In part one and part two of this article we looked at the strong influence of secularism on the history of the foreign policy establishment of the United States. But Washington’s relations with the capitals of the Muslim Middle East is not a one-way street. In this post I want to offer an overview of the strong, yet varied, influence of religion in the capitals of the Middle East. This affects their international relations, and some insight into it is crucial for understanding the secular – religious dilemma of U.S. – Mideast relations.
Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma
of U.S.-Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer
U.S.– Mideast relations run both ways. Whereas Washington approaches the Middle East from a secularized orientation, the capitals of the Muslim Middle East rely on varying degrees of explicit religious belief, depending on the country in question. In other words, although everyone knows that Islam is that religion, it less commonly understood that there is no universal agreement in the Muslim world how each government should express Islam politically.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a monarchy based on Islamic law (shari’a) as it is interpreted and applied through the powerfully influential and well-instituted Wahhabi Sunni branch of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism controls and runs mosques, schools, and clerics, and preaches and enforces a strict Islamic fundamentalism that strongly influences all of areas life. This strict kind of Islam, for instance, has made constructing churches and synagogues in the country illegal.
Like Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam is by far the most dominant religion in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. But note some crucial differences. In Jordan, a monarchy, Islam is the state religion but, opposite of Saudi Arabia, Jordan is tolerant of non-Islamic religions. Egypt is an Arab republic (not a monarchy), with Islam as the state religion, and the country has significant Christian minorities in the Coptics and Roman Catholics. In Lebanon, the Arab country with the largest percentage of Christians, a unique political system is designed so that more that a dozen different religious groups, mainly Muslim and Christian, are structurally factored into the national government. “Parliamentary seats, ministries, governments jobs, and so on are apportioned according to these different confessional groups. So the political process formally recognizes these religious groups, that each one should have a share in the pie.”
Iran is different still. It is not a monarchy and Shia Islam is dominant, and for most of the mid-twentieth century, the government of Iran was secularized and practiced, in part, separation of mosque and state. Today, Iran a theocracy, constitutionally identified as an Islamic republic. The secularization of the government ended 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 (he overthrew the country’s American-backed Shah). The contemporary determinacy between the religion of Islam and the politics of Iran dates back to the time. A religious Supreme Leader has since then been the head of the government (first Khomeini, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).
Besides the Supreme Leader, a twelve member Guardian Council, comprised of six jurists and six religious clerics (all must be highly-educated, dedicated Shia Muslims), oversees parliament. The Council can veto any piece of legislation that it deems to violate Islamic law (shari’a) or the Iranian constitution. The Council approves or disqualifies candidates wishing to run for any election. One of the more alarming ramifications of this for Western powers has been when Council at times disqualified nearly all reformist candidates who were seeking to run for political office, either for seats in parliament or for the presidency.
In this religious–political mix of government the Supreme Leader is thought by Iran’s ruling clerics to be God’s representative on Earth, in the sense of being directly answerable to God, and therefore not as susceptible to public opinion as are Iran’s president and members of parliament. He is not elected by the public but selected by the Assembly of Experts. Under him is the president, who is elected by the people, and a parliament, also comprised of elected officials. Also, the Supreme Leader has been invested in the legal structure of the Islamic Republic with ultimate political authority. He has the final word on all matters of state, including foreign policy.
Iraq is different still. Iraq’s system of government is constitutionally republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic. Its constitution makes Islam the official religion of the state and “a foundation source of legislation” that “guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.” Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq, but under the dictator Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist Party, largely Sunni, ruled. After Saddam Hussein’s fall from power in 2003, a predominantly Shia government has ruled Iraq.
Syria is an Arab republic in which Islamic jurisprudence, as stated in its constitution, is “a major source of legislation. The State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order. The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected.” The Sunni Baath Party controls every facet of Syria, including its military, even during the current horrific civil – religious war.
There are, of course, other Muslim countries in the Middle East. I have only noted some basic, mainly constitutional, religious features of the foregoing seven countries to indicate their governments’ different understanding of how Islam should be expressed politically. It is crucial to understand that there does not exist a single governmental pattern of Islam operating everywhere in the Middle East. This means that Washington cannot have, thus it does not have, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy for the Muslim Middle East. That is impossible.
Yet it is not unusual to find U.S. citizens talking as if “they’re all the same over there.” No, they are not. Foreign policy decision making for a secularly institutionalized White House and Congress in the political–religious diversity of the Muslim Middle East is complicated and challenging. The U.S. has diverse policies for these states.
In the Muslim Middle East, the official conjunction of religion and the state, often called political Islam, seems like a bad marriage to most Americans. In the Muslim world, the alliance is generally considered a good marriage (perhaps it is better to think in the plural, here, “marriages,” since there is no single way in which state politics and religion are wed in that region).
The governments of Muslim majority countries face complicated and challenging decisions. They struggle, for instance, each in its own way, with issues such as democracy, modernization, and globalization vis a vis what (they determine) faithfulness to Islam requires of them in such areas. One of the current crucial international decisions they grapple with is how much cooperation they ought to give to Western powers in dealing with ISIS (a radical Sunni organization). In this, the division between Sunni and Shia governments in the region has played a crucial role in influencing foreign policy. That is, just as Washington engages differently with the various capitals of the Middle East, the various capitals of the Middle East have different policies toward ISIS, and their interpretations of Islam plays a large role in this. Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, for instance, have dissimilar policies toward ISIS.
One thing that does unite the varied religious expression of Islam is that they all face a common problem in the institutionalized, secular reductivism that controls the international relations of America and the rest of the West. This does not mean, however, that when, say, Iran’s foreign minister meets his American counterpart that the former talks like a theologian. He talks to his American counterpart, and seeks agreements, in the language of politics. But he will come to the table knowing that an explicit religious environment hovers over his head nearby.
Countries of the Muslim Middle East, then, face the equal opposite problem to that of the United States. Because their political governances formally recognize religious interests, albeit in varying capacities and with different theological interpretations of Islam, each one must contend from its religious point of view with how its relations should, or should not, develop with the United States, where religious authority is excluded from playing any official role.
Despite ongoing, serious attempts to solve it, the nub issue remains: finding peaceable and just ways to negotiate the secular – religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations. Part four of this article will look at ways in which the United States has in recent decades faced challenges at this crucial intersection, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.
 “The Christian Message in Lebanon,” Christianity Today, Aug. 2007, journalist Rami Khouri interviewed by Charles Strohmer
©2016 by Charles Strohmer
Top image by Wajahat Mahmood; other image by dvidshub (permissions via Creative Commons).