The Middle East has been a region of conflict for centuries, and during most of that time, Israel and the Jews had nothing to do with it.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also often referred to by the more generic term “Middle East conflict.” Of course, it’s more difficult to use that term these days, given that the Middle East is suffering from numerous conflicts, many of which have no relation to Israel at all. The truth is that the Middle East has been a region of conflict for centuries, and during most of that time, Israel and the Jews had nothing to do with it.
For much of the past 14 centuries, the true Middle East conflict has been between the different branches of Islam.
Students of Islamic history will know that the Sunni-Shiite rift continues to impact the region to this day, and so understanding its origins must be a prerequisite to any efforts to bring calm, stability and peace to the Middle East. All major religions have a history of bloody infighting. But few, if any, continue to play such an important modern political role as the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
This conflict began following the assassination of the Caliph Ibn Affan, commonly known in English as Osman. Muslims who followed Osman and his two predecessor caliphs who ruled after Mohammed’s death accused Ali bin Abi Talib (a cousin and son-in-law of Moham- med) of this crime. Conflict immediately erupted between Osman’s cousin, Muawi- yah ibn Abi Sufyan, and the followers of Ali bin Abi Talib. The Islamic world was divided into two warring camps, and the loss of life was tremendous.
If we examine Islamic history closely enough, we see that the origins of this conflict are not ideological. Shiites believed, and continue to believe, that Mohammed designated Ali as his heir, and that the caliphate rightly belonged to him and his descendants. Sunnis believed, and continue to believe, that the caliphate rightly passed from Mohammed to his companion Abu Bakr, then to Omar ibn al-Khattab, and then to Osman. This, they argue, is based on the principle of shura mentioned in the Koran, under which the rulership of all Muslims should not be a hereditary position, but rather one based on competence and experience.
In other words, this is a conflict of succession, and there are three important points for outsiders to take into consideration:
First, in the Muslim world, there is a confluence of the fixed religious factor with the variable political factor. Religion and its tenets are supposed to remain relatively constant for all generations, whereas politics shift depending on the interests and agendas of different generations. But in the Arab Middle East, there is no separation between religion and politics, nor has there ever been.
Second, the Arab peoples have long been ruled by emotion, almost never considering the facts of a situation before rushing into battle. One inspiring speech from a charismatic (read: manipulative) leader is often all it takes to inflame those emotions, and before long the swords come out.
Third, the Arab Middle East remains very tribal-minded. Different tribes have long been suspicious of one another, and remain so. These suspicions, anxiety and paranoia often lead to intolerance. And it doesn’t matter if these suspicions are well-founded, or not. As noted above, it is sufficient to inflame emotions in order to justify war against a neighboring tribe or country. Tribal nervousness remains an important and dangerous aspect of politics in the Arab world.
Modern Iraq is a prime example and focal point of this conflict. It is a heterogeneous society made up of Sunnis, Shiites and other smaller sects that are constantly at odds with one another. The situation is compounded by Iraq’s location between major Sunni and Shiite powers who are themselves striving for regional hegemony, namely Turkey and Iran, respectively. Of course, there are many other example of sectarian conflict in countries throughout the region, but they all find their origin in the aforementioned Islamic history.
If the Arab world is ever to break free of this cycle of conflict, it must stop pointing to Israel as a convenient excuse and start dealing with the root causes. It can start by abandoning the blind herd mentality that keeps it chained to a destructive legacy.
This article first appeared in Israel Today Magazine.
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