A little history of the modern Middle East

The current violence and turmoil in the Middle East is expressive of a conflict between rival ideas, between the modern nation state and an old, historical concept of an Islamic caliphate.

Two young women in veils enjoy a hamburger
Two young women in veils enjoy a hamburger whilst sitting in front of a Coca Cola poster in a Star Burger fast food restaurant in northern Tehran, June 2001. Credit: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

In the 2016 Channel 4 documentary series, The Jihadist Next Door, two Muslims are seen confronting each other. Both accuse the other of being a ‘traitor’, a person who betrays a cause or a principle. One is Mohammed Shafik of the Ramadhan Foundation, the anti-Islamist think tank, who challenges the other as a ‘traitor to the country of Great Britain’, of which he is a citizen and passport holder. The other, Khurram Butt, who will go on to be shot by the Metropolitan Police during the London Bridge terrorist incident of June 2017, calls Khan a ‘traitor’ for compromising with the ‘illegal’ and ‘illegitimate’ state of the United Kingdom, and betraying the umma, the international community of Muslims. In that confrontation, a stand-off between a Muslim who acknowledges the idea of the nation state, and the loyalty and responsibilities due to it, and a Muslim who believes in the old, historical concept of an Islamic caliphate, where borders are Western imperial constructs, imposed on the universal brotherhood of God-fearing Muslims, lies the root of much of the current violence and turmoil in the Middle East.

In 1990, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and around the time of the death-throes of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama wrote and published his seminal work, The End of History and the Last Man. In this he posited that, with the apparent triumph of liberal democracy, the West, broadly defined as North America and Western Europe, but also including other members of the Anglosphere, Japan and some others, had won all the major political and economic arguments. Tribal, feudal, national, religious, imperial and ideological conflicts had had their day. It was an inspiring and highly influential vision, although the section on The Last Man did predict that, in the absence of any unifying or higher purpose, mankind threatened to fall into a potentially mindless pit of reality TV and online shopping. The subsequent decade seemed to vindicate his more optimistic predictions. The Soviet-led monolith of communism collapsed, and liberal democracy took hold across large swathes of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East. The benefits of the free market and globalisation appeared to be self-evident, accompanied by the spread of the internet. Absolute poverty levels fell, and life expectancy rose. There was growing international co-operation, and Nato and the European Union accelerated their expansion eastwards, into the heartlands of the Russian ‘near-abroad’. At an important and fundamental level, society appeared to have reached a satisfactory equilibrium between politics, religion, law, the community, and the individual. Many observers willingly bought into this narrative.

At roughly the same time, Samuel Huntington published his equally influential, but altogether gloomier, thesis, The Clash of Civilisations, and the Remaking of the World Order. This work had at its heart the idea of competing, and possibly conflicting civilisations, where a civilisation was defined as comprising those who shared a deep sense of ethnic, religious, cultural and historical affinity, often greater than any attachment to a nation state. In this he saw the West as a civilisation that had outgrown the circumstances of its development to embrace a universalism increasingly based on the paramountcy of the individual, and implied a repudiation of much that had historically defined the West. The assumption was that the West’s basic values and rights were so obvious that their universal triumph was inevitable. It was the Whig, teleological view of history, updated for late 20th century man.

Huntington struck a more sceptical note, warning against the belief that this was a settled matter. He wrote that ‘the West won the world, not by the superiority of its ideas or values, or religion… but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.’ He identified a trend that would become more pronounced as the world advanced into the 21st century – that there was a growing series of direct challenges to the post-Cold War settlement, and the ‘rules-based liberal world order’, by other civilisations with pronounced senses of historical entitlement. This sense of entitlement was often based on selective, but nevertheless strongly felt, historical grievances and inspirations. He identified an Orthodox civilisation, based on Russia, with allies in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, and a Sino civilisation, largely grouped around the Han Chinese people, and their regional, indeed wider, ambitions. Both represented traditional types of power-players, with no pretensions to universalism. In contrast, he drew attention to an Islamic civilisation, commenting, starkly, that ‘Islam has bloody borders…and bloody innards.’ It was, and would become, increasingly difficult not to agree with important elements of his proposition, however gloomy they were.

The challenge from Islam was both one of universalism, in its claims to be the last and most complete form of guidance and direction from God, but also one of particularism, in that the Islamic world, certainly in the Middle East, was riven by confessional and ethnic divisions, each with their own sense of historical entitlement. When looking at the determinants of historical experience it is fair to say that ‘geography is history’. It is by no means the only determinant, but it is an important one. Where a people live, whether on the coast, in the mountains, or on fertile river plains, determines both what they do, and what is done to them. Geographical location generates behaviours, and those behaviours have consequences. Although much of the wider Middle East and North is roiled by instability, the area of the most urgent current crisis, those lands at the heart of what the Islamic State group thought of as its caliphate, are also those that constituted the birthplace of civilisation. The ‘land between the two rivers’, or Mesopotamia, was the first to generate the economic wealth that, combined with coordinated human activity, gave birth to government, the state, and the military wherewithal to defend them. Attractive to successive waves of nomadic predators, who in turn became settled imperial powers themselves, the area is bounded to the north by the Anatolian plateau of modern Turkey, to the east by the Zagros mountains and central plateau of Iran, to the south by the deserts of the Arabs, and to the west by the Egyptian Nile and its delta. Polities in these areas, in both pre- and post-Islamic times, have all had ambitions to dominate Mesopotamia, and its wealth.

If geography is history, then history is politics, in that a people’s sense of themselves, and their historical and cultural reference points, continue to have modern relevance and generate and sustain new political dynamics and frictions. The region from the Zagros mountains, across the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Mediterranean was, in its time, dominated by the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Achaemenids and Sassanians of Persia, the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates of the Arabs, and the Turkish Ottomans. The Holy Lands were sacred to the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims, while the ethnic competition between the Persians, Turks and Arabs was further exacerbated by the confessional split between Sunnis and Shias. The Arabs, whose leadership of the Sunni Muslim world was usurped by the Ottomans, nursed a sense of humiliation and grievance against the Turks, while both despised their Iranian neighbours for their championship of the ‘heresy’ of Shi’ism. To add to the complexity of all these great-power considerations were the presence of many people with minority ethnic or religious identities: Kurds, Jews, Christians, Druze, Maronites, Yazidis, Turkmens, Alawites.

Meanwhile, within the Sunni Arab world, another major fault line developed between those charged with wrestling with the day-to-day challenges of governance, the economy, diplomacy, war and peace, and those who perceived themselves to be the guardians of religious orthodoxy. Some of this was absorbed within the imperial state structures, where the concept of the caliph incorporated the idea of both temporal and spiritual supremacy, with the Islamic leader aided by a powerful religious establishment, the ulema. From the outset this created friction, and created fiction, whereby the caliph was often a mere figurehead and front for more powerful forces in society. This was most pronounced when the Abbasid caliphs moved to Cairo after the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, and were in thrall to the Mameluks, until their own destruction by the Ottomans in 1517. At this point, leadership of the Sunni Muslim world migrated from Arab lands to Istanbul, and the Arabs, to whom Allah had given his message, via his prophet Mohammed and the Koran, were relegated to the level of being spectators of history for nearly 400 years.

A more lasting and virulent challenge to Sunni unity came from the Salafist tendency in Islam, which represented a spectrum of fundamentalist opinion that consistently sought inspiration from the founding doctrine, principles and history of Islam, and which consistently looked to emulate the past in order to confront the compromises, failings and disappointments of the present. This trend had very modern resonances. One manifestation of Salafism was in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the fundamentalist ideology of Wahhabism, whose adherents formed an alliance with the powerful Al Saud family in the 18th century, and whose descendants came to dominate the Arabian peninsula, and with it the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. A more modern trend has seen the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, who sought political power through modern political institutions, in order to advance an Islamist agenda. Although they took a long view, this still implied a compromise between the aspiration to sustain the universal Muslim community and the reality of having to employ the tools of the modern state construct. Most violent and extreme were those of the takfiri ideology who rejected the whole concept of the nation state in the Muslim world as illegitimate, and who reserved for themselves the right to define any political or cultural activity they deemed ‘un-Islamic’ as heretical and subject to condign sanction and reprisal. Given a major boost by the mujahidin struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, this philosophy gave inspiration to al-Qaeda and, in turn, to Islamic State. Further forged in the fiery crucibles of Iraq, the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, al-Qaeda and Islamic State soon found themselves in violent confrontation over which group was the more rigorous guardian of Sunni Islamic orthodoxy.

In the wake of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and, with it, the fiction of a political caliphate with a figurehead who had pretensions to the leadership of all Muslims. This did not stop Salafists from still aspiring to recreate the glory days of the early successors to the prophet Mohammed. In place of the Turkish Empire, the victorious Western Allies imported the alien concept of the nation state, based on the idea of national self-determination for groups of ethnically or religiously homogenous peoples. Unfortunately, this was heavily tempered by healthy doses of imperial self-interest. In North Africa, the land-grab of Ottoman provinces in the 19th century gradually gave way to the formation of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan as independent states. In Arabia, the tribal British protectorates became the Gulf States, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stamped on Hashemite ambition, allying religious orthodoxy to huge oil wealth. In the region of Mesopotamia and the Holy Land, new political constructs were formed in the shape of Iraq, Syria and Trans-Jordan, while the League of Nations mandated the creation of an embryonic home for the Jewish people, in line with the aspirations of the Balfour Declaration.

Although the borders of the new states often followed the boundaries of the old Ottoman provinces, they contained within them multiple historical frictions and a widespread lack of trust. New nations with pretensions to statehood, new national borders, which placed limitations on formerly fluid interactions and movement, and new obligations to new national governments generated a multitude of conflicting loyalties. The people of the region had always had multiple identities, of which nationality was now both the newest and, often, the least compelling. While national identity did grow, particularly in the era of pan-Arabism, and under the Baath parties of Syria and Iraq, the ties and demands of family, tribe, clan and religion were often stronger, especially in times of threat and danger. This is not unique to the Middle East, nor unique to the 21st century, but the twin loyalties to the universalism of a religion, in this case Islam, and to family, in its widest sense, was in stark contrast to the assumptions of the increasingly secular Western world, with its emphasis on the individual, and his or her entitlements.

The Cold War, the ruthless political control of such leaders as Nasser, Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein, and the social and political conservatism of much of the Middle East, constrained and contained much of this tension from spilling over. However, these centrifugal forces were given impetus in the 1980s with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the growth of Sunni Salafism as a result of the Afghan war, and Islamic success against the ‘godless’ Soviet super-power. Tension between secularists and Islamists in Turkey challenged the idea that a successful political model could be developed that could absorb both strong national and religious identities. The continuing Arab-Israeli confrontation, magnified through the prism of the Palestinians and southern Lebanese Shia, also challenged people as to whether they identified themselves with a nationality, a religion, a sect or an ethnic group.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, and the coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, all exacerbated the incipient tensions in the region. Violence, which had been previously been between states, or conducted by states against their own people, now spread across national borders. The lines on the map, which looked so permanent and reassuringly fixed to Western minds, proved to have less relevance to those who lived either side of them. As chaos spread, Turks, Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shia, intervened to play out yet another chapter in their history of historical entitlement and antagonism. Democracy, at least in the shape of elections, that had previously been used by autocrats to give a veneer of credibility to their vicious regimes, now proved to simply embed a winner-takes-all mentality, empowering historically-suppressed people to wreak revenge on their past oppressors.

Appeals to national solidarity were powerless in the face of sectarian divisions, based on centuries of mistrust. Secularism, minority protection, and issues of gender-equality, which had, in some small measure, been a feature of the Assad and Saddam Hussein regimes, were also swept aside by the violence of the fundamentalist extremists who sought to use political upheaval to impose their doctrinaire orthodoxy. The Arab Spring brought another turn of the wheel. Despite all the experience and evidence of the previous decade regarding the shallowness of nationality in the face of ethnic and religious sectarianism, the West chose to be on the ‘right side of history’, seemingly oblivious to the most recent lessons of Iraq. Siding with the more vocal and attractive elements of protest, they failed to acknowledge or identify the darker elements that sought advantage from the challenge to political authority. The sentiments were laudable, but the consequences were dire. The shallowness of national institutions was exposed, and the violence generated appalling casualty levels, while setting off huge population movements of internally displaced persons and refugees. In differing manners, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all absorbed the tensions and sustained stability. The smaller Gulf states had money, and a tribal structure that coalesced around the monarchs, enabling them to weather the storm. Lebanon, which had already seen the bloody destructiveness of a long civil war, managed to teeter on the brink and step back from the abyss. Sadly, the Shia sectarianism of the Baghdad government, and the repressive response of Bashir Assad in Damascus, gave common cause to the Sunnis to challenge both governments. The previous success against al-Qaeda in Iraq was squandered, and the same takfiri ideology rose again to challenge national borders in the shape of Islamic State. Once again, the more violent advocates of the umma would confront the nation state, this time also extending their appeal to Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries, and setting out a concept of Islamic loyalty that would, in many instances, trump that of national citizen loyalty.

There is a crisis in the Middle East and Islamic civilisation, based on old ethnic and confessional divisions. A historical religious universalism has been challenged by the imposition and adoption of alien state structures that have challenged deeply-held ideas of identity and loyalty. This combination, and its consequences, would be difficult enough to handle even if the wider international community were able to act in concert, which it cannot, given the growing competition and friction between the West and the Orthodox and Sino civilisations. It is difficult not to be gloomy. The lasting influences of geography and history are plain to see, but the consequences are compounded by the sheer scale of population numbers and growth. Demography is destiny, as has been said, and it is difficult to see how the region, and the countries within it, can generate the political, economic or social models that can meet the aspirations of so many young people, and thereby command the wide-spread loyalty of citizens. In the face of this dilemma the emotional appeal of religious identity within the umma may well continue to thwart the ambition of the nation state construct.


Simon Mayall