Intercommunal Violence in the Middle East
One of the most common stereotypes about the Middle East is that it is a violent region, full of intractable conflicts between religious groups who have been fighting each other “forever.” The most commonly cited example of this type of violence is the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this stereotype is also used to discuss intercommunal violence (i.e., fighting between groups of different faiths), such as Christian-Shi’a conflict in Lebanon, or Sunni-Shi’a violence in Iraq.
What is largely overlooked in these discussions is the way that intercommunal violence in the Middle East is in many ways a result of the move from empire to nation-states. This is not to say that violence between people of different faiths didn’t happen in Middle Eastern empires. However, intercommunal violence was the exception and not the rule. We have already discussed how religious communities under Muslim empires were organized and administered to a great degree according to the tenets of their faiths, functioning in some cases as partially self-governing entities under a larger imperial umbrella. In hard times this separation of communities could cause a lot of tension when one community prospered more than the other. This tension was exacerbated by the rise of European power, as many European leaders began to take a special interest in minorities, particularly the Christian minorities, of the Middle East. Not only did Christians have increased access to education through schools created by missionaries or European governments, but also certain Christian merchants were granted what amounted to the legal status of Europeans in the Middle East. These merchants functioned economically as Europeans, with all of the tax breaks and other economic advantages that entailed. This allowed them to prosper at the expense of local, Muslim merchants. Situations like this could lead to tension and occasionally intercommunal violence at the local level. So while the conflict arose between two different religious groups, religion itself was often not the basis for the conflict, but rather secondary to other concerns.
Much intercommunal fighting in the Middle East today is also not primarily theological in nature. One example is the conflict between Arabs and Jews that began under the Palestinian Mandate prior to the creation of Israel. It was primarily a conflict between Jews who wished to create a nation-state for their people, and Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) who wished to prevent that state from coming into being. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the conflict has centered on whether or not that state is to be considered legitimate, and what kind of restitution (if any) is owed to the former Arab inhabitants. Thus while the sides of the conflict may line up largely as that of Jews versus Muslims, and each side may use religious arguments to support their claims and deny those of their opponent, the basis of the conflict is not primarily about religion. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a political conflict over the right to land.
“Inter-community Relations and Sectarian Politics.” International Institute for Strategic Studies, December 8, 2007. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
Quataert, Donald. “Chapter 9: Inter-communal Co-operation and Conflict.” The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
A. Holly Shissler
Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History, University of Chicago
Erin L. Glade
Ph.D. candidate, University of Chicago
1. What is the issue with seeing the problems in the Middle East as stemming from ancient conflicts between religious groups? What other causes have contributed to these conflicts?
2. How did the influence of European powers change the role and status of religion in the Middle East?
3. How else can we understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than seeing it as coming out of ancient religious disagreements?