As a western professional working or living in the Middle East or North Africa (MENA) at first glance it may seem that Islam is the only religion. After all, Islamic thought, values and traditions dictate the culture and laws. Upon a closer look it becomes clearer that the Middle East has long been home to a diverse group of religious traditions.
All of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) not only have their origins in the region but also their holiest cities (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Mecca & Medina). Furthermore, other lesser known religions such as Zoroastrianism (from Iran), Yazidi religion (from Iraq) , the Druze (from Lebanon) and of course Sufism have their roots in the Middle East. There is a sizable minority population of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Catholics in Iraq (Chaldean). The Island of Djerba off of Tunisa is known for its Jewish population.
On my first visit to Iran my husband took me to many historical sites in Isfahan including a Christian church and we met Jewish merchants in the local Bazaar. In fact one of the premier hospitals in Tehran, Iran is the Dr. Sapir Hospital & Charity Center- a Jewish hospital.
It is good to know that whatever your religion is as a western visitor in any of the MENA countries there are people there who are likely practicing and believing what you believe as well.
This does not mean that they enjoy the freedom and openness of practice that you enjoy in your western country. Most likely they do not. Most non-Muslims are private about their religious beliefs.
The countries in the MENA region are mostly theocratic (religious based law) with Islam as the base for their theocracy. There are also Monarchies ruled by Royal families (Jordan) . Some are both (like Saudi Arabia-a theocratic monarchy) and of course Israel is something all together different in the region.
This means there is no “separation of church and state” (or mosque and state) for the majority of the region. Offenses that are not supported by the religion are punishable by law. Think of it like this- if there were no separation of church and state in the United States then acts that are recognized as immoral or sinful by the Church such as pre-marital sex or blasphemy could be punishable by law.
In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa this is the way of life. Thus it is unlawful to speak disparagingly of Islam or openly practice immoral or sinful practices in the eyes of Islam (for example, non-modest dress). While “spreading the word of God” is common and encouraged in Christianity, doing so in this part of the world could land you in jail or worse as it is seen as a crime against Islam.
This is where professional cultural etiquette consulting can polish your demeanor in important ways. It requires discipline in speech and opinion to live or work effectively in this part of the world. Make your endeavors in this region count by preparing yourself for the necessary changes to truly thrive as a western professional in the Middle East or North Africa.