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  • Religious Revivalism and Secularism in the Middle East:The Role of the United States, Europe, and Israel
  • Jamal R. Nassar (bio)

The Middle East region has been significant throughout history. It is said to be the cradle of civilization. Its historical significance, however, is related more to its location than to its civilizational role. The region stands at the intersection of three continents. Consequently, for many centuries, the region was the site of invasions and conquests. Emperors, caesars, and great powers seeking expansion outside the confines of their own continents sought to dominate the Middle East as a bridge to lands, treasures, and goods in areas beyond. As such, the region was historically significant, not because it had something others wanted, but because it was a bridge to something else. Only in the past century, after the discovery of oil, has the region become significant because of what it has.

This long history of invasions, wars, and conquests has given the region's inhabitants a grave sense of vulnerability. This feeling of vulnerability manifests itself in the politics of the modern Middle East. While the peoples of the region have come to be fearful of war, they are also aware that by war they can protect themselves. Thus it is no surprise that the Middle East is a great consumer of military hardware and weaponry. Also, people who feel vulnerable or who are in fear of an impending defeat tend to turn to the supernatural for comfort. Middle Easterners have done that many times in their long history. In the process, they produced the three great monotheistic religions of today. In fact, their greatest contribution to humanity has been in the development not of weaponry but of religion.

The twenty-first century so far has been no different from previous ones in terms of wars and vulnerabilities. The region has witnessed two major wars and many civil conflicts, rebellions, and uprisings. Major powers invaded and dominated the region during the first half of the last century and constantly interfered during the second half. Internal conflicts led to wars and constant instability. Consequently, religious revivalism was reawakened, as was the search for peace and order.

As the twentieth century came to an end, the Middle East found itself at a crossroads between religious revivalism and peaceful coexistence. Revivalist groups aspire for peace through the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, each in accordance to its own holy book. Therefore, the revivalist schemes are exclusive and do not include coexistence among equals; rather, they promote cohabitation under a dominant regime based on some scriptures.

Peaceful coexistence, by comparison, is advocated by pragmatic and secular forces. Its advocates hope to achieve regional cooperation and mutual prosperity. While fear, war, and conflict precipitated the revivalist movements, pragmatic concerns and recognition of certain realities precipitated the peaceful coexistence movement. [End Page 1]

Ironically, U.S., European, and Israeli policies seem to be pushing the region more toward religious revivalism and away from secularism. In Iraq, in Palestine, in Lebanon, and in Iran, U.S., European, and Israeli policies are contributing to the rise of Islamism, or Islamic revivalism, at a very fast pace. One wonders about the motives for such policies. They may very well be to legitimate the oldest religion-based state in the region: Israel. Or they could be the result of ignorance of the consequences of one's actions. Either way, such policies are enhancing Islamic revivalism at an unprecedented pace.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has so far contributed to the demise of a secular regime and the effective division of the country along sectarian lines. Consequently, Islamism is flourishing in the country. Regardless of how one may predict the country's future, Islamism is likely to be a major part of it.

In Palestine, U.S., European, and Israeli pressure on the Palestinian Authority to hold legislative elections has led Hamas to rise from its previous illegitimacy to become the government. The consequent boycott of that government and the lack of movement toward negotiations with the Palestinians contributed to more desperation and more Islamism. What may have been the most secular people in the Middle East are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 1-2
Launched on MUSE
2007-06-04
Open Access
No
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