Making sense of the Middle East

October 31, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-lead

October 30, 2013: (This article was written in mid-September 2013 and analyses the state of the Middle East at that time.)

Strife in SyriaIn the last three years, Barnabas Aid has carried many news stories and articles about the Middle East. Many of these have focused on the brutal and destructive civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011, or on the rapid and tumultuous political changes that have racked the nation of Egypt. Since both countries have large Christian minorities, who have been cruelly oppressed as a result of these events, they are of particular concern to Christians in the West.

But the strife in Syria and Egypt is not purely internal. To be understood correctly, it has to be seen in the context of a wider and multi-faceted conflict across the entire region. A number of divisions run across the Middle East, creating political and social tensions of many kinds. The key regional players compete with one another to achieve outcomes that will best serve their own agendas.

These divisions hugely complicate the unfolding dramas in Syria and Egypt, not least because some countries (notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are on the same side in one of the conflicts and on opposite sides in the other. They also further jeopardise the already precarious position of Christians in the region, many of whom are caught up in the wider struggle but have little power to influence it.

In this article we shall consider some of the most important of the divisions in order to illuminate not only recent events in Syria and Egypt, but also the developing crisis across the entire Middle East.We shall also spell out some of the implications for Christian minorities in the affected countries.


The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims has a long and bloody history. The split originated little more than 20 years after the death of Muhammad, in a dispute over the succession to the leadership of the Muslim community. When Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, became caliph in 656, he was not universally accepted as the rightful heir, and war broke out between his supporters and his opponents. Although Ali and his sons were all killed, his followers, Shia Ali (the party of Ali), continued and became the Shia Muslims.

Sunni empires and states have been the dominant force in Islam, and Sunnis have comprised the majority population. They represent at least 80% of the world’s Muslims today and around 90% of those in the Middle East. But the Shia are a majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and have significant minorities in Lebanon, Yemen and some other Gulf states. The Shia Alawite sect has also ruled Syria for decades through the current President Assad and his father, despite their being only a small minority in the country.

Sunnis and Shias remain hostile to each other, and in the Middle East this hostility has intensified in recent decades since the resurgence of activist Shia Islam. That revival was seen most clearly in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the emergence of the militant Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982. Sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias broke out in Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003 and has continued sporadically ever since, whileIran has hardly troubled to hide its intention of extending its influence in the region. Meanwhile the Sunni regimes in the Arabian Peninsula are battling to suppress their own restive Shia minorities (or in Bahrain’s case, majority) while supporting anti-Shia groups elsewhere.

The conflict between Sunnis and Shias is becoming more complex because of outside allegiances. Some Sunnis support Hezbollah because they are opposed to Saudi Arabia. Equally, Lebanese Christians may support either Hezbollah or the Sunnis. In both Lebanonand Syria, Christians may end up supporting Sunnis, Shia, Hezbollah or Kurds depending where they find themselves, for self-preservation.

The main Sunni-Shia battle is currently between the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (including Qatar) and the Shia nation of Iran, with the West siding with the Gulf states againstIran and its nuclear potential. It is being played out most graphically and tragically in the cities and villages of Syria. The Alawite government is a key Iranian ally, and both Iran and Hezbollah have declared their plans to defend Syrian President Assad, even against attacks from the West. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar, eager to deprive their Iranian rival of its Shia partner, are supporting and arming the opposition forces.

An opposition (Sunni) victory in Syria is likely to have a devastating effect on Iran and its Shia allies. The regime in Iran would come under increasing pressure from its own discontented population, and a new political system might emerge. Hezbollah in Lebanon and other Shia supporters would also be greatly weakened. Although these changes might have some positive political results, there is also a danger that the wounded Shias would lash out against soft targets as a way of bolstering their popular support, especially perhaps the highly vulnerable Christians in Iran. (The outlook for Syrian Christians in this scenario is examined below.)

Aggression between Shias and Sunnis has spread to neighbouring countries. A Sunni jihadi group in Iraq killed hundreds of Shias in 2012, aiming to eradicate key Shia strongholds in the country. In Lebanon the two communities have lined up in support of the Syrian government and opposition respectively, sometimes with bombings and gun battles. Hezbollah is also perceived to threaten the stability of Lebanon and the wider region, as it has become a state within a state, is anti-Israel and obtains its arms from Iran. The Shias of Syria with the Alawi-led government of Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian Shia regime and Hezbollah are perceived as a single entity that the West, Israel and the Gulf states would like to see dismantled. An al-Qaeda-linked group has also threatened Shia supporters of Hezbollah with attacks.

The turbulence created by this inter-Muslim conflict looks set to continue for some time, with potentially disastrous consequences for Christians and others caught in the crossfire. But the prospect of a decisive Sunni victory in Syria seems no more promising for them.


Middle EastAt its beginning, the Arab Spring of 2011 was widely hailed as a victory for Western-style liberal democracy over despotic autocracy. But the picture that later emerged was a very mixed one. Only in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were governments actually overthrown; in various other countries, sustained civil disorder or more moderate protests brought some political changes, but the old regimes continued in power. In still other places, major or minor protests effected little significant change. At least, however, the optimists could point to free elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as a sign of positive change.

But the infant democracy in Egypt has already come to grief, as the elected government has been toppled in a popular uprising supported by the military. The Tunisian regime is deadlocked with its opposition following the assassination of two politicians, and the Libyan government is struggling to contain numerous hostile militias (many of them linked to al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups) who are defying its attempts to disarm them.

The people of these nations are learning the hard way that democracy is about more than votes and elections. In order to flourish it requires a strong civil society, including a fair and free press, a strong and independent judiciary, laws that protect individual rights and safeguard the political process, and an educated and informed electorate. Many or all of these essential conditions are lacking in North Africa.

At the heart of the crisis, at least in Egypt and Tunisia, lies a fundamental conflict between secular liberals and Islamists over the roles of Islam and the state. While liberal or progressive Muslims, along with Christians and other minorities, believe that religion and the state should be separate, Islamists insist that Islam must dominate the state. They believe that the Islamic source texts and sharia law contain sufficient guidance for a complete social and political system, and that the state is the best tool for implementing this. As a result, they seek to gain political power by any means they can, including by democratic elections, and then to use the coercive power of the state to enforce sharia.

Although the early Arab Spring protests were dominated by liberals, who called for Western rights and freedoms, these were not delivered by the subsequent elections. In Tunisia andEgypt, the long established and better organised Islamist movements capitalised on the power vacuum to pursue their own goals. The Islamist parties, Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, duly emerged victorious from the polls in Tunisia and Egypt respectively.

The Muslim Brotherhood at once began to exert its grip on Egyptian politics and society. It rapidly imposed its own Islamist agenda, pushing through an unpopular constitution that gave clerics an undefined role in ensuring that all legislation complied with sharia. The Islamist regime of President Mohammad Morsi was characterised by a series of power grabs directed at (for example) the judiciary, regional government and the media. Christians were among the worst affected by the new order, with an increase in violent attacks and a growing number of “blasphemy” cases that saw them jailed for allegedly insulting Islam. The government offered them no effective protection and failed to take action against those responsible.

It appeared that Islamist success in Tunisia and especially Egypt would herald a strengthening of Islamism throughout the Middle East. Its goal of reshaping society and politics on the basis of sharia to create Islamic states ruled by Islamists seemed within touching distance. There was even talk of re-establishing the caliphate, a united Islamic state under one ruler or caliph.

But all was not as it seemed. Discontent grew rapidly among secularists in Egypt, who saw their revolution being hijacked by the Islamists. The government also failed effectively to address the country’s economic crisis, and inflation (especially rising food prices) fuelled popular discontent. Mass public protests erupted on the streets. Despite attempts by the Egyptian government to neutralise the army, it retained its independent political power and was ready to respond to the massive unrest. And Saudi Arabia, which feared Islamist groups as a threat to its monarchical government, was much alarmed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s progress. It is thought to have been heavily involved in Morsi’s fall, and it is bankrolling the new military government.

Meanwhile, secularists in Tunisia have been emboldened by the coup and have also taken to the streets. They have demanded that the Islamist Ennahda government should step aside and make way for a caretaker government. In what had appeared to be Islamism’s new stronghold of North Africa, it has lost ground in terms of both popularity and political power and is suddenly on the defensive, if not in disarray. These changes are likely also to impactTurkey, whose own government has been moving increasingly towards an Islamist position.

Sadly the beleaguered Christians of Egypt have seen no improvement in their conditions since the fall of the Islamist government. On the contrary, they are suffering one of the worst periods of targeted violence against them in modern history. Because of their known opposition to Islamism they were scapegoated by the Muslim Brotherhood for the military takeover, and they have seen churches and other Christian institutions attacked and Christian homes and businesses daubed with a black X to mark them for destruction. Some Christians have also been killed. There are concerns that a full-scale Islamist insurgency may break out in Sinai in the north and Minya and Assuit in the south, which will endanger the Christian population still further. However, despite the persecution they are enduring, Egyptian Christians have forgiven their persecutors and not retaliated.


Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most rigid, hardline and authoritarian state in the entire region, and it is working hard to preserve its monarchical regime. At the time of the Arab Spring it cracked down hard on its own Shia protestors and helped the Sunni rulers of Bahrain to suppress theirs. And although it played a key role in encouraging the populist Sunni uprisings in various other countries, it rejects political Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood that use the democratic process to gain power. Its extreme conservative brand of Islam, Salafi-Wahhabism, is inherently opposed to democracy.

The small nation of Qatar has used the developing crisis in the Middle East to assume a more significant role. It has provided leadership for the international effort for regime change inSyria, and also for the Libyan insurgency and the new government’s efforts at reconstruction. But unlike Saudi Arabia, it has also maintained close relations with the main political Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood (which has its headquarters there), and supported its government in Egypt. It has also hosted various opposition governments in waiting. By these means it has hoped to avoid a terrorist threat within its own borders and also to promote a stable environment for Qatari investment abroad.

However, major political changes are currently taking place in Qatar. The ruling emir has retired and been succeeded by his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Both countries have immense oil wealth, and they are more than ready to use it to shape the society and politics of other countries and so to safeguard their own position. But this makes them rivals for influence in the Middle East, and this tension is highlighted by the conflict between Saudi tradition and Qatari reformism as described above.

So although the two nations are on the same (opposition) side in the Syrian civil war, they take opposite views on who should succeed Assad. Qatar wants a Muslim Brotherhood regime to be installed, while Saudi Arabia would see this as a threat. When the Brotherhood swept to power in Egypt, Qatar appeared to hold the upper hand; but now the Islamist government has been toppled, Saudi Arabia is in the ascendant.

Anti-Christian repression is more severe in Saudi Arabia than anywhere else in the region. Non-Muslim places of worship are forbidden, and although the substantial expatriate Christian community is supposedly allowed to worship in private, they are subject to raids and arrests. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death, and the small number of indigenous Christians practice their faith in extreme secrecy. Qatar permits Christian worship in a designated area, and expatriate Christians are subject to few restrictions, except that they are forbidden to evangelise. But apostasy is technically a capital offence there too, and indigenous Christians operate mainly underground.

The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is contributing to the instability and violence in both Egypt and Syria, with all its disastrous consequences for Christians. But the unchallenged dominance in the region of either country would be unlikely to enhance the freedom or security of the churches.


Within this regional power struggle are numerous ethnic and religious minorities that are either pursuing greater security or just trying to survive.

The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the region without a state of their own. Around 30 million of them are spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and they are pressing for greater independence. In recent years they have established a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, and they support the opposition to Assad in the hope of doing the same in northern Syria. But although their nationalist ambitions are thus contributing to regional instability, they have been generally hospitable to Christians fleeing from violence in central and southern Iraq, many of whom have found relative safety in the north.

Not for the first time in their long and difficult history, the Jewish people of Israel are also threatened by the factions and volatility of their powerful neighbours to the north and south. They are largely isolated, and a strong Islamist political presence in either Syria or Egyptmagnifies the danger that they face. The ousted Egyptian President Morsi was quoted as making a number of vitriolic statements against the Jews, including a call for a Palestinian state on the “entire land of Palestine”; had his government remained in power, Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty would have been under threat. Islamist rule in Syria would renew the long-standing danger the country poses to Israel’s north-eastern border.

As for the Christians, they are the most vulnerable minority in the Middle East. In addition to their oppression in Arabia and persecution in Egypt, outlined above, they are now facing the wholesale destruction of one of their most ancient communities, trapped in the tortured nation of Syria. Since the uprising began, Syrian Christians have been ruthlessly targeted by Islamist militants within the opposition; their churches have been destroyed, their homes taken over and their people kidnapped and killed.

This is a grim repeat of what happened to Iraqi Christians following the US-led invasion of 2003, when hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes following targeted attacks by Islamist militants, who associated them with the Western powers because of their faith. The Assad regime in Syria had afforded considerable freedom and protection to Christians and other minorities; if it falls, there is some danger that the greater part of the Church in Syria will be obliterated.


The response of Western governments to the continuing crisis has been mixed. The US and UK desire to weaken Iran, and in particular to thwart its nuclear agenda. They are also hostile to the Assad regime in Syria, both for its suppression of political dissent at home and for its support for insurgents and militants abroad, especially in Iraq and Lebanon. For these and perhaps other reasons they have allied themselves with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of the Syrian opposition.

In Egypt the US initially backed the Muslim Brotherhood as the democratically elected government, although it sometimes appeared not to recognise the movement’s essentially Islamist character and aims. For example, at a House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2011, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, described the Brotherhood as a “largely secular” organisation with “no overarching agenda”.

But the removal of Morsi created a dilemma for America as to whether or not this constituted a coup, in which case there would be implications for its ongoing financial and military support of the Egyptian army. It appears to be waiting to see how the fast changing events work out before committing itself to one side or another, while remaining committed to the “non-violent Islamist movements” as potentially the best way of bringing stability to the region.

Both Russia and China are concerned about the growth of radical Islamism, including Islamist terror groups, in the region, as they see it affecting their own countries, where they are facing similar problems. In the Caucasus the Russians face al-Qaeda and a rising tide of Islamist movements. Similarly, in the Xinyang province of China the Uighurs are seeking independence or autonomy and are developing close links with radical Islamist and terror groups in the Middle East.

Islamism in the Middle East poses a real threat to other societies, including those in the West, where radical Islamism is spreading and many Western Muslims are going to fight alongside jihadists in Syria and elsewhere, returning home to become potential jihadists themselves. Western countries are not fully grappling with this problem.


One consistent thread in Western policy towards the Middle East is its failure to support or protect the region’s defenseless Christians. Its actions have contributed to the virtual extinction of the Church in Iraq and seem set to have the same result in Syria, while Christian communities elsewhere have looked in vain for help as they groan under the yoke of persecution.

In fact the intricate divisions described above have generated a surprising new alignment. While Western nations are increasingly on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-Wahhabis and against the Iranians and other Shias, Russia and China are seen as more supportive of a liberal and anti-Islamist position and of the Shias, including Iran. As a result, Christians find themselves supported by Russia and China (not traditionally seen as friends of the Church), while the historic supporters of religious liberty and human rights in the West, which have seen themselves as Christian nations and co-religionists with Middle Eastern Christians, are aiding the radical Islamists and denying Christians their fundamental freedoms.

Western governments face a major challenge in navigating the complexities of the current crisis in the Middle East. It is to be hoped that they will at last take into account the desperate plight of the region’s Christians and take action to defend and strengthen them.

– barnabas team

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