The Middle East's Conflicts Are About Religion

Piety—not just power—remains a driving force in the region.

A meme is gaining traction within American government and media, and it goes like this: The conflicts of the Middle East aren’t about religion. Jihadist violence? Garden-variety criminality, the president says. Young people flocking to ISIS? “Thrill-seekers,” posits the secretary of state, who are desperate for “jobs,” per a State Department spokeswoman. Iran’s belligerence? A reaction to ostracization, a former embassy hostage insists. Sunni-Shiite bloodletting? Jockeying for power, the pundits conclude.

It’s not just a false narrative, but a dangerous one. It’s true that the Middle East offers no easy policy options: witness Syria, where the choice of sovereign increasingly appears to be between the Islamic State and Islamic Republic (but neither of which, we’re told, takes Islam all that seriously). Still, if we’re to even try to address the region’s maladies, we have to first correctly diagnose its disease.

It’s not that religion is the only force at play. It’s not that the ranks of jihadist groups don’t also include common criminals, or that leaders never use religion to their own cynical ends (Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign is one salient example). It’s that these phenomena are relatively minor compared to the vast influence religious belief still wields across much of the Middle East and the broader Islamic world.

It is, of course, near impossible to empirically demonstrate the motivations behind human actions, whether individual or collective. That doesn’t mean, however, that our only recourse is to project our own motivations onto societies for which they don’t fit. The debate over the religiosity of groups like ISIS, or of regimes like Saudi Arabia or Iran, is largely confined to the Western chattering classes. In the Islamic Middle East, the influence of faith is more often than not taken as a given.

Polls are instructive. In 2013, Pew—one of the world’s leading pollsters—conducted a survey of thirty-eight thousand people in thirty-nine Muslim-majority countries. The results showed an overwhelming majority backed the implementation of Islamic law, particularly in countries that are some of the primary hubs of terror groups: 99 percent in Afghanistan, for example, and 91 percent in Iraq.

On matters of identity, results have been comparable. In Pew’s 2011 survey, 94 percent of respondents in Pakistan said they identify first as Muslims rather than Pakistanis. In Jordan, a Western-oriented country and close U.S. ally, three times as many identified primarily as Muslims. Even in comparatively secular Turkey (and, incidentally, in the United States), twice as many people identified more as Muslims than citizens of their respective countries.

For most Middle Eastern Muslims, it is a personal and professional third rail to call for the removal of religion from public life, let alone to call into question God’s existence. In Egypt, according to Pew, just 6 percent of respondents said the Quran need not be consulted in drafting laws, while more than eight in ten said those who leave the faith should be stoned to death (the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan and Pakistan yielded similar results). In these countries at least, the community of secular-minded individuals, let alone atheists, is exceedingly small. Why then we do conclude that it is precisely those most loudly trumpeting their religious convictions who belong to it? I see two factors at play.

First, most post-religious Westerners have never felt the pull of faith. The prospect that a mentally sound person—let alone billions of them—would let spiritual conviction guide their most consequential actions doesn’t quite add up. So too the notion of religion as one’s primary identity marker. We deem one’s nation to be an entirely legitimate identity marker; indeed, it’s the default option, and in this country, failure to take sufficient pride in being American is grounds for suspicion. The prospect that faith, or even membership in a faith community, could fill that role rings hollow.