Pakistan. The people of Iran had every right to displace the brutal dictatorship of the Shah, imposed on them and supported by Western powers who dislodged a democratic Iranian leadership before the Shah. Their grievances were very real, but unfortunately the replacement has proved even worse. The Iranian leadership may be very religious, but it is not their religion that is the threat — it is their very secular foreign interventionism.
If religion is overemphasized we cannot see the real threat, nor can we see the real opportunity provided by religious people, Sunni and Shiite alike, who are simply struggling for more just societies but are caught up in and occasionally manipulated by state interests.
Where does this leave us with understanding the “Arab Awakening,” and the Islamic revival in Turkey, all of which have profoundly affected Israel’s situation in the Middle East?
It should leave us with a careful analysis of the dangers and opportunities of each revolutionary situation. For example, Israel has feared the meteoric rise in power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and the complete eclipse of Israel’s traditional ally, the Turkish military. Erdogan seemed to revel in singling out Israel for virulent criticism during the IDF assault on Gaza.
Erdogan’s severe reaction to the mass killings in Syria has left no doubt that Turkey is not going to be blindly siding with Arab regimes or Islamic regimes. Erdogan cannot stand the killing of civilians and children, and he calls out leaders as bluntly as if they were in his backyard. This is a new force to be reckoned with, an Ottoman sphere of influence that seem committed to the emergence of democracy and human rights within everyone’s borders. Thus, Turkey is now a threat to violent behavior against Palestinian civilians, not an Islamist threat to Israel itself. Of course, the recent air assault on Islamic Kurds, with some civilian casualties, suggests that he too may have a hard time adhering to strict international standards when it comes to opponents.
Israel was comfortable with the 40 years of quiet on the Syrian border. But these decades of lack of resolution has ushered in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in both Lebanon, through Hizballah, and Syria. Some analysts mistakenly saw Syria as a bulwark against Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood. But, on the contrary, in order to outmaneuver Syrian isolation, President Bashar Assad’s regime allied itself with the most aggressive, expansionist, volatile force in the Middle East, Iran.
Finally there is of course deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, now lying in jail, who was once Israel’s greatest asset, the bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. No one can say for sure where Egypt will go, but according to Egyptian American sociologist Sa’ad Ibrahim’s analysis, the Muslim Brotherhood has turned out to be much more tame than expected, consistently registering as only 15 percent of the voting constituency, and embracing democracy consistently for decades now.
The real key to the stability and safety of Israel, will be neighbors, religious or secular, that have a much better relationship with their masses. Such neighbors will not need to both feed and suppress the bogeyman of religious extremism to keep their corrupt regimes in power, nor will they need to flirt with regimes such as Iran to prop themselves up. The more that Israel is seen as a place of true democracy the more that it will have masses on its side across the region, secular or religious.
The revolutions of the Arab Awakening have taught that the priorities of today’s Arab masses are freedom, opportunity, more equality, and not religious extremism. This is very promising for Israel’s future with both progressive and conservative Muslims of the Middle East, if and only if Israel is seen as on the right side of history in terms of freedom and equality. Erdogan and Turkey are enjoying their greatest empowerment and popularity since the Ottoman decline because they are seen to be on the right side of history.
Seems like a good path to follow for Israel too.