Rooted in the Past: Seeds of Discord in the Ancient Middle East
The Middle East, a region centered on the Arabian Peninsula, but broadened to include countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Sudan that were tied most directly to empires based on the Arabian Peninsula, has been the site of many controversial and sometimes violent battles over some of the most important issues in religious and secular, or nonreligious, societies. These conflicts intensified in the twentieth century, but many of them started hundreds or thousands of years before and have affected people from various countries and religious and cultural backgrounds. Differences in religion, the use of resources, and the ownership of land are just a few of the issues at the root of many of the Middle Eastern conflicts.
Many of the conflicts in the Middle East have been caused by the constant change of power in the region. Over the years, large parts of the Middle East fell under the partial or complete control of the Roman Empire (an empire that ruled between c. 27 BCE and 476 CE and controlled territories ranging from Germany to Northern Africa and into the Persian Gulf), the Byzantine Empire (a section of the Roman Empire that ruled from c. 330
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The Long Decline: From the Ottoman Empire to the Mandate System
The rise of Islam during the seventh century CE in the Middle East contributed to a great period of unification, as the scattered peoples of the region converted, or switched over, to a single faith. Many countries began to consider themselves as part of the larger cultural force of Islam, which offered itself as the perfection of the previous monotheistic religions, religions that believed in only one god, such as Judaism and Christianity. First under the Islamic caliphate (a system of rule that united religious and political power), then under the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), which became the dominant regional power early in the 1500s, the Middle East enjoyed nearly a millennium of social and cultural progress and growth. Yet beginning in the late seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire slowly contracted, or grew smaller, due to territory being lost during various conflicts. At the same time, Islamic countries did not grow as fast economically or technologically as countries of the West (such as Britain, France, Germany, and later the United States). By the dawn of the twentieth century, the
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Competing Visions: Zionism, Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Islamism
Early in its history, the Middle East was a focal point for important developments in human civilization. The first societies formed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and three of the largest monotheistic religions (religions that believed in only one god)—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were all founded in the Fertile Crescent, a semicircle of land defined by the Mediterranean coastal region of Palestine in the west and the Tigris/Euphrates River valleys in the east. Because it connected Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Middle East was a crossroads and a battleground for many great empires. At one time or another, the Egyptians, the Persian Empire (an Asian empire that ruled in various parts of the Middle East and Russia from 550 to 330 BCE), the Roman Empire (an empire that ruled between c. 27 BCE and 476 CE and controlled territories ranging from Germany to Northern Africa and into the Persian Gulf), the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), and many other less significant empires claimed large parts of the Middle East as their territory. Though the dominant influence on the region since the seventh century
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Building Nations I: The Arab World
Up until the end of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the Middle East had enjoyed hundreds of years of relative political stability under the control of the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century). The Ottoman Empire, with its capital in the present-day country of Turkey, had acted as a unifying force in the region ever since it invaded the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt in 1516–17. Ottoman rule may have stabilized the region, but it did not contribute to its advancement. The predominately Muslim, or Islamic, societies of the Middle East, including Iran, had not progressed nearly as quickly as those in Western countries (such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States), and by the turn of the twentieth century they fell far behind the West in terms of their economic progress, the education of their people, and their political development. All of that began to change in the years after World War I.
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Building Nations II: Palestine and Israel
Palestine is a land claimed by two determined peoples, the Jews and the Arab Palestinians, who each have distinct religious and cultural traditions. Each of these groups can point to a long history of occupying this land, and both have physical landmarks—ancient holy temples, rural villages, groves of olive trees—that prove their claim. Both the Jews and the Arab Palestinians feel that they were promised access to and control of this land by foreign powers that governed Palestine during the 1800s and 1900s. These claims have caused conflict between the Jews and the Arab Palestinians, resulting in over 100 years of battles and wars between the two groups. This conflict has not only changed the lives of the people in them, but has also changed the culture of each group, causing people on both sides to commit what many view as terrorist acts to reach their goal of controlling Palestine. The conflict has also divided the countries of the Middle East and the rest of the world into those that support the state of Israel, the independent Jewish state created in 1948 on the land of the former country of Palestine, and those that wish to destroy Israel and return control of Palestine to the Arab people who once lived there.
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The Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948–73
On May 14, 1948, Zionists, a group dedicated to creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine, achieved their ultimate goal when they declared the establishment of the state of Israel. Even though the creation of Israel had been supported by the United Nations, an international peacekeeping organization founded in 1945 and made up of most of the countries of the world, the nation of Israel soon came under attack by Arab countries in the Middle East who felt that Israelis had stolen land from Arab Palestinians to create their country and that Israel was a threat to Arabic and Islamic cultures. The nations of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, along with other countries in the Arab League, an organization of Arabic nations committed to preserving Arabic values in the Middle East, attacked Israel in late May 1948, marking the beginning of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, a conflict that would continue in various forms between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East for the next thirty years.
Even though the creation and continued stability of the Jewish state of Israel was the main issue in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, related developments increased the political turmoil
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The Long Road to Peace: Israeli-Palestinian Relations, 1973–
By the early 1970s relations between Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinian population living in refugee camps or in the Occupied Territories (land taken over by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967) were at a low point. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria were preparing to attack Israel in 1967 but were surprised when Israel attacked first, destroying the forces of these Arab countries and taking large amounts of Arab land. A joint Egyptian-Syrian effort to regain territory in 1973 led to another Arab loss and a further decline in Arab-Israeli relations. In addition to being defeated in battle, these Arab nations faced deep internal conflicts and mutual disagreement over how to manage their relations with Israel and how to deal with foreign powers that were continually influencing culture and politics in the Middle East.
Despite its military victories, Israel still did not feel secure in its existence. Created in 1948 to provide a homeland for Jews from around the world, Israel was deeply divided over its efforts to create a democracy while at the same time building a powerful military capable of
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Global Politics and the Middle East
When the United States went to war against Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1991 (a war in which many nations attempted to stop Iraq from overtaking Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries and resources), it was not the first time that a major world power had become involved in conflicts in the Middle East. By 1991 a changing array of world powers—nations whose power was so great that their actions impacted politics far beyond their actual borders—had been directly involved in the Middle East for more than seventy-five years, and indirectly involved for much longer. The history of foreign intervention in Middle Eastern affairs is very complicated, and it has occupied the attention of numerous historians, most of whom have written from a Western perspective (from the viewpoints and cultures of such countries as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States). Yet even Western historians, who might be expected to have a favorable view of Western actions in the region, have generally concluded that foreign involvement in the Middle East has left a mixed legacy, with economic development and democracy existing alongside sustained violence and an undercurrent of anti-Western sentiment.
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Terrorism in the Middle East
On September 11, 2001, members of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda took control of four American airliners filled with passengers and directed them at targets in the United States. Two of the planes directly hit the World Trade Center towers in New York City, killing more than two thousand people. Both towers collapsed within hours of being struck. The third plane flew into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the American military located outside the nation's capital of Washington, D.C., creating a large hole in the side of the building and killing more than one hundred of its occupants. The fourth plane crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers fought with the terrorists who had taken over the plane. All passengers aboard the four planes were killed. These attacks shocked the United States and the international community. For many Americans, the events of September 11 created a new awareness of terrorism and drew attention to the deep hatred that some people in the world feel for the United States.
The majority of the members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group come from the Middle East. They are only among the
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Lebanon: The Never-Ending Conflict
Formed as an independent state on November 22, 1943, following years under French mandate control (a system of government set up in the 1920s that allowed France to maintain political and economic control over parts of the Middle East), Lebanon has spent more than sixty years struggling to define itself and to form a stable, representative government. That struggle has placed Lebanon at the center of some of the most difficult and violent conflicts in the Middle East. Some of the central issues in the various conflicts have included the division of governing power among the country's numerous religious sects; the divided loyalties Lebanon has to the West (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States) and to the Arab states; and the influence of Israel and Syria in Lebanon. The 1943 declaration of Lebanese independence was celebrated by many in the Middle East as a long-awaited release from foreign rule, but to others it was considered the beginning of a complex political problem to be solved by the many ethnic groups that were combined and divided within borders established by foreign rulers.
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The Iran-Iraq War
For eight years, the nations of Iran and Iraq fought to a bloody standstill in their war for regional dominance. While the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) was an important event in the history of both of those countries, it also revealed some of the more complex issues facing the Middle East in the twentieth century. The war forced people in both countries to question which form of identity was most important or unifying: their ethnic group, their religious sect, or their nationality. In addition, the war demonstrated the power of other countries to influence the outcome of war in the Middle East. In the end, the war signaled that the international community was not willing to allow the spread of Islamic fundamentalism (the belief that the Islamic religion should govern all aspects of life), and it solidified the idea of nationalism (devotion to the interests and culture of a particular nation) in some of the still-developing countries of the Arab world. While Iraqi and Iranian leaders gained significant national support for their political systems as a result of the war, neither Iraq nor Iran gained territory nor political authority over their opponents; and both suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties and severely damaged economies.
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The Gulf Wars
Of the many conflicts that have divided the Middle East since 1918, two have received the bulk of public attention in the West (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States). The first is the long-standing conflict between Jews and Arabs over control of the land that is now Israel and the Occupied Territories, known as the Arab-Israeli or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second was the clash between Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and a coalition of nations led by the United States. In two separate Gulf Wars, one in 1991 and another in 2003, U.S.-led forces clashed with Iraq's army, first to restore the nation of Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in a dispute over land and oil reserves, and second over Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons), which posed a threat to the region and violated the terms of the ceasefire agreed to in 1991. These two Gulf Wars reveal several of the long-standing tensions existing in the Middle East in the early twenty-first century.
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Flashpoints: Ethnic and Religious Conflicts
Middle Eastern society is divided between various, often overlapping, groups. Religious, ethnic, social, and national allegiances all claim people's attention and loyalties. Many conflicts in the region have resulted from members of these various factions competing for access to political power and control of the region's natural resources. An examination of three particular groups illustrates some of the difficulties these different allegiances pose to stability in the Middle East. The troubles faced by ethnic Armenians (Christian Turks) in Turkey illustrate the dangers of the national boundaries that were drawn in the Middle East after World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). The plight of the Kurds (non-Arabic Muslims, or followers of the Islamic religion) in Iraq reveals how difficult it is for minority ethnic groups to win support in their search for independence or adequate political representation. In addition, the struggles between Sunnis (a branch of Islam that believes that the leader of the Islamic religion can be elected from any member of the tribe of the prophet Muhammad) and Shiites (a branch
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The Future of the Middle East Conflict
In 2005 the vast majority of the issues that made the Middle East such a violence-prone region in the previous century remained unresolved. In Israel and its Occupied Territories (land Israel took from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six-Dar War in 1967), Jews and Palestinians still fight physically and verbally to determine how best to settle their long-standing dispute over the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own independent nations in the region.
In Lebanon, the withdrawal of Syrian troops in early 2005, troops which had entered Lebanon in 1975 to assist the Lebanese government during the Lebanese civil war and had remained in the country to keep peace and exert Syrian control over the Lebanese government, brought hope that the Lebanese could learn how to govern themselves without violence. However, the strength of Lebanese Islamic fundamentalist groups (groups that believe that all areas of life including government, culture, and foreign policy should be ruled by the laws of the Islamic religion), who have received support from Iran, threatened a return to civil war in a country that is home to Christians, Muslims (followers of the Islamic faith), and numerous other religious groups.
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