The Blurred Lines of Religious Zealotry
Last week I commented on the unhelpful habit of throwing everything Islamist, no matter how extreme or moderate, into a single conceptual bucket and writing off the whole lot as incorrigible adversaries. That habit entails a gross misunderstanding of events and conflicts in the Middle East, and has the more specific harm of aiding extreme groups at the expense of moderate ones. Shortly afterward Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy presented a piece titled “Islamists Are Not Our Friends,” which illustrates almost in caricatured form some of the misleading attributes of the single-bucket attitude that I was discussing.
Ross's article probably is not grounded in Islamophobia, although it partly appeals to such sentiment. The piece ostensibly is about how “a fundamental division between Islamists and non-Islamists” is a “new fault line in the Middle East” that provides “a real opportunity for America” and ought to guide U.S. policy toward the region. In fact it is a contrived effort to draw that line—however squiggly it needs to be—to place what Ross wants us to consider bad guys on one side of the line and good guys on the other side. The reasons for that division do not necessarily have much, if anything, to do with Islamist orientation. Thus anyone who has been unfriendly to Hamas or to its more peaceful ideological confreres in the Muslim Brotherhood are placed on the good side of the line, Iran and those doing business with it are put on the bad side, and so forth.
Ross tries to portray something more orderly by asserting that “what the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity” and that the problem with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was that “it was Islamist before it was Egyptian.” What, exactly, does that mean, with particular reference to the short, unhappy presidency of Mohamed Morsi? There were several reasons that presidency was both unhappy and short, but trying to push an Islamist-more-than-Egyptian agenda was not one of them. (And never mind that Ross is risking going places he surely would not want to go by making accusations of religious identification trumping national loyalty on matters relevant to U.S. policy toward the Middle East.) It would make at least as much sense to say that the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was more authoritarian and more in tune with fellow military strongmen than he was Egyptian.
Where Ross's schema completely breaks down is with some of the biggest and most contorted squiggles in the line he has drawn. He places Saudi Arabia in the “non-Islamist” camp because it has supported el-Sisi in his bashing of the Brotherhood and wasn't especially supportive of Hamas when Israel was bashing the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia—where the head of state has the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the country's constitution is the Koran, and thieves have their hands amputated—is “non-Islamist”? Remarkable. Conversely, the Assad regime in Syria, which is one of the most secular regimes in the region notwithstanding the sectarian lines of its base of support, is pointedly excluded from Ross's “non-Islamist” side of the line because of, he says, Syrian dependence on Iran and Hezbollah. Of course, any such alliances refute the whole idea of a “fundamental division” in the region between Islamists and non-Islamists, but Ross does not seem to notice.
Getting past such tendentious classification schemes, we ought to ask whether there is a more valid basis on which we ought to be concerned about states or influential political movements defining themselves in religious terms. If we are to be not merely Islamophobes but true children of the Enlightenment, our concern ought to be with any attempt, regardless of the particular creed involved, to impose the dogma of revealed religion on public affairs, especially in ways that affect the lives and liberties of those with different beliefs.
Such attempts by Christians, as far as the Middle East is concerned, are to be found these days mainly among dispensationalists in America rather in the dwindling and largely marginalized Christian communities in the Middle East itself. In a far more strongly situated community, that of Jewish Israelis, the imposition of religious belief on public affairs in ways that affect the lives and liberties of others is quite apparent. Indeed, the demographic, political, and societal trends during Israel's 66-year history can be described in large part in terms of an increasingly militant right-wing nationalism in which religious dogma and zealotry have come to play major roles. Self-definition as a Jewish state has been erected as a seemingly all-important basis for relating to Arab neighbors, religion is in effect the basis for different classes of citizenship, and religious zeal is a major driver of the Israeli colonization of conquered territory, which sustains perpetual conflict with, and subjugation of, the Palestinian Arabs.