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The Central Role of Islam in The Middle East
and in other Islamic Countries

There is much written about Islam in the international media today, often in the context of "Islamic Terrorism", or "Islamic Fundamentalism"; Islam is however a faith embraced by millions of people world-wide, one of the three world religions that developed in the Middle East. It is necessary to understand the basis of the faith and differentiate between Islam as a religion and extremists who claim to represent it.

The problem that outside observers have is clearly to distinguish between the Islamic religion and the societies of the Middle East. Islamic values are primary in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Central Asia, and the primary religion in Indonesia. There are six million Muslims in the USA, four million in France, and two million in the UK. Although world-wide Christianity (two billion) is still a larger faith than Islam (which normally is said to have over a billion followers) - source: The Economist, 19th December 2002.

One of the problems for the negotiator is that Islam is central to the societies of the Middle East in a way that Christianity has long ceased to be in the West. The Reformation removed effective "controls" on religious thought in Northern and Western Europe, and religion is developing in the West as something that an individual chooses to follow, rather than a system of beliefs and social behavior imposed by society on its members. Islam, which developed a dynamic intellectual culture in medieval Spain, failed to continue to develop these ideas after the conquest of Spain and the expulsion of the Moors.

In the main countries which are primarily Islamic in character (other than Turkey) have not developed a clear division between religion and secular matters, in the way that is common to all Western countries. The failure to develop fully democratic institutions has therefore sometimes been attributed to Islam, rather than to the weakness of political institutions. However it can be argued that religion is part of the folkways of a culture, but not the only cultural focus for ideas.


Islam has developed its own mystic set of ideas via the sect known as Sufis. The ideas of Sufism, especially those developed by poets such as Rumi, have had a long-term influence of religious ideas in Islamic States and in the West.

Attitude towards the West

There has also been an ambivalence in the Islamic World towards Western ideas; there has been a great interest in the economic advantages of adopting Western innovations and methods, but a concern that the West refuses to understand Islamic culture and traditions. A minority also sees Western ideas and institutions as a threat to Islamic culture.

However immigration of Muslims into Western countries has exposed both the West and Muslims to each others' cultures and ideas; one can only hope and trust that this will lead to greater understanding and tolerance.

The People of the Book

It is important to understand that for Muslims the teachings of Muhammad are seen as a continuation of the ideas of earlier prophets, including Jesus. The teachings of Christ are not therefore rejected, though Muslims do not accept that Christ rose from the dead. Muslims believe in the divinity of Christ, but not in the Trinity; it is a strictly monotheist religion. However Unitarian Christians also share this rejection of the Trinity: "We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, . . . it subverts in effect . . . the unity of God." (William Ellery Channing, 1819)

In the same way Islam also regards the Bible and the Torah as sacred books - (note: the prohibition on the Bible in some Muslim countries does not appear to be in accordance with the principles of Islamic faith). Jews and Christians are called "the people of the Book". In some contexts Muslims are also people of the Book.

Sharia Law

In some Muslim countries it is an offence for a Muslim to convert to another religion. The rights of men and women under Islam also differ. There has recently been a great deal of publicity over the imposition of sentences of stoning to death in Nigeria. The BBC reported 26 March 2002 that "The Nigerian Government is coming under increasing international pressure to amend laws in northern Muslim areas which call for punishments such as stoning, amputation and flogging." The BBC also noted 21 June 2000 "Sharia differs enormously in its various implementations throughout the Islamic world."

The questions raised by the application of Sharia Law conflict with values as set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights; and challenge the concept of the division between secular rights and religion within States. Turkey, for example, has clearly distinguished between secular law and religion. The rights of women is probably the most important issue; and only time will tell to what extent this will be seen as a primarily political and social matter and to what degree a religious matter.

The Tenets of the Islamic Faith

In the Qur'an Muhammad says (Surah 2:177) :

"True piety is this: To believe in God and the last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, to give of one's substance, however cherished, to kinsmen and orphans, the needy, the traveler and the freeing of human beings in bondage, to perform the prayer, to pay the purification dues (zakat)."

Religion and Conflict

Islam is one of the great world religions and the Qur'an should be seen as a religious text. Islam does not create terrorism any more than the Roman Catholic Church has created the IRA in Ireland. Terrorists can profess any faith, or none.

In the 20th and 21st Centuries religion has often been cited when two communities have actually clashed over territory and fought for political power:

Inter-faith Dialogue

This would at least argue for effective dialogue between religious leaders of all the major faiths - who all claim to lead their followers to knowledge of God.

"It is important that we be involved in dealing with humanitarian-related issues with an open mind to other cultures, and we should not allow backward-minded groups to distort the bright image of Islam,”
HRH Crown Prince Hamzah of Jordan - Oct. 2000

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