The West's understanding of the Middle East has often been laden with misconceptions-this has especially been the case in the years following the Arab Spring.
Here are three assumptions about this part of the world that need to be challenged.
Doing so is important as people all over the world often perceive the Middle East as a region in which ancient religious rivalries prevent the emergence of secular democracies. Among other things, this can wrongly inform foreign policy decision-making regarding ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Assumption no. 1: If leaders are secular, sectarianism will disappear.
This view sounds plausible, but is challenged when we take a quick look at the Levant. The Ba'ath regimes in Syria, and previously in Iraq, would have liked us to believe that they were secular-after all, their leaders pronounced their commitment to the ideas of Arab socialism and nationalism, championed the integration of women into the labour market, and labelled their opposition as religious and conservative. Saddam Hussein's biography does suggest a man following closely the tenants of Islam, to use the understatement of the century.
And yet both regimes were loyal to the interests of the religious groups from which their leaders came. For example, when Bashar al-Assad's regime began to crumble, he relied on a Syrian-Iranian front to protect him, throwing in the wind his previous strategic alliance with Sunni businessmen and professionals.
Many people in the Middle East, especially members of the generation growing up in the post-colonial era, identify with their religious groups. They might drink, gamble and otherwise view themselves as very secular, and yet strongly identify as Sunni, Shi'ite or Christian, in certain contexts. This is largely due to historical developments, like the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war, and the catastrophe that is Syria today. Being "secular" and "modern," then, does not mean being unsectarian.
Assumption no. 2: All Islamist organisations are the same, the end result is always violent extremism.
While many of the Muslim Brotherhood organisations have platforms which are not fully democratic, there is a world of difference between them and the brutality of the so-called "Islamic State", also known as The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These organisations are not the same in the ways they view elections or minority and women's rights. The more moderate organisations are more than ready to have women play a part in their political organisations. The sights that we see today in northern Iraq, in which Christian and Yazidis are harshly persecuted, are utterly repulsive to the more moderate Muslim political organisations.
Moreover, whereas Islamic State sees itself as an authentic, pre-modern, Islamic state, nothing could further from the truth. Islamic State does not share the ecumenical vision of the early Muslim community during the 7th century and its disdain for the sciences and innovation puts them in polar opposition to the cultural curiosity typical of medieval Islamic court culture.
Joan Cusack once said in the film Working Girl: "Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn't make me Madonna. Never will." The same can be said about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the caliphate.
Next page: Assumption no. 3