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Altered Consciousness: In region with many identities, a need for unity

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: Opinions


One of the core problems relating to the Middle East pertains to identity.

The various populations of the region tend to look at the world through the prism of sect, race, religion, tribe or ethnicity. They seem to judge other groups or factions as hostile not necessarily by their actions or character but by their biological features and heritage. As a result, the peoples and nations of the Middle East remain in a state of near-constant competition and rivalry with each other that can at times lead to armed conflict and war.

For example, one of the core problems plaguing the region is the Sunni-Shiite conflict. In particular, two countries, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, have been engaged in a cold war that has lasted for decades. In places such as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, they have funded proxy groups and militias with the primary purpose of achieving dominance and hegemony in the Middle East for their respective sect. The most recent manifestation of this mutual antagonism was the Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Furthermore, Sunni-majority countries, such as those by the Persian Gulf, oppress and deny basic civil liberties to their Shiite minorities, while the opposite remains true in places like Iran.

Another identity-related issue is that of the Islamists, whose warped religious worldview inspires intolerance toward and repression of Christians, Jews, the Baha’i and Sufis, not to mention homosexuals and women. From Hamas to Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Islamists of both the Sunni and Shiite variant continue to play a highly negative role from the Maghreb to Central Asia.

Ethnic conflict is also prevalent in the Middle East. The Kurds endure as a beleaguered minority in part due to the enmity emanating from their Arab, Turkish and Iranian counterparts. Arabs and Iranians (or Persians) are engaged in a continual state of tension with one another.

For peace to develop throughout the Middle East, the populations of the region need to stop reacting to one another through the prism of identity. Instead, a more universalist and humanist ethos needs to arise that dictates that people should be treated on the basis of how they act instead of who they are. Empathy and acceptance ideally would transcend narrow sectarian confines.

This is not to say that biology and heritage should play no role in this area of the world. Cultural and social biases are inherent in every individual. Furthermore, identity lends toward diversity and distinctiveness, as opposed to conformity and homogeneity. Instead, identity should not be the main factor that drives relations between different peoples and nations.

In the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” there were signs that the type of identity politics that I have described would dissipate. In Egypt, we heard slogans saying that Copts and Muslims should all be treated equally and with respect. Bahraini Shiites who were rebelling against the Sunni al-Khalifa regime stressed the importance of democracy and human rights over religion, as did Syrian Sunnis challenging the oppressive dictatorship of the Alawi Bashar-al-Assad.

Yet in all three of those examples, the opposite outcomes emerged.The persecution of Egyptian Copts, a population that has lived in the country for thousands of years, by Salafis and other radical Islamist groups is relentless. The al-Assad regime brutalized the protesting Sunnis while emphasizing the uprising’s religious subtext, as did the al-Khalifas toward the Bahraini Shiites with the help of Saudi Arabia.

Also, rather than elect peaceful and tolerant parties, the people of Tunisia voted en masse for the Islamist Ennahda movement. I expect similar developments to materialize in places like Egypt and Libya should successful democratic transitions come to fruition.

Therefore, identity politics and sectarianism remains at the core of Middle East instability. Hopefully this will change but I am not overly optimistic.