Blair: Middle Eastern religion is “regressive”

5 Jan

When asked whether there was risk of renewed war in Lebanon on World at One earlier today, Blair replied that the Middle East’s religious policies were regressive.  This is in some parts true: Saudi Arabia is a one-religion state; Iran’s practice of religious freedom sometimes seems to be little more than an exercise in irony; events over the last month in Egypt show that even in countries with a traditionally higher level of tolerance, tension is resurfacing.  Last week 21 people were killed and 97 injured in a suicide attack outside a church in Alexandria as they were leaving a mass to welcome in the New Year.

But Blair’s sweeping comment did not refer to the country posed in the question.  Lebanon is generally recognised as the most liberal of Middle Eastern countries, with a policy of religious freedom that extends much further than mere words.  The majority of Lebanon’s population is Muslim; approximately a third is Christian.  One can wear what one likes regardless of the area one is in: the hijab is frequently seen in Ashrafieh (historically a Christian area) and legs and hair are also seen in Dahieh, a Shi’ah area.  The role of Lebanese president is reserved especially for a Maronite Christian (the Prime Minister is always Sunni and the Parliament Speaker Shi’ah).  Lebanon’s people are in general passionate about their religions; they are not, though, generally searching for a fight, hoping for war, or seeking to kill their religious opposites.  Muslims, Christians and Druze live alongside one another, generally in peace.  While the media is sure that war is shortly to descend in Lebanon, Lebanese inhabitants are hoping and praying that it does not. Ramzy Baroud described the Special Tribunal, investigation the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, as “seen by many in the region, including Hezbollah itself, as a roundabout attempt to subdue the Lebanese resistance to Israel.”  For war to break out in response to the Tribunal’s findings would be seen as playing into the hands of Israel and indeed the US.

The reaction of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not “regressive.”  He called the Coptic attack an attack on “all Egyptians”.  Such a statement refuses to cement a potential division between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian elements.  Likewise, in Cairo, activists both Muslim and Coptic held a protest to show solidarity with those who were killed.  Muslim clerics paid a condolence visit to the Coptic leader, Pope Shenouda.  Schools and universities across Egypt held a minute’s silence to honour the dead.  Were these acts regressive? Blair’s statement merely suggests a Western superiority in its attitude towards religion that is false.  It is not all of the Middle East and not all of any Middle Eastern country’s population that favours religious extremism.  Al-Masri al-Yom, an independent Egyptian daily, reported after the attacks: “we believe that if the national fabric is solid enough, no foreign faction could set a fire in our midst.”  Such solidarity is impressive and progressive.

If the West continues to lump together religious faith with religious extremism, while continuing to hold a position of superiority that assumes the Western system, whatever its flaws, is impeccably better than the Middle Eastern, there is little hope that Western involvement in Middle Eastern politics can have any fruitful influence.  (Nor that the West will allow itself to learn, where it can, from the Middle East.)  Assistance and support cannot work from above.

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