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Op-ed

Religion and Power Politics in the Middle East

Laurelle Atkinson, January 18, 2011

In October 2009, violence between Israeli police and Muslims at al-Aqsa Mosque spilled over into the cobblestone alleys that frame the compound.

 

"Muslims, Jews and Christians are bound by a common heritage under one God," Prince El Hassan bin Talal, president of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, wrote recently before the church bombing in Egypt. The response to the bombing was swift by Middle Eastern leaders. From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, terrorism is recognized as the common scourge to be eradicated. But is this the common heritage that should bind us together?

 

Since monotheistic faith fused with the power politics of ancient times, political forces have influenced human reasoning, especially in the Middle East. In political effect, religion has not united humanity. Faith movements have fragmented into fighting fronts of today's sectarian forces. And it seems fundamentalism rather than monotheistic accord is driving them.
 
Politically it's no different. Instead of systemic cohesion forming between nations of the Middle East, strategic division defines state security, as it does at the international level. Divine faith hasn't progressed human reasoning into progressive understanding of the region in accordance with other parts of the world. Planetary systems are declining alongside rising terrorism, rendering the application of faith and politics in the 21st century questionable.
 
Jerusalem
 
No region on earth embodies this more than the Middle East. Conflict still ramifies politically among different religions there, as it has for centuries. Monotheistic ideals of accord haven't been realized through international political forces. Far from being the font of harmony resonating cohesive powers round the globe, the region stands for international terrorism. And no place on earth amplifies sectarian conflict more than Jerusalem: a common heritage of divinity.
 
Sanctified as heaven on earth, the city has been fought over according to creed, race and territory beyond endurance. The consequences have formed a dynamic of territorial warfare rather than global understanding. Any ostensible link of earthly wonder to the universal power seems to have been swamped in the desire to apply Jerusalem as a bane of power struggles in the name of divinity.
 
Yet earthly sustenance is our only known heritage in the universe. Instead of progressing faith into understanding, the fusion of religion with politics in the Middle East has consolidated sectarian militancy on the regional level and coalitions of fighting forces at the international with one common denominator: terrorism.
 
Terrorism
 
"All nations which support freedom stand together on the war against terrorism," Prime Minister Netanyahu said after the Coptic bombing in Egypt. Likewise President Mubarak vowed to "cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt's security."
 
Does fighting terrorists prevent terrorism, though? If the root causes involve militancy, applying military action against terrorism would inflame it. And that's been the case for decades. Regardless of the banner under which terrorist acts are waged, it is the fight that has resonated load and clear. And why shouldn't it, since it's the action of addressing faith as well as the context through which it's applied that instills understanding.
 
The fight ups the militant ante rather than progress political accord. And it's been happening for centuries. Generally political and religious forces have combined in the Middle East via warfare. The subsequent terrorism now applied for political cohesion could in all reality be exacerbating the fundamental forces enacting it.
 
As historian Max I. Dimont writes in his book on "the indestructible Jews," after three millennia the universal longing of all faiths to cease warfare in the Middle East still exists. Well and good, but for three millennia wishing for it hasn't realized it. And neither has fighting for it. Despite any sentiment for inter-faith accord, faith has fused with politics by way of militancy down through the ages.
 
Thus framed, religion has formed a context in which animus, fighting and strategic division have directed the raison d'etre of belief away from cohesion and the world's broader political realities. Yet it's these broader realities that augur systemic cohesion. The relevance from the local to the regional to the global levels of society is a direction of progressive accord. Likewise, through monotheistic accord, systemic cohesion can arise. To date, however, the only thing arising from faith and politics has sidelined progressive realities of future evolution.
 
And evidently there's no realizing them through militancy or monotheism in their current context. On both counts—religious and political—faith seems to justify acts of terrorism and warfare, extend the divide generating it. The strategic framework of reasoning is now so invasive in the state system per se that religious terrorism substantiates international war as well as mandating military leadership in the state itself.
 
"If Mubarak disappears tomorrow, you will have the Islamists as the strongest political force in the country," said Mohammed Salmawy, head of the Arab Writers Union. "Worse yet, you might have military Islamic rule because there is no reason to suppose the army is any different than society."
 
Any way you slice it, terrorism exists with power politics. One man's terrorist is still another man's freedom fighter.
 
The multilateral context of resource management
 
How do you overcome it? Advancing the framework of state security between the local, regional and international levels of our political systems could be vital. State security is now a global concern of defense, trade and resources. Realizing general sustainability, after all, should embody a structural direction capable of producing political cohesion.
 
Right now, though, any general direction is ad hoc politically. The system dynamics of international relations are subjugated by global capitalism and unilateral powers. Nevertheless, the political context is there. The key is addressing resources at the regional level, especially in the Middle East. That seems imperative with the region riven by sectarianism and theocratic discord.
 
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to recognize the resource imperative. Whether it involves regulating them regionally and streamlining trade accordingly isn't clear. However, "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," she said in the Persian Gulf last week.
 
Is the world's military power finally forging an avenue of accord by acknowledging resources as problematic for the Middle East? Actually addressing the geophysics of them is another thing. The continental relevance of state resources may well be important when it comes to the environment, but addressing them thus goes against the grain of strategic U.S. relationships in the Middle East, such as with Israel. There's a massive shift here from America's current security framework in the region.
 
Even so, the bottom line on security still comes down to the planet's environment. And geo-political resource management, like it or lump it, has the greatest terrestrial effect. Without political accord on resources, how can the earth maintain its geo systems? Regional coordination is vital for mitigating CO2 levels. The structural direction reaches through the interfaith divide, guiding policy-makers beyond strategic divisions, thereby transforming conviction into action accordingly. And very little of that presently exists in the Middle East
 
Internationally, nations still go by power politics there, evidently. America, Russia, China—all U.N. security members have strategic defense agendas when it comes to this part of the world. The region it seems is for flexing military might and realizing massive revenues from defense industry in exchange for oil, even though oil is a globally problematic resource. And all the key players in the Middle East comply. Entire states have evolved into theatres of war, such as Iraq. Uniting via common animus has culminated in the theocratic divide of Iran and Israel. Why? Is it really just interfaith rivalry over monotheistic authority?
 
The United States, for instance, wants more from Gulf states on sanctions against a nuclear Iran as Israel stays gridlocked in the region over any form of defense regulation. So whilst the United States intends to explore multilateral measures with Iranian nuclear technology in the Middle East, without Israel at the table what's the point? There's a strategic divide here in determining security relative to defense industry.
 
Systemic defense regulation underpins all issues requiring multilateral measures. Without it collective security arrangements can't form in accordance with geo frameworks of resource management. And without the global objective in the security framework, power politics reoccur. Is it realistic to expect otherwise? Defense industries keep producing trans-border ballistic materiel. State economies, such as Israel's, continue relying on the industry and pursuant conflicts. Theocratic divisions remain, religious fundamentalism continues ramifying, and environmental consideration for any security framework gets thrown out the window
 
General sustainability
 
"Over the coming decades, humanity faces six enormous challenges, each of them pivotal to our destiny in the longer run, possibly to our survival as a species," Australian CSIRO scientist Julian Cribb said recently. Resource scarcity and climate change topped the list. As with Prince Bin Talal, Cribb targets universal changes in human understanding to resolve global issues. The same theme arose after the Coptic bombings in Egypt from Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the nation's highest religious official, when he called for a paradigm shift to overcome sectarianism.
 
Nothing transcends all religious and political differences within humanity more than nature. From the Torah to the Qu'ran, it's in every creed. Humanity apparently has a divine responsibility to nurture the world. With current security arrangements, it's not happening. Defense systems are out of control, as with trade practices. The facts on earth are increasingly severe. The latest climatic catastrophe in Australia could be prescient. Floods are damaging the world's primary coal mining industry, a root cause of global warming. They've severed major highways as water rushes through the mined terrain to the ocean
 
"In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions," Andrew Fraser, the Queensland treasurer of Australia, said in the country's northeast.
 
Laurelle Atkinson is a geopolitical analyst in Australia.

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