Identity is a relatively flexible concept, influenced by changes in states and societies, as well as regional and global developments and associated cultural and political transformations. It is commonly defined as a system of values, traditions, ideas, and culture, inherited from one generation to another, distinguishing one nation or civilization from another.
There are several manifestations of identity, including cultural, religious and social, which are integrated to shape the identity of any state or nation. The more there is harmony and integration between the elements of this identity in any state the more it will be cohesive, and vice versa, when identities or sub-affiliations emerge – be it ethnic, racial or sectarian – they threaten the unity and cohesion of the state.
In the past few years, ensuing from the politicization of the role of religion and the escalation of sectarian violence in many regions around the world, religious identity has become one of the causes of conflicts and the most important source of the so-called “killing in the name of religion”.
Religious identity and extremism: A dialectic relationship
The crises facing the Middle East cannot be understood in isolation from the conflict over religious identity. The political, sectarian, ideological and doctrinal aspects intertwine in the region to become the most important sources of extremist ideology and the associated violence that plague many countries in the region. Conflict over religious identity has been one of the main causes of armed extremism and sectarian violence, particularly because national affiliations are weakened and sub-identities strengthened, with narrow sectarian, racial and ethnic discourse. This is usually fueled by extremist groups and armed militias that do not believe in the nation-state and favor its intellectual and ideological affiliations, even at the expense of national interests.
Over the years, the Middle East has witnessed many sectarian and doctrinal conflicts, centered on religious identity, fueled by armed militias and sectarian entities seeking to consolidate their vested political interests. Ironically, they refuse to integrate into their country because it does not achieve their interests. Undoubtedly, the discourse of these religious groups and political movements causes conflict over religious identity, especially since they seek to monopolize it in the name of religion to employ it politically to serve their interests. They do so by adding widely accepted elements to the discourse, such as the revival of the Islamic caliphate and the establishment of the Sharia.
These groups have tried to attract followers by playing the “religious identity” card. For example, Egypt’s Takfir wal-Hijra called itself a “Muslim group”, lamented blasphemy in the society and advocated violence. Osama bin Laden’s main title for Al-Qaeda – Global Islamic Front to Fight Jews and Crusaders – was based on the fact that he and his fellows from their base in Pakistan received fighters from several Islamic countries to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The same goes for Muslim Brotherhood – a name chosen by the group’s founder Hasan Al-Banna – which many reject because it was discriminatory and racist. Instead, they call it the “Brotherhood Group”, or “Islamist Brotherhood”. The same applies to extremist groups in Africa, which surround themselves with an aura of holiness, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia, which adopt a religious discourse to justify their terrorist acts, and believe in the ideas of ISIS to establish the so-called caliphate and the Islamic Shariah.
This narrow and vague concept of religious identity on the part of these groups has led some analysts to dismiss it as “fatal identity”. This is not only because it seeks to reduce identity into a single affiliation based on sectarianism and intolerance, leading to violence and mayhem but also because it oversteps the nation-state, refusing to recognize it in favor of geographically broader loyalties. The “caliphate state”, for example, is a common factor that unites ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. The concept – as demonstrated by ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2016 to 2018 – is based on geographical expansion and does not recognize national boundaries.
In light of the above, it can be argued that the conflict over religious identity is one of the reasons behind the spread of extremist ideology in the Middle East, and the violence associated with it in more than one country. This is especially true since the conflict is fueled by historical factors and external interventions that seek to politicize sectarian and doctrinal differences to serve projects aiming at expansion and control.
Growing conflict over religious identity
Certainly, the escalation of the conflict in the name of religious identity, and the associated polarization and sectarian and doctrinal violence, did not come out of the blue. It has been the result of several overlapping factors, perhaps the most prominent of which are:
Growing international trends toward the politicization of the role of religion: This is evident not only in the Middle East but also in many regions around the world. It is based on the premise that religion is one of the key foreign policy tools of states, which falls within the concept of soft power, and is widely accepted among societies. However, the real problem happens mainly when religion is used to serve the interests of certain states or groups, whether religious, political, far-right or populist, seeking to present certain interpretations of the concept of religion that serve their narrow agendas.
For instance, the religious-sectarian dimension has been one of the tools of Iranian foreign policy. The country exploits it to maximize influence in the Middle East by raising false slogans, such as defending the oppressed. Remarkably, Iran’s use of the religious-sectarian tools is not confined only to slogans but extends to real action on the ground, supporting Shiite minorities politically and culturally.
Moreover, while pursuing an opportunity in any country, Iran tries to create political parties or uses militias to advance its interests, whether by exerting pressure on their governments, such as in the case of the Lebanese Hezbollah or by thwarting any political movements that do not conform to its interests, as it did with the Houthis when they were instructed to thwart the Gulf initiative for a political solution in Yemen in 2010, until the occupation of the capital Sana’a in September 2014. Iran continues to use the Houthis as a tool in its regional expansion project in the region, and as a bargaining chip with the countries of the region and the US.
This undoubtedly threatens regional and international security and stability because sectarian militias, which make religion a symbol of identity, cause a vicious circle of extremism and counter-extremism, complicating the region’s crises and providing a fertile ground for the proliferation of extremist and terrorist groups. One of the reasons behind the rise of ISIS in Iraq in recent years has been the rhetoric of Shiite militias and sectarian violence against Sunni Arabs after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, especially during the period 2006-2008.
Turkey, too, has used religion to revive its relations with the countries of the region, especially after the Justice and Development Party (AKP), came to power after the 2002 elections, and after the ideas of its former prime minister and academic Ahmet Davutoglu, about neo-Ottomanism, formed the pillar of expansion in the Arab and Islamic world. These ideas have been warmly welcomed by political Islamist groups in the Arab region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
This has been evident since the so-called “Arab Spring” at the end of 2010, when Turkey supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, viewing the group’s rise to power in these countries as a victory for its political project. In the aftermath of the failure of the Brotherhood experiment in Egypt, Turkey hosted many of the group’s leaders and continued to provide them with material and media support. This proves that under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey seeks to present itself as the champion of the Arab and Islamic issues, through an ideological discourse that employs religion to provoke the feelings of Arabs and Muslims, without translating it into real positions on the ground.
In Europe, the far-right movements, which focus on the Christian religious dimension of the European identity to counter immigration from Muslim countries, has the support of many segments of the population. Several political parties have come to power or participated in it. Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban declared that “his country is the gateway to the defense of European Christian identity, and that Europeans must return to their Christian identity to preserve Europe”. In Germany, the state of Bavaria issued a decree formally requiring the cross to be hung up in all state institutions, which began in June 2019. Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder commented on his government’s decision: “The cross is not only a religious symbol, but rather a part of the historical and cultural identity of the state of Bavaria”. This indicates that a shift has begun in the secular orientation that prevailed in Europe in the wake of attempts to revive Christian identity and the use of religious symbols that run counter to the European well-established principles of secularism and pluralistic culture that ensured its stability.
The rise of the far-right and neo-populist movements in Europe and the US has been one of the main factors behind the emergence of conflicts in the name of religious identity. This is especially true if we take into account that these movements are hostile to the system of liberal values that underpin individual and religious freedom and cultural diversity, which shielded European societies from the dangers of extremism, hatred, and intolerance. Thus, the rise of the far-right movements over the past decade in many European countries has shocked many, especially as right-wing parties have managed to turn fear of immigrants, aversion to EU technocracy, and fears of job losses into conspiratorial rhetoric against migrants, especially those coming from Arab and Muslim countries. There have even been calls for the expulsion of immigrants. European political parties went to the extent of rejecting European citizens who joined ISIS and participated in its operations in Syria and Iraq in recent years. Notably, the far-right Flemish Interest party, Belgium’s second-largest political party, on the Dutch-speaking area of the country, campaigns against the return of foreign terrorist fighters to their areas.
This may help explain the fear that grips Europe now due to the spread of intolerance and rejection of the other in its societies. However, another danger lies in the discourse of the far-right movements being employed by extremist and terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, to justify their position toward the other, and hence their recourse to violence. This undoubtedly poses a challenge to the efforts of dialogue among civilizations and the coexistence of religions, as well as a clear threat to international peace and security. Some analysts believe that there is a close link between the rise of the far-right in the West and the rise of fanaticism and hatred led by extremist groups in the Middle East, as the two sides help each other to grow and spread, albeit unintentionally. The early success of far-right political parties, in some European countries, has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of foreign terrorist fighters. Similarly, the way some far-right parties deal with the possible return of foreign fighters and their relatives may provide a fertile ground for the next wave of extremism among Muslims in the West.
In India, although it has been considered a secular state since independence in 1947, Hindu intolerance occasionally ignites sectarian violence in the country. This is evident in the recent violence against Muslims, which resulted from the attempt by some extremist political forces to impose a Hindu identity as India’s only original identity, as demonstrated in a series of controversial decisions and the ensuing religious tension in recent times.
Transnational extremist ideologies: These are adopted by extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and political-religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups espouse ideologies that cross the borders of the nation-state to the whole world. Despite the collapse of the so-called caliphate by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the organization’s ideology and ideas still exist and may continue to inspire extremist movements in the near term, especially concerning the possibility of repeating the short-lived experience of the “caliphate state”, if the opportunity arises again. Meanwhile, ISIS has played a key role in the globalization of extremism. If the so-called jihadist movement formed in the 1980s and 1990s against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was limited to Arabs and Muslims, ISIS in Syria and Iraq managed to bring thousands of extremists from all over the world to the Middle East, a clear sign of the apparent globalization of extremism and the evolution of its tools and objectives over time.
The Muslim Brotherhood is also one of the most prominent groups that adopt transnational ideologies. Since its inception in 1928, it has rejected the idea of the homeland. The group defines nationalism by faith, not by geographical boundaries, and considers every spot in which one Muslim lives, as a homeland. Such a spot, according to the group, is sacred and inviolable, and hence Muslims must be loyal to it and have to defend it. The group’s founder Hasan Al-Banna was keen to stress the universality of his idea since his first message – “What is our message” – in which he said that the Muslim Brotherhood does not address one Muslim country without the other. He expressed hope that the message will reach leaders in every Muslim country and that they would seize the opportunity to unite Islamic countries and try to build their future on well-established foundations of advancement, progress, and urbanization.
The group transformed this vision into reality by founding the international organization in 1981, which comprised 67 branches around the world, divided into seven geographical regions. The first branch was in North Africa and covered Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. The second included European countries, while the third included North America, Latin America, and Canada. East Asia and the Pacific were included in the fourth while the fifth included Central Asia and the sixth included Yemen, the Gulf, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Levant was supposed to be the seventh geographical region.
It is widely known that the international unit of the Brotherhood has objectives both in the Arab region and in Europe. The local organization may enlist the help of the international organization’s leaders in many political and economic affairs as well as to generate financial support. The funds of the international organization and its transcontinental affiliates are used to embed the Brotherhood within the communities politically, socially, intellectually and economically. This transnational ideology is one of the reasons behind the rise of Islamophobia in the West and the growing fear among many Europeans of the Brotherhood’s practices seeking to “Islamize” Western societies.
The technology revolution: The advancement of communication and technology has contributed significantly to the globalization of extremism and the politicization of religious identity. There is a link between technological development and the escalation of activities of extremist groups and terrorist organizations. These groups have exploited these technologies in recruitment, propaganda, coordination, and planning of their terrorist operations. There is no doubt that the proliferation of new media technologies, such as social media platforms and digital satellite channels, have provided a window for extremist groups to communicate, spread their ideas and ideologies that promote violence, incite hatred, and thus fuel sectarian and doctrinal tensions. Meanwhile, online extremist propaganda remains the most important means of the far-right in Europe in spreading extremist ideologies and racist ideas that call for the expulsion of Arab and Muslim immigrants and promoting the revival of Christian religious identity. They also call for adopting inward-looking policies and rejecting and exiting the EU.
Terrorist groups have flocked to the digital world to spread their extremist ideas because they have found in the internet environment, with its multiple platforms (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), a relatively cheap, convenient and secure way to communicate. Besides, extremist groups view the internet as a tool to mobilize resources. They use it also, (YouTube for example), to convey and spread their violence to the target audience and intimidate opponents. Social media is also an important means for cross-border terrorist organizations to disseminate their ideas and gain sympathizers and new followers, particularly among young people. That’s why they use their social media accounts to communicate with others through specialized programmers to urge them to implement their agenda. The most active group in this regard is ISIS. During 2015-2018, it posted photos and videos via Twitter in particular because it is a user-friendly app for mobile phones. Twitter is one of the most important social media platforms used by extremists and terrorist organizations to interact and coordinate, as it provides changing virtual communities, enabling these groups to follow up on the latest information on any issue that emerges in the public domain.
However, the use of social media in spreading extremist ideology and inciting hatred is not limited to extremist organizations but extends to the far-right in Europe. The terrorist attack on two mosques in the center of Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, which left about 50 people dead and dozens injured, was the result of hate speech on social media. Corporate giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and YouTube were accused of making profits by displaying content that encourages extremism and racism. A dangerous aspect of this attack is that it was widely shared on Facebook and re-uploaded millions of times over the Internet, before being removed at a later stage. Telegram is also a platform for disseminating extremist ideas, such as the anarchism of the far-left and far-right. Notably, this app appeals to such groups because it only allows the administrator to interact with the users and its communication is secured by the “end-to-end” encryption feature, which enhances users’ sense of privacy.
The globalization of extremism
Extremism is no longer associated with specific region or religion and has evolved into a “globalized” phenomenon, especially with the rise of far-right movements and parties and the recent resurgence of populism in Europe and many regions of the world. These groups share many features with political and religious groups and extremist organizations in the Middle East, which can be explained as follows:
- Refusal to coexist: The far-right and populist parties in Europe adopt a speech that rejects the integration of immigrants, especially those coming from Arab and Muslim countries, on the pretext of preserving a unified European identity, which in turn may make religious identity a source of conflict within the European societies in the future. This also applies to extremist organizations, primarily Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which in all their literature, reject dialogue with the West; and promote the clash of civilizations, and have even made the Western interests a target for their terrorist operations.
- Intolerance and sense of superiority: The far-right and populist forces are less tolerant of different groups and opinions. They claim a moral high ground over others, which explains their hardline position against ethnic minorities and immigrants and their refusal to integrate into European societies, and even view the Islamic identity as a threat to European identity. This is evident in the “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West” (PEGIDA) movement in the Netherlands, which organized an anti-Muslim demonstration in front of a mosque in Enschede. It also screened an anti-Muslim film in October 2018. The same also applies to extremist organizations and political religious groups that adhere to their positions and ideologies, which are based mainly on intolerance toward minorities, claiming the moral high ground and launching terrorist operations against them.
- Incitement of hatred: If extremist and terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and similar groups incite hatred and intolerance in their speech, the far-right and populist parties adopt a similar speech, as mentioned above.
- Killing in the name of religious identity: Extremist organizations believe in the use of violence and justify the use of so-called “killing the other based on religious identity”. It allows its members to kill and portraying such an act of religiosity and commitment. The far-right is involved in this phenomenon too, not only because it harbors anti-Arab and Muslim sentiments in Europe, but also because its ideas are the main drivers behind the terrorist attacks on mosques in many European countries in recent years, and on two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019. A statistical study by the British police revealed that hate speech and violence increased by up to 40 percent and that the number of racist incidents reached 94,098 between 2015 and March 2018. German domestic intelligence reports showed an escalation in the scale of the far-right threats, which confirm that 12,700 right-wing extremists “tend to be violent”.
Killing in the name of religious identity is the other side of the phenomenon of extremism. It feeds on ideologies that promote violence in the name of religion and use a language that appeals to the public and ordinary members of society, such as the triumph of good over evil and divine justice. This is true of extremist and jihadist groups in the Middle East with its counterpart in Europe and the US.
The growing conflict in the name of religious identity and the associated globalization of extremism and terrorism bring to mind the theory of the “clash of civilizations” by the well-known American political scientist Samuel Huntington, which indicates that, despite the end of the conflict between ideologies, and cultural and religious identities, it will remain a source of conflict. Huntington’s expectations for religion, as a source of hatred and violence, proved to be correct. However, what he failed to notice, according to many researchers, is that the conflict in the name of cultural or religious identity is not the preserve of Islamic movements. Numerous movements have emerged in the US and the West that adopt a similar discourse, as the neo-conservatives after 9/11, where Bush Jr.’s policies were heavily influenced on the war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, the far right and new populist groups emerged in Europe and the US, and so did the Hindu nationalist party in India.
Neutralizing conflicts in the name of ‘religious identity’
Amid this globalization of extremism, which is no longer limited to a particular religion or region, and the associated conflict over religious identity, which may exacerbate the risk of cross-border violence and terrorism, there is a need for an effective regional and international action to contain conflicts that use religious identity a cover. Only this would ensure that the world doesn’t slide into devastating religious wars that bring it back to the dark ages. It would require the following measures:
- Countering attempts to politicize religion: This entails avoiding falling into the trap of terminology that fuels the religious or civilizational conflicts in the first place as they serve the interests of extremist ideologies and populist movements and parties.
- Promoting a collective national identity: This could prove to be the incubator of various religious, cultural and social identities, which can be ensured by upholding the values of citizenship, respect for human rights, freedom of opinion and expression. This would help strengthen internal cohesion and stability in states and societies, and address any attempts, internal or external, to exploit the existence of religious, sectarian and doctrinal identities for political objectives.
- Benefiting from best practices to counter extremism and terrorism: This is a way to tackle this phenomenon from a comprehensive perspective, taking into account its different dimensions, and engaging with government and private institutions. In addition, states should develop new tools, such as education and sports; use counter-narratives; activate government control over private education; intervene to remove illegal extremist content on the Internet; and train teachers to detect signs of extremism among students. Such tools will help immunize societies against intolerant and extremist tendencies as well as counter any attempts to “politicize” religion.
- Fraternity, world peace and living together: Signed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, and the Pope Francis of the Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, the vision behind this document is to address intolerance, extremism and hatred based on religious identity. It emphasizes the true teachings of faith and calls for upholding the values of peace and values of human fraternity and coexistence. It also says that terrorism threatens the security of people, whether in the East or the West, in the North or the South, and is the result of the accumulation of false understanding of the religious texts.
The principles and ideas affirmed in this document draw a roadmap to counter the extremist and terrorist forces to establish a new era of coexistence between cultures and civilizations based on mutual respect of religions, avoiding sectarian and doctrinal conflicts, and promoting coexistence with the other. Human commonalities in the monotheistic religions certainly allow all human beings to live in peace and security.
 For more details on the concept of identity, refer to: Alex Mucchielli, “Identity”, first edition, translated by Ali Wattafa (French Publishing House, 1993).
 Dr. Subhi Ghandour, “The Age of Extremism in Climate and Ideas!”, Al-Bayan Newspaper (Dubai), February 19, 2015.
 Hamid Al-Mansouri, The Bloody Moons and the Arab Night, Al-Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), September 17, 2014.
 Ammar Ali Hassan, “ISIS” Designations: Motivations and Targets, Al-Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), September 16, 2016.
 Al-Haj Dawaq, “Religion and Identity: Between Narrow Affiliation and Capacity for Innovation”, published by Believers Without Borders for Studies and Research, Research Files Series, May 2016 Issue, pp. 109-110
 “The sectarian dimension is one of the soft power tools”, the Nation Shield Magazine, Abu Dhabi, Issue (531), April 2016, pp. 7-71
 Hala Al-Hefnawi, “Return of Religion to Public Domain Discussions on the International Arena”, Trending Events Magazine, Issue 29 (2018-2019), Future Center for Advanced Studies, Abu Dhabi: https://bit.ly/2wRurTf.
 Dr. Al Sayed Ould Ibah, “Bloods of Fear and Bastions of Identity”, Al Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), March 17, 2019
 For more details on the extreme right phenomenon, please refer to: Walden Bello, Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right, Practical Action Publishing, 2019.
 Hamid al-Mansuri, Ibid.
 Colin P. Clarke, After the Caliphate: The Islamic State & the Future Terrorist Diaspora, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019).
 For more details and how the war led by the international coalition against ISIS led to the globalization of extremism, see: Seth J. Frantzman, After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle Eastm, Gefen Publishing House, 2019.
 Rasha Ammar, “The disintegration of the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood: The end of Banna’s dreams of “Professorship of the World”, Al Ain news website (Abu Dhabi), October 22, 2019: https://bit.ly/2w2Gehd
 Jassim Muhamad, “The Risks of the extremist right in German and the necessity of reassessment”, European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, February 22, 2020: https://bit.ly/37ZAKAU
 For more details on how jihadi and extremist groups use digital content on the Internet, please see: Carol K. Winkler & Cori E. Dauber (Eds), Visual Propaganda and Extremism in the Online Environment (New York: Strategic Studies Institute, July 2014).
 Geoff Dean, Peter Bell, Jack Newan, The Dark Side of Social Media: Review of Online Terrorism, Pakistan Journal of Criminology, Vol. 3, No. 4, April – July 2012, pp 194 – 195.
 Azza Hashem, “The Psychology of Fear: The Psychological Characteristics of Right-wing Extremists”, Future Center for Advanced Studies, Abu Dhabi, September 4, 2019, through the following link: https://bit.ly/394Tq3G
 For more details about the concept of (killing on identity), see: Dr. Nasr Mohamed Arif, Religious motives for killing on identity, Al Ain News Portal, (Abu Dhabi), 20 December 2017: https://bit.ly/37PITba
 Jasim Mohamed, ibid
 Michael Wessells, “Terrorism, Apocalyptic Ideology, and Young Martyrs: Why Peacebuilding Matters” , Paper Presented at The American Psychological Association Conference, Chicago, August 2002.
 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order) New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996), pp. 19 - 20.
 Husam Miro, The Arab National Identity and Security Crisis, Al-Khaleej Newspaper (Sharjah), 14 November 2016.