Religion in the Middle East: A Consolidating Tool by Itself but a Devastating Tool as a Whole

Throughout the centuries, the Middle East was the cradle of civilization not only in the sense of cultural meaning but also in the sense of religious distinctness as well. When we think of the versatility of Islamic sects in the Middle East; surely states, which adopted certain sect and entrenched the ulama into state level, played an active role in converting the constant area into the area dominating by sole religious group or in achieving sectarian identity in its controlling area. That by taking the ulama from the social level and entrenching it into state level turned the ulama into a supporter of the ideology of the states. In plain words, the two states having long-dated rivalry in the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire were the accelerators of sectarian polarization in wide geographical area. The authority of the states played an active role in determining the differences between the deserved sect and heretical sect. The Ottomans and the latter imposed severe penalties to the people who declared to be heretical by them. Hereby, they started to fulfill the internal and external policies according to the requirements of their own sectarian doctrines. Sectarian ramification did not remain limited to these two sects. Even if there are lots of sects in Islam, after the Sunnis and Shiism which are the two widely-spread sects, the new sects came to light in 18th century as the Wahhabism rooted in the teachings of İbn Teymiyye in 14th century and Ahmed bin Hanbel, the founder of Hanbali sect in 9th century. In course of time, Wahhabism became third main pillar of contemporary sectarian rivalry in Middle East and now is represented by Saudi Arabia. Firstly, it is a necessity to examine the reason sociologically why the sects function as a consolidating tool in itself but a devastating tool as a whole so as to understand and evaluate the Middle East’s contemporary sectarian clashes.

Religion[1] as a Consolidating Factor

According to Durkheim, religion determines the way of people’s thinking in traditional culture.[2] Religion puts reality through interpretation, embeds people in this interpreted reality and provides a guide for human life.[3] On that sense, religion helps the development of a common thinking pattern in people’s minds and becomes a part of the culture. If there is a single dominant religion in society, religion generates an integration, hope and motivation rather than mess, disorder, depression, inability and despair.[4] As a consolidating tool, religion integrates the individuals, groups and classes along with their differences and by acting as glue, it forestalls the fragmentation of the society. Durkheim argues that religion and social integration exist side by side and he asserts that the loosening occurred in religion leads to decompose the ties of the solidarity and creates anomie.[5] According to Benjamin Kidd, humanity has developed through religion.[6]

Religion as a Revolutionary Factor

To Weber’s liking, religious ideals make a disruptive and mostly revolutionary impact on settled social orders. Religious belief gives support to social movements aimed at toppling unjust administrations.[7] According to Fustel Coulanges, ideas and religious belief have a big place and impact in social change.[8] While religion provides the unity and integrity among its own believers, it can also function as a decomposer in a more general sense. Religion; by fulfilling functions such as gaining legitimacy and mentality, organizing, configuring, motivating, achieving identity and personality and regulating society, brings about socio-cultural and structural change and thus becomes the catalyst of social change.[9]

The Radicalization of Religion

The acceptance of identity shaped by the religious rules, at the same time, led to the emergence of two different formations such as insiders and outsiders. This acceptance of identity as a radical meaning brings conflict in its wake between groups.[10] In any places, when ‘we and others’ distinction is clear and sharp, the situation being on the other side causes firstly hatred and eventually violence. The holy terrorist believes that only a transcendent purpose which fulfills the meaning of the universe can justify terror, and that the deity reveals at some early moment in time both the end and means and may even participate in the process as well.[11] In this point, we have to examine shortly the psychological motivation of those who attend the radical movements. People, with an inadequate social status and with the lack of personal skills in public, usually think that they are marginalized by society and are not respected by them. To earn respect, attract attention and realize themselves, they use behavior patterns comprising aggressive manners and also consider violence as legitimate act. People who could not find creative ways and means to inspire respect in society try to obtund anxieties, fears, anger with their aggressive behavior and violent acts.[12] Religion, in this manner, presents a transcendent purpose like achieving jannah for these incapable people. Religion not only gives a hope for reaching jannah and thus happiness but it also motivates people to gain glory, protect honor and thus realize themselves. Most likely, they find no way but to venture on illegal methods to live on.

Considering the proportion of the failed states or at least inclined to turn into that in the Middle East, we can easily make an inference that people living in these countries lacking of public service, investment, education and so on are much more prone to participate the acts of terrorism. Nowadays, Wahhabism and Shiism adorned with Persian and Safavid culture are the two opponent sects devastating the Middle East. Religion or its sub-branch sects could not confront with each other alone but they are competing and clashing because of the states which entrench certain sect into the state ideology and use it for its own interests. Historical rivalry between the countries which represent different sects brought along the sectarian dissolution. Sectarian dissolution merging with poor governance in wide geographical area brought the radicalization.

Religions or sects play an active role in consolidating the society but it plays a devastating role between the different religious societies. They all assume that they are fighting for a transcendent purpose. However, they are not aware of the true teachings of Islam and never think that the real transcendent purpose advises them to be brothers.

[1] In this case, it refers to different sects in Islam.

[2] Giddens, A. (2008). Sosyoloji. İstanbul: Kırmızı Yayınları, 585.

[3] Okumuş, E. (2003). Meşruiyet Ekseninde Din ve Devlet. İstanbul: Pınar Yayınları, 69.

[4] Sezen, Y. (2000). Sosyoloji açısından Din. (3. Baskı). İstanbul: Marmara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Vakfı Yayınları, 38.

[5] Okumuş, a.g.e., 89.

[6] Sorokin, P. A. (1994). Çağdaş Sosyoloji Kuramları. (Çev. M. M. R. Öymen). Ankara, 2, 185-188.

[7] Giddens, a.g.e., 587.

[8] Sorokin, a.g.e., 194-197.

[9] Akyüz, N. ve Çapcıoğlu, İ. (Editörler). (2013). Ana Başlıklarıyla Din Sosyolojisi, Ankara: Grafiker Yayınları, 398.

[10] Caşın, M. H. (2008). Uluslararası Terörizm. (1. Baskı). Ankara: Nobel Yayın Dağıtım, 600-601.

[11] Rapoport, D. C. (1984). Fear and Trimblink: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions. The American Political Science Review, 78 (3), 659.

[12] Caşın, a.g.e., 366-367.