Over the last century, the Middle East has been a hotbed of ethnic rivalry, political and economic instability, religious conflict, territorial dispute, and war. Much of the friction in the Middle East derives from various interpretations of Islam and how the religion should be applied to politics and society. Knowing the basic principles of Islam is the first step toward understanding how contrasting ideas about the religion cause conflict in the Middle East.
Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, second only to Christianity in numbers of adherents. Muslims live in all parts of the world, but the majority of Muslims are concentrated in the Middle East and Asia. Islam has two meanings: peace and submission to Allah (God). Muslims believe that Islam is the only true religion and that it was revealed by the prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century. Muslims are divided into two major groups, the Shiites and the Sunnis. The difference between these two groups is rooted in Islam’s early history. Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs, or rulers, after the prophet Muhammad were legitimate leaders. Shiites believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, should have succeeded him directly, a belief that renders the first four caliphs illegitimate. Their theology differs slightly, but both groups adhere to the five pillars of Islam: acknowledging that there is no true god except God and that Muhammad is the prophet of God; praying five times a day toward Mecca; giving alms to the poor; fasting during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the lunar year); and making an annual pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are financially and physically able. Islam also requires belief in six articles of faith, which are belief in God, belief in the messengers and prophets of God, belief in the Revelations and the Koran (the Islamic holy book), belief in angels, belief in Judgment Day, and belief in the ultimate power of God or God’s decree. Other precepts of Islam are concerned with matters such as diet, clothing, personal hygiene, business ethics, responsibilities toward parents, spouses, and children, marriage, divorce, inheritance, civil and criminal law, fighting in defense of Islam, relations with non-Muslims, and much more.
All Muslims believe in the six articles of faith and adhere to the five pillars of Islam, but they differ in how they interpret the Koran and the shari’a (Islamic law). Colonel B.S. Burmeister, in his essay “The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism,” identifies two major divisions within Islam, the modernists and the revivalists. He argues that modernists believe in the inerrancy of the Koran, but they interpret its strictures in a modern context. Modernists accept secular governments, religious diversity, and the emancipation of women. Most Muslim modernists condemn terrorism and advocate individual relationships with God. Revivalists favor a literal interpretation of the Koran and a return to traditional Islamic ideas. These Muslims are extremely pious and closely follow the teachings of the Koran and Muhammad. They regularly attend mosques, and many promote a theocratic government and enforcement of the shari’a. Revivalists are frequently referred to as Islamists or Islamic fundamentalists. Modernists and revivalists often clash over how Islamic states should be run.
The tension between modernists and revivalists is best illustrated by Egypt’s political conflicts in the mid–twentieth century. In 1928, Hassan el-Banna, the oldest son of an Egyptian watchmaker, established the Muslim Brotherhood, the first modern Islamic fundamentalist organization. The Brotherhood was comprised of young men who were frustrated with Egypt’s poverty and lack of opportunities. In addition, they resented Western, especially British, presence in the Middle East, and feared that their Islamic culture would be subsumed by what they perceived as Western decadence and godlessness. They also resented the growing Zionist movement in Europe, which claimed that Palestine, a region of land inhabited by Muslims in the Middle East, should belong to the Jews because it was their Holy Land. El-Banna and his followers believed that part of the reason that their society had declined was that Muslims had fallen away from the fundamental teachings of the Koran and Muhammad. They believed that if they could influence people to return to the traditional practice of Islam, they could drive out the Western enemy and resurrect the great Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, when the Middle East led the West in cultural, philosophical, and scientific achievements. To achieve this goal, they organized centers to educate people in the fundamentals of Islam and recruit them to the Brotherhood’s cause to drive the Western enemy out of the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood spread quickly. Within a year of its inception, the Brotherhood boasted over fifty branches within Egypt. In 1945, frustrated with what they viewed as a disorganized and ineffectual monarchy, members of the Muslim Brotherhood ran in parliamentary elections. They suffered an abysmal defeat, partly as a result of election fraud committed by King Farouk’s administration, which perceived the revivalist Brotherhood as threatening to the monarchy’s moderate regime. In retaliation, the Brotherhood launched a wave of political assassinations and acts of terror throughout Egypt. Judges were assassinated, ministers were shot, bombs were placed inside businesses, and Jewish citizens were attacked. In response to the violence, Prime Minister Mahmoud el-Noqrashi banned the Brotherhood in 1948. El-Noqrashi was assassinated by a Brotherhood member twenty days later. His successor, Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi, dealt severely with the Brotherhood, and by the time his administration fell, over four thousand members were imprisoned. In 1951, the Brotherhood was permitted to return to activity under limited conditions, but they were prohibited from participating in political activities.
In 1953, a group of army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel- Nasser overthrew King Farouk’s monarchy and declared Egypt a socialist republic with Islam as the official religion. Nasser took over the position of prime minister in 1954 and was voted the first president of the Egyptian Republic in 1956. Nasser clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood from the start; although he declared Islam the official religion of Egypt, he was dedicated to the idea of secular rule, unlike the Brotherhood, who believed that Egypt should be ruled by the shari’a.
In 1954, Nasser banned the organization for the second time because of their insistence on Islamic law. Infuriated, one Brotherhood member attempted to assassinate Nasser. He failed and was executed along with five other members. Over four thousand more members were also arrested and thousands more fled to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon. In 1964, Nasser exonerated the imprisoned members, but after their release, they made three more attempts on his life. Nasser executed the top leaders of the Brotherhood in 1966, and imprisoned hundreds of others.
Following Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, strove to improve relations between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. He released most of the members from prison and promised them that the shari’a would be implemented as Egyptian law. Although the Brotherhood remained illegal, it was tolerated, and in some cases encouraged, by the government as a counterbalance to leftist forces whom Sadat saw as threatening to his regime. However, many Brotherhood members were impatient with Sadat’s administration and lost trust in Sadat when he signed a peace agreement with Israel— which the Brotherhood considered an enemy of Islam—in 1979. Brotherhood members assassinated Sadat in 1981, and his promises to the Brotherhood went unfulfilled.
Over the last twenty years, the Muslim Brotherhood has ostensibly renounced violence as a means of achieving their goals, but numerous sister organizations, such as al-Qaeda, Egyptian Jihad, and Hamas, have perpetrated countless acts of terrorism against their own governments and Western nations. Other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Libya, have also experienced a rise in the number of Islamist organizations operating within their borders. Their governments face the enormous challenge of protecting Islam as the official religion while subduing powerful Islamist organizations that threaten their regimes. Analysts agree that most Muslims prefer an Islamic government to a secular government, but few advocate the kind of Islamist regime practiced by the Taliban in Afghanistan or by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in the 1980s. The Taliban, for example, which ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001, banned televisions and radios, prohibited women from working and attending school, and reinstituted the shari’a, which demanded strict punishments for crimes, such as public ston- ing for adultery and amputation for theft. The relentless conflict in the Middle East demonstrates how difficult it is to balance modernism and revivalism.
Current Controversies: The Middle East offers various perspectives on Islam, its role in the Middle East, and how conflict in the Middle East affects the rest of the world. The articles in this anthology should give readers a thorough understanding of current problems in the Arab world and possible solutions to them.