A common thread that runs through many lives is the importance of family and the values that derive from having a strong extended family: respect, honor, and loyalty. The Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all monotheistic religions that grew from the same tradition.
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Each religion used the texts from earlier groups, and so they share many rules and beliefs. For example, Islam and Judaism observe the same dietary rules and have a similar focus on religion as a foundation for civil law. All three share a tradition of prophets, from Adam and Abraham to Solomon and Joseph. Jesus is significant for both Christianity and Islam, and Muslims in addition follow the teachings of Muhammad.
Religion plays a large part in the rhythm of daily life, not only through prayer and study, but also in determining the end of the work week.
Shops in different neighborhoods close down on Fridays for the Muslim holy day, Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath, and Sundays for the Christian day of rest. Religious festivals and remembrances, like Id al-Fitr the Festival of Fast-Breaking, celebrated at the end of Ramadan , or the Jewish Passover holiday, or Easter Sunday as determined by the Roman or Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, are all recognized as national holidays in different countries. An awareness of God Arabic: Allah is exhibited in common Arabic expressions that are used throughout the region -- even in Turkey and Iran, where Arabic is not the local language.
A common response to "How are you? While there are those for whom these phrases reflect the divine, others use them the way many English speakers use "Good-bye" literally, "God be with ye". Religion plays a role in national and international politics as well.
Turkey has a Muslim majority, but is officially a secular nation. Other countries in the region identify themselves with a specific religion, mostly Islam. Lebanon's constitution attempted to provide for power sharing among 18 officially recognized religions, including Maronite and Orthodox Christians , Sunni and Shii Muslims, and Druze.
But because the populations of the various groups grew at different rates, this system eventually became less representative of the nation as a whole and civil war broke out. The poor relations between Israel and most of its Arab neighbors are sometimes described in terms of a perpetual religious conflict between Jews and Muslims.
This reading, however, is too simplistic. Although control over important historical sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a factor in the disagreements, many of the details that stall negotiations have to do with control of land and access to water resources. Furthermore, many Palestinians who demand restitution for their property are Christian, not Muslim, and Egypt's historic treaty with Israel provides a model for how Muslim and Jewish neighbors can live peaceably.
Situated between Africa, Asia, and Europe, the Middle East has been a crossroads for traders, travelers, and empire builders for thousands of years. Africans, Central Asians, and Celts have all added to the ethnic mix. Most of the countries in this region are multiethnic. But even as diversity enhances the cultural richness of a society, it unfortunately may also lead to political conflict. The Kurds, for example, do not have their own nation-state, but are instead spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Their political and military attempts to create an autonomous Kurdistan have been strongly resisted by those states. The multiplicity of languages spoken in the Middle East reflects its ethnic diversity. These language families reflect the successive migrations of different peoples into the region. A quick examination of these languages reveals the influence they have had on each other. Persian, for example, is written in Arabic script, while Turkish incorporates vocabulary words from Persian and Arabic.
Arabic itself is spoken in regional dialectics that are not always mutually understood. Some ethnic and religious communities have preserved "native" languages for religious use, such as Coptic and Greek. The family is an important part of culture in the Middle East, as is evident in the Arabic honorific names that are often used in preference to given names. A man may be called Ibn "son of" followed by his father's name or Abu "father of" followed by his child's name. In traditional Arab societies the family unit is an extended family -- cousins, grandparents, second cousins, cousins-in-law, nieces, nephews, and more -- all living together.
This remains true in rural areas particularly. Migration to the cities has broken up some of these extended families, and the number of people living only with their nuclear family in urban areas is increasing. And then there is Palestine. It was, of course, Christians who shamelessly persecuted Jews for more than a millennium, culminating in the Holocaust. These horrific examples of anti-Semitism were firmly rooted in Western Christian lands and culture.
Islam and Islamic History and The Middle East
Jews would therefore have still sought a homeland outside Europe; the Zionist movement would still have emerged and sought a base in Palestine. And the new Jewish state would still have dislodged the same , Arab natives of Palestine from their lands even if they had been Christian — and indeed some of them were. Would not these Arab Palestinians have fought to protect or regain their land? The Israeli-Palestinian problem remains at heart a national, ethnic, and territorial conflict, only recently bolstered by religious slogans.
But surely Christians in the Middle East would have at least been religiously predisposed toward the West. In fact, the Christian world itself was torn by heresies from the early centuries of Christian power, heresies that became the very vehicle of political opposition to Roman or Byzantine power.
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Even the very references to a "Christian Middle East" conceal an ugly animosity. Without Islam, the peoples of the Middle East would have remained as they were at the birth of Islam — mostly adherents of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Eastern Orthodox Christians never forgot or forgave the sacking of Christian Constantinople by Western Crusaders in Nearly years later, in , Pope John Paul II sought to take a few small steps to heal the breach in the first visit of a Catholic pope to the Orthodox world in a thousand years.
It was a start, but friction between East and West in a Christian Middle East would have remained much as it is today. Take Greece, for example: The Orthodox cause has been a powerful driver behind nationalism and anti-Western feeling there, and anti-Western passions in Greek politics as little as a decade ago echoed the same suspicions and virulent views of the West that we hear from many Islamist leaders today.
The culture of the Orthodox Church differs sharply from the Western post-Enlightenment ethos, which emphasizes secularism, capitalism, and the primacy of the individual.
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It still maintains residual fears about the West that parallel in many ways current Muslim insecurities: fears of Western missionary proselytism, a tendency to perceive religion as a key vehicle for the protection and preservation of their own communities and culture, and a suspicion of the "corrupted" and imperial character of the West. Indeed, in an Orthodox Christian Middle East, Moscow would enjoy special influence, even today, as the last major center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox world would have remained a key geopolitical arena of East-West rivalry in the Cold War.
Samuel Huntington, after all, included the Orthodox Christian world among several civilizations embroiled in a cultural clash with the West. Today, the U. The United States did not overthrow Saddam Hussein, an intensely nationalist and secular leader, because he was Muslim. Other Arab peoples would still have supported the Iraqi Arabs in their trauma of occupation.
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Nowhere do people welcome foreign occupation and the killing of their citizens at the hands of foreign troops. Indeed, groups threatened by such outside forces invariably cast about for appropriate ideologies to justify and glorify their resistance struggle. Religion is one such ideology. This, then, is the portrait of a putative "world without Islam.
Still riven by major ethnic and even sectarian differences, it possesses a fierce sense of historical consciousness and grievance against the West. It has been invaded repeatedly by Western imperialist armies; its resources commandeered; borders redrawn by Western fiat in conformity with its various interests; and regimes established that are compliant with Western dictates. Palestine would still burn.
Iran would still be intensely nationalistic. It would, in many respects, perpetuate an East-West divide. It is, of course, absurd to argue that the existence of Islam has had no independent impact on the Middle East or East-West relations. Islam has been a unifying force of a high order across a wide region. As a global universal faith, it has created a broad civilization that shares many common principles of philosophy, the arts, and society; a vision of the moral life; a sense of justice, jurisprudence, and good governance — all in a deeply rooted high culture.
As a cultural and moral force, Islam has helped bridge ethnic differences among diverse Muslim peoples, encouraging them to feel part of a broader Muslim civilizational project. That alone furnishes it with great weight.