Archives for posts with tag: religion

In the past I’ve tried my best to describe the history that underpins current issues within the Middle East, while at other times I’ve attempted to summarize the ethnic and sectarian politics in specific countries like Syria. Now, I would like to focus more specifically on the intersection of political ideology, sectarianism, and the new regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has dominated coverage of the region. My goal is to illuminate the apparently intractable sectarian conflict in the region and help to contextualize the recent conflict in the Middle East.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran was brought into sharp relief when the Saudi Royal family executed Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’a activist and critic of the the Saudi monarchy, which precipitated an angry crowd sacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Much has been made over the interminable origin of this recent spat between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran. It’s tempting to see the conflict between these two nations as part of an ancient rivalry between divisions in Islam, but as I’ve written in the past, the origins of this conflict are actually quite recent, and are the product of changing political ideologies and regional politics rather than religion itself.

The Middle East has undergone a series of transformations over the past century that have helped shape the current conflict today. Notably, many of the current boundaries of the region are the product of an agreement between great powers at the conclusion of WWI. The Sykes-Picot Agreement helped establish many of the Arab states today: Syria and Lebanon were partitioned by the French mandate, partially with the goal of creating a majority-Christian homeland in Lebanon. Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq were all administered by the British, who had their own designs on the territories they controlled. While some boundaries were drawn with religion in mind, most were the result of negotiations with France and the newly independent Turkey or even the odd hiccup. Beyond the geography witnessing upheaval, the political ideology of the region has witnessed remarkable change in the past century as well.

These mandates did not remain under European patronage for long; by 1954 countries in the region sought legitimacy not from outside powers but from within. While religion remained important in social life, it did not form the ideological foundation of these new states. Countries were divided between hereditary monarchies and republics who derived legitimacy their from various revolutionary ideologies, often based on ethnic nationalism. During this time both Iran and Saudi Arabia were monarchies and were aligned with the West, which limited their competition with each other.

Instead, the Saudis were coping with the rise of Arab nationalism and its revolutionary proponents. Charismatic leaders like Gamal abdul-Nasser captivated mainstream Arab thought with a mixture of socialist economics and a pledge to unite the disparate Arab states against Israel. By 1967 the Saudi kingdom had seen Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, North Yemeni, and Libyan monarchies all fall to republican revolutions. Saudi Arabia resisted the spread of Arab Republican movements both politically and militarily, sending troops into North Yemen to support the monarchy there; this was the beginning of the little known Arab Cold War, where monarchies and Arab Republics competed for regional influence. But Nasser’s rise would be cut short, and with it his associated political vision.

When Nasser demanded that UN peacekeepers withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in June of 1967, it precipitated a major confrontation between the Arab world and Israel, which proved disastrous for both the Egyptian state and for the secular ideology that underpinned it. In less than one week the armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and (to a lesser extent) Iraq were defeated by Israel. Egypt’s entire air force was wiped out in a matter of days and more than 10,000 Egyptian troops lost their lives. In addition to the crippling military defeat, Israel was now in control of the remaining 22% of Palestine, including Jerusalem. The loss marked the beginning of the end of Arab nationalism’s eminence in political thought. While all of this was happening in the Arab world, Iran was facing its own political transformation.

Just as the Arab states were subject to Western influence at the end of the First World War, Iran too was the victim of power politics. For over a century Iran was the front line in the so-called Great Game, a geopolitical rivalry between the British and Russian empires. The Bolshevik revolution dramatically altered this rivalry and turned Iran in a major faultline in the Cold War. The British and US saw Iran as a front-line that separated the Soviet Union from the Middle East, and as such they went to great lengths to prop up its monarchy, led by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Though it was a monarchy, Iran’s political system was more open than Saudi Arabia’s and the legislature (Majles) was able to appoint a prime minister with some executive powers. In 1951 the Majles appointed Mohammad Mossadegh as Prime Minister, who instituted a variety of progressive reforms including nationalizing the then British-controlled oil industry. This angered the British and precipitated a CIA and MI6 led-overthrow of the government, with the acquiescence of the Shah. To reward the monarchy for its support in the coup and favorable energy policies, the US bankrolled the regime and helped establish the SAVAK, a brutal secret police force and security service that acted to silence opponents of the monarchy.

This betrayal of democratic values led to a growing disdain for the regime and its Western allies, which would eventually boil over in the revolution of 1979. Not all of the activists in this revolution were Islamists, but the leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini proved irresistible to the other political factions. By 1982 the Islamists aligned with the Supreme leader had crushed the internal opposition and consolidated power. The ideological basis for this revolution was overtly religious, based largely on Khomeini’s concept of Velayat-e faqih (Guardians of the Jurist). The State would be led by a jurist or Supreme Leader, a pious religious figure who would preside over a complex arrangement of elected and unelected leaders. While the basis of this revolutionary state was centered on Shi’a Islam, its consequences have altered both the geopolitical and the ideological landscape of the entire region.

The new regime began to export its revolution almost immediately, using the newly-formed Revolutionary Guards, the armed wing of the revolution to support movements modeled after their own. This included sending forces to southern Lebanon (where they essentially created Hezbollah and empowered the beleaguered Shi’a community), funding and supporting Shi’a insurgents in Iraq during Saddam’s rule, and inspiring and allegedly supporting insurgents in Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’a Eastern Province.  The revolution also marked the beginning of several events which upset the sectarian balance of power in the region.
ShiasReligionCore_lg(Source: Dr. Izady, Gulf/2000)

Shortly after rising to power in Iran, the Islamist regime was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, thus beginning an eight year conflict which would claim hundreds of thousands of lives and create immeasurable suffering. This war posed a challenge for Saudi Arabia, as it had frosty relations with Saddam’s Ba’athist republic but even worse relations with the revolutionaries in Tehran; it sided with Iraq and heavily funded its military campaign. Syria was one of the only regional actors to support Iran in this conflict, which produced a lasting connection between the two regimes. As the war drug on, Iraq became increasingly dependent on support from its Sunni neighbors, which did not go unnoticed in Tehran. Eventually the war ended in a stalemate and Iraq was so devastated by it that Saddam sought recourse by invading Kuwait. This led to both Iran and Iraq becoming isolated in the 1990s in the region and also by the US under the policy of dual containment.

The end of the Iran-Iraq war (1988) and the settlement that ended Lebanon’s civil war (1989) helped to de-escalate the rivalry between Sunni states and Iran in the 1990s, though tensions remained high. Iran continued its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia and the its Gulf allies supported the Sunni community there, which was given a stronger political role after the civil war ended. Sunni Arabs continued to dominate government and military posts in Saddam’s regime, but the country was isolated by its neighbors over its invasion of Kuwait. This period of calm and equilibrium was upset by two key events which brought the regional politics of sectarianism into sharp relief.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it may have gotten rid of a republican regime that was disliked by Saudis, but it also dramatically altered Iran’s position in the region. Iraq’s Arab Shi’a majority had long been ruled by a regime that favored Sunni Arabs, but the invasion reversed this and empowered leaders of the Shi’a community who had long connections with Iran. Saudi Arabia has expressed disapproval with Baghdad’s sectarian policies and its close relationship with Iran, and relations between the two states remain strained.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Lebanon’s delicate political arrangement was also thrown into disarray; on February 14, 2005 Rafik Hariri, the Sunni Prime Minister, was assassinated in a massive bomb blast. Hariri was seen as a close ally of the West and the Saudi Kingdom, and he was actually a Saudi dual-national. Syria and Iranian-backed Hezbollah were widely suspected of being responsible for the attack, and on March 8th and March 14th there were massive protests in support of and opposition to Syria’s intervention into Lebanese politics. Lebanese political parties are now divided into two major blocs, the pro-Syrian/Iranian March 8th Alliance and the pro-Saudi and pro-Western March 14th Alliance. Religion plays an important role in support for either bloc: the March 8th Alliance is dominant Shi’a regions, while the March 14th Alliance receives most Sunni votes, Christians are split. The pro-Syrian/Iranian March 8th Alliance currently controls government, to the irritation of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom sees both Iraq and Lebanon as areas of conflict with Iran where it has lost ground recently, which has compounded its response to civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

syrian demographics, updatedAs I have written about Syria before I will limit my description of the conflict there. The Assad regime in Syria was one of the first Arab states to support the revolutionary government in Iran and has been a consistent ally ever since. Iran’s support for the Assad regime has been associated with the sectarian nature of the Syrian government, which is dominated by followers of the Alawite community. Alawites are adherents of the Twelver sect of Shi’a Islam but also have their own unique practices. Before the start of the civil war, Sunni Arabs (the largest group in Syria) were included in many government posts, but the increasingly brutal conflict has all but eliminated their role in the government. But Iran’s support for the regime has more to do with regional politics than religion. Syria borders Israel and Lebanon, and is closely linked to Hezbollah, a group of such geopolitical importance that it is often called Iran’s aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. For Iran, losing Damascus could mean losing an important strategic alliance. Saudi Arabia, for its part has been arming Syrian rebels under the banner of Sunni political Islam; these militias not only battle the Assad regime, but also fight the al-Nusra Front and Islamic State, who similarly draw support from the Sunni Arab community. As the Assad regime was an ally to Iran, one could argue that Saudi Arabia is looking to enhance its influence here while Iran seeks to maintain the status quo. Syrian_civil_war
(Military situation in the Syrian Civil War as of February 1, 2016. Source)

For most of its history Yemen been dogged by instability and a lack of national unity. For much of the last century it was divided between the US-backed Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. After the fall of the Soviet Union the two countries were unified but conflict between the north and south soon arose. The southern rebels were put down violently by president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who consolidated power and continued to rule with an iron fist, including by in a decade-long conflict with the Shi’a Houthi rebels. The Houthis (named after their spiritual leader) are a rebel group in Yemen that draws on support from Zaidis in northern Yemen, where they are concentrated. Zaidis are fellow Shi’a Muslims but follow a different jurisprudence than the Alawites in Syria or the Twelvers in Iran, and the community has long criticized its treatment by the central government in Iran.

In 2011 president Saleh faced a popular uprising similar to those seen in Egypt and Tunisia and in short time he had fled to Saudi Arabia. His replacement, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi faced the unenviable task of uniting the disparate regions of the country while also battling an active insurgency by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This task became insurmountable when the Houthis united with pro-Saleh Sunni tribes in the north in a bid to overthrow the Hadi regime in 2014. In short time the capital Sana’a was overrun, forcing Hadi to dissolve parliament and flee to the southern capital Aden. The Saudi Kingdom has long accused Iran of backing the Houthis (though little has been substantiated) and perhaps because of this, it has responded very aggressively to the fall of Sana’a to the Houthis, waging an expansive military campaign in the country. In a way, Yemen acts as a good example of the security dilemma facing Saudi Arabia and Iran: just as Iran fears losing influence in Syria, Saudi Arabia fears losing influence in Yemen, both have responded to these fears with military escalations.
(Situation as of 3 February 2016: Red = Controlled by the Hadi government and the Southern Movement, Green = Controlled by Houthis, White = Controlled by Ansar al-Sharia/AQAP forces, Grey = Controlled by Islamic State. Source)

Both Yemen and Syria were republican states that were heavily criticized for their oppressive and corrupt practices; it is little surprise that they’re facing internal conflict now. One of the biggest drivers of instability in the Middle East has been the failure of revolutionary Arab Republics to deliver meaningful improvements in the lives of their citizens. Unlike the monarchies which can claim historic and religious ties to their governance, Arab Republics only ever had their own record to rely on for legitimacy. Arab Republics have by far been the biggest victims of revolution and instability since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have all seen their regimes either toppled or fighting for their life in the new Middle East. These regimes all started out as revolutionary republics that promised to transform economic and political fortunes of their citizens but failed in a variety of ways. They quickly morphed into repressive dictatorships with sprawling bureaucracies designed to suppress dissent. State terror is so common throughout the region that all Arabs share common word for Secret Police: the feared Mukhabarat. Arab Republics not only failed to create space for political expression but also failed to improve their economies. In 1960 Egypt and South Korea had similarly sized economies and populations; they aren’t even in the same category of development today. Iran and Saudi Arabia themselves have similarly repressive state structures (the Baseej in Iran and the Mabahith in the Saudi Kingdom) but their legitimacy hasn’t been as thoroughly shaken as the Arab Republics have been. The collapse of Arab Republics both as effective states and as a political model has helped to create the power vacuum we see today, where Iran and Saudi Arabia fight to enhance their influence both militarily and ideologically. 

MiddlEast map with labels.png

It is my opinion that neither side will be successful in defeating the other through ideology or military power. Iran’s influence outside the Shi’a community has been limited, as evidenced by its complicated relationship with the Sunni Palestinian group Hamas. But Saudi Arabia faces its own obstacles: by bankrolling Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt and helping to crush of the Muslim Brotherhood there the Saudi Kingdom has alienated many mainstream Sunnis and potential allies against Iran like Qatar and Turkey. Saudi Arabia has long relied on US support, but this been strained by the recent nuclear accord with Iran and fears that the US wants to enter into closer relations with Iran. These fears aren’t entirely unfounded as the US and Iran share a strategic interest in defeating Islamic State, which Saudi Arabia is less willing to confront. Yet Iran has also alienated potential allies through its aggressive intervention in Syria and Iraq.

Unfortunately for the people of living in these areas of conflict, it seems unlikely that this rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran will end anytime soon. In Syria the conflict rages on while the Vienna peace talks have been suspended after a hopelessly fragmented opposition failed to agree on what representatives to send; meanwhile the most effective opposition groups (al-Nusra and IS) aren’t even participants. The powers that are participating in the Syrian civil war (including Saudi Arabia and Iran) seem totally willing to continue supporting belligerents there.

A major factor that pushes each side toward a continuation of conflict is the imbalance between perceptions of power and actual power in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran’s opening with the West over its nuclear program will certainly lift its economy, and it was already one of the largest economic centers in the region. It already has a longstanding history of successfully intervening in other countries in the region through the IRGC, which is as old as the Iranian revolution itself. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has a massive supply of foreign-exchange reserves and a modern (and expensive) military. And yet both of these countries view themselves as under threat by the other. It is this imbalance between perceived power and actual power that I believe will lead to a continuation in their regional conflict in the near future.

Ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab world have long fascinated me. The Middle East is home to a variety of ethnic and religious communities with ancient origins; in the village Maaloula in Syria the last remaining speakers of Western Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) reside. While the community that lives in Maaloula is tiny (2,000 people live there) the region contains many larger groups. This can complicate nation-building and has led to some hilariously complicated political alliances. When I visited the region in 2010, I was particularly amazed at the concentration of groups into enclaves.

I took this picture in Gemmayze district in Beirut. The circular sticker with a tree in the center is actually the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a militia-come-political party that represents Maronite Christians in Lebanon. A short taxi ride to the south of Beirut, near the Shatila refugee camp you find very different political signs along with different demographics:

In the 2006 war with Israel this area was bombed; most of the people here belong to Shi’a Islam and support either Hezbollah or Amal, whose late founder Musa al-Sadr is pictured here. Lebanon is not the only country with a unique mixture of communities, as the recent hotspots of the Arab Spring demonstrate: minorities play a big role in the outcome of the Arab Spring.

I was thrilled to add Syria to my trip after I arrived in Beirut. Many things distinguish Syria from the other countries in the region; the country’s diversity is just one of them. Syria has been in three declared wars with Israel (1948, 1967, 1973) and numerous other conflicts indirectly. Since 1971 the country has been ruled by the Assad family, first under Hafez al-Assad and currently under Bashar al-Assad. Both Bashar and his father belong to the Alawite sect: a branch of the twelver-school of Shi’a Islam.

Before going deeper into the details of this faith I would like to explain the connection the Alawites have with the Assad regime. At the time of independence from France (1946) the Alawites were marginally represented in Syrian society; most of them lived in the mountainous area east of  Syria’s coast, near Latakia. Young Alawi men began to join the military in large numbers, particularly the Air Force after Syria’s unsuccessful war with Israel in 1948. One of those men was Hafez al-Assad, who would become commander of the Syrian Air Force after a coup by the Ba’athist party in 1963. In 1966 the Ba’athist Party had an internal coup and by 1971 Hafez Assad would become the leader of an authoritarian Syrian state. The role of Syrian Alawites has been transformed since then.

In many ways the Alawi people of Syria face a similar dynamic that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq under Saddam Hussein; both groups received benefits from the state via association. Syria’s economy, like many Arab countries, is dominated by the state; about 30% of the total workforce in Syria works in the public sector. Alawites frequently direct important businesses, from private cellular companies to the real estate firms. Sadly, the darker side of this sectarian connection has been illuminated by the recent uprising in Syria: the state’s feared Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya (Mukhabarat for short) is controlled by the Air Force, and is currently directed by Jamil Hassan, an Alawite. The Syrian military has also increasingly relied on its 4th armored division to carry out attacks on rebels. This division is commanded by Bashar’s younger brother Maher al-Assad and is almost entirely comprised of Alawi soldiers. While the state controls this division directly, many of the gruesome atrocities recently carried out were done by militias mostly drawn from Alawite population called the Shabiha (ghost), ostensibly with support from the state.

It isn’t my intention to portray the Alawites as an evil sect, or to conflate the actions of the regime with the larger community. With that said, Alawites face a future that is complicated by demographics and a unique relationship with the regime in Syria; they are hardly alone:

(note: I used statistics from the US Dept. of State in part because exact percentages for each community are often disputed by different sources while the DoS estimates are at least internally consistent)

The truth is, more than a third of Syria’s population faces an uncertain future that could be reshaped by democracy; a fact not lost on the regime. I hold the not-uncommon opinion that Assad uses the threat of sectarian conflict to raise the stakes for minority communities in Syria. I think the regime hired Alawites to carry out the massacre in Houla with the expectation that it would provoke a sectarian response by Sunni Arabs. Assad might have gotten his wish at the start of the month when footage was released of Syrian rebels executing four prisoners, allegedly members of the Shabiha based in Aleppo. But the people killed in the video were not from the Alawi sect, they reported to be Sunni Arabs from the Al-Berri clan. Whether or not the opposition is currently engaged in sectarian conflict, there are deep issues about the fate of the Alawi population in Syria once the regime collapses. Some distrust of the sect seems inevitable: the Alawi connection to the Assad regime is complicated by the secretive nature of the group, which keeps certain aspects of the faith secret.

While the Alawi have a connection to the regime poses the primary challenge to the group’s future in Syria, the Druze there face a mainly religious one. While the Alawi have a secretive past, the sect underwent a so-called “Sunnification” under Hafez Assad; this helped bring the Alawi into the mainstream and settle tensions between the Sunni majority and the small sect. The same did not happen for the Druze, whose faith is still considered by most Muslims to be a separate religion from Islam, many Muslim scholars go so far as to call it a cult. Even more so than the Alawi, the Druze keep large portions of the faith a secret and it is alleged that male believers are forbidden from learning certain principles of the faith until they are 40 years old.

In addition to the doctrinal differences that separate Syria’s Druze (about 3% of the population) there is a history of regionalism, and even brief autonomy for them during the French Mandate of Syria:

As pictured, the historic center of the Syrian Druze community has been near the mountain Jabal al-Druze. Most of this resides in the modern governate of as-Suwayda, which retains a Druze majority. While many Druze reside in this area, they can also be found in Syria’s major urban centers, Aleppo and Damascus. Despite the history of autonomy in Jabal al-Druze, Druze in Syria and in neighboring countries are known for their loyalty to the nations they live in.  While the Druze of Syria have tried to avoid taking sides in the recent conflict, recent violence has drawn them in at times.

While they remain silent, the Druze living in Lebanon to the west and in Israel to the southwest have become vocal and divided over the revolution. The influential leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Jamblatt, has endorsed the opposition and asked foreign powers to help overthrow Assad. Meanwhile the Druze living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have become divided, with many youth siding with the opposition. It should be noted that there are about 100,000 Druze living in de-jure Israel who are integrated into Israeli society, holding political posts and serving in the military. Eventually I think the Druze community in Syria will support the opposition, but not until a more clear shift in the balance of power emerges.

If the Syrian Druze face a future partially dictated by the actions of their community abroad, the Kurds of Syria face a future dominated by it. The Kurdish people are dispersed across the region, millions live in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Broader Kurdish relations with the governments of the area have played into local politics in Syria. In 1998 Turkey nearly went to war with Syria (then under Hafez Assad) over Assad’s alleged support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which was accused of terrorist acts in Turkey. Hafez Assad reversed his support for the PKK and forced its leader Abdullah Ocalan to leave  Syria; relations with Turkey improved soon after.

The biggest and best armed Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has recently taken control of government institutions and set up road blocks in parts of Syria’s northeast. The PYD has connections to the PKK and some have speculated that Assad is allowing the PYD to take control of the northeast in exchange for not joining the opposition. This action been condemned by some Turkish lobbyists, who see it as an opportunity for renewed violence in Turkey’s southwest. In addition to Turkey holding a position on the Kurds of Syria, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders have also become involved. The leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, recently got Syria’s two biggest Kurdish organizations the PYD and the Kurdish National Council to share power. This has in turn inflamed tensions between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), as there was a brief standoff between soldiers in the Iraqi Army and the KRG’s Peshmerga near the border separating Iraq and northeastern Syria. While the Syria the Kurds might not be united behind either the regime or the opposition they remain united in their demand for autonomy: by now the opposition realizes that autonomy, in some form, will be the price for Kurdish support.

The article that inspired me to write this blog (from the WSJ titled: Can Syria’s Christians Survive?) focuses on the final group I want to discuss. Christians have lived in Syria since the advent of the faith, the apostle Paul famously made his conversion there and the community of Christians has stayed there ever since.

(me at the site of Paul’s baptism in Damascus)

The largest Christian denominations in Syria are Greek (Eastern) Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Melkite Greek Catholic, and the Oriental Syriac Orthodox Church. While different sources dispute the size of the Christian community in Syria, few sources put them under 10% of the total population. Syria has experienced a region-wide phenomenon of large-scale Christian emigration over the past 30 years.  The secular orientation of Hafez and Bashar Assad’s regimes has been popular with many of the Christians in Syria, this has led to tensions with the Sunni majority in places of fighting. In al-Qusayr (a town south of Homs) Christians took up arms and manned regime checkpoints. This provoked a violent response and the town was Christians suspected of supporting the regime were allegedly executed, with thousands later fleeing the city. With this painting a bleak picture for the future of Syria’s Christians, there are Christian leaders within the opposition. George Sabra is a Christian in the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, he argues that the regime is an ally to no faith and that the Free Syrian Army has had Christians in its ranks since the beginning. But even he admits that most Christians are afraid of the future and choose to stay out of the conflict as a result.

The fear of long-term communal violence has led some academics suggest partitioning Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines, but this solution is riddled with flaws in my opinion. Syria is a nation dominated by the two cities Damascus and Aleppo; over a quarter of all Syrians live in the metropolitan areas of these cities and most minorities have large communities there. The two cities might contain more Kurds than the north and northeastern sections of the country, where PYD and KNC fighters have been most active. The countries Druze might be concentrated near Jabal al-Druze but many reside in the two main cities. And while the Alawi have a heavy presence in the northwestern part of the country, their large communities in Aleppo and Damascus would be separated by hundreds of miles from any Alawite State. Finally, the country’s Christians are mostly concentrated in the two cities, but also have communities west of Homs mountains (in Wadi al-Nasara). Despite being 10% of Syria’s overall population, there appears to be no partition of the state that could protect them.

(from the WSJ article)

Some have responded that the sectarian tensions within Syria are so insurmountable that we should just give up and support the regime; again I see many problems with this outlook. It’s true that Christians have complained about the rebels and some refugees have gone on record saying:

The nightmare for Christians is when the revolution took an Islamist face, it is not the moderate Islam we know in Syria. We are talking about a kind of aggressive and impulsive Islam.”

This sentiment underscores legitimate grievances from the Christian minority, but it makes little sense to deduce from this statement that the murderous regime of Assad needs to be supported. The regime is responsible for the majority of the over 20,000 dead in Syria so far. The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis and given the UN and aid agencies a herculean task as more than 200,000 refugees pour into neighboring countries, according to the UN. It seems unlikely at this point that the regime could ever survive in its current state, regardless of outside influence. While Bashar’s father was able to quell an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982 with similar brutality (killing 20,000 in the process) the world has changed since then. The Cold War has ended and despite Russia’s opposition to any direct action by the UN Security Council there is already evidence of material  support for the rebels pouring into the country.

The region’s march toward democracy does not need to come at the expense of its religious and ethnic minorities, democracy and pluralistic societies can coexist. We should not feel like we’re faced with a choice between the autocratic oppression of the past and a new populist oppression of minorities. For democracy to thrive in the Arab world, there needs to be a change in attitudes towards minorities and towards the state itself. The violent cycle of authoritarian regimes being replaced with new ones that use violence to avenge the past has to stop.  The process of finding truth and reconciliation as it has taken place in Latin America offers some guidance to this end. Until then, the alienation of minorities in the Arab world will only serve to create more enemies and continue the tragic trend of emigration by minorities.

America is a Christian Nation. Of course it’s not in any official or legal sense, but statistically, the US remains a majority Christian nation. Americans are also more likely than most other industrialized nations to say that religion is “very important” (source). The latest surveys put Christians at 76% of the total population of the US, with 51% of Americans being Protestant and 25% being Catholic (source).

While the US has a high percentage of Christians, the percentage of adult Christians has dropped 10% from 1990 to 2008 (same source as before). At the same time, the population claiming No Religious Affiliation has grown rapidly, from 8.2% of the US in 1990 to 15% in 2008. From 1990 to 2001 the population of “Nones” (as the ARIS terms it) more than doubled. Now there are ten times as many Nones as there are Latter Day Saints in the US. The makers of the ARIS survey claim that within 20 years Americans with no religious affiliation could make up 20% of the US (source). Other polling agencies have corroborated these findings with similar results; according to Gallup, 16% of Americans now claim no religious identity (source). Finally, the biggest losers in religious growth have been Mainline Protestant groups, and to an extent the Catholic Church, according to the ARIS survey. There is an important note to make on Catholics in the US: Catholics are leaving the church and being replaced by latinos, at least nationally. As such the ARIS notes:

“Religious switching along with Hispanic immigration has significantly changed the religious profile of some states and regions. Between 1990  and 2008, the Catholic population proportion of the New England states fell from 50% to 36% and in New York it fell from 44% to 37%, while it rose in California from 29% to 37% and in Texas from 23% to 32%.” (source)

What I found more interesting in these surveys was how the national data broke down geographically. An earlier source (the Ipsos MORI survey) that Americans are rank religion’s importance higher than most industrialized countries (source), but this varies widely depending on what part of the US is surveyed. Gallup has a great summary of their findings on this matter: When asked “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” 65% of Americans said Yes while 34% said No. This cannot be directly compared to the Ipsos MORI survey because the question is worded differently. Instead we can simply state that Ipsos MORI found that 86% of US Christians find religion important while 66% of worldwide Christians found religion important (source).

Getting back to the importance of religion in the US, here is a map of the US showing religiosity and an accompanying chart comparing states:

One finds the least religious states in the West and the Northeastern parts of the US. here’s a look at the percentages:

A complete list of US States by importance of religion can be found here.

Another great breakdown of religious adherence in the US comes from a USA Today infographic on the matter. The page allows you to mouse over results and makes navigating the data easier, unfortunately it is not possible to imbed it on this website. Instead, I can upload some of the most interesting graphs as pictures here:

The rise of the Nones was most pronounced in the Northeast, where this article oddly places DC and Delaware in the South, I think they belong in the Northeast. The South saw No Religion grow the least. How about Catholicism?

Here we see the biggest growth in Catholics has been in states with high immigration from Latin America, like Arizona, Texas, and California. Every state in the Northeast and all but one state in Midwest has seen a decline in Catholic-identifying people. Things look worse from the remaining denominations of Christianity in the US:

Only Rhode Island and Louisiana saw growth here. Louisiana is interesting because it saw a 16% decline in Catholic-identified people during the same time, perhaps they converted to Protestantism or more likely, Hurricane Katrina reshaped the demographics of the state.

So where to most of the Nones in the US live?

Unfortunately one has to mouse over the bubbles to see the percentages, I can say that 34% of Vermont’s population identifies with no religion, while only 5% of Mississippi’s population does. Feel free to look at the infographic for complete results.

Something that surprised me was how many Northeastern states rank high on this list. The Western US has been labeled the “Unchurched Belt” yet many Northeastern states are less religious than California, or Arizona, for example. This may be due to a historic irreligiosity that the Western US states showed before the Northeast caught up. Here is a ranking of No Religion by state in 1990:

Here we see why the US West was considered the “Unchurched” part of America. Even Utah had a higher percentage of Nones than most non-Western states.

So what does all of this mean for the US, is America turning into an atheistic country? apparently not, according to polls of America’s Nones; a full 51% of US Nones believe in a God or a higher power. I think a better question is what effects will the surge in US irreligion have on the Culture War in the US today. One of the biggest issues relating to the Culture War in the US is gay rights. Gallup has a great article that summarizes Americans views on this. They found that for the first time in the US, the majority of respondents believe that gay/lesbian relations are morally acceptable. About 60% of men and women aged 18 to 49 find gay/lesbian relations acceptable, while only 44% of respondents over 50 find it acceptable. But this distinction pales in comparison to the importance of religion. Gallup found that 85% of No Religion respondents (Nones) find gay/lesbian relations acceptable. 62% of Catholics find it acceptable while only 42% of Protestants do. This makes the delta between US Protestants (51% of the US population) and the Nones (15% of the US population) more than 2 to 1, or 43%.

One of the most recent electoral outcomes relating to this was California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in 2008. The poll divided people on religious lines. One poll from the PRRI found that on Proposition 8:

“Solid majorities of Latino Catholics and white mainline Protestants, along with a majority of white Catholics, would now vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, while solid majorities of African American Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, and Latino Protestants report that they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.”

With this I want to conclude with an idea: maybe the lines of the US Culture War aren’t drawn between Red States and Blue States, maybe they’re drawn between the most religious Protestants and the Nones. It was hard to find statistics on Evangelical denominations of Protestant Christianity, but I’d bet its somewhere around half of the Protestant population in the US. That means that in 20 years, if the ARIS projections hold, the US will find itself culturally divided, with the Nones and conservative Protestants making up 40% of the population, the rest could be dominated by more moderate Catholics and mainline Protestants. If the “importance of religion” poll indicates anything, perhaps instead of Red and Blue states. the US is most culturally divided between the irreligious West and Northeast against the South and parts of the Midwest, where religion is more important to people.

Using Google’s Public Data Explorer lets take a look at labor force participation rates and gender. unfortunately I wasn’t able to upload the graphs to this blog directly, but you’re free to verify my findings here

contained in the data-set is this definition for Labor Force Participation Rate:  “Percentage of the working-age population (ages 15–64) that actively engages in the labour market, by either working or actively looking for work. ILO (2010d). [“Key Indicators on the Labour Market: 6th edition”. Geneva: ILO.] Accessed June 2010.” they direct you to this link for further detail:

I wondered how a selection of Muslim-majority countries would compare with non-Muslim majority ones, but wanted to retain some measure of development for fairness. I chose the latest UN report measuring the Human Development Index for 2010. The reason I chose to use HDI ranking was to prevent ridiculous scenarios like Afghanistan vs. France. While the HDI is not perfect, it should be sufficient for the task of roughly comparing levels of development.

I like pictures of flags so I created an image of my word table to retain them 😀

I tried to break down countries by region, using neighboring non-Muslim countries when I could*. I included several Middle Eastern countries that did not have current HDI information just for comparison’s sake. HDI ranking is on the left while the female/male participation ratio is on the right.  Red indicates comparisons where Muslim-majority countries have more female participation in labor than their non-Muslim counterparts.

There are several interesting things we find here. Overall, higher HDI ranking does not imply female participation, in Muslim and non-muslim countries. For example, the US has a ratio of 85% female participation vs. men, while Cambodia has 88% female participation!

At the same time, it would be remiss not to point out that the majority Muslim countries had a lower female participation than their similarly developed non-Muslim counterparts. out of 25 comparisons only 5 showed higher female participation in Muslim countries. In other words, 80% of the Muslim countries had a lower rates of female participation in the labor market.

What’s notable, is that of the five exceptions, all come from former communist states! even Turkey, which has been hailed for its secularism, had a considerably lower rate of female participation. Also notable is the outcome for Bangladesh. Even though it scored lower than Nepal, it ended up beating out a much bigger competitor in India! I didn’t use India as a comparison because the HDI difference was too high, but its worth pointing out that despite its higher development, India’s female participation is very low, at just 42.2%. India was also featured on an earlier list on female literacy. The Economist has an article on sexist attitudes in India that sheds some light on this.

In the Middle East (as defined by an earlier post) the picture more negative than in Bangladesh. Only two Muslim countries there reach 50% female participation and in eight have a 3rd or less participating. Even in oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain where per capita income is high and their HDI is comparable to European countries women are a marginal part of the labor force. The good news is that in many of these countries the rate of female participation is increasing; but unfortunately this trend is not uniform in the region. notably, Egypt, with its recent revolution has gone from having the best levels of female participation in 1980 (ahead of even turkey) to having a below-average participation ratio.

Perhaps more insight could be gleaned from the former communist exceptions in this table as well as Bangladesh.

*there is only one non-Muslim majority country in the middle east and it’s HDI rank is also considerably higher so I didn’t use it for any direct comparisons)

Total: 33

Majority muslim: 20. 60.7% Over 25% muslim: 5. 15.1% other: 24.2%

Sudan                  61.1%     71.8%    50.5%    4.72

W. and Futuna 50.0%    50.0%    50.0%    no data

Malawi                62.7%     76.1%    49.8%    5.92

Comoros              56.5%    63.6%    49.3%    5.03

India                     59.5%     70.2%    48.3%    2.73

Eritrea                  58.6%     69.9%    47.6%    5.08

Togo                     60.9%     75.4%    46.9%    4.96

Egypt                    57.7%     68.3%    46.9%    2.83

Burundi                51.6%    58.5%    45.2%    6.55

Cote d’Ivoire      50.9%    57.9%    43.6%    4.50

Liberia                  57.5%     73.3%    41.6%    6.02

Mali                      46.4%     53.5%    39.6%    7.42

Morocco              51.7%    64.1%    39.4%    2.68

C.African Rep.   51.0%    63.3%    39.3%    4.41

Chad                     47.5%     56.0%    39.3%    6.25

Pakistan               48.7%    61.7%    35.2%    4.00

Ethiopia                42.7%    50.3%    35.1%    5.22

Nepal                   48.6%     62.7%    34.9%    4.10

Gambia, The      40.1%    47.8%    32.8%    5.30

Mozambique     47.8%    63.5%    32.7%    4.62

Mauritania          41.7%    51.8%    31.9%    5.86

Bangladesh         43.1%    53.9%    31.8%    3.11

Senegal                40.2%    50.0%    30.7%    4.38

Yemen                50.2%     70.5%    30.0%    6.58

Guinea-Bissau   42.4%    58.1%    27.4%    4.86

Somalia                37.8%    49.7%    25.8%    6.76

Iraq                       40.4%     55.9%    24.4%    4.18

Benin                   33.6%     46.4%    22.6%    5.20

Guinea                35.9%     49.9%    21.9%    5.79

Afghanistan        36.0%    51.0%    21.0%    6.69

Sierra Leone       29.6%    39.8%    20.5%    6.08

Burkina Faso      26.6%    36.9%    16.6%    6.47

Niger                    17.6%     25.8%    9.7%      7.46