Islam in the Middle East

The Muslim population of the Middle East is comprised of a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups including Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Azeris, Berbers and Turkmen to name a few. There are also internal distinctions between Muslims of different sects such as Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and also more marginal groups such as the Druze, Alevis, and Alawis. Contemporary debates that center on Islam in the Middle East tend to focus on an "Islam vs. modernity" dichotomy. However, there is much variety in experiences regarding Islam and politics and society within the region. Here is a very brief guide to some of the signficant issues and places in the region.

The People's Democratic Republic of Algeria is a country with a long history of colonialism. It gained its independence from French domination in 1962 after a violent and prolonged struggle that claimed around 1 million lives. The country was hard hit by civil war in the 1990's following disputed elections in which an Islamist party won and was opposed by the military. Political violence has since declined, but stability has not been consistently maintained.
Population: 34,178,188 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Head of Government: Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahiya

Egypt, while best known for its pyramids and ancient civilizations, has played a central role in Middle East politics in modern times. Having fought three wars and established a peace agreement with Israel, Egypt is a key representative in the peace process. President Hosni Mubarak who has been in power since 1981 has garnered much criticism for his repressive regime and campaigners for political reform have become more vocal. Mubarak faces challengers in the Muslim Brotherhood which is tolerated but officially banned. A ban remains on religious political parties.
Population: 83,082,869 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak
Head of Government: Prime Minister Ahmed Mohamed Nazif

Iran, as heir to the Persian cultural legacy, has maintained a distinct cultural identity within the Islamic world by retaining its own language and adhering to the Shi'a interpretation of Islam. Iran became a unique Islamic republic in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and religious clerics assumed political control under supreme leader Ayatollah Khomenei. Iran has been led by a conservative elite since 1979, but appeared to be entering another era of political and social transformation with the victory of the liberals in parliamentary elections in 2000. The elections of June 2005 dealt a blow to the reformists when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election in June 2009 has further widened the rift between conservatives and reformists within Iran's political establishment.
Population: 66,429,284 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khamenei
Head of Government: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iraq, the famous "cradle of civilization," became a battleground for competing forces after the US-led ousting of President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Following six years of US occupation the country still remains volatile and beset with violence. Tensions between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims have led to sectarian violence and the primarily Kurdish north has moved towards autonomy. In June 2009 US troops withdrew from Iraq's towns and cities, handing over security to Iraqi forces. Operations are due to end by September 2010, with all foreign/international troops gone from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Population: 28,945,657 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: President Jalal Talabani
Head of Government: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Turkey, the former center of the Ottoman Empire, is an interesting case for the "Islam vs. Modernity" dichotomy. Established as a secular republic in the 1920's, Turkish politics are full of debates between staunch critics of Islamism and more Islamist parties. The military also plays a critical role in that it sees itself as a defender of the nation's secularist principle.
Population: 76,805,524 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: President Abdullah Gul
Head of Government: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while attracting the attention of Muslims worldwide due to the religious significance of Jerusalem, is not simply a religious issue. Following WWII, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, were displaced during the division of Palestine and the 1947 War. Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have lived under Israeli occupation since 1967. The main stumbling blocks for peace include the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Lebanon is a complex and divided nation; it has a mixed population of Christian sects, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, Druze and others. Islamism in Lebanon has attracted attention mainly due to the influence of Hezbollah in the country. Hezbollah is an armed Shi'a group that has moved towards greater involvement in the political process. It received much attention for its involvement in the 2006 Israeli military campaign.
Population: 4,017,095 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: President Michel Sulayman
Head of Government: Prime Minister Fuad Siniora

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is one of the most religiously conservative countries in the Middle East. Its rulers face the task of responding to pressure for reform while combating opposition from some Islamist groups. Named after the ruling Al Saud family, which came to power in the 18th century, the country is the cradle of Islam. This fact, combined with the Al Sauds' espousal of a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism, has led to its strongly religious self-identity. Demands for political reform have increased as has the frequency of militant attacks, some of them targeted at foreign workers. The security forces have made thousands of arrests. Political parties are banned - the opposition is organized from outside the country - and activists who publicly broach the subject of reform risk being jailed.
Poplulation: 28,686,633 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State: King and Prime Minister Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud
Head of Government: King and Prime Minister Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud

Further Reading/Resources:

The Middle East and debates regarding Islam are numerous and complex and the above was just a small glimpse. If you would like to learn more (and we hope you do) please check out the following resources:

  • Middle East Report
  • The Mosaic Intelligence Report
  • Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd edn. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004.
  • Dodge, Toby. Inventing Iraq : the Failure of Nation-Building and a History Denied New York : Columbia 
  • University Press, 2003.
  • Gelvin, James. The Modern Middle East: a History. New York : Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Smith, Charles. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.