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This lesson will explore the religious conflicts of the Middle East. It will specifically describe the conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Jews and Muslim Arabs, and fundamentalist Muslims and the Western world.

Conflicts of the Middle East

Today’s lesson on the role of religion in the conflicts of the Middle East can be one full of emotion and opinion.

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For this reason, we’re going to spend our time looking at the factual information surrounding this often tumultuous part of our world. In doing this, we’ll give a brief summary of three of the most turbulent relationships that have defined the Middle East. They are the relationship between Sunni versus Shiite Muslims, Arabs versus Jews, and fundamental Muslim groups versus the West.

Sunni Versus Shiite

Going back in time, we’ll start with the Sunni versus Shiite conflict. The Shiite/Sunni divide is one of the defining conflicts of Islamic culture. Occurring shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632 CE, it is a divide that still exists today.It began in the 7th century over who should take the position of caliph, or the religious leader of Islam, after Muhammad’s death.

Those who called themselves Shiite wanted to see Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, as caliph. However, the Sunni favored majority rule and wanted Abu Bakr to be their caliph. With both sides refusing to back down, violence soon broke out among the two groups as Muslims were pitted against Muslims.Sadly for the Shiites, who were in the minority, the Sunni won out and Abu Bakr took the position of caliph. However, although Abu Bakr took official power, violence continued, with a few of the first caliphs even being murdered.Eventually, Ali, the man the Shiites originally favored, rose to the position of caliph.

However, he too was murdered and although his son quickly rose to take his place, the divide between the Shiite and the Sunni had become a permanent one.Today this divide still exists within Islam, with the Shiite minority mainly residing in Iran, as well as southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. Although the conflict has seen times of cooling, it has recently reared its head as ISIS, a very orthodox and militant Sunni group, has killed thousands upon thousands of minority Shiites and others outside the Islamic faith.

Jews Versus Arabs

Speaking of those outside the Islamic faith, we now come to the conflict between Arabs and Jews.

For this conflict we first need to jump thousands of years back in history to a man named Abraham. Very interestingly, Abraham is considered the father of both Jews and Arabs. In other words, both groups trace their lineage back through him. However, the groups divided after Abraham, as the Jewish nation sprang from Abraham’s son Isaac, while Arab Muslims trace their lineage through his other son Ishmael. Since the time of this fork in the family tree, Arabs and Jews have been at odds with one another. With the rise of the Prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam, the divide between Jews and Arab Muslims only deepened.

Keeping this history in mind, we can now jump back into more modern times.During World War I both Jews and Arab Muslims fought with much of the West against Germany and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately for the Arabs, after the war ended much of Arab lands occupied by the Turks were divided and placed under the rule of the Europeans rather than being given their own independence.Greatly angered by this, Arab Muslims began violently rebelling all over the Middle East. With this, Arabs were able to gain independence in the predominately Muslim areas of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. However, the area of Palestine was not so cut-and-dry as both Jews and Muslim Arabs shared this space.After much bloodshed, the area east of the Jordan River became the independent Arab country of Jordan.

Being that this area was predominantly Muslim, this division seemed to fall along religious lines. However, in 1948 the lands west of the Jordan were made into the independent Jewish nation of Israel. With this, the Muslim world was incensed. Putting it rather mildly, the Muslim world was outraged and many Arab nations invaded these new Jewish lands in an effort to push out the influence and the people of Judaism.Unfortunately for the Arab nations, their forces were quickly rebuffed and the independent nation of Israel stood its ground. With this, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees were displaced to the west bank of the Jordan River to an area which has become famously known as the Gaza Strip.Since this time, wars and conflicts have claimed many lives as Arabs fight to regain land while the Jewish nation of Israel seeks to protect its borders.

Sadly, this conflict has filled much of the world’s newspapers as terrorism and violence from both sides have claimed many lives throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Fundamentalism Versus the West

With this we come to our last conflict, Muslim fundamentalists versus the West.To begin, we first need to note that most religions of the world have a group of followers who consider themselves to be orthodox.

Another term we often use is the word fundamentalist. Both of these terms denote one who upholds a strict interpretation of the tenets of a faith.In other words, an orthodox member of a religion is one who follows the rules of the faith to the very last speck of it. To use a rather modern term, they tend to be very black and white in their approach to religion and life. It is the orthodox members of the Islamic faith that we are dealing with as we discuss Islam’s conflict with the West.To explain, many orthodox Muslims hold to an extremely stringent interpretation of the Koran, Islam’s holy text, as well as Sharia Law, or Islam’s religious law.

With this strong tie to the Koran and Sharia Law, many fundamentalist Muslims have a strong desire to protect Islam and its lands from outside religions and influences.Their main goal is to bring Islam back into a strict interpretation of the Koran in which only Muhammad’s teachings are seen as pure and right. In other words, no faith but that of Islam should exist in Middle Eastern lands.

This means the total expulsion of Western Christianity, Western culture, and Israel, especially Jews and any of their supporters.When speaking of world conflict, several of the more militant, orthodox Muslim groups are believed to have given support and shelter to many who the Western world deems terrorists. Desiring to see any and all Western influence expunged from what it considers its Holy Lands, some militant groups have called for jihad, or war against infidels, or non-believers of Islam, who have desecrated their sacred soils. Some of these most militant groups have been firmly linked to the infamous Taliban and even the more infamous Osama Bin Laden.

Lesson Summary

Throughout history the Middle East has been burdened with religious conflict.There has been conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over the rightful religious leader of Islam, known as the caliph. On one side of this conflict are the Shiite who wanted to see Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, as caliph. On the other are the Sunni who favored majority rule and wanted Abu Bakr to be their caliph.The Middle East has also been shrouded by the conflict between Muslim Arabs and Jews, both of whom consider Abraham to be their ancestral father (father of both Jews and Arabs). This conflict has mainly centered on the establishment of the 1948 independent Jewish nation of Israel.

To this day, the Muslims who were displaced from this land continue to fight for the right to this area, specifically the Gaza Strip, or the west bank of the Jordan River.The Middle East and the world has also been embroiled in the conflict between Muslim fundamentalists and much of the West.Orthodox or fundamentalist denotes a religious follower who upholds a strict interpretation of the tenets of a faith.Orthodox Muslims hold strictly to the Koran, Islam’s holy text, as well as Sharia Law, or Islam’s religious law.

The strictest of fundamentalists believe no faith but Islam should exist in Middle Eastern lands. This desire to expel all others from their lands has led to much terrorism as infamous names like Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban have shed blood in their desire to purge their lands of outside influence through jihad, or war against infidels.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand the origin of the conflict between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims
  • Describe the historical conflict between Arabs and Jews
  • Recognize how Muslim fundamentalists view the culture of the West

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