Monday, June 11, 2012

Religion and Identity – (Middle) East and West

As an American who has lived some 23 years in Israel, I have learned to appreciate a certain reality which escapes people who have never been here, some of which who have to make vital policy decisions.
Religion in the West, meaning the United States and Europe, is a biographical fact.   Being born Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or anything else influences your values, your way of dressing, your ideal mate as far as your parents are concerned, and possibly your political view.  To be clear, I am not referring to actually practicing the religion or attending a house of worship.  The mere fact of having parents of a certain religion creates a part of your culture (with a small c).  In terms of understanding people, it is easier to relate to someone with same culture.  That being said, the parents’ background does not determine the children’s future in the United States. Since these countries view religion as a private matter separate from public identity, children can change or adapt their religion while still maintaining their status as an American, Italian, or Brit.  Thus, in the West, I am who I am and also have a religious culture.
By contrast, in the Middle East, religion is an identity, private and official, affecting all aspects of life.  ID cards list the religion of the carrier.  In Israel, a person’s faith, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze, determines that person’s social circle and public status in society.  In the Arab world, the situation is no different.  The Ottomans recognized and used this to administer the Middle East, letting each community run its own affairs as long as it paid taxes of course. Outside your faith, it is hard to be part of a community.
This understanding is vital for average citizens and decision makers.  Attempts to westernize the Middle East and make it religious in the Western way are doomed to fail.  People hold on strongly to their faith, even more today.  The zealots here may be crazy, but most honestly believe that they are right.   (See that ancient book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler for a potential explanation.)  More importantly, leaders and people in the street in the Middle East do not think like their counterparts in the West.  There is a wonderful story about John Dulles, the US Foreign Minister during the 1956 Middle Eastern crisis, who complained to reporters that he was shocked that Nasser lied to him.  This demonstrates the critical lack of understanding then and maybe now of Middle Eastern thinking.  Ignoring the power of religion just feeds that misinterpretation
The next time you hear about some “irrational act” in the Middle East or by someone from here, keep in mind that faith here defines both identity and ethics.

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