It’s Not About Religion

Since the September 11 attacks, the topic of Islam, and in particular Muslim extremism, has come front and center in the news coverage and public discourse. This focus has in some cases spun off into strange and disturbing areas. One example in the news is the “Ground Zero mosque,” which is neither a mosque nor located at Ground Zero. Another are reports on a recent Pew Research poll indicating 18 percent of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim.[1] Yet the point in both stories is not the inaccuracies. The point is that these perceptions are construed as being negative; the mosque’s “location” and Obama’s “religion” are a source of indignation. In other words, anything associated with Islam existing at Ground Zero or in the White House is, to some, unacceptable. More succinctly put, anything associated with Islam is unacceptable.

This fear and hatred, while irrational, is unsurprising. The American conception of the Middle East and Islam was impoverished to begin with. And the actions of al-Qaida on 9/11 did not improve matters. Moreover, after almost a decade of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, with thousands of US military personnel dead and tens of thousands wounded (physically and mentally), the public’s negative view of the Middle East has been compounded.

But the cases of fear and hatred only happen to be directed at Islam. The issue is certainly not theological, that is, Islamophobia is not based on specific disagreements with the religious tenets of Islam. Instead, the contention is with whatever is common among those who live in the Middle East. They happen to be Arabs, and they happen to be Muslim. And therefore, in instances of intolerance, those are the objects of animosity.

There is also the opposing scenario. The Middle East is a place where religion plays a central role in people’s lives; no different than, say, Christianity does among many Americans. However, the Middle East has borne the burden of external, Western intervention in its affairs for the past century, which has had an effect. No different than anyone anywhere on Earth, when groups suffer oppression, they find solace and strength in what binds them communally. Most of the Middle East is ethnically Arab and religiously Islamic, two distinctions setting the region apart from the uninvited Christian West. For most Arabs, being Muslim is a source of identity, a point of cultural pride, and a guiding tradition. For those who participate in terrorism, on the other hand, it is a battle cry and an excuse for indiscriminate killing.

Both groups have a relationship with Islam — one sincere, one tenuous. However, if the former group were represented by a swimming pool, the latter would amount to a teaspoon. Yet many Americans view the Middle East as being a mess (not unjustifiably), as being violent (likewise), and that these realities are a function of what is contained in the Quran. This is where things go awry. The answer to the question, How much does religion play a role in Middle Eastern instability is: Basically zero.

In the United States, the Middle East has always been, at minimum, something of a peculiarity. As it exists in the American imagination, the region and its inhabitants are characterized by a gallery of reductionistic images. One such image is the cartoon-like portrayals in the spirit of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, referencing the Abbasid dynasty (758-1250) during the Arab Empire. Another caricature is the wealthy Arabian prince, with his traditional headdress and flowing dishdasha, driving a Rolls-Royce and dealing in Saudi crude. Another is the now all too familiar evocation of the terrorist. In other words, the Arab/Muslim Middle East has been defined by preconceptions — of decadence, violence, wealth, and religious fervor. (See American television and movies for the last fifty years, which have reflected and reinforced this fact.)

Of course, instances of these three stereotypes do exist. The Abbasids were a real dynasty during the height of the Caliphate. The Middle East is in fact bursting with oil, and some around the Persian Gulf have achieved opulence beyond comprehension. And terrorists do exist and do kill innocent people. However, it should be pointed out that the first group existed over 750 years ago and the caliphs and sultans portrayed (questionably) in Walt Disney films represent a very small group of people. The second group is also very small, as is the third. Nevertheless, this distorted view is a fixture of Western culture, one that we have inherited over the centuries and grown up with since birth. This observation is not new and has been thoroughly investigated in what is now a sizable scholarly literature existing under the rubric “orientalism,” a mode of critique established by the late scholar Edward Said.

As mentioned, US involvement in the region has exacerbated our worst impressions of it. After 9/11 Americans were encouraged to ask, Why do they hate us? This question was initially posed by George W. Bush’s national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, and promptly made its way into the president’s speeches and the mainstream commentary.[2] The “they” in the question meant the terrorists specifically, but the pronoun quickly generalized to mean the Middle East.

Prior to World War II, US relations with the Middle East had been quite limited. It was Great Britain and France that had established imperial domination throughout the region, dividing after World War I what had been the Ottoman Empire into Western-style nation-states. Conversely, the Arabs’ sense of the United States was rather favorable, as its was not involved in their manipulation. As observed by historian Rashid Khalidi,

From the nineteenth century until at least the middle of the twentieth, the United States was in fact viewed quite positively in the Middle East as a non- or anti-colonial power, as having no imperialistic designs on the region, and as engaged primarily in benevolent activities there such as education and health care. Beyond this, the United States was often seen as a beacon of hope for those aspiring to democracy and freedom from foreign control.[3]

It was after WWII that London and Paris lost their primacy in the Middle East, and were replaced with American dominance. Though US entry took place in the context of a much overstated Cold War contest with the Soviet Union, the real business at hand was petroleum, not communism. As noted by Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department economic adviser, “In all the surveys of the [foreign oil] situation … the pencil came to an awed pause at one point and place — the Middle East.”[4]

Over the course of the post-1945 period, Washington has supported dictators and autocrats (e.g., Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia), overthrown popular, progressive leaders (e.g., Iran in 1953), sought to suppress independence (e.g., Palestine), and physically invaded countries that did not threaten the United States (e.g., Iraq). The goal has been to insure consistency. By stifling secular democratic inclinations — which are alive and well throughout the Middle Eastern populations — Washington has fostered greater “cooperation” (the principal criterion for being deemed a “moderate” by DC) in its pursuit of managing the region’s vast natural resources.

But over a century of experiencing external ascendency over its development, certain patterns in the Middle East have come into view. Especially in light of Israel’s position amidst its neighbors, existing as an adjunct to American power, organizations that likely would never have existed — Hamas, Hizballah, and others — have emerged as a response to Tel Aviv’s militancy. (Similarly, it is difficult to envision the IRA’s formation without Britain’s hand in Ireland.) In addition to organizations that have been involved in terrorism, a more socially conservative trend in the various societies has also taken place. Style of dress, attitudes, and tolerance have changed in part for the sterner. A friend in the Palestinian West Bank told me a few years ago, “You didn’t see that sort of thing as much, fifteen or twenty years ago,” as he pointed out a woman wearing a black chador with the full-face veil.

These regional currents tend to be couched in terms of religiosity. Suicide bombers invoke the name of God; women are veiled in the context of Quranic stricture. But the stimulus that is catalyzing this behavior is largely external, driven purely by economic and political objectives in Washington, and has little to do with spirituality. Furthermore, the number of people this behavior describes is a minority. Much of the Arab world instead longs for a more secular, democratic system of governance, a reality that is adeptly examined in Juan Cole’s book Engaging the Muslim World.

On the American side we see what we are shown. And what we are shown is what makes compelling television. At the networks and cable news outlets, the Middle East is strictly associated with weapons, explosions, anger, men wearing scarves over their faces, and individuals talking nonsense about suicide bombers receiving virgins upon arrival in heaven. The reportage implies that the Middle East just happens to be that way, and that the United States and Western Europe simply have to do their best in dealing with it.

The reigning paradigm in American mass journalism is encapsulated in noted political scientist Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” hypothesis. This postulation suggests that conflict between civilizations rather than ideologies (e.g., communism versus capitalism) will become the primary global form of confrontation. In his renowned 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, Huntington states, “the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations.”[5]

Put another way, the West (read the US) will have to keep its guard up (“maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia”) and look sharp as it demurely looks out for its own enlightened interests and tries to help others. But despite best intentions, there will be “countering responses” to be dealt with. What the CIA calls “blowback,” Huntington (quoting historian Bernard Lewis) chalks up as “an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Naturally, power is partial to retaining both viewpoints, depending on the occasion: Those at Langley provide the unvarnished reality; those in the Ivory Tower furnish the acquittal.

The “ancient rival” reasoning dovetails neatly with the orientalist assumptions mentioned above, and general dismissal of the Middle East as hopeless. In turn it allows the news reportage to make sense, because the same amount of history is disregarded in both: most of it. This thinking is also quite attractive — as is the coverage and commentary — to the foreign policy establishment and planners, for self-evident reasons.

Current Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak — a former prime minister and the most highly decorated soldier in the country’s history — stated in a 1998 television interview, “If I were a young Palestinian, it is possible I would join a terrorist organization.”[6]

What Barak revealed was his understanding of the situation the Palestinians are forced to live in, and the responses such circumstances can inspire. What is at work is political, military, and financial power. The byproducts are indignity, anger, and resentment. Because what is desired is freedom from coercion. It’s not about religion.

GREGORY HARMS is an independent scholar focusing on American foreign relations and the Middle East. He is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and the forthcoming Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010).



1. “Growing number in America believe Obama a Muslim – poll,” BBC News, August 19, 2010.

2. Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terrorism (New York: Free Press, 2004), 31, 33. See Fareed Zakaria, “The politics of rage: Why do they hate us?” Newsweek, October 15, 2001. Zakaria’s essay is a model example of the mainstream commentary that de-emphasizes US implication — the thoughtful, “centrist” variety.

3. Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 30-1.

4. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Free Press, 1991), 396.

5. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 72, no. 3 (summer 1993): 29, 49.

6. “Interview with Ehud Barak” [with Paula Zahn], CNN, June 25, 2003,