For as much as this realm is in the news, the Middle East is still considerably misunderstood by many Americans. Much of the information disseminated is based in myth and half-truths, propagated by ignorant media who espouse propaganda and supported by a few, cherry-picked facts, or passed along by ignorant educators at lower levels of education, or a product of the ignorance of the general population. We tend not to process what we hear in church, in classes, or media. If society could actually do that, we would be able to recognize inconsistencies when we see them.
Most people forget that Christianity has had episodes of violence in its history. Consider the Spanish. Spanish Conquistadors forced native populations to convert to Christianity or die, whether those people be Aztecs or Jews (The Spanish Inquisition). Consider the racism practiced against Africans during slavery, and even thereafter. Africans, and African-Americans, were seen as non-Christian pagans and therefore White Christians could treat them, or any people of color for that matter, any way they wanted.
The Christian Crusaders who sought to evict Muslims from the Holy Land murdered Jews along the way in order to practice for anticipated battles later. After all, the Jews killed Jesus the Christ, right? Christians used this broken rationale to murder Jews and Muslims along the way. In many portions of the Southwest Asian realm, the Muslims protected Jews and Christians from each other. Think about it: the Jews aka Hebrews have existed along-side Palestinians for over 4,000 years. Jews and Christians have existed along-side each other for about 2,000 years. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have existed side-by-side with each other for about 1,400 years.
People often do not appreciate the history of Christianity within this region. The People of the Bible were not Caucasians (not White people). The inhabitants were Semitic people, the ancestors of the Hebrews, and Persians, and Arabs. Moses was a Hebrew, a Semitic person. Abraham was mostly likely from southern Iran or southeast Iraq. His first son, Ishmael, born of Hagar, would go on to parent the lineage of Muhammad. Another son, Isaac, born of Sarah, would go on to parent the Hebrews. Because of Abraham’s significant place in religious history, he is seen as the Father of Three Religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three religions are therefore termed, “Abramic” religions.
Islam and its adherents, Muslims, see themselves as the final stage within the religious Abramic framework. Muslims acknowledge the Tanahk, the Bible, and then add the revelations of the Mohammad, whom they see as the last prophet. Jews and Christians are People of the Book, the Qu’ran, and thus have a special place. Islam recognizes all of the people found in the Old and New Testament. Islam adds an additional work, the Qu’ran. To clear up another myth, “Allah” is not the name of the Islamic God. Allah is the Arabic word for God. Jews call God, YHWH (Yahweh), or Jehovah. Regardless of what you believe, as it really makes no difference, Muslims believe in the same God as the Jews and Christians. The National Geographic video below provides unprecedented coverage of a hajj from the early 2000s. I would invite people to watch.
Throughout history, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been able to live together amicably, more or less. The Ottoman Turks were not friendly to Christians or Jews, though. The Ottoman Turks did use Islam as an excuse to mistreat and abuse others, Christian, Jews, and both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. In recent history, since the late 1880’s, the Zionist movement had been a leading cause of conflict within the realm. The movement for the creation of a Jewish homeland (Zionism) created controversy that persists today, and into the foreseeable future. Part of the problems of today can be tied to the way in which the British and French (see “Sykes-Picot Agreement“) created the boundaries of the modern Middle East, without the consent of local populations, through revoking promises, and not being able to read maps. (“Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East.” BBC. 2013.)
One must also bear this in mind: Religion exists across cultural and ethnic boundaries. What do I mean by this? What I mean is this: An Arab can be Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim. A Palestinian can be a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim. An Israeli can be a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim.
All of the three religions espouse peace. Each religion has episodes of violence that contradict the teachings of their holy people. Unfortunately, people have bad memories, politicize spirituality, and states (countries) institutionalize bigotry. What we must always keep in mind is how people use, manipulate, and corrupt religion towards their own goals. Remember, religion is a human construct, the set of cultural traits, rules, and ceremonies humans undertake to honor their respective deity/deities. The conflict in Israel is not a religious conflict; it is a conflict over space, over landscape, and who has the right to control the scarce resource that is that landscape. When Israel fires on Palestinians, the possibility exists that those people could be Christian Palestinians, Jewish Palestinians, or Muslim Palestinians. Conversely, those Palestinians that create problems could be Muslims, Jews, or Christians. The media glosses over the complexity of cultures found in the Middle East. Rarely does a news network discuss the cultural complexity. As a result, the majority of populations, not just within the United States, but global populations, do not realize the politics of Israel crossover into the cultures Palestinian, Arab, and Jewish Israelis.
Individuals carry mal-formed beliefs derived from erroneous information, myths, half-truths, our own bigotry, or propaganda. To make matters worse, people then make decisions based on these beliefs. Most people, by-and-large, go about their daily business, to satisfy their basic human needs, food, shelter, comfort. I personally have known people from most religions, Shinto, Hindi, Muslim, plus numerous Christian faiths, to name a few. Look at the Christians around you. How many of them go to church regularly? Tithe regularly? Pray regularly? How many do you know attend church only at Christmas or Easter? Read their Bible every day? Muslims are the same way. The vast majority of Muslims do not read the Qu’ran everyday, or attend mosque, or pray. They smoke, drink alcohol, and use bad language, on occasion. They are humans, too, and susceptible to the same pecadillos as everyone else. And, yes, there are Muslims that are more traditional. Christians can be that way, too. Pentecostals, Foursquare, some Southern Baptists, for example, seem extreme to liberal or moderate Christian faiths, like Methodists or Episcopalians.
Do not let the media or talking head talk-show folks fool you: Hezbollah, ISIS, and the Taliban are NOT representative of Islam. Most everything these groups espouse is, in fact, anti-Islamic. The Taliban is an organization of tribes who feel their crude, misogynistic, and traditional way of life is being threatened. They also call themselves Muslims. However, nothing they present or espouse is supported in Islam. Ask any true Muslim; they will denounce the Taliban as a bunch of crazy weirdos. I understand what the media broadcasts, and much of what I have said contradicts Fox News. Remember that any literate person can read a teleprompter.
I should say something about religion versus customs, i.e. head scarfs, burqas, chadors, or any of the other full-length garments women, and sometimes men, wear. The wearing of veils, head scarfs, and body-length robes pre-date Islam. Think about all of the movies and TV shows where Greeks, Romans, and Persians are depicted wearing veils, scarfs, and robes. All of those cultures pre-date Islam, yet somehow we castigate Muslims for wearing apparel different from our Western garb. Arabs, Greeks, Persians, and Romans wore this apparel long before Islam. Body coverings of these types served a few purposes. Robes block the sun. Robes block dust and blowing sand. Robes also provided a way to show ones status in society. Women who wore robes and veils tended to be in the middle- to upper-class within society. Common women and prostitutes did not wear veils and wore less elaborate robes. Women in Christian societies wore them long before Muslim women.
Women in Islamic cultures may, in fact, like wearing their dresses. In Islam, the woman’s form is to be the exclusive right of the husband to see. Think about that vis-a-vis how women in modern Western society dress, where women’s forms are out there in the open for all to see, i.e. TikTok. As a woman, consider a job interview. Do you want to be judged on how much leg you show, decolletage on display, or how your clothes fit? Or, would you rather be judged on your intellect and resume? The full-length robes worn by women can have a leveling effect. We should be careful before we cast judgment on people and cultures.
A pet peeve of mine is the spelling of Israel. People get lazy about spelling “Israel,” putting the “e” before the “a” (“Isreal”). The country is “Israel,” (Izra-el). Why does the spelling matter, you might ask? In the Bible, Genesis 32:28, Jacob wrestles with God, WWE-style, and wins. God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” meaning “he who has fought both God and man, and won.” In Hebrew, “Isra” means “to struggle with.” The proto-Hebrews, the people who would one day become the Hebrew people, called God, “El.” When those two elements are combined, “Isra” + “el,” we have “Israel.” Now, carry this forward to people that have similar names: like Michael (“he who is like God“), Rachael (“ewe“), Gabriel (“God’s hero,” “hero of God,” “he who is strong like God“) , Ezekiel (“he who God strengthens“), Samuel (“he who hears God” or “he who God hears“) are but a few examples.
Spell “Israel” correctly, please.
It is so easy to think the Middle East is home to every Muslim, but the Middle East isn’t. Only about 1 in 5 Muslims live in the Middle East. Indonesia is the world’s 4th largest country (CIA World Factbook: Indonesia), in terms of population, 87% a Muslim country, and women commonly dress as any Western person might. Malaysia (CIA World Factbook: Malaysia) is another Muslim country, a population of about 33 million and is about 60% Muslim. India has the world’s largest Muslim minority population. India is the world’s largest democracy (CIA World Factbook: India), and has elected a Muslim president three times, one of which was an actual space scientist. Turkey is also a democracy (CIA World Factbook: Turkey), and nearly 100% Muslim.