The covered faces of brutal and barbaric Islamic State fighters are regularly invading our TV screens. This culture of cruelty and the increasing calls of Islam being a ‘violent’ religion, eloquently refuted by Mehdi Hasan at the Oxford Union, create conceptions of the Middle East (at least in peaceful and tolerant countries like ours) of being both backward and bloody. But, unknown to most, the central area of the Middle East, Mesopotamia, used to be anything but anarchic. It was home, according to a consensus of classical historians, to the first civilisation of mankind where the population enjoyed similar securities to those we enjoy today: food, housing and rule of law to name just a few. And so, as a result of such a paradox between the region’s past and present, it is important to ask why the Middle East has experienced such trauma.
Firstly, the tensions in the Middle East can fundamentally be traced down to religious differences. Whilst the region is dominated by Islam, with its origins lying in Saudi Arabia, tensions between the dominant denominations of Shia and Sunni cause conflict. One contemporary example is the rise of Islamic State in Iraq, able to exploit grievances of Sunni desert tribes in the North of the country against the Shia government. Recent scenes near the city of Falluja- just 50 miles from the nation’s capital- reinforce this. In footage captured by Vice News, Iraqi soldiers- recapturing the city from the same fighters we see as barbaric- were greeted with little more than disdain and distrust. And these tensions in the Middle East underpin not just tensions among the population, but between sovereign states. Current conflicts in the region act as proxy wars between the powerful countries within the region, based along religious lines. For example, the current Yemen Civil War pits a Sunni Gulf State coalition backing the Sunni government against Shia rebels supported by Shia sympathisers, such as Iran. Aggressive action by powerful players in the region hardly promotes peace and prosperity. Religion in the Middle East isn’t just religion, but a sense of community in a diverse and dangerous region- meaning it is inevitable to consider it an important factor in explaining the instability.
Religion doesn’t provide the only barrier between groups in the Middle East. Ethnic divisions are also problematic to peace, with groups such as the Kurds- whose community spans four countries from Turkey to Iran- seeking an end to suppression. Seemingly forever, this group has suffered and been suppressed, from Saddam Hussein’s massacres of them in the 80s to Turkey’s continued refusal to recognise their desire for independence- or even their ethnicity. Today, Kurdish Iraqi militias alone control territory populated by over 5 million people. This is while the Kurdish militant movement in Turkey further complicates peace processes, with the Turkish government being hostile to the idea of working with their enemies. Similarly, Israel has had rocky relations with other states in the region, epitomised by conflicts such as the Yom Kippur war 1973 against a large Arab coalition. These divisions can largely be explained by ethnicity, alongside religion. Much of the denial by both Hamas, the Palestinian government, and Likud, the Israeli Government, of the ‘two state solution’ centres on who should inhabit Palestine. But the key question is which people, Jews or Arabs, have the right to determine this?
Lastly, a history of foreign intervention and interference in the region sometimes helps, but on at least an equal amount of occasions has hindered. Intervention can be seen as interference, rather than providing idealism and independence, due to the damaging ramifications on the region. Even Tony Blair had to admit the 2003 Iraq Invasion contributed to the rise of ISIS. This is while the Afghan invasion of 2001 by a Western coalition has produced little beneficial: tens of thousands of deaths, an oligarchic government similar to Russia and continued significance of the Taliban. Similarly, foreign intervention hasn’t just failed in deterring the rise of religious radicalism but has in fact fuelled it. Conflict in recent decades involving the West has created a perception of them being ‘invaders’- hardly helped by history of the Crusades. Western intervention has created another division in the Middle East- between collaborators and conservatives. The West has been sucked into emphasising this adversarial mind-set epitomised Western papers such as the New York Times even refusing to call an Israeli car bomb killing an Iranian Scientist in 2012 terrorism. This adversarial element to the Middle East has only started decreasing in recent years, with the West negotiating a deal with Iran to end sanctions in 2015. And so, as a result of history, it is clear to see how unity in the Middle East has failed and divisions prevailed.
As a result of such prominent divisions in the region, it is unforeseeable that the region will calm to a cool stability in the next few decades. The West has categorically lacked an understanding of the complexities and paid the consequences in its futile intervention. To me it seems clear that if intervention is going to work it should be based on support for government forces in the region, strengthening their ability to create sustainable states. This may well be at the heart of Obama’s policy of not sending in group troops but rather a steady elimination of ISIS. His strategy may not be the fastest at destroying ISIS but it could be more effective in ending the presence of future threats to countries in the region.