The Middle East--Two Ancient Conflicts
Posted on 1-December-2014
In the middle of the seventh century, the Muslim community split into two, the shi'ias who wanted the Caliphate to pass on to the son of Ali, the cousin and son in law of Mohammad and the sunnis for whom the legitimate succession belonged to Umayya and his line. Since then shi'ias and sunnis have lived with each other either in conflict or at uneasy peace. The sunni-shi'ia conflict has as often been inter-state as intra state.
In the eighth century, the advance of Muslim forces from Spain towards northern Europe was halted near Poitiers by Christian forces led by Charles Martel. Reconquest of Spain became an important objective of western Christendom. This set off a twelve hundred year long conflict between the world of Christianity and the world of Islam--a conflict that continues. In time in two centuries of what came to be called the crusades armies formed by Christian princes and knights and encouraged by different Popes mounted expeditions for the declared objective of liberating the Holy Land from what were then called the saracens. When after the fall of Constantinople in the middle of the fifteenth century to a Turkish army, large swathes of territory in southeastern Europe passed under the control of the Ottoman Empire, Christian Europe settled into a long period of uneasy, ambivalent relationship with the most important Muslim power that controlled all of the Levant, Arabia, north Africa and the Balkan peninsula, treating the Ottoman Empire alternatively as a half member of the concert of European powers and as an alien power, an archetypical oriental despotism, to be distrusted, despised or to be coerced into making unilateral concessions.
In most of the first half of the twentieth century much of the Levant, Arabia and beyond in Asia, and north Africa were under direct or indirect colonial control of European powers. The consequence was that for European powers, the Muslim populations of the of the Middle East did not represent a force to be combatted or feared but peoples to be despised, controlled and civilized. For the peoples of those regions, their attitude towards their alien rulers, their revolts against them and their desire and struggles for freedom from foreign rule transcended their ethnic and sectarian divisions. The Ottoman Empire itself collapsed after the war of 1914-18 and the Turkish republic under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal consciously sought to distance itself from its Islamic traditions and its Islamic past. It tried--not quite successfully--to adopt not only the political ideas, idioms and institutions of western Europe but also its lifestyle. For western Europe and its now not to be ignored extension, the United States of America, the enemy to be combatted and feared after the Bolshevik Revolution became the Soviet Union.
As a result of all the changes that took place in the second half of the twentieth century, the Muslim world of the Middle East and north Africa has become a different place altogether. First of all there are no colonies--direct or indirect--left today. Secondly Islam has made a resurgence in the whole region, including Turkey. Thirdly, the enemy that was the Soviet Union has disappeared. By curious coincidence, Samuel Huntington put forward his clash of civilisations thesis just as the cold war was ending. Huntington was at least inventing a new enemy in Islam, necessary for maintaining the solidarity of western powers in a period when Europe no longer faced a communist Soviet Union. Huntington wittingly or unwittingly presented a blue print for a new conflict between a Christian west and a Muslim Middle East. In the Middle East popular anger against the west has been growing, whether out of resentment against the treatment of Palestinians or the destruction of Iraq in two wars or other perceived neo-colonial policies. As a consequence mobilising people to indulge in acts of violence against western targets has become relatively easy.
To an extra planetary historian it would appear that the conflict between the Christian west and the Muslim Middle East and north Africa that started in the eighth century resumed with the 1991 US led war in Iraq. Since then western powers have been engaged directly or indirectly, at one time or another, in fighting, often against local populations, in six Muslim countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia. During the era of the crusades, the organising principle was the defence of Christianity. Nowadays, the organising principles are promotion of democracy and freedom, protection of human rights, removal of oppressive despots or stopping the spread of the violent ideologies of groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)--both products of western involvement with and at times encouragement of militant Islsam. In the days of the crusades the prize was ordinary, low value, war booty. The modern prize is control over petroleum and natural gas. It is interesting that Al Qaeda calls the western powers crusaders.
Modern Middle East is riven once again by the seventh century conflict between shi'ias and sunnis. In Yemen a shi'ia group, Houtis, is battling against the established sunni government. In Bahrain in 2011, an uprising of the shi'ia population against the sunni monarchy was suppressed with the help of the troops of sunni Saudi Arabia: the revolt continues to simmer. In Syria, the sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the sunni sheikhdoms of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as the sunni government of Turkey have been supporting and inciting sunni groups against the Alawite group in power. In Iraq the sunni ISIL is fighting the shi'ia dominated government with large sections of sunni populations passively looking on. Iran, the Iraqi government, the shi'ia militias of Iraq, Bashar El Assad's government and the Lebanon's Hizbollah have been functioning like an informal shi'ia alliance. It is not clear what is responsible for this recrudescence of shi'ia-sunni hostility but some western policies have definitely made a contribution. Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in Iran, the west has encouraged Saudi Arabia's hostility to Iran. The support of the United States of America to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's was barely concealed. In that war all the sunni regimes friendly to the west, obviously encouraged by the western stance, were ranged on the side of Iraq against Iran.
To a certain extent, the two ancient conflicts in the Middle East are linked in their renewed form. Some day, if a balance sheet of benefits and losses to the Middle East arising out of western intervention there since 1914, if not earlier, were to be drawn up that balance sheet would certainly be in the negative. One of the conspiracy theories in circulation at this moment saying the west is deliberately set upon destroying the present state system in the region would appear to many people in the region and outside to be quite credible.