The Middle East is a region situated between the western part of Asia and northern Africa. At times this region is also known as the Near East. The history of the region is rich and stretches back into the ancient times. Historically, this region has been the main center of world affairs.
This region is well known to be the home for some of the world’s great religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Middle Eastern countries consist of various cultural and sectarian groups who have lived together in harmony and, somewhat, shared a common geographical, environmental and cultural setting.
However, an observer of a number of events present in the Middle East may easily notice serious clashes among some groups which led, in some cases, to armed struggle and produced complexity at various levels. It is observable that the ongoing intervention of external powers and the creation of the state of “Israel” in 1948 have harmfully contributed to the unsteadiness situation in the Middle East on many fronts.
As a result of the above-mentioned factors, a controversial view has emerged and popularized. This view claim that the Middle East is not only consisting of varied conflicting cultural groups fighting each other, but also experiencing difficulties in interacting with each other on various levels, including the cultural level (Salzman (b), p 5). This paper will provide a critical analysis of the cultural aspects in the Middle East.
Cultural and Sectarian Groups in the Middle East
Culture can be defined as a shared set of beliefs, traditions and behaviors that is shaped by various aspects including ethnicity, nationality, religion, and language among other factors. The Middle East consists of well over twenty countries which have different religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups.
Despite these variations, the people of the Middle East have common norms and values which are shared among themselves. Previously, the Middle East has been portrayed as a desert region that is characterized by nomadic lifestyle. Also, this region has closely been associated with oil wealth and territorial and religious conflicts. Though this is true about the region, it has to be noted that there are more aspects related to this region.
Life in the Middle East is quite complex to be comprehended as simple since there are various variables which influence the way in which people live in this region. It is worth to note that a common thread known to be running through the Middle Eastern society is the importance that has been placed on the family institution and values that emanate from a solid extended family ties such as loyalty, honor and respect (Salzman (b), p 16).
The Middle East is characterized by various cultural and sectarian groups. The cultural groups include the Persians, Arabs and the Jews. Predominantly, the Jews are found in Israel whereas the Persians are found in Iran. The Arabs form the bulk of the people found in the Middle East.
The other cultural groups found in the Middle East include the Turks and the Kurds. Sectarian groups in the region include Hamas, Hezbollah, Beter youth organization, and the Kahanists, among others. The sectarian and the cultural groups in the Middle East are deeply engaged in the politics of the region (Davis, p 555).
The Middle East underwent very little changes after the end of the colonial period. The politics of the region are characterized by sectarian alliances such as the Sunni, Shi’as, and the Kurds in Iraq; Muslims and Christians in Lebanon; Muslims and Copts in Egypt; Turks and Kurds in Turkey; and Sunnis and Shi’as in Saudi Arabia among others. The society in the Middle East is first comprised of groups that prioritize ethnic loyalty (Salzman (a), p 840).
In this case, national identity is often trumped upon in the pursuit of ethnic identity. This has been claimed to be the reason for the instability that is being experienced in the region. This characteristic has paved way for the development of authoritarian rule that is widespread in the region with the exception of Israel and Turkey (Davis, p 555).
The Middle East is known to be the origin of three monotheist religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of the religion lays emphasis on peaceful co-existence and tolerance.
Judaism refers to peace, equality and tolerance; Islam is said to be a religion founded on peace; while Christianity is said to be a religion based on peace and love. The various religions in the region draw their inspirations from ancient texts and have common rules and beliefs. For instance, Islam and Judaism have similar dietary rules and view religion as a foundation for civil law.
The three religions also share prophets. Jesus is significant among the Christians and Muslims, though Muslims also follow the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Religion plays a central role in the lives of the people in the Middle East (Salzman (b), p 31). Among the Muslims, Friday is considered a holy day; Judaism regard Saturday as their holy day whereas Christians holy day is on Sunday.
“Cultural” and “sectarian” groups in the Middle East
The Middle East is characterized by both cultural and sectarian groups. Cultural groups are those organizations that champion for the enhancement of certain cultural identity. The examples, as mentioned earlier, include the Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Jews, and the Persians.
On the other hand, the sectarian groups are those that base their discrimination and hatred towards others on religious differences; political differences; class differences; and factional or regional differences. Such groups in the Middle East include the Hamas, Hezbollah, Beter youth organization, and the Kahanists, among others.
These organizations have turned to orthodox means in advancing their objectives. Most of them have sanctioned violence in fulfilling their objectives. Most of the groups in the Middle East can be termed as sectarian. This is because the various groups are entangled in the advancement of the group’s objectives based on religious, political, class, regional or factional differences (Bates and Rassam, p 25).
The Hamas is an Islamic resistance movement which claims to represent the Sunni Islamic organization that has been democratically elected to represent the Palestinians. Hamas is engaged in armed conflict with Israel and has adopted terrorist tactics in fighting for the ‘rights’ of the Palestinians.
They do not recognize the existence of the state of Israel and call for its destruction. Hezbollah on its part is a Lebanese Islamic Shiite organization and political party. It is also known as ‘the Party of God’. Hezbollah was formed in 1982 after Israel invaded Lebanon. Hezbollah is a radical Islamist group that aims to achieve two objectives. First, the organization aims at getting rid of Israel forces from the Southern Lebanon; and secondly, Hezbollah aims to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon (Bates and Rassam, p 27).
Hezbollah has been associated with terrorist activities against the United States and Israel. Essentially, the group has been engaging in guerrilla warfare against Israel occupation in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah continues to enjoy support from the Muslim world with Iran and Iraq known to give material and logistic support to the group. In Israel, there are various sectarian and cultural groups such as the Beter youth movement and the Kahanists.
The Beter youth organization is known to promote violence in its mission to defend Israel. The Kahanists on the other hand are a racist extremist religious movement. Even though this group has been outlawed from the Israel government, it still influences political views. The group is known for its call on violence against the Palestinians (Bates and Rassam, p 43).
The Middle East is comprised various ethnic communities which include the Arabs, Persians, Turks, Berbers, Jews, and Kurds among others. Most of the countries in the region are multi-ethnic (Baehr, p 394). However, this has not come with benefits as it has been associated with conflicts that are prevalent in the region.
For instance, the Kurds who are widespread across the region have engaged in armed conflicts seeking to establish an independent Kurdistan state. The Hamas and the Hezbollah are also engaged in an armed conflict against Israel occupation (Bates and Rassam, p 47).
The Impact of imperial powers and the establishment of “Israel” on the people and culture of the Middle East
The establishment of the state of Israel at the heart to the Middle Eastern society has had major impacts on the cultural aspect of the region. This has also greatly impacted on the ongoing conflicts and problems in the Middle East. The conflict being experienced in the Middle East cannot be analyzed outside the cultural context (Baehr, p 394).
It has been noted that the 7th century Arab culture impacted on Islam and the followers of Islamic religion in their view towards non-Muslims. In the current times, the Arab culture and tribalism that is rampant among the Islamic communities in the Middle East impacts on every aspect of life including family relationships, governance issues and conflicts.
Though most people believe that the conflicts in the Middle East are conflicts that are fanned by political grievances, the truth of the matter is that these conflicts are rooted in the culture and Arab tribalism (Salzman(c), p 23).
It is worth noting that all human societies aspire to establish order for survival and prosperity. The Arab culture ensures security through what is referred to as ‘balanced opposition.’ In this case, all members of the society owe their membership to nested kin groups which are usually big or small in size.
The groups have the obligation to defend each of the members of the group and bear collective responsibility for the activities of the group members. Salzman(c) notes that, “If there is a confrontation, families face families, lineage faces lineage, clan faces clan, tribe faces tribe, confederacy faces confederacy, sect faces sect, and the Islamic community faces the infidels,” (p. 23). Therefore, it can be noted that tribalism plays a critical role in the Arab communities of the Middle East.
Israel is regarded as a common enemy by the Arab countries in the Middle East. The Arab countries perceive the establishment of Israel in their land as an encroachment in the heart of their land. Israel occupation has caused a lot of resentment across the Muslim world.
The entrance of the United States, which has tended to support the aggressive policies adopted by Israel against the Palestinian, has only acted to fuel the anger of the Arabs against both the US foreign policies towards the Middle East and Israel in particular (Dajan, p 160).
The emergence of sectarian groups such as the Hamas and the Hezbollah was triggered by anger emanating from Israel occupation. Israel can be regarded as a political entity and partly as a cultural entity.
This is because Israel is regarded as a sovereign state which has been recognized by the international community at least basing on the initial boundaries that were created in 1948. At the same time, Israel can be considered as a cultural entity since its establishment in the Middle East was driven by cultural factors where the Jews were determined to go back to their ancestral land.
The conflict between the Arabs and Israel is highly emphasized due to its magnitude. The Muslim Arabs argue that Israel has encroached on their land, which was conquered by Prophet Muhammad, and established their state illegally. The occupation of the land that has belonged to Muslims by Israelis, who are considered as infidels, is considered outrageous and intolerable by the Arabs (Salzman(c), p 27).
The Revolutions in the Arab countries
The Arab world has been experiencing revolutions in the recent past, and this can be said to have resulted from the conflicting interests among the various cultural and sectarian groups in the region. Though the incident that sparked the revolution was economic hardships and iron rule of leaders who did not want to leave political power, the sectarian and cultural groups got a leeway to exacerbate the conflicts and usurp power from the long-time dictators.
In Tunisia, where the revolution begun, the long serving President was removed from power and a new regime installed. Egypt followed suit with sectarian and cultural groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of public resentment against the long-serving President, Hussein Mubarak.
This culminated in the removal of President Mubarak from power. In Libya, the long-serving dictator, Muammar Gadhafi was removed from power by the militia groups who were supported by the NATO air strikes. Therefore, it can be asserted that the revolutions in the Arab world were enhanced by the existence of sectarian and cultural groups in the region.
The Middle East can be argued to be comprising of various cultural issues that play a critical role in defining the trend in the region. Essentially, the sectarian conflicts that are rampant in the region can be attributed to the cultural orientation of the region. As noted earlier, the Middle East is characterized by diversity which has acted to fuel the conflicting situation in the region. The Kurds, for instance, have been involved in a struggle to establish their own free state.
Also, there are conflicting situations in which the various tribes are competing for political power in various countries in the region. The Arabs are also engaged in a conflict with Israel based on the notion that all non-Muslims are infidels and have to be subordinate to the Muslims. The most highlighted conflict in the Middle East is that between the Arabs and Israel. The Arab Muslims are against the establishment of Israel in what is regarded as their ancestral land.
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Dajan, S. Munther. The ‘Greater Middle East Initiative’ and the Arab Culture of Rejection. Palestinine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture. 11.3&4, 2004: 158-160.
Davis, Eric. Pens?ee 3: A Sectarian Middle East? Int. J. Middle East Stud. 40, 2008: 555-558.
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