Religious Fundamentalism and The Middle East Conflicts

Statement of the Problem

The Middle East is considered a vast region that is reputable for her rich cultures, hospitality, land beauty and assorted traditions. It is also regarded as the source of several civilizations and the birthplace of three of the world most popular religion – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. However, on the negative side, it is a region that has also become almost synonymous with conflicts, with several parts of what is regarded as the middle and Far East shrouded in vicious cycles and destructive cycles of conflicts that is gradually destroying the region’s rich heritage and cultural fabric (Abi-Hashem, 2006).

The conflicts in the Middle East, with passage of time, have continually taken new twists, further complicating the psychosocial and enthnopolitical elements that contribute to, and aggravate the crisis. The region is said to be bedeviled by internal and external turmoil within individual and neighboring countries, on the one hand, and among superpowers, on the other (Abi-Hashem, 2006).

In general, three long-term and protracted conflicts can be located in the greater Middle East. The first two of these, the Kurdistan and Kashmir, could possible be resolved by the elites and ruling class of the areas involved, although the political will have been lacking in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India to resolve these conflicts. The third of these conflicts, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appears to be outside the confines of ‘normal’ conflicts, in the sense that it has defies every solution proffered so far, and does not appear to have a ‘workable’ solution anywhere within the foreseeable future (Ontario Consultants, 2002). A brief examination of these conflicts would suffice to buttress the above arguments.

The Kurdistan conflict is fuelled by the desire for self determination of the Kurds people. The Kurds are a fiercely independent people that occupy parts of the present Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds are seeking to establishment Kurdistan as an independent and sovereign state – their homeland, however, none of the three countries involved appear ready to grant them their independence and presently, no there is no provision in international law by which a people can obtain independence.

The Kurd conflict also has a religion undertone, despite the fact that the majority of Kurds and the three countries involved are Muslim states, the tension between the Shiite and Sunni traditions generate low level conflict that is expected to continue well into the future, except Turkey, Iraq and Iran find the political will to resolve the conflict.

The Kashmir conflict is less complicated. Kashmir is an area that both the Indian and Pakistan states lay claims to. Despite several UN resolutions and international pressure, whether Kashmir should join India or Pakistan is still an issue that defies lasting solution. Initial agreements between both countries to this effect have only been temporary. Currently, the Kashmir region is divided by a line of control into a southern part governed by India and a northern part controlled by Pakistan.

Recent development of nuclear weapons on both sides point to the fact that any war between the two countries would be very deadly. Interestingly, a new twist to the Kashmir conflict is the growing interest within the Kashmir people for independence from both India and Pakistan, adding to the list of unresolved issues in the region (Ontario Consultants, 2002).

The Palestine-Israeli conflict, unlike every other conflict in the Middle East, is so complicated that the cause(s) is almost lost in the midst of accusations and counter-accusations and with varying interpretation of the same story from different angles. Arguably, the Palestine Israeli conflict point to a classical religiously induced and sustained conflict.

Also unlike other conflicts in the Middle East, the Palestine Israeli conflict dates back in history. When the conflict in this region is placed in historical perspective, it becomes apparent that historical legacy helped created divisive issues between the Palestinians and Israelis. Jews can lay claims to the area known as Judea, which was the home of Jews in ancient times. This same Judea was conquered by Romans and renamed Palestine by the Romans. Palestine was later conquered and inhabited by the Arabs for over a thousand years (Divisive History, 2007).

In the early twentieth century, the Zionists movement was established with the aim of restoring the Jews to Judea, their ancient home, without consideration for the present inhabitants of the area – the Arabs. In response to growing pressure from the international Zionist movement, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 recognized the right of the Jews to return to their ‘homeland’ in Palestine. And in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the United Nations finally established the state of Israel in 1948 by partitioning what was Palestinian land into Arab and Jewish states with the Jewish allegedly taking an unfair larger percentage of the land.

The Arab inhabitants of what is now Israel and the Arab world in general rejected the portioning protested violently and later revolted. Growing hostilities degenerated to wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982 with Israel always having the upper hand, and, especially in the six day 1967 war, Israel almost doubled it’s borders and have continued to do so, taking up the ancient Judea and Samaria now known as West Bank, Gaza strips and several other settlements. From the perspective of the Jews, the present Israeli settlements incorporate the ancient country of Canaan that God promised them.

Conversely, the Muslims also believed that Allah intends the entire Middle East to be Muslims and would thus not tolerate a Jewish state (Divisive History, 2007; Ontario Consultants, 2002).

To make matters worst, each side sees a different part of the same story; the Palestinians call the Israeli settlements an occupation and a humiliation of their humanities, while the Israelis believe they are on disputed territory. Each side argues that the other party is wholly to blame for the hostilities. Most importantly, the conflicts in this region has been largely shaped by the religions beliefs by each party they have a sole right to the land, since it was given or promised to them by God, the other party has no business living in the territory and so, should be flushed out by force (Ontario Consultants, 2002; Abi-Hashem, 2004).

This contention is obviously strengthened by the fact that the three major religions of the world have their birthplace in this region. The strong spiritual attachment to the territory by all parties involved in the conflicts present a religions angle to it. As Fox (2001) rightly argued, religions issues affect the dynamics of conflict.

He argued that when religion take predominance in an ethnic conflict, such as the case in the Palestine-Israel conflict, in particular, and the Middle East conflicts, in general, religious institutions and bodies tend to facilitate unrest, making conflicts more likely and more violent. Thus, this paper intends to argue that religious fundamentalism play a pivotal role in the prevalence and intensity of conflicts in the Middle East region, especially with reference to the Palestine-Israeli situation.

The next section will adequately support the argument that religious fundamentalism is driving conflicts in the Middle East. The next section will look at what are the likely consequences of leaving these conflicts unresolved for long periods of time, while the fourth and last section will attempt to provide workable solutions to the Middle East situation.

Religious Fundamentalism and Conflicts in Middle East

Setting the record straight, Fox (2001) argues that examining the issue of religious fundamentalism as it relates to the middle east conflicts is not as easy task. This is particularly so, because due to differing perspectives and varying political and economic agendas, interpretations of the situation in the Middle East vary considerably. As a result of these preconceived notions, there is a tendency for relationships to be seen where none exist or failing to see relationships that exist because such was not expected. In sum, the issue of religion and conflicts is often painted with prejudices and preconceived ideas.

Notwithstanding this difficulty, empirical studies exist abound to establish the link between the occurrence, frequency and intensity of ethnic conflicts and religion. Reviewing the studies of Rudolph (1998), Fox (2000) and Errol (1998), Fox (2000) drew the following conclusions from these studies: that religious differences make conflicts more likely and more intense. religious diversity between a countries population, for example, stimulates more violent domestic conflicts and when religious issues are the important in ethnic conflicts, al other forms of discrimination – political, economic and cultural, all then to increase, thus aggravating the conflict (Fox, 2001).

The relationship between religion and conflicts has been identified in several respects. First, it has been shown that, unlike any other cultural value, religion help individuals and societies to define their identity. It has been argued that people use religion to understand the world around them, to straighten their moral framework and also to provide a deep psychology understanding of the value and essence of life. Due to these reasons, religion impacts greatly on how people perceive themselves and others around them, how they think and behave and how they relate to others.

This is aptly described by Seul: the world’s religions answer the individual’s need for a sense of locatedness- socially, sometimes geographically, cosmologically, temporally, and metaphysically. Religious meaning systems define the contours of the broadest possible range of relationships- to self; to others near and distant, friendly and unfriendly; to the non-human world; to the universe and to God, or that which one considers ultimately real or true. No other repositories of cultural meaning have historically offered so much in response the human need to develop a secure identity.  Consequently, religion often is at the core of individual and group identity  (Seul 1999: 558).

Moreover, each religion fosters a set of moral values on its adherents that strictly define what constitutes right and wrong. On this stand, religions often present a solid stand advocating its established truths as the universal truths and all others as false. Thus for individuals, societies and policy makers, religion greatly influences action and behavior. In this regard, Fox (2004) claim that “for many people it is impossible to separate religion from their motivations. It colors their understanding of political and social events as well as the decisions they make. This encompasses political decisions and the decisions to go to war” (Fox 2004: 19).

In regions where strong attachments to religion is observed, as is the case in most part of the Middle East, it is expected that issues bordering on spiritual facts and belief system would greatly influence the occurrence and intensity of conflicts as conflicts on values and beliefs have a tendency to become mutually conclusive ‘zero-sum’ since both parties holds that they are right and no common grounds or compromise exists to resolve their differences (Akbaba, 2006). The Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 and the religious tones overlaying the conflicts in countries like Algeria, India, the Philippines, and Yugoslavia suffices to establish the power and influence that religion exercises on social mobilization and in this regard, conflicts.

To drive this argument to the main focus of this paper that conflicts in the middle eats is largely fuelled by religious fundamentalism the study of Fox (2001) in this regard is very insightful. The author employs the Minorities at Risk (MAR) dataset, which contain information about 267 politically active ethnic minorities throughout the world in addition to personally collated data to analyze and report on the influence and role of religion in the middle east conflicts.

Describing the validity and the choice of the MAR dataset for this study, the author asserted that “the MAR dataset, developed by the MAR project headed by Ted R. Gurr…documents all instances of ethnic conflict between 1945 and 1998 and contains a reasonably accurate list of all ethnic groups that are actively pursuing political agendas, violently or otherwise, or that suffer from high levels of discrimination (Fox, 2001:4)”

The author showed that besides Asia, the Middle East has the largest percentage of religiously influenced ethnic conflicts, reporting that 54 percent of politically significant ethnic minorities in the Middle East are also religious minority. When assessing the presence of religious factors in conflicts, the author pointed out that for the study, religious factors is considered to be present in a conflict when any, and especially all, of the following factors are fulfilled: religion is a significant issue in the conflict; religious discrimination exists; a minority group demands more religious rights; and religion is invoked in political discourse.

Using these yardstick to measure religious fundamentalism in conflict, the author reported that compared to other parts of the world, all four criteria listed above were found to be considerably present in the Middle east than in any other region of the world, one can thus conclude that religious fundamentalism indeed play a pivotal role in the middle east conflicts. The author further posit that religious intolerance, and thus religiously induced conflict is known to be related to autocratic leadership and this is the case again with the middle east where 84 percent of middle east conflicts occur in autocratic countries.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict arguably the most worrisome and intractable conflicts in the Middle East region and interestingly, it is sufficient as an illustration of the influences of religious fundamentalism in middle east conflicts. It is convenient to assert that the prolonged violent conflict in this region was religiously induced and has defied every peace plans proffered due to certain religious factors.

The Jews, in the first place, insisted on creating a homeland in the midst of the Palestinian territory due to long-held beliefs that the region is the Promised Land and home God gave them. The presence of Jewish holy sites, especially the Old Temple in Jerusalem further strengthens this resolve. Similarly, the region is religiously important to the Arabs and Muslim inhabitants of the territory, Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, for example, is considered the Muslims third holiest site.

This religiously induced conviction, on both sides, that all of the land belongs to them and should not be shared with anyone has contributed largely to the intensity and nature of conflicts occurring in this region. The event of September 2000 also sufficiently illustrates the religious nature of the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Israel’s then Prime Minister and former military general, Ariel Sharon, visited a Muslim holy site in the company of a thousand soldiers.

The site revered and known as Temple Mount by the Jewish and Haram al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) by the Muslims was proclaimed an Israeli eternal territory. The proclamation infuriated not only Palestinians, but Muslims all over the Arab world and beyond leading to serious violent uprisings that was with lethal force by the Israeli Military thus claiming the life of several civilians.

This is obviously just one of the several violent incidences in the Palestinian Israeli conflict, but it serves to illustrate the religious nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. Religion is undeniably a significant issue in the conflicts, religious intolerance and discrimination seriously exists and religion is commonly invoked in political, social and even economical discourses, according to Fox (2001) the presence of these factors are sufficient to conclude that religious fundamentalism play a major driving force in the Palestinian Israeli conflict, in particular, and in the middle east conflicts, generally.

The Need for Urgent Solution

There is no denying the fact that the various conflicts in the Middle East hold potentials for grave international consequences if nothing serious is done to quell the various uprisings in the region. The Kurdistan, Kashmir and Palestine conflicts exemplify the risks that continuous conflicts in the Middle East pose for the world. While the Kurdistan conflict is largely regarded as the fighting of a people seeking self determination and independence, it has been painted by religious disharmony between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim traditions. Events in the Middle East, especially in Muslim Arab countries have shown in the past that conflicts along the line of these two Muslim traditions could easily spill to other neighboring regions spreading hatred and violence with it. There are examples in several parts of the Middle East – Kuwait, Iraq etc to this effect.

The Kashmir issue is probably even larger. With India divided along religious lines – Hindu and Muslim, the control over the Kashmir region has become a serious issue. What makes the conflict more worrisome is the fact that both countries can lay claims to nuclear bombs in varying stages of development. Any conflict between these two countries could easily result in massive loss of life since both countries have densely populated urban areas that would be easy target for the several nuclear bombs each have developed even with their crude delivery mechanisms. Moreover, conflict in this region would most likely affect several other countries with interests in these countries, the United States particularly.

The cost, both in monetary terms, in human lives and in strained relationships of such a war would be very grave. The religious undertone that has continually been read into the conflict and the current desire of the Kashmir to be free from both countries are issues that could potentially facilitate conflicts if nothing is done in earnest (Ontario Consultants, 2002).

Arguably, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the mother of all conflicts in the Middle East, for a lot of reasons. It is a conflict that has taken so many dimensions that identifying the sole cause or preferring a perfect solution has almost become impossible. Although religious fundamentalism has greatly influenced the conflicts, it has however, taken several dimensions that Fox (2001) conclude that the middle east conflicts are peculiar, in the sense that they differ from conflicts in non-middle east region considerably.

In the Palestinian conflict, both sides believe that the other party is wholly responsible for the conflict, both parties believe that they have a total right to the whole region for religious and historical reasons, both parties argue that the other party is not ready to compromise to allow for peace, and for every bout of violence, a new reason to continue the conflict is created. If nothing practical and effective is done on time, the conflict could become so complicated that any semblance of peace in the region would be lost totally.

Adams (2006) gave an insight into the varying views of the conflict from both parties. The Palestinians argue that certain portions of land given to Jewish people or taken over by Israel when they won the several wars against the Arabs are Islamic holy sites. Parts of Jerusalem, especially Eastern Jerusalem is considered very important to Islam. Thus, for religious reasons, Palestinians believe that they must gain control over Jerusalem. Because of the forced inhabitation of Israel over these and several parts of Palestinian land, Palestinians see themselves as living in an occupied nation, where the invading Jews have placed them under forced military rule.

The continued expansion of the Israeli border through the building of settlements in Palestinian territory has further angered the Palestinians who have to pass through several Israeli checkpoints daily. The Palestinians feel humiliated and abused, concluding that Israel does not want peace. In response, they have built a terrorist network to attack innocent Israeli civilians.

On the other side, Israel view Palestinians as terrorists who will never compromise to gain peace. Israeli leaders do not trust Palestinian leaders to pursue ay serious peace plans. As a result, Israelis feel their continued invasion of Palestinian territories and the military occupation is for safety purposes.

They do not feel safe enough to reduce their military presence in Palestinian territories with concerns about terrorist suicide attacks on Israeli cities. Israeli have constantly accused Palestinian terrorists of engaging in violent acts when peace negotiations were progressing, this has reduced the willingness of Israel to negotiate peace and moderate Israeli leaders have often been replaced by more extreme ones to further the course of Israel.

With hatred so intense on both sides ad with completely different and incompatible perception of the conflicts and demands to end the conflict, there are grave concerns that the conflict could seriously affect the international community if nothing concrete is done to encourage lasting peace negotiations. It is obvious that left to themselves, neither Israel nor Palestine is ready to pursue any lasting peace agreement and the importance of religion in the conflict means that the interest of several countries are involved in the conflict.

The inequality in the conflict also poses a serious concern. The Palestinians have no national army or anything that resembles a military force, thus, the ‘terrorists’ or freedom fighters use bombs against civilian men, women and children trying instill fear in the Israeli community. Since most Palestinian bomb attacks are suicide bombings, the attackers often die in the attack. In response, the Israeli military with its power and advanced technologies haunt and kill Palestinians suspected of planning the attacks, killing and seriously wounding civilian men, women and children in the process.

Moreover, Israelis, in their search for terrorists have destroyed a large deal of Palestinian properties, individual and government, demolishing houses of suspected terrorist attackers, destroying the water supply and electric supply system of the Palestinian National Authority. In sum, both parties respond to violence by killing civilians- men, women and children not involved with the conflict. Each side is increasing killing for revenge and to prove their point, while at the same time trying to convince the rest of the world that is acting with high morality, but in the end creating a climate of violence and terror for their unborn children and grandchildren. The cost of the conflicts in human lives, hatred, disharmony, and monetary terms can only be imagined.

Moreover, the Palestinian Israeli conflict cannot be regarded as two nations at war, because the Palestinians do have a national government, not to mention a national military force. So, while the Israelis have the power to kill and drive Palestinians into refugee, the Palestinians lack such powers against the Israelis. While this inequality means that Palestinians do most of the dieing, it could also turn out badly for the rest of the world by building a safe haven for anarchy and international terrorism, on one hand, and probably inciting nations against each, on the other.

Solutions and Recommendations

Again the focus of this section will be on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which is generally regarded as the most difficult conflict to resolve in the Middle East. As been said previously, in most of the other Middle Eastern conflicts, what has been lacking is the political will and sincerity to tackle the issues headlong. However, in the Palestinian issue, there does not appear to be a simple or single political solution to the problem.

Countless peace plans have been created, several negotiations have been started and some degree of compromises have been achieved from both sides, despite all these, nothing tangible has been achieved in terms of peace or even prospects of peace in the region. In fact, the future prospects for peace in the region is so bleak, due to gradual decay of trust and increasing hatred created by long years of violence and killings.

Some of the official peace plans that have been proposed include the quartet roadmap, and the Arab League initiative for Arab-Israeli peace. Also, several informal peace initiatives have been proposed by several interested parties such as the Geneva Accord which expects Israel to return territories outside the current route of the security fence and also release certain parts of Jerusalem to Palestine and the Ayalon Nusseibeh Agreement with almost similar proposal (Divisive History, 2007).

However, it has been noted that these peace plans have all failed due to one major reason. Peace initiatives towards the Palestinian conflict have tended to address only superficial issues without really touching on the core of the problem. It is argued that the major problems in the region have to do with the hearts of men. The extremist thinking in some part of each group that God has willed to them the entire land, and for such religious reasons, the other party should have no right of existence on the land. These problem has been compounded that outsiders that encourage and arm these fundamentalists (Shah, 2000).

With hatred so intense on both sides and the demands of both sides completely incompatible, any solution to the prolong conflicts will require powerful interventions from sincere outsiders. The United States and Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia must join forces to end the violence from both sides. As a first step in any ‘workable’ solution to the region’s problems will require a reputable international body, probably with the United States and Saudi Arabia as head, to negotiate where to put borders between the conflicting sides, with Israel’s security requirement and Palestinians land integrity and self rule, at heart.

Two, once the borders between the two sides have been negotiated, the international body must find a way to separate the two parties; either with the aid of a physical barrier like a wall, the aid of an international force that will monitor the borders for a very long time, or both.

Israelis have destroyed a greater share of Palestinian’s government and infrastructure. For stability and equity, the outside world must come to the aid of Palestinians in re-building their infrastructures and government systems. Left to themselves, Palestine cannot reasonably rebuild a destroyed state without help. Without outside help, the world may be growing ‘another Afghanistan where anarchy breeds terrorism’ (Adams, 2002).

Conclusively, for any peace initiative to work out in the region, the Arab countries must stop inciting and supporting violence. They will need to play a more positive role in helping Palestine to rebuild their land and their integrity. Palestinians have lived all their lives in terror and violence, and as such, have no leader with long term peace capacity.

Arab nations must help mentor new Palestinian leaders that do not support violence and who have the capacity to sustain long term peace negotiations. On the other hand, the United States must prevail on Israel to build a better leadership strategy. From its beginning, Israel had needed to prepare for war; as such moderate leaders have often been replaced with extreme ones to achieve their goals.

The United States must be willing to encourage Israel to exercise more restrain, and leaders with focus on peace must also be allowed to rule. Water is an important commodity available in scarce quantity in the region. When peace agreements have been worked out, an outside body must be charged with the responsibility of determining how to allocate water rights fairly between both parties, otherwise the prevailing land wars might be replaced by water wars.

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