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What if conflicts in the Middle East aren't about religion?


Tiles depict from left, the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, and the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, in Jerusalem's Old City. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

As Americans, we tend to see the Middle East through a lens of religious associations — our own faiths, and those of the people living in the region. Living, and as we seem see every day on the news, fighting.

But what if those associations cover up larger reasons for conflict? And what if those larger reasons are harder to understand, what if they span centuries of political and economic circumstances? If you could view the Middle East through a solely secular lens, what would you see? 

In It's Not About Religion, Gregory Harms makes a case for understanding the conflicts in the Middle East through an understanding of the history, economics and politics of the region. Originally an essay for CounterPunch, Harms has expanded his titular argument into a book with the aim of moving discussions of the Middle East into a more precise territory.

From Harms's original essay:

The reigning paradigm in American mass journalism is encapsulated in noted political scientist Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" hypothesis. This postulation suggests that conflict between civilizations rather than ideologies (e.g., communism versus capitalism) will become the primary global form of confrontation. In his renowned 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, Huntington states, "the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations."

Put another way, the West (read the US) will have to keep its guard up ("maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia") and look sharp as it demurely looks out for its own enlightened interests and tries to help others. But despite best intentions, there will be "countering responses" to be dealt with. What the CIA calls "blowback," Huntington (quoting historian Bernard Lewis) chalks up as "an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage." Naturally, power is partial to retaining both viewpoints, depending on the occasion: Those at Langley provide the unvarnished reality; those in the Ivory Tower furnish the acquittal.

The "ancient rival" reasoning dovetails neatly with the orientalist assumptions mentioned above, and general dismissal of the Middle East as hopeless. In turn it allows the news reportage to make sense, because the same amount of history is disregarded in both: most of it. This thinking is also quite attractive — as is the coverage and commentary — to the foreign policy establishment and planners, for self-evident reasons.

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