When thinking about the world of Islam, people in the West tend to imagine a host of countries straightforwardly dominated by a hard line religion, to which its adherents dedicate themselves with fervent passion and determination, all united in hatred, or at least disdain, for the West. This notion was especially reinforced by the Western media recently as they reported with haste the ardent backlash against the West and America across Muslim countries against the film mocking their prophet which was made in the US. This idea of a united Muslim World couldn’t be any further from the truth, though. The Islamic world is as multifaceted and complex as the West, if not more. It is a simmering hot-pot of division and enmity, with a whole range of diverse nationalities, ethnicities, political ideologies and religious beliefs.
No more is this evident than in the current heated scenario revolving around Syria. In the collapsed state – and yes, it is already collapsed if you Western governments haven’t already noticed – a longstanding despotic regime is at war with rebels who are sick of its authoritarian rule over the country. Religious and ethnic undertones are also visible as the Assad family are Alawites, while the opposition are dominated by Sunni Muslims (when Sunnis traditionally view Alawites as heretics). Making the situation more convoluted, jihadis are coming in from the likes of Kuwait and Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and all over the Arab and the broader Muslim world, including Pakistan, all with varying conceptions of what “jihad” means and for whom it applies.
However, the Syrian conflict is also exposing the conflicting dynamics existent across the whole region. It is virtually splitting the Middle East into two camps; with Al-Assad’s allies in Iran and Palestine on one side and the rebels’ backers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the other. It would be erroneous to describe any one of these nations as “more Muslim” than the others, so it wouldn’t seem that this division is fueled by religion. No, the division is fueled by power-politics and common ideas and interests.
We can see the realpolitik behaviours of Iran and Saudi Arabia, both the more powerful nations in the region. Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, likened the two regional powers to “two sumo wrestlers … sort of squaring each other off in the ring to see who’s going to have greater strength and influence around the region”.
Iran doesn’t want to lose an ally in the Assad regime – and another player in its cold conflict with the US and Israel (Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, even said, “in Syria, the hand of America and Israel is evident” and “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist and anti-American, we support it”). Conversely, Saudi Arabia (an ally, or at least an associate, of the US) would be quite happy to see Iran lose a bit of its influence in the area. However, there are religious differences at play here too, as Iran is predominantly Shi’ite (and the Alawites come under the Shia camp) and Saudi Arabia has a strong Sunni influence.
Next, we see the countries who have become involved in the conflict purely through the regional instability it has caused. Turkey became aggressive in its policy towards Syria after five people were killed by a Syrian mortar in a Turkish village. A blast in Beirut killed the Lebanese Intelligence Chief and was blamed on Syria has led to a power vacuum in Lebanon; Lebanese people of all religions, denominations and ethnicities (who are usually aggressive towards each other anyway) are uniting against the Government and calling for its demise, due to concerns over the influence Damascus has over Lebanon. To make things worse, Lebanese terrorist organisation, Hezbollah, is loudly supportive of the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria has also spilled into Jordan, which has become incensed by Al-Assad’s actions.
Ultimately, the Syrian conflict is just another of the string of conflicts which have occurred in the Muslim World due to the Arab Spring. With regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen having already fallen, and uprisings having erupted in Bahrain and Syria and other major protests having occurred in all of Lebanon, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Western Sahara, the Arab Spring has been the biggest illustration of the divided nature of the Islamic World. Throw the ongoing conflicts between Muslim populations and terrorist organisation, Al Qaeda, in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia and Yemen into the mix and it should become quite obvious that not everyone in the Muslim world shares the same ignorant and fundamentalist worldview as terrorists like some Western media might have you believe.
Yet is it just me, or have the Western media focused more on the “victory” of the ideology of democracy in Muslim countries (as if it were a “liberalisation” of otherwise backwards countries, whether this is a fair assessment or not), rather than the already longstanding reality that they are naturally filled with diversity and opposing forces? At the end of the day, there may be some truth to the element of hatred Muslims have for the West, especially when the West does things to provoke the Islamic faith as whole (and motivating Muslims of all nationalities, ethnicities and denominations to unite against one common enemy). But if we as Westerners continue the process of othering Muslims and putting them under one same umbrella category – when in fact Muslims belong to a plethora of different groups – we are only perpetuating the cycle of anger and enmity that exists between the West and the Muslim World by classifying one another in such a divergent duality.
Then again, maybe all this proof of conflict goes to show that we as humans naturally tend to find comfort in subscribing to certain groups of people who we find are similar to us and, in so doing, drawing battle-lines by distinguishing our groups from others…