The history of the Middle East is long and complex. From the earliest days of civilization, the many peoples of the region have shared, warred, discovered, invented, and blessed the world with countless advancements in numerous fields.
At the crossroads of three continents, the region has fallen to imperial conquests, serviced trade routes, hosted great centers of learning, and assimilated an untold number of cultures.
Notwithstanding moments of great upheaval and tumult, the populations that call Middle East home have lived together in relative peace. Contrary to the stories spun by the mainstream media in the West, the Middle East has endured just as much human conflict and strife as every other part of the globe. The myth of a region locked in eternal war is simply sensational if not totally untrue.
Still, contemporary times have not been kind to the diverse peoples of the region. As Middle Eastern societies cope with the trials and tribulations of the Arab Spring and other pressing domestic and transnational crises, a renewed dedication to political secularism is sorely needed.
The popular revolts of the Arab Spring have proven to be a significant opportunity for political Islam. From Tunisia to Egypt, Islamists have risen to power following the collapse of staunchly secular governments. In many cases, rising political stars like Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood stalwart President Muhammad Morsi have galvanized their supporters with farfetched visions of uniting the Arab world under the rule of a re-born Muslim caliphate with its capital in Jerusalem.
Obviously, the establishment of a theocratic state runs counter to the democratic principles upon which the Arab Spring was premised. To minorities in the Middle East, a Sunni-dominated regional religious renaissance means a relegated social status and a return to the “jizya,” or tax levied on non-Muslim citizens.
What is more devastating is that violent sectarian extremists are taking advantage of the social turmoil to perpetrate constant acts of violence. The Middle East’s ancient religious and ethnic minorities are already reeling under the defeat of secularism in so many countries in the region. Now, they are increasingly becoming the targets of armed Salafist groups. The destruction of Sufi shrines in Libya, the bombings of Coptic churches in Egypt, blatant sectarian violence in Syria and Lebanon, and the almost total annihilation of Iraq’s indigenous Christian groups all demonstrate that a total political recalibration is needed to ensure that the diversity of the Middle East is preserved, and the model for that preservation is something akin to what currently exists in Syria.
The last great secular bastion in the Arab world is the Syrian Arab Republic and although it seems as if almost every country in the region has turned its back on the Baathist government of President Bashar al Assad, there is much to learn from Syrian society. Notwithstanding one’s opinion of the embattled country’s government, there is no longer any doubt that Syrian armed forces are battling scores of Islamists. At stake is a society that prizes its diversity and revels in the fact that one’s Syrian identity trumps his or her religious affiliation. With so many international powers attempting to accomplish their geopolitical goals through an untold amount of death and destruction in Syria, every stakeholder in this conflict must understand that Syria’s secularism must not only be maintained but also held up as a beacon for all other states in the region. Even Lebanon, a country that by many standards is the most “westernized” in the region has sectarianism built into its national constitution. This is simply and unquestionably wrong.
Although many may consider this to be an extreme measure, Arab constitutions must be revised as to prevent any religiously affiliated party from making amendments that implement Sharia outside of religious matters. No minority group, whether they are Alawis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, or Druze should have to live under a legal system that disregards their religious customs and interests.
Religious freedom is a human right and the governments of the Middle East must protect it. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Although it may seem idealistic to point to a hortatory United Nations human rights document as a guide by which Middle Eastern states can achieve equitable and just societies, there is no denying the fact that any departure from a system that affords equal dignity to all religious groups is a system that is sowing the seeds of internal discontent and social disorder. Secularism makes sense for Arab countries because every religious group in the region has a legitimate right to remain there and practice its faith freely and safely.
So the region that gave the world the alphabet, helped establish the foundations of western philosophical thought, pioneered untold advances in science, and gave birth to the three great Abrahamic religions, and all of their many offshoots, must rediscover its proud and diverse past as to prepare for a future that maintains its distinct character. Although the lofty goals of pan-Arabism appear to be beyond achievable, constitutionally enforced and protected secularism must become the new rallying cry for the Middle East’s reawakening.
The imperial influence emanating from the halls of power in the West and other parts of the world must be ignored and vigorously resisted if the region is to forge its own path of development that is attainable, sustainable, and inclusive of all the peoples of the Middle East. As recent imperial adventurism in the Middle East has clearly shown, the concerns of the world’s powerful states are far from altruistic and must be scrutinized at every turn.
The Middle East is a resource-rich part of the earth that is centrally located and will therefore always make global powers salivate for regional dominance. A reliable tool for achieving this hegemony is division, often accomplished through favoritism of certain regional groups. Once again, the outside pressures must be resisted, the noise must be ignored, and unshakably secular and equitable societies must be forged to protect Middle Eastern diversity for generations to come.