A History of Western Involvement in the Middle East in One Lesson


The West is not entirely to blame for the way things are in the Middle East.  Particularly, until recently, the United States was hardly at all to blame for the situation there when compared with the colonial European powers.  Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine a much more vibrant and prosperous Middle East today if history had taken a different course.  It is easy to imagine a much better world had we not come to think of Arabs and Persians as little brown people with a lot of oil.
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The Ottoman Empire, the last of the great Islamic dynasties, was on the wrong side of World War I--a war that, ironically, should never have been fought.  After having suffered a devastating loss as an ally of the Germans, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered and its leaders deposed.  Thereafter, the Middle East became a great empty canvas for the political equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

"The Middle East" is a largely western invention, from its leaders to its forms of government to its national boundaries, and even in some degree to its cultures.  Following the 1st World War, colonial powers Britain and France sat down and drew rather arbitrary boundaries, which became newly invented Middle Eastern countries.  The colonizers appointed rulers in these nations who happened to be very friendly to their colonial overlords. British and French scarcely noticed when their invented boundaries sliced through cultures and in many cases forced antagonistic peoples into the same national bed.  The Kurds, once an autonomous people, became perhaps the most divided of the ethnic groups, their homeland being split between five different countries.  The national divisions were not arbitrary in one sense--they made it easier for the colonizers to control the colonized.

Riots almost immediately sprung up throughout the Middle East, based around demands for self rule.  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey initially seemed to foster a healthy form of such self-rule, but he quickly adopted western styles, destroying ancient culture by such things as banning sharia and the teaching of religion in schools, as well as replacing the arabic alphabet with a Roman one. And the Turks chafed.

Muslim nations banded together with Nazi Germany during World War II as a result of their hatred for Western colonialization.  The Ba'ath party, which became prominent in Iraq and elsewhere, was essentially a clone of the Nazi party.

The Muslim Brotherhood arose out of hatred of gross corruption brought by first Western and then Soviet colonial overlords.  Many, inlcluding the burgeoning membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, felt that such incursions were destructive of the family unit.

After World War II, the British and French could no longer afford to manage their Middle Eastern colonial outposts, so they began to withdraw.  Before leaving in 1948, however, the British drew up a partition of Palestine into Arab, Israeli, and International zones, which was soon ratified by the United Nations.  Angry Arabs saw this as a remnant outpost of colonial devastation.  Immediately after the United Nations mandate became official, the Arab League plotted to thwart it.  Five nations attacked Israel, but they were turned back in quick and profoundly humiliating fashion.  All Arab national leaders who had been involved in the attack on Israel were either deposed or assassinated.

There was brief hope that the Arab nations would turn over a new leaf of freedom and prosperity, but into the vacuum came a host of new autocrats, able to fuel their personal popularities through fanning the raging flames of hatred toward the new nation of Israel.

Up to this point, the United States, having kept itself largely out of Middle Eastern affairs, was looked on by Arabs with great favor and respect.  The Soviet menace would cause that to soon change, however.

Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was one of the autocrats that came to power during this period.  Because of hatred for the Western colonizers, Nasser developed warm relations with the Soviet Union.  Several other Middle Eastern nations cozied up to the Soviets as well.  In reaction, the West, now to include the United States, developed closer ties with Israel in an attempt to balance power in the Middle East.

The Muslim Brotherhood rebelled against the failed autocratic policies of Nasser and the Soviets.  Nasser cracked down by executing many and imprisoning many more.

As Nasser's policies evidenced more obvious failure, he looked for an outlet.  He found it in the 1967 war.  Stirring up Egyptians and the rest of the Arab world into renewed hatred for Israel, war became the focal point instead of Nasser's ineptitude at governing.  From this era emerged other dictators, such as Muammar Khaddafi, Hafez al Assad, and Saddam Hussein. It became fashionable from this point on to blame all failures on an oppressive West.

In the 1970's oil became liquid gold.  With oil, Arab governments no longer needed to tax the people in order to acquire operating revenue. But also, they no longer felt a need to modernize their economies.  The West, meanwhile, was content simply to use the Middle East for its 24x7 gas station.  A greater misfortune was the West's penchant for preferring the predictability of dictators to the potential unpredictability of freely elected leaders.  More and more thereafter, the subjugated Arab peoples chafed and boiled under their oppressive yokes, associating their oppression, once again, with the West.  From this milieu arose such figures as Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri.

The complete severing of Muslim Brotherhood appreciation for the United States came with U.S. support for Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran.  As a result of U.S. support of this particular dictator, the Muslim Brotherhood, predominantly of the Sunni sect of Islam, gained affinity with its erstwhile enemy, the Ayatolloh Khomeini, a Shiite.    And for the first time in Islamic history, in Iran, the religious clergy controlled the political dealings of an entire state.

Osama bin Laden originally teamed up with the Saudi government and the American CIA to push invading Soviet armies out of Afghanistan.  In 1990, bin Laden heavily decried Saddam Hussein's Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  He approached the Saudi government with an offer to have his Afghan freedom fighters expel the Iraqis from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia selected the American military for the mission.  After attempting unsuccessfully to overthrow Muslim oligarchies from his base in the Sudan, bin Laden turned to villification and destruction of the West, and primarily the United States, who seemed at current to be the primary benefactor of the Muslim overlords.

To this day the words Constitution, Democracy, and Human Rights are hard words for Muslims to swallow, they being intricately identified with most things Western.  Above all, Muslim Arabs and Persians wonder, if Western countries can enjoy freedom, why can't they?  Islam is at heart a very caring and freedom-loving religion.  Some of the greatest, most prosperous, and most free civilizations ever to have flowered on Earth were Muslim.  That's all that most Muslims want to have again.

Nearly all people, including nearly all Muslims, wish more than all else, to be treated with respect and dignity.  The popular Nickelback song states this eternal truth nearly to perfection:
And as we lie beneath the stars,
We realize how small we are,
If they could love like you and me,
Imagine what the world could be

If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied,
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride,
Then we'd see the day, when nobody died
Most Muslims are just like us.  That's all they want.  Imagine a Middle East unfettered by nearly a century of Western meddling.  It's a pleasant thing to imagine.  The saddest part is that it could easily have been that way had we Westerners not learned to think of Arabs and Persians as little brown people with a lot of oil.

Comments

  1. The Ottoman Empire was on the wrong side in WWI, not WWII. By the time WWII came around, the Ottomans were already gone.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's really interesting, Frank, however, I would have thought you would have gone back a bit further and talked about the historical fights between the Muslims and the Jews, back to the time of Joshua. Pretty sure that's when the animosity between those two people's started, however, this brief, modern synopsis was good, well done.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Frank, other than the extra "I" in WWI, this is a pretty good summation of the Middle East from a historical perspective. For you and those like your anonymous commenter, I would suggest short article which sheds a great deal of light on the historical background of the current conflict between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for the good lesson today.

    Good luck to people in Middle East.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous and Charles: Thank you for the correction. It's fixed.

    ReplyDelete

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