Violence and turmoil have plagued the Middle East for millennia. This cradle of civilization didn’t birth hostility with the inception of Islam. Since its nascency, the region has undergone myriad of political and religious transformations. Despotic regimes and kingdoms appointed and endorsed by colonial powers have impinged the region’s potential to thrive. This paper will assess the prolificacy of rivalry/usurpation and the lasting effects of its global reputation.
The Middle East is perceived by many as intellectually inferior with an overtly yokel culture. Furthermore, to the observer, barbarism and compulsory religiosity afflicting the region have dominated the hearts and minds of the illiterate desert people. While the secular world produces advanced technology, eradicates diseases, and spreads the banner of liberty to every corner of the globe, the Middle East idles in medieval discontent, stagnant in pre-Enlightenment ideology/mythology of a bygone era. In recent years, however, the detractors have, to their surprise, found these commoners wanting, vehemently disapproving of the authoritarian regimes. Lasting from 2010 to 2012, the Arab Spring spurred significant constitutional change for many nations, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, and Yemen. There are others, however, still fighting (e.g. Syria and Bahrain).
In the revealing and uncensored Netflix documentaries “The Return to Homs” and “The Square,” the protagonists (e.g. rebels and revolutionaries) openly share their grievances with the audience. Moreover, throughout the films, the rebels and revolutionaries, unequivocally assert their nationalist identity and political liberality. For example, Ahmed, the main protagonist in “The Square,” when dialoguing with Muslim Brotherhood proponents and party affiliates, states,
“Do you know what a ‘civil state’ is? A ‘civil state’ represents all different parts of society…No matter what, religion will always be there…Religion does not need to be on paper. Religion is in the heart and in the mind” (2013).
This radical statement, advocating for the separation of church and state, though—contrasted with centuries of Islamic dominance in the region—alien, exemplifies the endemic response to oppression. But from where did this revolutionary spirit come?
For centuries, the Silk Road, which spanned from Rome to Mesopotamia to Persia through the Himalayas to northern China, connected the Eastern Hemisphere and familiarized various peoples with new cultures. To establish a formidable presence in the region, European forces decided to take hostage, or hijack, the prolific trade routes. After the Hellenization of the Middle East and the usurpation of Greece/Macedonia by the Roman Empire, the world became more connected. The displaced peoples sought restoration and reconciliation, unifying against occupying forces.
With the advent of Christianity and, roughly six hundred years later, Islam, the colonization of the Middle East by the European forces inadvertently allowed for the spread of religion and philosophy with missionaries, merchants, and traders. However, after the Roman Empire devolved into two separate entities (i.e. West Roman and East Byzantine), the fracture allowed the Ottomans to supplant the occupying forces in the region. A contrarian attitude towards oppressors permeates amongst the Semitic people. All too familiar with invasion and occupation, unfortunately, rebellion against the status quo is intrinsic to their state of being.
After the Ottomans fell to the Western Allies in 1918—and eventually to dissidents within the Empire in 1924—the Caliphate was officially abolished and the redrawing of the Middle East ensued. British and French Mandates, circumscribed by the newly developed League of Nations, partitioned the region with arbitrary borders. In a concerted effort, nationalist dissidents upended the Ottoman caliphate, collaborating directly and indirectly with Western forces to establish a more tranquil Arab-independent state. British and French forces divided the region into kingdoms, appointing leaders of—what is now known as—the Arab Revolt.
Provence, in his compendious article explicating the intricacies of post-Ottoman colonialism, writes, “In March 1920, the Syrian National Congress met in Damascus and proclaimed Faysal king almost in spite of himself” (Provence, 2011, pp. 217). However, after further revolts in French-occupied Syria, Faysal was ousted and, at the behest of the British, assumed the throne to quell rebellion in Iraq (2011, pp. 218). Likewise, in British-operated Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, “Abdullah the second son of King Husain of Hijaz agree to act as temporary head of the administration of the new Emirate in hope that he would later on acquire the Syrian throne” (Kazziha, 1978, pp. 239). These aspirations, however, were hampered when, in 1921, then Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill offered Abdullah sovereignty over “the attachment of Transjordan to Mesopotamia” (1978, pp. 246). However, with the Iraqi revolt of 1920, the people abrogated the imperialist sympathizer, Faysal, and established a parliamentary system. Henceforth, the inferiority of these subjugated yeoman farmers and shepherds proved erroneous, thus setting an example for the remaining Arab states.
With slight condescension, Elizabeth Monroe, in “British Interests in the Middle East,” writes,
“In Saudi Arabia and Transjordan, two of the hereditary kingdoms in the area, the king as yet stands to his people in relation of a tribal ruler. They can count on his benevolence, and they accept his views. Elsewhere the trappings of democracy…have been adopted. But they have not been accompanied by the development that should properly precede them—education in civic responsibility” (1948, pp. 137-138).
In other words, the people of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran cannot properly conceive the rationality of progress. They are stunted in their traditionalism and impervious to reason. These sentiments continue to this day.
Lastly, as for the religious convictions of the inhabitants of the former colonized Arab states, the effects of the Ottoman Caliphate reverberate throughout the region to this day. Under Sharia Law, the Turks implemented a Qur’anic judiciary to enact justice. However, with the passing of the Muslim empire, a revolutionary spirit birthed an era of insurgency and—what many would call—acts of terror (Provence, 2011, pp. 215). This spirited culminated in the Pan-Islamic movement. In his scholarly and rather substantive compilation of Islam, Reza Aslan writes,
“[Pan-Islamism] was the supernationalist project…whose principle goal was the encouragement of Muslim unity across cultural, sectarian, and national boundaries, under the banner of a single, centralized…Caliphate—in other words, the revival of the Ummah” (2011, pp. 236).
However, after the abolition of the Turkish empire, another movement arose to take its place—Pan-Arabism movement, which lasted from 1958 to 1961: an attempted concerted effort to establish a United Arab Republic, incorporating every Arab-speaking country from Morocco to Somalia to Iraq. These efforts, however, fell through.
Hyper-nationalism resonates with Middle Easterners. Their identity is, first, Arab and, second, either state or religious (Reiser, 1983, pp. 226, 227, 229, 230). Living in a region pummeled by invasion and occupation shapes perception of foreigners and refines allegiance to God and country. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to approach this delicate matter with full knowledge of context, recognizing the familiarity of suffering and acquaintance with loss.
In summary, since its nascency, the Middle East has endured violence and turmoil to the utmost degree. A land of vast resources and commercial routes, imperialism from the ancient Romans to the 20th century British and French Mandates has reinforced a nationalist culture, promulgated by religion and inextricably bound by history. Therefore, upon approaching the current conflicts in the Middle East, it is conducive to understand the context and the people who are seemingly consummated to infinite grief.