Religion is the life and soul of the Middle East, as it has been for thousands of years. The people of the region simply cannot live without it. Many Middle Easterners don't seek luxury, they don't live for their comfort but they live for their religion. If you take it away, the very meaning of life quickly evaporates. So when people in this region hear political rhetoric that defies religious values or shows a lack of respect for their religion, they feel threatened and ultimately take a fierce stance against the West.
As I read or listen to Western politicians, political analysts or experts about their insight on the Middle East, I find it strange that they manage to overlook this fact and ignore the role of religion in their "conflict resolutions." They talk about economic aspects, social stratums, traditions, culture, democratization, freedom - all crucial values - but they forget to involve the real solution which comes within the religion itself. The fact is that anyone who dismisses the role of religion in solving today's problems will inevitably be unsuccessful.
One cannot govern the region without it. That is why in the Middle East, people follow the statements of their religious leaders far more than their political leaders. If the ruler of the state contests their religious identity or lacks sympathy toward religious people, the majority would want to get rid of him at first opportunity. As a matter of fact, the Arab Spring has been a reaction to these kinds of dictators. Yes, the Arab Spring was an outcry of people's yearning for their democratic rights and freedoms but the majority also want their governments to reflect their religious values.
"Politics can indeed be compatible with Islam under the guidance of proper leadership"
We should bear in mind that Israel's existence and strength today is also a result of the Israeli people's strong faith; because religion is at the core of every part of life in the Middle East, if one tries to separate politics from religion – especially in the peace process – it would simply generate further backlash.
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While political meetings certainly serve a valid and legitimate purpose, far too often they fail to achieve results due to a certain formality and coldness. It is a matter of 'all head, no heart'; it takes the warm feelings and wisdom inspired by religion to achieve true results. It is important that religious and spiritual leaders are invited to take part during high-level talks. Politicians often have a natural tendency to deal with issues in the formal diplomatic style – which is all well and good – but the presence of religious and spiritual leaders can remind them that the aim of the talks is not to gain one-sided advantage, but to reach a common solution that is acceptable to one and all, and to accomplish a greater good for society at large.
The general perception about the Middle East is that Muslims – or Islam in general – is involved in one form or another with violence. This is a significant misperception. If we look at the entire Muslim world of 1.6 billion, indeed those who are engaging in violence are a very small fraction. However, religion is being used as a tool by various extremist groups to impose their own ideologies. In this respect, religious leaders have an important role to play in countering biased and sensationalist narratives. One can also discuss how to fix the false practices, how to best remove the radical elements and purify religion from bigotry, but at the heart of the issue is, and has always been, religion. In order to bring a stop to violence and radicalism, enlightenment in Islam has to be supported, not Islam-bashing. So the question is what role should religious leaders play in order to help combat misconceptions or the false models that we see in the Muslim world?
Political leaders can be responsible about the future of a country, but the spiritual leaders can be influential in shaping people's souls and in most regards, that is far more essential. Although there needs to be a delicate balance and it requires someone with vision to lead the way, politics can indeed be compatible with Islam under the guidance of proper leadership. And in this respect, politicians, religious leaders and academics must cooperate in laying the groundwork for communities whose pillars will be democracy, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, and for a model where every individual, regardless of his religion, race and ethnicity, can enjoy his natural right of being a first-class citizen.
On the other hand, while striving to form a culture of brotherhood, love and peace, we must remember that this is not a bureaucratic or official mission but a work of the heart and of conscience. In a world dominated with internal conflicts, clashes and wars, the problem is not one of limited resources that are insufficient to nourish the peoples or the absence of enough land; the main problem that causes all this turmoil is lack of love and compassion. Therefore, our best efforts must be concentrated upon instilling love and compassion into hearts by deferring to the help of spiritual leaders.
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