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An assignment from a reader: Who's who in the Middle East conflicts?

Remember, historically politics is religion and religion is politics.

'President Barack Obama (L) meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, the monarch's desert camp 35 miles northeast of Riyadh, on March 28, 2014' Epoch
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Here is a very good question that demands answering. Politics Examiner will take it on, but with the caveat that points to some of the subject matter experts that the reader is searching for.

“I’m still trying to figure out what ISIS is...and what the difference is between Al Qaeda, Hamas, etc. I have no idea who these people are and who's fighting who...Do you recommend any source that gives a brief history and explains who's who? In very plain language? I’m interested in a basic explanation of the bigger picture.”


The overarching divisions of actors in the Middle East begin with the two divisions of Islamic sects: Sunnis and Shiites. In past articles, the broad comparison is something like Sunnis is to Jews as Shiites are to Christians. The comparison falls apart in the details. Here is what this means.

Judaism was formed 2000 before the common era (B.C.E) aka Before Christ.

“Judaism is a religious tradition with origins dating back nearly four thousand years, rooted in the ancient near eastern region of Canaan (which is now Israel and Palestinian territories). Originating as the beliefs and practices of the people known as "Israel," classical, or rabbinic, Judaism did not emerge until the 1st century C.E. Judaism traces its heritage to the covenant God made with Abraham and his lineage — that God would make them a sacred people and give them a holy land. The primary figures of Israelite culture include the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophet Moses, who received God's law at Mt. Sinai. Judaism is a tradition grounded in the religious, ethical, and social laws as they are articulated in the Torah — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Jews refer to the Bible as the Tanakh, an acronym for the texts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.”

Christianity was formed in 33 Common Era (CE) aka Christian Era.

“Christianity developed out of Judaism in the 1st century C.E. It is founded on the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and those who follow him are called "Christians." Christianity has many different branches and forms with accompanying variety in beliefs and practices. The three major branches of Christianity are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, with numerous subcategories within each of these branches. Until the latter part of the 20th century, most adherents of Christianity were in the West, though it has spread to every continent and is now the largest religion in the world. Traditional Christian beliefs include the belief in the one and only true God, who is one being and exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the belief that Jesus is the divine and human Messiah sent to the save the world. Christianity is also noted for its emphasis on faith in Christ as the primary component of religion. The sacred text of Christianity is the Bible, including both the Hebrew scriptures (also known as the Old Testament) and the New Testament. Central to Christian practice is the gathering at churches for worship, fellowship, and study, and engagement with the world through evangelism and social action.”

Sunni Islam was founded 632 CE.

“The followers of Sunni Islam, one of the two major branches of the tradition (the other is Shi'a), make up approximately 80 percent of the Muslim population in the world. The Sunni are the majority in most Islamic countries outside of Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. Sunna—translated variously as the "trodden path," "the way," "example," or "habitual practice"—refers to the example or path of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. The Sunni and Shi'a both trace their differences to the 7th century C.E., when disagreements over the successor to the Prophet Muhammad arose. The Sunni maintain that the Muslim community was to select the Prophet's successor (caliph) to lead, whereas the Shi'a believe the Prophet chose his son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. Although Sunnis and Shi'as agree on many theological and practical matters, the Sunni are typically seen as putting more emphasis on the power of God and his determination of human fate, and are often understood to be more inclusive in their definition of what it means to be a Muslim. The Sunni tradition has placed great emphasis on the role of religion in public and political life, with great weight placed on the Shariah (Islamic law) as the standard for a broad range of social issues—marriage, divorce, inheritance, commerce, and so on.”

Shia Islam splintered from Sunni religion.

“Shī‘a Islam, also known as Shi‘ite Islam or Shi‘ism, is the second largest branch of Islam after Sunni Islam. Shias adhere to the teachings of Muhammad and the religious guidance of his family (who are referred to as the Ahl al-Bayt) or his descendants known as Shia Imams. Muhammad's bloodline continues only through his daughter Fatima Zahra and cousin Ali who alongside Muhammad's grandsons comprise the Ahl al-Bayt. Thus, Shias consider Muhammad's descendants as the true source of guidance, while considering the first three ruling Sunni caliphs a historic occurrence and not something attached to faith. Shia Islam, like Sunni Islam, has at times been divided into many branches; however, only three of these currently have a significant number of followers, and each of them has a separate trajectory.”

Why do religions evolve? That’s a scholarly question. The general answer is that as society advances communities become more complex and more knowledgable. For religions to maintain relevance, they must keep pace with the needs of humanity. Some suggest that governments eventually replaced religion as the overarching guide for society introducing the rule of law. Just as with religions, governments must be agile and adaptive to maintain their relevance and effectiveness.

Conflicts today include the following factors:

  1. Some populations are better off than others economically.
  2. Some populations feel disenfranchised and unrepresented.
  3. Some religions seek to represent the disenfranchised and unrepresented by assuming responsibility for governance over the nation or caliphate in the instance of Islamic belief.
  4. Some governments seek to represent people by imposing autocratic and dictatorial will that is derived from different cultural and religious ideas.
  5. Some governments are more pluralistic than others, and in general, the Middle East tends to be more sectarian than pluralistic.

Therein lies the problem. The Middle East contains dispersed people of different sects competing in a common space to live harmoniously, peacefully, and economically sustainable. Dividing resources and drawing political boundaries is a contested process that brings conflict among people that cling too rigidly to their ideological beliefs.

In the second article in the series to answer the reader’s question, the various sects and organizations that are actively engaged in warfare in the Middle East will be inventoried.

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