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October 22, 2014 / 28 Tishri, 5775
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Identity and Loyalty in Islam and the Middle East

In the Muslim world, Identity is not a matter of choice. A man is what his father is and a woman is what her husband is. It is difficult and may be dangerous to try to change that identity. Conversion from Islam, for example, is punishable by death.
Bedouin with his camels at Wadi Run Desert.

Bedouin with his camels at Wadi Run Desert.
Photo Credit: Lucie March/Flash 90

Westerners strive to solve problems. When people appear obstinate, we often indignantly say, “Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?” This is alien to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. Middle Easterners cope with problems for which they know there are no solutions-akin to living with a chronic illness.

Islam, for example, does not recognize the equality of all people. Muslims are the rightful rulers of the Muslim world. Non-Muslims who believe in God and who have a revelation from God before Islam do have the right to live in Muslim societies. They are called “dhimmis” which means, “protected people,” who can live in the Muslim world, albeit in positions of political and social inferiority. To be sure, they might become important. There have been Christian Foreign Ministers in Egypt (Butros Ghali) and Jordan (Marwan Mu’ashar), but Christians know they cannot hope to rule their countries. This is most clear in Egypt, where the Copts, native Christians descended from the ancient Egyptians, cannot aspire to become Egypt’s president because that position is reserved for a Muslim.

Lebanon is in constant upheaval in part because its French-inspired Constitution, written when Maronite Christians were the largest confessional group, decrees that the Lebanese President must be a Christian. The anomaly of the Head of State being a non-Muslim is a driving force in Lebanese civil strife. Muslims rationalize it by comparing their prophet Muhammad’s temporary peace agreement with his enemies, until he could regroup and defeat them.

This is also why Israel can never be accepted as a Jewish state. From the Muslim point of view, the land of Israel is Muslim territory because it was conquered by Muslims in 637 C.E., and will remain Muslim forever.

The only way this might change is if Muslim scholars themselves re-examine their sources and try to find ways within their tradition to come to grips with realities on the ground. Jews and Christians were forced to do this long ago as a result of political realities they had to face. But for now, it is hard to imagine that Muslims would do the same.

Religious Identity

In the West, religious and national/ethnic identities are usually separate and do not necessarily overlap. In the Muslim world, however, ethnicity/nationality and religious identity are almost completely intertwined. A Lebanese Maronite, for example, shares more in common with non-Lebanese Maronite, than with a Lebanese Muslim. Their language, food, and culture might be different, but their point of view, their “Maroniteness,” is the core of their identity. The same can be said for Lebanese Druze, Shiites, and Sunnis. Religion and political identity almost always trump everything else-including citizenship.

This puzzles Westerners for whom citizenship generally trumps, but in the Middle East, the boundaries of “countries” do not correspond with the history of the people living there. Many Sunni Jordanian families in Amman, for example, are intermarried with Sunni families from Damascus, which in Western terms is the capital of a different country.

Muslims and Christians fought a bitter civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s. Maronite Christians, who led the fighting on the Christian side, are aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, there was also a civil war in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. Most Lebanese Muslims didn’t even know where Northern Ireland was, but they were very pro-Protestant because they believed they shared a common Catholic enemy.

If we in the West are to understand how and why Middle Easterners make political decisions, we must understand how they view themselves. Clearly, Shiite identity unites Shiites throughout the world, irrespective of ethnicity or nationality. Arab and Iranian Shiites might hate each other-they have good historical reason-but they also recognize that they have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate at the hands of the Sunnis.

Children Whose Parents Have Different Identities

In the United States, a child is a citizen if either parent is a citizen. Not so in the Middle East, where identity comes almost exclusively from the father. In Turkey, for example, Turks and Kurds freely intermarry. Intermarriage is so common that, from a Western point of view, one would think that Kurdish-Turkish difficulties should have abated as the groups blended together. But people take the identity of their fathers and if their father was a Kurd, they are Kurds, even if they have never lived in the traditional Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey, and even if they don’t speak Kurdish.

A friend in Turkey had a Kurdish grandfather who married a Turkish woman. Despite the fact that they lived in southeastern Anatolia where Kurds strongly predominate, their child-my friend’s father-was raised in an almost completely Turkish-speaking household. The family moved to Istanbul, a Turkish-speaking city. My friend’s father married a Turkish woman who also spoke no Kurdish; their son-my friend-knows almost none. He has children and grandchildren, absolutely none of whom speak Kurdish. This family has been living in a completely Turkish environment for five generations. From the Western point of view, they are clearly Turks. Despite that, my friend, when asked about his identity, responded without missing a beat, “We are Kurds, of course!”

This has caused even senior American diplomats to err. During a visit to Washington by the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds were astounded to hear senior White House and State Department officials tell them they should not identify as Kurds, but rather as Iraqis. That is the equivalent of telling a man to stop thinking like a man and think like a penguin; the chances of success are infinitesimal.

Another example is the relationship between Iraqis and Kuwaitis. For generations, Iraqis from Basra in southern Iraq have married into Kuwaiti families. During both the U.S.-led coalition war in Kuwait in 1991, and the Iraq war in 2003, many people on both sides of the border were in political limbo, depending on who was winning. Women were particularly affected because they acquired their husbands’ citizenship upon marriage and if the country of their birth lost, they would lose citizenship in their native land.

If an American woman marries an Iranian or a Saudi, she becomes a citizen of her husband’s country. If the married couple wants to visit the husband’s homeland, she could only do so using a passport of her husband’s country. And once in the Middle East, she can only leave if the husband agrees.

Identity is not a matter of choice. A man is what his father is and a woman is what her husband is. It is extremely difficult-and often dangerous-to try to change that identity. Conversion from Islam, for example, is punishable by death.

Tribal Identities

To Western ears, the word “tribe” conjures up American Indians or nomads in tents. In the Middle East, however, the word “tribe” means large-group identity, usually of ancient origin. “Tribal” members can live in cities, be university professors, and even immigrate to the West, but they in some way still retain their tribal identity. Two of the largest tribal identities in the Middle East are Qays and Yemen, groups that trace their origins back to tribes in today’s Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the early days of Islam.

In 2007, when President Bush launched the Surge in Anbar-Western, Sunni-dominated Iraq-to put down the insurrection, there were 21 tribal groups: 18 opposed to the U.S. and 3 neutral. Within one year, we had eighteen on our side, and three waffling. What happened, and what does this tell us about the importance of the tribal structure in that area? President Bush ordered the Marines to restore order. The Marines learned the local social structure in the area, and after putting down the revolt, used that structure as a basis for giving people incentives to stay within the system.

The Surge succeeded because the Marines were the strongest “tribe.” The Marine “tribe” did not come to destroy the local order, but to make sure everyone got along. When local leaders realized it was in their interest to cooperate with the Marines, they quickly jumped in to be on the winning team-the team that would ensure that their local tribal structure remained intact. Goods and services were distributed through that tribal network of notables, which strengthened the social structure that worked within that local culture.

Then America abandoned Anbar, and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates were able to return to wreak havoc. Had the locals known that we would still back them up, even from the air, there would have been a much better chance that the fundamentalists would not have been able to return.

Clan/Family Identities

Extended family identities form an extremely important aspect of life in the Middle East. These relationships are much stronger than the so-called national identities based on borders created at the end of World War I.

One of the most respected Sunni aristocratic families of Damascus Syria-the al-’Azm family-has been prominent there since at least the 16th century. The family married into other prominent Sunni families throughout the Muslim world, including Istanbul. Were these families Turks or Arabs? It hardly mattered because they were all Sunnis. In the post-World War I era, when many states were created out of what had been the Ottoman Empire, Arab and Turkish nationalism became the rage and the borders of these newly created states were super-imposed on local identities. People carried documents declaring them citizens of this country or that, but their personal identities did not change, traditional marriage patterns continued and people on both sides of the new and arbitrary borders continued to marry and interact as they had for hundreds of years.

Another example of family relationship is the one between today’s Jerusalem-based Nashashibi and Husseini families, great rivals in Jerusalem.

Some years ago, I visited Naser al-Din al-Nashashibi in his ornate Jerusalem house in Sheikh Jarrah. Across the street was the mansion of the al-Husseini family. These bitter rivals loathed each other, not because they disagreed politically, but because they both wanted to be THE most notable family in Jerusalem. One Nashashibi ancestor had been the mayor of Jerusalem. One Husseini family member had been the notorious Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and friend of Hitler. Nashashibi spewed venom and vindictiveness about the Husseinis. On a visit to the Husseinis, I heard the same about the Nashashibis. What was more important here, their national or religious identities-both were Sunni Muslims-or their personal rivalries? They both spent more time maligning each other than they did maligning Israel.

On the other hand, Nashashibi told a story about his uncle by marriage, Ismet Inonu the second President of Turkey. He said that his aunt had married Inonu, who insisted on calling the Nashashibis “Ok Atan” which is the Turkish translation of Nashashibi (meaning spear/arrow-thrower). Nashashibi was very proud of his uncle by marriage and aunt, he told us. I asked, “Is your family Arab, and part of your family Turkish?” He answered that his family was probably of Kurdish or Circassian origin, and had come from Egypt hundreds of years ago. So were they Arabs, Turks, Kurds, or Circassian? They were, he said, Sunni.

As for the Husseinis, they believed their origins to be from today’s Saudi Arabia. Neither, therefore, is originally what is today understood as Palestinian.

Sunni vs. Shiite

This brings us to what is probably the most important over-arching identity throughout the Muslim world-Sunnis vs. Shiites. As noted above, Middle Easterners accept that most problems cannot be solved, and that these problems come to the surface from time to time.

The Sunni-Shiite split occurred when their prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E. Upon his death, Muslims had to decide who should rule in his place. The group that eventually became known as the Sunnis prevailed; they had been the aristocracy of Mecca. The losers-eventually known as Shiites-were those who supported Muhammad’s family, and thought they should be the rightful rulers of Islam.

Sunnis and Shiites are still fighting the battle that started almost 1400 years ago. Compare that to the American phrase, “That’s history,” meaning something that might have taken place last week. We look for ways to “let bygones be bygones,” shake hands, and move on. Middle Eastern culture has never developed ways to leave the past behind.

Sunnis-about 85% of the Muslim world-see Shiites at best as misguided and have often discriminated against and murdered them. Shiites quake in fear of the next onslaught. No wonder that when Israel marched in southern Lebanon in 1982, the Shiites greeted the IDF with flowers and rice, seeing the Israelis as liberators from the yoke of Sunni Palestinian and Lebanese oppression. As a battered minority, Shiites look for outside strong protectors.

Privately, many Shiites have learned to distrust the U.S., because in their experience the U.S. comes in, uses force, and then leaves. Why, the Shiites argue, should they throw their lot in with the Americans who do not stand up for them against their enemies? Are the Shiites happy now about President Obama’s attempt to negotiate with (Shiite) Iran, and abandoning America’s traditional allies-the Arab Sunni rulers of the Gulf and Egypt?

Not exactly. Shiites cannot understand American behavior, because America has proven to be unreliable (regarding the Gulf States and Egypt), and a harmless enemy (kowtowing to Iran, doing nothing to stop Putin, and abandoning its Polish and Czech allies by withdrawing ballistic missile defense radars). Adding to the confusion, Arab Shiites also see Iran as their oppressor, trying to make Arab Shiites into Persians. Thus they feel doubly abandoned. They cannot trust Iran, and now America is consorting with its enemy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whom the Arab Shiites know hates America.

According to the great scholar Fouad Ajami, Arab Shiites are the stepchild of the Muslim world: hated by the Sunnis because they are Shiite, and despised by the Iranians because they are Arab.

After Regime Change

Clearly, these Arab Shiites need reliable external allies with similar existential problems. Could these allies include the ‘Alawites in Syria, the myriad Christian groups still resident in the Middle East, the Druze, or even Israel? ‘Alawites and Jews are there to stay, and the Arab Shiites know that. All these groups together suffered from the vicissitudes of the extreme Islamic Sunni fundamentalist wave shaking up the region. And what about the Kurds, who are also overwhelmingly Sunni, but are oppressed both in Turkey and in the Arab world? Could they too join such an informal alliance? Moreover, could all of these groups also find common cause-at least temporarily-with traditional Arab Sunni notables and chieftains who themselves are almost under attack by the Sunni Salafi extremists?

Could alliances-formal or otherwise-develop to defeat the scourge of Sunni Arab fundamentalism? In the long run this is a much more dangerous force than Iran, once regime change occurs there. Most likely, a new Iranian regime would no longer have such a cantankerous relationship with the outside world, and might revert to its traditional position of seeing the U.S. and others as allies. The vast majority of Iranians want nothing more than to stop being pariahs; they deeply want to be part of the modern world and overwhelmingly hate the regime.

After regime change, Iran would almost assuredly join the above-mentioned alliance against Sunni fundamentalism, and would no longer be a threat to its neighbors. The Arab regimes across the Gulf could breathe a sigh of relief.

Fantasy? Possibly. But understanding the Middle East and Islam as Middle Easterners and other Muslims do provides ways of addressing problems, even if they cannot be solved.

It is time to rethink how we understand the Middle East and Islam, and when we learn how to view the world as they do, consider ways to manage these problems in ways that make sense to the Middle Eastern mind. The Middle East has survived for millennia, and has learned how to cope with problems-but not solve them. This is alien to us, but it may be the only way to stop the murder and mayhem they are inflicting on each other now.

This article was originally published in inFocus Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume VIII: Number 2. It is reprinted here with permission from the American Center for Democracy.

About the Author: Harold Rhode, Ph.D., served from 1982-2010 as an Adviser on Islamic Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is now a distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. He is fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi and Turkish.


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10 Responses to “Identity and Loyalty in Islam and the Middle East”

  1. Sue Johnson says:

    And they want to rule the world!

  2. Asmat Siddiqui says:

    A thoughtful opinion. However, isn't this true that the religious identity is intertwined across nationalities and ethnicity in almost all world religions. For instance, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhs, etc.? Christianity may be an exception.

  3. JoAnn Morris says:

    Great article. This explains why Obama/Kerry are not qualified to interfere in the Middle East…..especially with Israel/PA conflicts.

  4. Gene Strong says:

    Obama wants to destroy israel.and america.

  5. T.E. Lawrence & Gertrude Bell attended the British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill conference in Cairo in March 1921. Their voices were heard, But in the end Churchill decided.

    Criminal Bedouin Mohamed did not unite the muslims tribes, he simply repackaged paganism by the sword.

    What type of western mind claim to possess "the only way to stop the murder and mayhem they are inflicting on each other now" when the Middle Eastern mind society sees the woman status as un-Islamic, the sword as the prominent way to wash the "offended" honor and money as the tool to preserve & promote such barbaric patriarchal dictators oligarchs ways of life

    Even IF the Mideast is further didvided into smaller tribal states, Democracy would still be alien And there would always be some who would claim pan arabism, etc…

  6. Roy Neal Grissom says:

    Wouldn't Jews be better off if they had retained their original Middle Eastern outlook instead of adopting the alien western one?

  7. Ora Cooper says:

    The middle east will never change! Yes, its tribal, its nuanced of religion, but most of all its about the Male of the species. All over the world and more in that part of the world men will literally Kill to "preserve "the notion that they have "the brains" and by fighting the prove they are not really smart… As long as men can only prove themselves by killing others (easier than inventing a cure for cancer) don't expect change….

  8. Great article, right on the money. This should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Middle East, including the would be peace-makers from Washington and the EU. The point to be taken is that only strength earns respect and failing to support your erstwhile friends and allies is rightly scorned.

  9. Ayman El-Khatib says:

    Very accurate article; Islam is the most retrograde force in existence today, and muslim people will never join the rest of the world in the 21st century, forever held back by archaic and outdated traditions which further fosters their backwards mentality.

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