The perception of the Near and Middle East in the European public is mostly determined by the violent conflicts there, i.e. wars, uprisings, civil wars, terrorism and religious fanaticism – two aspects that are usually still closely related. It can hardly be denied that there has been a high level of violence in the region in the last one or two generations and that religious narrow-mindedness is not uncommon there. We should be careful, however, to regard these phenomena as fundamental for the societies of the Near and Middle East or to blame “Islam” as an essential feature which has run in the Near and Middle Eastern countries, without this being inferred from the character of Europeans, from that of Christianity or from secularity. It should also not be forgotten that violence and religious fanaticism were not constants in the history of the region, but – as in other parts of the world – fluctuated in intensity. Both suggest that the problem of violence is not specific to the Near and Middle East, but is common to the various cultures. Finally, it should also be remembered that neither violence nor religious extremism occurs to the same extent in the entire region – although it has been strongly influenced by Islam everywhere – but rather dramatically pronounced in some countries and societies at certain times, but hardly present in the neighborhood.
The Middle East is a region full of internal contradictions. According to Countryaah.com, countries with a weak population, which because of their oil wealth they can buy social peace despite a lack of participation of the population (such as the United Arab Emirates), contrast with others in which a combination of the most severe economic and social problems, poor government performance and repression has accumulated a considerable potential for conflict. Overall, however, it can be said that the region is unstable, to which the link between internal and international factors contributes. The population often regards their respective regimes with good reason with skepticism, distrust or contempt. And in most populous countries in particular, the standard of living is low and the chances of life for young people are poor. If this is combined with symbolic violent conflicts or occupation situations in key areas – Palestine, Iraq, of somewhat less regional importance Afghanistan – and one’s own rulers are often viewed as mere puppets of Western governments, one need not be surprised at the overall considerable potential for conflict. The connection of internal problems and conflicts with international actors – such as the almost general rejection of US politics and Israel, and to a lesser extent also of the former colonial powers Great Britain and France – should not surprise anyone.
Islam is increasingly seen in the West as a key problem in the region and is held responsible for many of the conflicts. Two things must be remembered: First, the conflicts and problems in many countries in the region are very real and arise from social, economic and political causes, not from culture or religion. An Islamic discourse offers itself for the majority of the population to express the widespread dissatisfaction, frustration and anger and thus to make it appear even more legitimate. But the pent-up problems and conflicts are so serious that they would also express themselves under completely different religious and cultural framework conditions. There is a considerable potential for violence in the region, but even if this has been articulated predominantly religiously for 20 or 30 years.
Second, there is a severe democratic deficit and some Islamic and Islamist forces oppose democracy for ideological reasons. But here, too, it is important to be careful with the explanation: On the one hand, there are now tendencies for Islamist groups to open up to democratic rules of the game. Secular actors in the Middle East were and are rarely more democratic or less repressive in principle than their religious competitors (think for example of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and other countries). Also, some of the region’s secular rulers were and are responsible for such levels of violence, torture, war and bloodshed (including the use of poison gas against civilians) that it is astonishing if only because of their secularity they are still seen as a peaceful or better alternative to religious forces and are therefore supported. The secular and religious elites may differ in many ways – but not necessarily in their degree of willingness to use violence and their capacity for democracy. Both analysis and politics should therefore set aside their culturalist glasses, which often distort the view: piety or secularity should not be the criterion for support or opposition, but the question of which forces in a certain situation and a certain country to be able to solve specific problems better and to respect the rights of their own people to a greater extent. These do not always and automatically have to be the pro-Western forces whose record on these issues is devastating. Of course, it cannot be a question of reflexively mistaking religious forces for the better, conversely – this would often be absurd. Mostly the difference between the secular and religious forces lies in a different shade of gray, not in a black and white contrast – and a secular analysis should endeavor, without prejudice, to examine which party is the lesser evil for a society in a particular situation represents. In doing so, attention must be paid to differentiation within the religious camp. The reform forces that exist there should not be lumped together with totalitarian violent criminals, just because both feel committed to a religious discourse.