The escalation of radicalism, violence, and civil wars in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring revolts began in 2010 has exacted a massive toll in human lives and welfare. The need to build effective states that support peace, provide greater opportunity and prosperity, and protect human rights could not be more urgent.
Already, the violence that has surged in the last few years has left more than 180,000 Iraqis and 470,000 Syrians dead. Moreover, 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and another 4.8 million driven from the country altogether. They have often been tortured in prisons and humiliated in refugee camps. An estimated 70-80% of the victims are civilians, most of them women and children.
In fact, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, half of the refugees and internally displaced people are under the age of 18. This has a major impact on their future prospects. UNICEF reports that 2.1 million children in Syria and 700,000 Syrian refugee children are out of school. A total of 80,000 child refugees in Jordan lack access to an education.
But all of these human costs are symptoms of a deeper problem – and, contrary to popular belief, that problem is not Islam. The fact that radical Islamists or jihadists are Muslim does not mean that their religion, not to mention their ethnicity or culture, is inherently violent.
Watching Western news, it is easy to see why so many blame Islam. From the brutality of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq to the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda to the stoning of adulterous women under Sharia law in Afghanistan, Middle East violence is almost always attributed to the religion. As a result, Islam is often viewed primarily as a threat.
But, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains, the real threat is not Islam itself, but “block thinking.” Islamic extremists comprise less than 0.5% of the global Muslim population, yet their worldview dominates media coverage not just of Islam, but also of political developments in the Middle East. By erasing the huge differences among Muslims, such coverage reinforces a single, simplistic perception of Islam. That is block thinking. And, as Michael Griffin documents in his book Islamic State: Rewriting History, such thinking is gaining ground in the United States and Europe.
As a result, many have embraced Samuel Huntington’s theory of a “clash of civilizations,” which assumes that Islam is at odds with modernity. But that assumption ignores the ideas and impact of Islam’s early reformers – figures like Muhammad Abduh and Jamaleddin al-Afghani – who continue to influence Muslims everywhere.
The most lasting impact of the first reformist wave was the establishment of a salafi (conservative traditionalist) movement, which came to regard the modern state as a means to improve the lot of Muslims. Today, Muslim thinkers – such as Iran’s Abdolkarim Soroush, Tunisia’s Tahar Haddad, Pakistan’s Fazlur Rahman, Morocco’s Fatema Mernissi, Egypt’s Qasim Amin, and Sudan’s Mahmud Muhammad Taha – continue to explore the connections between Islamic thought and modern values. While radical Islamists strongly oppose their work, these thinkers have had a huge influence on generations of Muslim intellectuals worldwide.
None of this is to say that religion does not play a role in Middle East violence. On the contrary, such violence – including sexual assault and arbitrary deprivation of individual and public freedoms – is widespread and multifaceted, owing to the combination of religious beliefs, cultural tradition, race and ethnicity, war, and politics that influences it. Even the recruitment of jihadist fighters can be viewed as a form of religion-based violence, much like child marriage and honor killings.
But none of that means that Islam is inherently violent. Resorting to fuzzy – and often bigoted – cultural, religious, or ethnic explanations is a recipe for ill-advised action, or no action at all.
What the Middle East needs are effective social and economic strategies and policies that tackle the complex non-religious reasons behind the violence – and its decidedly non-religious effects. While cultural, ethnic, and religious factors may need to be considered, they are not the main causes of unemployment and marginalization.
Middle Eastern governments must commit to pursuing bold and creative policies that address the inadequate education, high unemployment, and pervasive corruption that are helping to fuel violence and unrest in the region. Such efforts should aim to advance democratization, economic development, and the emergence of a strong civil society and progressive media. The key is not to “Islamize” every issue, but rather to develop real policy solutions that meet people’s needs.
Education is of course critical to success: school curricula must become more inclusive, to broaden students’ knowledge of religions and cultures. More broadly, schools should also embody the separation of church and state – and well-protected religious freedom – that will be needed to end religion-based violence in the Middle East.
Large-scale violence like that occurring in the Middle East causes devastating harm to individuals, erodes the capital base, hampers productivity, and undermines economic growth. Its impact on political, social, and economic structures needs to be addressed, and the capacity of the state to do so should not be underestimated or overlooked. But so long as the state frames or seeks to legitimize its policies in religious terms, the violence will not stop.