Five Factors Underlying the Middle East Governance Discourse.

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The Middle East is a diverse and transcontinental region that extends from the Western borders of Morocco to the Persian Gulf. Though it encapsulates many different countries, it is often misunderstood and wrongly labelled as an area of uniform politics and issues, by the West. A common misconception is that it is a region filled with oppression that has yet to modernize. Religion is believed to dominate the Middle East’s politics and civil life in a much greater manner than in other areas of the world. Many of these stereotypes root to the concept of Orientalism, “emphasizing the contrast between the rationalism and Enlightenment in the West and the mysticism of the East”. The other aspect of this misunderstanding is tied to the Islamophobic ideologies presented in Western media and literature. Taking a closer look at the region ultimately exposes the falsehood of these beliefs, as expanded upon by Ellen Lust in her book “The Middle East”. Based on Lust’s section titled “State and Religion”, I have defined 5 key features that play a crucial role in determining the relationship between the 2 terms mentioned. These being: national identity, state legislation, morality, state regulation, and civil society. In this essay I will discuss the importance and relevance of these factors to underpinning the discourse of Middle Eastern governance.

National identity refers to the collective sense of nationalism within a nation, which may be linked to a cultural, religious and/or linguistic identity. It is a factor that can’t always be measured quantitatively in hopes of determining a countries religiosity. This can be seen when taking a look at the government involvement in religion (GIR) index. The index is intended to demonstrate the relationships of religion and state in different countries. With a few exceptions, most Middle Eastern countries tend to “fall into a relatively small, eight-point interval”. If one was to look solely at this data, it would seem that these countries should have many similarities in the ways in which governance is tied to religion, which in fact is not the case. The GIR considers state legislation and regulation as the main factors, as it is looking specifically at government involvement. It can be argued, however, that national identity can play just as big of a role in determining the nations’ levels of religiosity. National identity varies greatly throughout the Middle East, from secularist to strongly religious. At times, the level of religiosity goes hand in hand with the state’s level of religious involvement, however, not always. A prime example of the latter is Israel. Though penultimate on the list, the state of Israel was established by the people, with a religious agenda in mind. Despite the ranking on the GIR, the country continues to be strongly tied to Judaism. For many of the citizens, “the state is Jewish because a majority of its citizens are Jewish”. Their national identity is not one tied to state legislation. On the other hand, countries such as Saudi Arabia do link their national identities to the state. The state of Saudi Arabia ties itself directly to Islam; as Lust states, “the regime depends upon the legitimacy of a ruling family, but the ruling family depends on Islam for its right to rule”. Therefore, Islam is deeply embedded into all parts of the constitution.

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One reason for the entanglement of religion and state in some states in the Middle East is due to the manner in which Islam and Judaism describe the role of religion in one’s life. Rather than viewing religion solely as a system of belief, such as in Christianity, religion is seen to be the guiding principles for all behaviours, including governing laws. Therefore, many Muslim Middle Eastern states align their state legislation with Islamic law, otherwise known as Shari’a law. Lust explains that though following Shari’a would seem to provide states with an unvarying set of rules, this is not the case. Shari’a is not derived directly from the holy book, the Quran; rather, from the teachings and doings of the prophet Muhammed. These are known as the ahadith. Due to the nature of these teachings, they authenticity of each one is widely disputed, and the interpretations may also vary. This leads to the differing manner in which Islamic law is applied in each state, as well as the extent to which it is implemented. There are many factors that influence the different manner in which states are governed. The interpretation of religion is one. Another may be the form of government (e.g. democratic, authoritarian, monarchical). Turkey is a successful democracy in the region that “has achieved a substantial degree of state regulation in the name of secularism”. However, this is not the case for all democratic states in the Middle East, and not all authoritarian governments behave the same way either. More than anything, it is clear that there is no clear-cut answer to the variation in the implementation of religion in government.

Unlike the variety in religiosity of the state across the Middle East, countries in the region tend not to differ greatly “in the ways that they seek to organize and control religious institutions”. This means that normally, religious institutions are under the influence of the state in what they teach, and the manner in which they teach it. This is done to ensure that the message about the religion that establishments are perpetuating is in line with that of the state. The institutes that are responsible for the spreading of religion, such as mosques, may be given a uniform speech to give at public prayers, religious events, and so on. One of the greatest examples of state control over religious establishments and practices comes into play in Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia for example, stores and restaurants are closed during the day, music is banned, and prayer is highly encouraged. State control also extends over other aspects outside of Ramadan, such as the banning of actions which are seen as immoral. Lust argues that authoritarian governments tend to aim for stronger control over such areas.

When state and religion are strongly linked, it becomes seemingly impossible to separate morality from the two. In countries that follow Shari’a law, there can be issues regarding citizenship and freedom of religion for non-Muslims. For example, though Islam is not enforced in Iran, the abandonment of the religion, apostasy, is punishable by law. Lust uses the example of Iran and Saudi Arabia and the “morals police (mutawwain)” who can arrest people that are not behaving in accordance with the Shari’a interpretation of the respective country. This can get complicated when each state has differing interpretations of the hadith (singular form of ahadith). Other norms related to interactions with the opposite sex and manner of dressing can also be heavily dependent on each states level of religiosity. This variation, therefore, has an effect on the manner in which morality is viewed in each state and the adaptation of Islamic law directly affects the lives of all citizens – Muslim and non-Muslim.

Due to the strong links between religion and state in the Middle East, there is a misconception in the West that civil society is weak or non-existent. This is based on false assumptions. Lust states early on in her chapter that even in the West, there is no total separation of religion and state, including the secularist democracies such as the United States. As mentioned in the introduction of this essay, these exaggerations come from an Orientalist mindset. Contrarily to the belief of Orientalists, civil society has played a crucial role in the history of the Middle East and continues to do so. Due to the religious history of the region, it has had to be religiously inclusive and continues to do so now (though to a lesser extent). Additionally, states such as Lebanon and Turkey are considered to be secular and therefore enjoy many of the same civil liberties as Western countries. This does not mean to suggest that there are no issues with the governance of any countries in this region, rather, that it is too diverse to make any sort of generalization. This idea can be extended to all factors mentioned in this essay.

In conclusion, the Middle East is a region of vast diversity in terms of religiosity, governance and civic life. Though religion is often the main and only point discussed when talking about the area, it is important to consider the many different factors that influence life there, as well as recognizing that it is a place much like any other in the world. Some of the most important features that have influence are state legislation, regulation and morality. These 3 in specific are strongly interconnected and play and vital role in the manner in the citizens’ experience in the state. It is also interesting to study the diversity across the region, specifically in countries that follow the same religion and governing style. It goes to show that there are many aspects that need to be considered aside from religion when examining any country in the Middle East. There is a large variance in the religious affiliations of states, from Saudi Arabia’s Shari’a based constitution to Turkey’s secular laws. It is only through examining these factors, and many others that the region can begin to be understood. Unlike the information given in Western literature, there is much more at play than religious differences.  

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