While U.S. policymakers tend to cite a few bad actors, such as Iran, blame is in fact widely shared. America’s allies—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, for instance—are hardly paragons of religious tolerance. And Washington’s failure to understand the Middle East’s religious character played an important role exacerbating sectarian violence which has become so pervasive.
Those who live there know the problem. There’s a popular joke in the Middle East right now.
An Iraqi man driving along a road is pulled over at a makeshift check point. The guard, pointing a gun at him, asks, “Are you a Sunni or a Shi’a?” The man, not knowing whether this is a legitimate check point and which side the guard is on, responds, “Well, actually, I’m an atheist.” The guard promptly says, “Yes, yes, but are you a Sunni Atheist or a Shi’a Atheist.”
In fact, their disillusionment is so ubiquitous that atheism has become “a thing” across the region. Middle Eastern governments have noticed this phenomenon and are attempting to combat it. For example, the Iranian regime declared “war on un‐Islamic thought” and Egypt’s government recently introduced legislation that would outlaw atheism. Indeed, Muslim states typically view disbelief as worse than Christianity or Judaism.
Clearly, these governments learned nothing from the Arab Spring, Green Revolution, or other popular uprisings across the region. Such repressive laws and policies are like a pressure cooker without a safety valve — they serve only to frustrate people, expanding ever‐present societal tensions without providing any mechanism for their release. At some point most governments lose control and are no longer able to contain these forces, after which revolution results.