Religion, Politics and Way in Today's Middle East

A Presentation by Walter Owensby

May 28, 2015 in Shepherds Center, Vienna, VA

Oh how we miss the clarity of World War II where Germany and Japan were enemies we could identify and understand.  It is even easy to long for the Cold War where an ideological challenge was ultimately reduced to a show-down with the Soviet Union.

In the few minutes we have here today, I’ll not even pretend to touch on all of the issues at stake in the announced topic.  My comments will initially focus on several points of intersection between religion and politics in the present Middle East war.  Then I’ll close with a few thoughts about what might be useful U.S. policy perspectives in the face of great complexity.

First a look at the current ME map (as displayed) and a review of a few U.S. comparisons: Syria is a medium-sized Middle Eastern country: almost exactly the area of the State of Wisconsin – but with 23 million people it is nearly as populous as Texas – the second largest U.S. state.  – Iraq with 35 million people is slightly larger in area than California (the 3rd largest U.S. state) by area and slightly smaller in population.  -- Iran with 78 million people is about the size of Alaska.          


Now lest we get caught up in the abstractions of competing religious and political rhetoric, it’s well to start with the human tragedy that is going on in today’s war in Iraq and Syria.

As in several other countries of the region, the 2011 Arab Spring came to Syria – beginning as a demand for political and economic reform but ending as a bloody civil war when Bashar al-Assad determined he would not bend to any demands.  That war has claimed at least 220,000 lives and by some estimates as many as 310,000 – about 1% to 1.5% of the population.

TV news has captivated and repelled us with the brutality of the ISIS forces, but they probably account for only about 10% of the death toll.  The vast majority are civilians killed by Assad government actions including the use of barrel bombs – some incorporating chlorine gas - and indiscriminate shelling of populated areas.

The U.S. involvement in the war focuses on the so called “Islamic State” (ISIS or ISIL).  It is a war we engage in by belatedly arming others and by launching air strikes from planes and helicopters high above or by armed drones guided from command centers far from the fields of battle.  Such “star-wars” technologies may ultimately save American lives, but their vaunted “pin-point accuracy” and effectiveness are over-blown.  The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights acknowledges that such attacks have killed nearly 2,000 ISIS fighters and until recently slowed their advance on both Syrian and Iraqi fronts, but they have failed to weaken the Islamic State’s hold on territory under its control.  The common wisdom is that after four years of civil war, no side is close to victory.

Equally troubling, The Syrian Observatory reports that our eight months of drone and air strikes have also killed at least 118 Syrian civilians, non-combatants – including some in villages where there was no ISIS activity at all.  A kill ratio of 2,000-to-118 is probably an acceptable military calculation, but is it a moral calculus we can justify or accept?  If nothing else, we are constantly reminded that every civilian death at the hands of the West becomes a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS and Al Qaeda.                  

But death is only one measure of the suffering and social destruction of war.  Nearly 4 million Syrians have fled to surrounding countries to escape the terror.  Tiny countries like Lebanon and Jordan are flooded with over a million Syrian refugees each – that’s like adding 15% or 20% to their populations almost over-night.  At least 6.5 million more are displaced from their homes within Syria.  If you’re doing a running total that means almost half of Syria’s population has been either killed or made homeless by this devastating war.

There isn’t time today to consider in detail what will happen to all these people.  I’ll only note that sufficient international aid funds have been slow to materialize, and that the State Department has announced that only about 1,000 Syrians may be allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees this year – but hardly a drop in the bucket of need for those fleeing the terrors of war. 

The tragedy of the Iraqi people is more difficult to quantify because there are few bright lines between the wars in Iraq that have morphed from one to the other almost seamlessly since the early 1990s.  American troop deaths are reported to be at least 4,493 since the U.S. invasion of 2003.  But in a war based on using more military contractors than service personnel, the total U.S. body count is undoubtedly much higher.   And the number of Iraqis killed dwarfs whatever the international forces figure may be.  While there is no precise figure, one academic study suggests a total of half-a-million Iraqis killed.  Further, the United Nations estimates that 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced and made homeless by recent fighting.

The humanitarian interest – our interest – is less to get the body count right than to raise the question of how the suffering can be stopped or at least minimized so that a better and more stable future can be established in the region.  In the end, that is less a military issue than a political and moral one.


One need not be a student of military tactics to appreciate the famous dictum attributed to the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  So we must ask, what are the politics of the current Middle East war?  And what does religion have to do with it?

((As a backdrop to those questions, I’d like to show an 8 minute video clip from Vice News about ISIS: “The Spread of the Caliphate: The Islamic State” – Part 5.))

The video implicitly poses many underlying questions as a backdrop for our conversations today: Is this a religious war?  Is Islam at war with Christians?  The West?   With corrupt Middle East regimes?  Is Sunni Islam at war with Shia Islam?   Is Christianity at war with Islam?    Is the U.S. at war with Islam?     

Let’s focus on the most basic one:  Is this a religious war?    

Certainly the constant references to God by the forces of ISIS and al Qaeda make it seem so.  But even a religious war is about far more than theological vocabulary.  It is about a worldview and an alternative to what is.  That leaves us asking, what is the immediate war about from the perspective of Muslims who are waging it and others who may be lamenting it or cheering it on?

Is this a religious war?  Certainly not in the estimation of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  They both have emphasized that U.S. actions are not against Islam but against terrorism.  But for the speakers in our video clip, that is a false distinction, and many other Muslims share that conviction.  What they see is Islam under attack by the Western world.  For them, the battles being waged in Syria and Iraq are the beginning of Muslims reclaiming not only their land but Islam’s rightful place in the world.

Clearly that is not the way we see it.  We have very different views about the reasons for the war and when it all started.

For us – the U.S. and its allies - we might point to: the Iraq of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and his supposed nuclear weapons; or to the attack on the USS Cole  in the Gulf of Yemen in 2000; or the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; or the attacks of 9/11 in 2001; or the bombing of the U.S. Marine and French barracks in Beirut at the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1983; or the kidnapping of American citizens among others in Lebanon of the 1970s; or the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Iran 1979 and the holding and taunting of 60 American hostages for over a year; or the recent grizzly beheadings of American journalists or aid workers.  -  For us the grievances are measured in months or decades.

For al-Qaeda and ISIS the grievances run from decades to centuries:

We find it quaint that Muslim extremists – and many others less extreme but bitter nonetheless – describe their present western adversaries as “crusaders.”  For us, European wars to retake the Holy Land that ended almost a 1,000 years ago are the stuff of history books that have nothing to do with today’s world.  But for al-Qaeda and ISIS, American and European troops, and western businesses and even the State of Israel are just the latest wave of crusaders seeking to dominate the land of Islam.

Then there is the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 by which the British and French invented today’s Middle East by carving up the crumbling Ottoman Empire to accommodate their economic and political interests.  New countries appeared out of the sands and new monarchies were imported or created by the Europeans to rule when direct colonial administration was too controversial, too costly or inconvenient.      

Then came petroleum as the magnate drawing the U.S. along with others into involvement with this new Middle East – a resource which made foreign companies wealthier and more powerful than some of the region’s nations.

Vast riches remained in in the hands of royal families and the elites favored by them and the Western companies and nations.  But most people in oil-rich countries remained poor, and countries without petroleum reserves received little or no benefit.

It’s not that today’s jihadists covet a better split with the west of the vast petroleum revenues.  Their larger concern is the conviction that what they regard as the Muslim homeland has been defiled by the presence of westerners and their institutions and by the absorption of corrupt Arab regimes into a world system that gives little recognition to Islam.

That much is a widely shared perspective of many of the Muslim forces on the Iraq/Syria battlefield.  But the current war is revealing deep divisions among them as well.

We hear a lot about the Sunni/Shia divide being played out in this war.  I don’t want to get into unraveling the rancorous history about who in the 7th century rightly succeeded Muhammed as the leader of Islam.  But I would like to suggest something that often goes without comment: the Sunni/Shia divide is in many ways a proxy for the Arab/Persian divide that is almost as old as history itself.  Part of the sub-text of the current war is about how much of a role Shia Iran (modern-day Persia) will have in defining today’s Middle East.  Can one of the largest and most advanced countries in the region – Iran/Persia - be held at bay by Sunni Arabs and their international allies?

Iraq’s majority Shi’a population, though Arab, was discriminated against and held in check throughout the 35 year Baathist Party rule that was more secular than Sunni but Sunni nonetheless.  When the U.S. effectively threw its weight behind a Shi’a government, it was in a sense a democratic corrective that also increased Iran’s influence in the region.

Baathist Party rule in Syria morphed into the dictatorship of the Assad family after 1971.  The Assads are Alawites, a Shite sect representing just 12% of the Syrian population that is largely Sunni.  Because President Assad is himself from a religious and ethnic minority, Christians and other minorities have felt protected by his government.  When the regime rejected any compromise with the demands for reform by the Arab Spring and instead attacked all descent, it was mainly the Alawite-based Syrian army and the all-out support of Hizbollah, the Shia militia from Lebanon, that kept the government of Bashar al-Assad in power in the face of the Sunni-related radical forces of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State

These two groups form the hard-core of the current jihadist movement that has erupted from the Middle East and seized upon the disappointments and failures of the Arab Spring and the sense of rejection felt by many off-spring of immigrant families in Western countries.  While both are based in Sunni Islam and share ultimate goals, they have become increasingly distinct and competitive.         

Al-Qaeda has been on the mind of the American public and the U.S. government for almost 30 years – a lesson in the unintended consequences of ill-conceived policies that led from one war to another in the Middle East.  Osama Bin Laden was among the thousands who answered the call for an Islamic Holy War to defeat the Soviet invasion of Muslim Afghanistan.  We Americans were so consumed by the Cold War goal of undermining the Soviets at every opportunity that we armed and trained these jihadists with little thought about long-term consequences.  Bin Laden used the training and experience gained as the launching pad for a global holy war not just against corrupt Arab regimes but against the United States as their inspiration and backer.

What has become the Islamic State began as Al-Qaeda in Iraq to resist the 2003 U.S. invasion to depose the regime of Saddam Hussein.   It was not AQI’s intent to protect the Hussein government; rather their focus was to drive the U.S. out of Iraq and ultimately out of all the Middle East.  Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders had no problem with that.  But while Bin Laden’s real target was always preeminently the United States and the West, the Iraq franchise of al-Qaeda was willing to use its brutality against all parties it regarded as apostates – including Muslims.  Gruesome beheadings of adversaries, whether foreigners or Iraqi Shi’a, became their hallmark and ultimately led to calls for Bin Laden to cut all ties with Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  The Iraqi franchise looked like a lost cause.

But its radical elements got a new lease on life when civil war broke out in Syria following Assad’s rejection of any compromise with demonstrators calling for governmental reforms.  AQI sent a few fighters to join the cause of over-throwing what they regarded as the apostate, secular but Shi’a-related Syrian government.  Suddenly the Sunni radicals could define their goals more broadly as a Holy War against both apostate Shi’a regimes in two countries and the westerners who supported them both.

By 2013 these radicals were calling themselves by more grandiose names; first “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” or “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).”  That latter phrase is important because historically the Levant included everything from the Red Sea to the northern borders of Syria and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Desert – in other words all of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and a large swath of Saudi Arabia.  

As the U.S.-trained and armed Iraqi Army collapsed before them, ISIS/ISIL fell heir to a veritable treasure of military equipment, armaments and ammunition which they could move freely across the now-meaningless border with Syria for their expanded struggle.  Suddenly “the Islamic State” was no longer a rhetorical aspiration; it was a geographic reality - at least in their eyes.

That reality gave birth to yet another new name – the Caliphate, with Sunni Imam abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim – the self-declared rightful religious and political successor to the Prophet Mohammed.

The previous Caliphate had ended when the Turks backed the losing side in World War I and saw their 500-year Ottoman Empire disassembled by the victorious British, French and Russians.

To ISIS radicals, the newly  proclaimed Caliphate put an end to the almost 100 year disgrace of the heart of Islam being dominated geographically, economically and politically by foreign infidels and their elitist Arab partners.

The Caliphate is where the true law of Allah is to be established and enforced.  Of course, what that meant was being determined by those with the weapons to enforce their version of Islam and their vision of Allah’s purity.  But a Caliphate is not a national or regional reality.  By history and logic, there can be only one Caliphate.   

For ISIS, the declaration of the Caliphate transformed their regional struggle.  The war was no longer just about Syrians and Iraqis; it was about all Muslims.  In the summer of 2014, Imam Baghdadi implored “Muslims everywhere” to “rush…to your state…whoever is capable (of emigrating) let him do so.”  (WP, 11/30/14, p.1)

No aspect of the current war in the Middle East is more troubling to western governments, including our own, than the call for Muslims everywhere to join the jihad.  Those governments are certainly worried about their young Muslim residents and citizens going to fight in the Middle East, but they are even more concerned about what happens when they return to their western homelands with the skills of warriors and the righteous assurance that their cause is God’s cause.

But is it really religion that attracts young westerners to become radical jihadists?  One wonders.  A British news story last year reported that two young Brits who planned to go to Syria to fight for the Islamic State placed a quick order for study materials to help them prepare: “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies.”  -- i.e., they seemingly had little idea of what it meant to be Muslim.  (2014 report by the London-based “Institute for Strategic Dialogue.”)  

The standard wisdom is that al-Qaeda is, and always has been an ideological threat to the West that uses terrorism as a tool.  For that reason it has been regarded as our most implacable foe.    

The Islamic State, is a threat of a different sort.  Like it or not, it is a state: it lays claim to an expanding geography; it has the support of a great many of the people under its control and has assumed responsibility for certain services to them; it generates revenues; it has a formidable military force; and it has expansionist visions that extend to all the Levant and beyond.  After all, there can be only one Caliphate – which in concept extends to the whole Muslim world.  That claim is not lost on other Muslim regimes.  For example, the top counterterrorism official of Malaysia, a Sunni Muslim, Southeast Asian nation, has been quoted saying that an ISIS attack on his country “is just a matter of time.”   One suspects that the tottering monarchies and desperate dictators who managed to survive the Arab Spring watch warily the successes of ISIS – which already controls a territory greater than the country of Jordan.    

Furthermore, ISIS is proving itself to be far savvier than al-Qaeda in using social media to appeal to young westerners.  If that translates into an ability to inspire and motivate individuals or small groups to strike out at western people and governments in ways that do not depend on armies or hierarchies, we may face a whole new dimension of threat.

Facing such realities, what should be done?

The religious dimensions of the current Middle East war are a dilemma for U.S. policy with our tradition of separating religious and political institutions.  Nevertheless let me suggest a few actions of our government that seem relevant:       

First, concerning the human tragedies of battle: There must be a greater commitment on our part and among other rich countries to see that larger amounts of humanitarian assistance are delivered more quickly to refugees and displaced persons – whether they are in official camps or living in huts and lean-tos or with families and strangers.  Related to that is the need for countries, including our own, to take in far larger numbers of refugees.  The State Department has indicated that about 1000 Middle East refugees will be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. this year.  That is not burden sharing; it’s not even a drop in the bucket of need.

The notion that this is someone else’s responsibility - bordering countries, the Arab region, rich Middle Eastern oil producers, Muslim organizations, or EU members, to name a few – is both immoral and politically short-sighted.  While the world is not yet self-consciously one, its nations are inescapably intertwined.  We cannot espouse globalization of the economy and at the same time leave tragedies of this magnitude to the vagaries of personal philanthropy or the bits-and-pieces scavenged from underfunded governmental budgets.

Rich nations such as ours must make far more resources available for relief and redevelopment.  That is not just because it is the moral thing to do but also because desperate populations make for unstable governments that in our inter-connected world become threats to all and especially to fragile neighboring countries.            

Second, the United States and its allies must resist the notion that we can “fix” the Middle East or impose a solution.  That is a lesson we should have learned from Sykes-Picot.  We cannot draw new lines in the sand and call them nations.  We may prefer and recommend democracy, but we cannot compel it.  That is a lesson we should have learned from a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Let us live democracy and herald it; let us demonstrate that capitalism can be both efficient and responsive to the needs of all 318 million Americans; let us encourage others in the Middle East and elsewhere by our example and deal with those peoples and nations of the region without resorting to overt or covert military threats.  And when governments arise in the region with the trappings of democracy, let us pay less heed to democratic words and insist on democratic deeds as the price of our financial and political support.            

Third – A Middle East at peace cannot be achieved by western armies on the ground or drones in the air.  That’s a hard lesson for us to accept.  After all, what’s the point of having the most powerful military in the world if we don’t use it?  Of course that logic ignores the real-world consequences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the strategies of jihadists in Iraq was to bait the U.S. and other western powers into sending more troops into the fray.  The distaste among Muslims for foreigners treading the heartland of Islam was almost universal.  Every foreign soldier seen was a virtual recruiting poster for the jihadist cause.  Any military counter-force to ISIS and Al-Qaeda must be from the people who feel most directly threatened by them.  The only western-based military alternative I see, would be to field a very large force not only to defeat ISIS but one ready to occupy the region for a generation or more.  It is likely that few U.S. policymakers view that as sustainable or affordable.        

Peace in the Middle East should be our goal, and peace is not the same as a people cowering before despots who run governments and economies for the benefit of elites.  It is impossible to imagine a Middle East at peace without a modicum of justice and under the aegis of a new crop of authoritarian regimes.  The hard part for U.S. policy is to accept that reality even when such regimes have been our staunch allies and sometimes our surrogates.    

Fourth – We must refrain from taking sides in the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.  U.S. government policy and the attitudes of the American public have been distorted by two historical realities: 1) Because the security of oil has for decades been the . bottom line of U.S. Persian Gulf policy, we have turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses of Sunni regimes in the region; 2) Neither the U.S. government nor its people have been able or willing to get beyond the bitterness felt toward the Iranian revolution and especially the storming of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and the holding hostage of 66 Americans for 444 days.

The danger of this history is that it may tempt us to become more directly involved in a 1500 year religious dynamic and a far older Persian-Arab divide that is beyond our power to influence directly in any positive way.             

Fifth -   We must not be goaded into greater participation in the current war nor into disengagement from the Iran nuclear negotiations by the pressures of either Israel or Arab States – particularly Saudi Arabia.

Because U.S. military and economic power is so great, we become the target of manipulation by states in the region seeking to make their policies our policies.  The United States policy should be encouraging a more peaceful, more democratic, more egalitarian, and therefore more stable region.  Our power, our prestige and our resources should all be marshaled to advance those goals, not the goals of sometimes-partners who have other agendas.

Sixth and finally – We must find more ways to include a growing Muslim population within “the us” of American democracy rather relegating them to second-tier citizenship.  The dogma of our country as “a Christian nation” continues to erode.  According to a recent Pew Research Center study, between 2007 and 2014 people identifying themselves as Christians dropped from 78% of the population to 70%.  Catholics, Mormons and Protestants of all sorts shared the loss.  Most of that shift came from people who declared themselves as “unaffiliated.”   Muslims led the institutional religious growth in the country by more than doubling their presence in the population to almost 1%.  

Why does the American religious make-up matter in the Middle East?  Taking steps to accept and involve Muslims in U.S. society is not just an issue of stanching the flow of westerners to the armies of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.  Far more important in the long run is the perception in the rest of the world of who we are as a nation.  If Muslims who are part of us do not feel accepted, democracy is failing.  And if democracy is failing here, it will be less likely to succeed in the Middle East where radicals will eagerly point to this as one more sign of a world at war with Islam.

U.S. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have joined leaders of other countries insisting that is not so, but unless actions speak as loudly as our political words, what we say is policy makes no real difference.  The self-proclaimed Islamic State seeks to purge from areas it controls all dissenters and persons of other faiths or none.  An indispensable U.S. policy in thwarting that goal for the Middle East is to be a democracy that embraces Muslims as full and valued members of this society.  Nothing will be more helpful to western Muslims in raising a different voice for Islam in this 21st century world.