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Cultures of the Middle East

There are several distinct groups in the Middle East, ranging from political through religious to sectarian. Each of these groups has some distinct core values or principles that guide or inform its existence. These values justify its difference from the rest of the batch. There are various reasons why the differences exist. However, it is fascinating to note that, although these differences are present, the communities live in considerably peaceful existence until a certain force messes with their delicate balance.

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In the Middle East, several cultures manifest themselves, especially through religious inclinations. The various religions include Islam and Christianity, amongst others. Islam is the most prominent of all these. The paper will focus on it as the predominant religion within the Middle East. Islam dates back to the seventh century when Muhammad established it as a religion and inspired quite a number of followers.

He was the leader of the Muslim congregation until 632 A.D. when he died. Upon his death, he left behind several priceless values and recorded teachings for his followers. These are still a unifying factor for all followers of Islam because, for instance, they all believe in the Quran. However, Prophet Muhammad did not prescribe a succession guideline leaving it to his followers to decide who should succeed him. The result of this predicament is that the followers differed in the opinion of who should take the throne. Some felt that the succession should trace the prophet’s bloodline.

In line with this case, Muhammad’s son in law, Ali, was the successful heir (Tristan 56). These were later to become the Sunni Muslims. The rest of Islamic believers felt that the most pious follower of Muhammad should take over. These became the Shiites. Since Islam is a culture within the context of this paper, these two subsections are sects at best. However, their influence all over the Middle East is irrefutable. Issues such as communities waging wars, people losing their lives and property, and rampant discrimination amongst others, are illustrative of the widespread effect of this division between sects.

The Sunnis are the orthodox Muslims. Their teachings and doctrines are close to the teachings of Muhammad. They form almost 90% of the entire Islam population. They are the group that advocated for Abu Bakr, who was the most pious Muslim after Muhammad’s death. They believe that the mantle of Imamship should fall on such an individual. The Shiites, as opposed to the Sunnis, believed that succession should remain within the prophet’s bloodline.

Their doctrines are more flexible in terms of interpretation. However, they adhere to the imam’s teaching with strict obedience. A compelling example is the recent political unrest in Iran, where the imam supported the less popular president. The entire country could do nothing about it (Hiltermann 799). This explains why Sunni Muslims do not attach so much significance to the title of the imam. However, the Sunnis are remarkably strict in their doctrinal application.

On the other hand, Shiite Muslims revere their imams, believing that these clerics play a divine role in their lives. Therefore, in countries like Iran, which has the majority of its followers being Shiites, more respect goes to the imam in relation to the state. Among the Sunnis, there are several sects, such as the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the Shiites have sects such as the Druze in Lebanon, Syrian and Israel, and the Alawites of Syria.

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Some of the common beliefs that both Sunnis and Shiites share include the five pillars of Islam. These include the shahadah or the recitation of the creed, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”; both Shiites and Sunnis recite this creed. They all believe that Muhammad was the last prophet. The Quran, which contains the teachings in Islam and other customs, is another common denominator for these sects. It is the main source of scripture for any average Muslim.

However, the Sunnis are laxer in the interpretation of its laws as well as the practical application of these laws. The salah or the prayer of five times a day is a behaviour that is evident in all Muslims. They pray at dawn, mid-morning, noon, in the evening and finally before they retire. Before they pray, they conduct ablutions, wami, to sanctify their bodies. Sawm refers to mandatory fasting during the month of Ramadan. Muslims all over the world forgo food and drinks between dawn and dusk, and they are exceedingly strict with the observance of this law. For instance, travellers of more than 50 miles away from their homes should not fast.

However, after they get home, they should make up for their lack of fasting day for a day or face the imam for penance (Abidul-Halim 87). The same applies to lactating mothers, elderly Muslims, and anybody else that may be incapacitated. The religion is supremely practical and realistic. Finally, all Muslims exercise charity or zakah, which requires every Muslim to give alms to the needy according to one’s capacity. Part of this principle is what the Muslims too advanced in age to fast practice. They forgo fasting and instead feed at least 60 needy Muslims. In addition, the two sects believe in the Hajj or the pilgrimage requirement for every Muslim. They believe that each Muslim should travel to Mecca at least once in his / her life.

Culture refers to the way of life of a certain group of people. It deals with such aspects like art, as well as life in general, including religion and the types of foods and clothing that a certain group of people wears amongst others. Consequently, it is safe to classify the difference between the nature of the divide between the Shiites and the Sunnis as sectarian because it deals with more than just the way of life. Their differences go beyond simply what the women or men should wear.

They are similar in most of these aspects. Exceptions arise from a much higher threshold such as the person that should succeed the imam, as well as whether or not the office of the imam as a cleric is higher or subjugated to the state. A more precise definition of sectarianism is “narrow-minded beliefs that lead to the prejudice, discrimination, malice, and ill will towards members or presumed members of a religious denomination” (Hiltermann 804). This is the perfect description of what is ensuing in Iraq, where the Sunnis and the Shiites are slaying each other based on the last names on their victims’ identifications or their backgrounds.

These differences are, therefore, sectarian and cultural as well as permissive of the influence of imperial forces like the US in Iraq. Of late, there are many rumours going round that the Shiites are executing a revival mission on an attempt to overthrow the Sunnis. Many people have many different opinions on this matter. However, the majority insists that this is not solely a religious matter and that the US has a substantial hand in the ongoing rivalries. Many Arabs fear Israel. They feel that the United States is trying to create a rift among Muslims so that they can stand a chance to conquer Islam and gain control of the oil resources (Reuven 234).

It is appealing to realize that, in all the main cities, which produce oil, Shiites sit on the capital of oil. However, they are still the poorer of the two sects. The present Iraq leader is Shiite. Most of the rumours began upon his ascent to power. It was the first time in almost a millennium that a Shiite had gained power. However, elite Shiites are critical of that idea stating that they are not proud of the Shiite leader that will advance disharmony within the Islam community. Instead, most Muslims prefer to cite Lebanon’s defeat of Israel as their source of pride. Moreover, they feel that Iraq’s leader is conspiring with the United States government to try to overthrow the Shiite rule in Iran. This would mean that Iraq is instrumental in executing some secret American anti-Iranian campaign.

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As mentioned above, most Arabs consider the United States and Israel, their most threatening enemies. The establishment of Israel as an imperial power, further, eroded any trust that people had in the imperial powers and their intentions in the Middle East. The United States, in particular has attracted so much negative publicity on its influence in the Middle East. Those fueling the Shiite-Sunni rivalry claim that the Shiites need to remember their place even though the United States armies are still in the Middle East.

Most Arabs vouch for the continued support of Tehran and its development of nuclear weapons although it is apparent that their reason for this is to develop their nuclear technology and eventuality use it to drive out American forces. The mutual feeling on the ground is that America is creating all the hype about Sunni-Shiite rivalry just to divert the world’s attention from its occupation of Iraq. This includes its activities there such as the CIA funding and facilitating the training of Israeli and Palestinian soldiers as a proactive measure against some unknown enemy. Part of this cover up plan also aims at diverting attention from the ongoing Israeli aggression. Israel is both a political and cultural entity.

This is because, at its creation, several political forces were at play. More specifically, its creators intended Israeli to become some puppet nation that they would also use as an administrative unit that they would use to run the matters in the Middle East. The rivalry between the Shiite and the Sunnis is, therefore, a ploy meant to push forward the American agenda in the Middle East and so they (Americans) come up with propaganda like talk of Shiite revival or the Shiication of the Sunnis.

The various revolutions in the Middle East are both the outcome of cultural differences and influence from external forces. This is so because for instance, if the Shiites are fighting the Sunnis, for whatever reason, they do so due to millennia of conflict between the two groups. It is true that other factors like the US intervention may further aggravate the situation, however, these forces are only taking advantage of already existing cultural disparities.

Secondly, since it is difficult to separate culture from politics, it is also a political problem. Culture influences politics because the politicians use cultural inclinations of the society they are in to garner support from voters. Consequently, if it favors them, they will fuel the political rivalry between the Shiite as and the Sunnis so that the people may be desperate for deliverance and in delivering them, gain sainthood in the eyes of the public. This bureaucracy is common in the western world. Therefore, it would not be extremely strange for Arabian politicians to employ similar tactics to garner support in their own systems.

If anything, their main contributors are westerners. The establishment of Israel was a dream that came to be realized by the Jews. After so much persecution, while living within the world, they needed a place, which they could refer to as their home. The Zionist or modern Jew attitude supports this hope. In Israel, the major reason for undertaking any action is to satisfy the three Jewish goals of reviving Hebrew as the national language and providing Jews with a safe environment to bring up families in a strictly Jewish culture. However, Israel comprises of both Jews and Arabs cohabiting within the society (Rubinstein 67).

Consequently, there are also several religions including Islam, Christianity and Jewish. It is necessary to balance these religions to ensure harmony in terms of national unity. That can be difficult because of the fundamental differences that separate these religions at their core.

Interestingly, the Druze, who are a sub-sect of the Shiites are also present in Israel. This means that, among the Islamic religion, there are also further differences that the state needs to manage. The pioneers of Israel in making Israel a pluralistic state solved most of the systemic disputes in advance. Consequently, the 20 % of the population that is Arabic can adapt to the society because it is not a nationalistic government. Had it been so, there would only be one religion as the state religion, Jewish. Moreover, the national language would be the Hebrew and the only people permitted to escalate the power ladder would be the Jews.

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However, the pioneers’ thoughtfulness has settled many disputes. They have even curbed the occurrence of any foreseeable conflicts. This was a wise move because Jews moved from all over the world into Israel and by then there were already people living on the so-called ‘promised land’. After many bloodbaths with the indigenous population, the Jews finally settled for a practical solution that did not involve the purging of all non-Jews from Israel. The current Israeli government is a neat imitation of the American paradigm. The notion of inviting outsiders and allotting them an equal share in the state’s bounty is typical of the American behavior.

Such a behavior was evident during the election of an African American for presidency. Israel is, therefore, a result of both political and cultural influence on leadership and formative ideologies of the nation. However, these two concepts strike a delicate balance. Any excesses will result in tipping the scales either way. That would result in either political insurgence or cultural dogmatism, none of which is healthy for Israel as a nation. The tradition that holds Israel together has its roots in the 1948 Proclamation, which like America’s declaration of independence, outlines the most basic rules of Israel governance.

This paper provides a conclusive illustration of the Middle East in terms of socio-cultural and political inclinations. Presently, the Sunnis are not in polite terms with Shiites. Consequently, a lot of experts and elites from either side are coming up with possible explanatory theories for this discord including blaming it on the US government as one interested in the oil that is available in the regions. Others believe that the United State’s government is simply diverting attention from its occupation of Iraq and the political strife that Israel is propagating in the region. However, whatever the reason for the conflict, it is obvious that it is clearly both political and cultural.

Its political nature contributes to its sectarian traits. In the point of manifestation of this phenomenon, this case is the notion of families in the Islamic religion. All sects and sub-sects value family. They include several generations of these families. They also live together and invite relations to any festivities they are hosting. Another common culture is that of hospitality. The Islamic community is exceptionally friendly to all including strangers who may wander into their houses. They are generous with their food, shelter, and clothing. However, differences arise when some people in the religion differ on basic concepts.

After such a person together with his/her followers split from the rest, the automatic drift results in speculations about what the other does in the privacy of their worship places. This is the result of competition between the groups. Sometimes, this competition goes beyond basic besting of the opponent into intolerance, which results to death of either follower. Sadly, this is the situation among the Muslims in the Middle East.

Works Cited

Abidul-Halim, al-Ruhaim. The Da’wa Islamic Party: Origins, Actors and Ideology. Abdul-Jabar, Faleh, (ed.). Religion and Social Movements in Iraq: Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State. London: Saqi Books, 2002. Print.

Hiltermann, Joost. A new sectarian threat in the Middle East? Internaional Review of the Red Cross 89.868(2007): 795-808.

Reuven, Paz. Hotwiring the apocalypse: jihadi Salafi attitude towards Hizballah and Iran. PRISM Occasional Papers 4.4 (2006): 230-234.

Rubinstein, Amnon. The Zionist Dream Revisited: From Herzl to Gush Emunim and Back. New York: Schocken, 1984. Print.

Tristan, Pierre. The Difference Between Sunnis and Shiites, A Primer. Paris: Springler, 2009. Print.

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