Cultural Dominance Over Religion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

Cultural Dominance Over Religion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
Posted on February 10, 2017 | Yasser Harrak | Written on February 9, 2017
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Author's Note:

Author's Note:

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It is wrong to assume that Islam is the only determining force behind family structures, gender relations and patriarchal organizations in Middle Eastern and North African societies. Culture is wider than religion. In fact, different religions got branded by local cultures and adopt or adapt  to local traditions. Sunni Malikism and Sephardic Judaism are a good example of how local North African cultures influenced big religions like Islam and Judaism and  transformed them into unique sects. Openess and moderation characterize North African Islam and Judaism because the area is rich in culture and managed to conciliate Berber, Phenician, Roman and Arab influnces. The Bedouins culture in Saudi Arabia, characterized by strict honor codes, determinism and the laws of blood revenge have produced a different Islam known as Wahhabism (the religion of all violent Islamist groups). Therefore, it is culture that  dominates  religion in the region and not vice versa. 
In gender relations, the veil issue always surfaces first. I would like to point out the fact that a woman's veil is different from one tradition to another. A typical North African Muslim woman's veil is identical to a Sephardic Jewish woman's veil. The Wahhabi Muslim Niqab or Burqa is identical to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Haredi Burqa (Harrak 2015). Having different religions adopt the same veil while united by a geographical area in the present or the past proves to us that the veil is a cultural product that was adopted by religions. It is true that in countries  like Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Iran, the state uses its culturally rich adopted religion to impose different codes in gender relations such as segregation, veil and banning of car driving  (Saudi specific). Gender related issues, such as the veil, cannot be academically linked to female emancipation. Iranian thinker Ali Shariati condemned either a blind adoption of the veil or a forced adoption of the same as lacking the essentials of liberatory spirit (Merali 2006, 185).
The culturally rich religious traditions in MENA play an important role in the organization of families and communities. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, the state uses its adopted religious sect in its judiciary systems affecting all the population. This includes the right to polygamy and marriage laws, inheritance laws and family disputes. Other states did establish a completely secular or quasi-secular system that applies to all the citizens with religious sub-systems available up on request, choice or based on residency. In Morocco, for example, when a Muslim citizen goes to get married, he or she can chose between either a secular or an Islamic contract. Moroccan Jews have their own family judicial sub-system. In Israel, Muslims, legally recognized Christians, and Druze have their own religious courts with jurisdiction in family matters over their own followers.

 In short, the culturally rich legal systems and sub-systems directly affect the organization of families and communities in MENA. Despite their power, these legal systems face new generations with different thoughts influenced by different cultures.  MENA is an area where different cultures are competing. The cultural status in MENA is becoming gradually multicultural and in many instances anti-enlightenment gender related phenomena , as Arzu Merali puts it, are not necessarily always imposed. They are sometimes a matter of choice in the same way we see them in Western societies. The major cultural  players in formation of modern urban MENA societies  are  globalization, social media communications and  local as well as transnational NGOs, explaining the swift, and sometimes slow, social changes happening throughout the region.




About The Author

Yasser Harrak's picture

Alma mater: American Public University (MA, Grad Cert), Concordia University (BA). 


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