Recently I went to a talk by an academic and journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern politics. This journalist has spent the last decade living in the Middle East and as part of her research she interviews people from all over the spectrum in Middle Eastern politics– from activists involved in the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists. Her talk, which really was more of a discussion that invited questions and input from the small audience, delved into a lot of various issues in the Middle East right now, and I left the talk thinking, “This is the kind of information I wish everyone in America knew.”
Some of the things she mentioned were things I already knew. Some were things I had never heard of, or had heard of but didn’t understand on any sort of deep level. Here is a brief list of things that I think would be surprising to most Americans– some of them are things that came up in the talk, and others are things I’ve only learned myself in the past few years and wanted to pass along.
Many of the jihadists and people recruited by ISIS aren’t “good” or overly observant Muslims. A lot of the jidahists that have emerged in Europe, especially, are petty criminals or people who do things like drink, take drugs, or sleep around that are “haram” (forbidden) in Islam. They tend to be more driven by a desire for violence and revenge, or a search to belong to/be accepted into a group, than religious piousness.
The #1 indicator of whether or not a young Muslim man would become radicalized is whether or not he grew up in a Francophone (French-speaking) country. Researchers think this is because of the strict secularism laws that exist on those countries, including a ban on headscarves, that has made some Muslims feel oppressed.
Only 2 countries have enforced headscarves/covering laws (Saudi Arabia and Iran). However, 15 Muslim countries have had or currently have laws *against* headscarves. Turkey is one of those countries– women covering their heads was not allowed in schools, universities, or public service positions until 2013.
The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are completely arbitrary and relatively new. They were made France and Britain after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of the Middle East at the time) lost the war. The random splitting up of territories didn’t take into account how the locals felt about it, and ended up in a lot of the in-fighting between different ethnic groups and sects that we see now.
“Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous. If someone is an Arab, it means they’re from one of the countries on the Arabian peninsula or Northern Africa. There are lots of Arabs who aren’t Muslim– there are plenty of religious minorities living in those countries, including Christians. Alternatively, there are lots of Muslim countries, and lots of Muslims, that aren’t Arab. Fun fact: Indonesia is home to the largest percentage of Muslims in the world.
… Related, not all Muslims speak Arabic. Turks speak Turkish. Iranians speak Farsi. Afghanis speaks Pashto and Dari. Pakistanis speak Urdu. Bangladeshis speak Bengali. … And so on. Also, this is not a complete list by any means; all of these countries have other languages and dialects as well. But they definitely do NOT all speak Arabic.
There are no camels or deserts in Turkey. When people learn that I live in Turkey, a lot of them seem to picture some sort of vaguely Arabic landscape that looks like Morocco or Saudi Arabia. Nope. Turkey has lots of different climates due to all the mountains in the country, but a lot of the country is very green and humid and fertile, and there is not a single desert to be seen anywhere. Also, we don’t do our weekly grocery shopping at the Grand Bazaar.
There has been a LOT of Western, especially American, meddling when it comes to Middle Eastern governments, leadership, and power struggles. We had a hand in the Iranian Revolution in 1979. We funded and armed the group that would become the Taliban (and are currently funding the weak Afghanistan government that is now fighting against the Taliban). We are currently arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the Syrian government and the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight against ISIS. These are just a few brief examples, but basically the US has a long history of choosing a side that supports our own interests without really thinking of the long-term consequences or how it affects the people living in those countries.
There are different “levels” of devoutness for practicing (and non-practicing!) Muslims. I don’t mean that there are set levels and they choose one, but Islam is the same as most any other religion, especially such a big one– some believers are very strict, some aren’t, and there’s everything in-between. Some Muslim women dress modestly, some don’t; some Muslims don’t drink alcohol and some do; some fast during Ramadan and some don’t; some pray five times a day, and some don’t. And there are also Muslims who consider that their cultural identity but who aren’t actively practicing.
And before I end, one more thing to perhaps challenge the perceptions you have of Islam: the picture I used for the cover photo of this post was taken in Spain, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.