A Primer on the Current Conflict in the Middle East: Remarks from Elder Bruce A. Carlson
One of the highlights of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society Fall Leadership Conference is the Thursday evening keynote address at Aspen Grove. Topics of these addresses have been quite varied over the years from a history of Brigham Young’s life and the development of Brigham Young University to personal accounts of legal service. This year attendees were honored to be addressed by Elder Bruce A. Carlson. Because of his extensive career as a fighter pilot, Air Force General, and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as his service as a General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Elder Carlson has a unique understanding of the complexity of the conflicts in the Middle East.
Elder Carlson gave a brief overview of the historical underpinnings of Islam: By the early seventh century Christianity had taken root in the Persian Gulf area, Judaism was the dominant religion in Yemen, but interior Arabia remained Polytheistic. The Quresh, a powerful merchant tribe, dominated Mecca which was significant not only as the crossroads for caravan trade, but also because it was the location of Kaaba, a pagan shrine that housed images of several gods, drawing many pilgrims. It was in this climate that Muhammed, a member of the Quresh emerged with revelations from the angel Gabriel. Though not immediately accepted, Muhammed eventually destroyed the idols in the Kaaba to establish it as Islam’s most holy shrine. Over the next hundred years Islam spread quickly across the Middle East and north Africa with the campaign of: Convert, pay a heavy tax, or die. Many in Egypt, Syria and Persia were quick to accept Islam, particularly because of the oppressive regimes under which they lived. However, progress into Europe was halted by the Battle of Tours in 732 AD and again in 1683 when the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the Gates of Vienna. Clearly, however, not only was there conflict between Islam and “infidels,” but there was, and still is, conflict within Islam, originating from disagreement as to who was Muhammed’s rightful successor. Those who favored Muhammed’s father-in-law eventually became known as Sunnis (majority sect), and those who favored Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, are known as Shiites (minority sect).
Elder Carlson referred to the Shiite-Sunni conflict as the Grand Divide, the heart of conflict in the Middle East. The area has recently been dominated by the Sunnis with Saudi Arabian rule, but the balance of power is threatened by Shiite aggression: Iran’s nuclear campaign, dominance of Iraq, and Russia’s help keeping al Assad in power in Syria. Sunni groups include al Qaeda, Daesh or ISIS/ISIL, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram. Shiite aligned groups include the Palestinian Islamist organizations, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. The violent center of the Grand Divide brings together this amalgam of interests, many of which are ideologically opposed to each other, such as secular freedom-fighters some of whom may even lean toward Western-style democracy.
The result is a “terrible human catastrophe”: over a half million people killed (nearly 50,000 of them children), half the population of Syria displaced (11 million people), 4 million Syrians have fled the country mostly to its five neighbors, life expectancy has dropped 15 years, 50% of hospitals have been damaged or destroyed (only one-third are operational), and over half the doctors have fled or been killed. The complications continue with conflicts in Lebanon between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Maronite Christians, and age-old Israeli-Hezbollah conflicts. Meanwhile the Sunni nations of Saudi Arabia through the Gulf States, Jordan, and Egypt are fighting proxy wars against the Shiite Axis in Yemen, Iraq, North Africa, and Syria. Although in constant competition with each other, the different Islamist terror groups are all united in “seeking to demolish the extant political, social, and economic systems of Middle Eastern nations and strike fear across the world.”
To provide context, Elder Carlson delineated fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam (while pointing out that both were born and spread from the Middle East). Christianity views mankind’s problem as sin, which separates him from God. The solution is repentance and forgiveness through the Grace of God with the hopeful result being reconciliation with God. Islam rejects the Christian ideology of an inner transformation; rather, that mankind’s fundamental problem of ignorance is remedied through application of and submission to the law. Islam is therefore not simply a religion but a legal, political, economic, and military system as well, requiring control over territory so that the law of Allah—i.e. Sharia law—might be enforced.
Yet there is hope for this region. Politically, Elder Carlson calls for careful diplomacy to resist inflaming sectarian tensions and to encourage the moderation of fundamentalist tendencies, including a shift within oppressive governments to grant greater freedom of worship and tolerance to non-Muslims. Elder Carlson pointed out the small but growing influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints with two stakes in the Middle East (Abu Dhabi and Bahrain) as well as three direct reporting units and three districts. While there is no missionary work allowed, BYU has a presence in Israel with the Jerusalem Center and in Jordan with more than 230 BYU alumni. There have been many miracles, and the humanitarian projects have enabled a positive presence in Jordan, Kurdistan, and Morocco.
Posted: November 17, 2016