The Making of the Middle East: Middle East Primer

Over the years many people have asked about the Middle East. What is this Islamism thing all about? Who are the Shi’ites? Why violence? What is the Iraq war about? Arab Spring??!

Going forward, I will be unrolling a series of short articles by way of beginning to answer some of these questions in a humble way. In particular I will do a little history, and go back in time— not too far — in order to provide some context to a region that was not born this way, but was made — like everywhere — by us and by them, (whoever “us” and “them” are). Watch this space, and have your coffee and narghileh at the ready as you catch up…on all the history that is unfit to print.

# 1. The Making of the “Middle East.”

I’ll discuss in a moment how this term came to be, because it merely reflects an idea, not a physical reality. So lets start by looking at how the region is traditionally described and then discuss what criteria are used to do so.

Geographically speaking, if there was to be any “middle” to the Middle East, it would probably be Egypt. Then it swoops down and across to the Arabian peninsular — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Yemen, and then up to the “Fertile Crescent” and the “Levant,” today’s countries of Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, and then up to Turkey.

North Africa is sometimes thrown into the mix, although wonks often talk about the MENA region, (Middle East and North Africa.) It would make sense to include North Africa — from Morocco to Lybia — because it shares an Arabic-Islamic culture with all the other countries, except Israel of course, which identifies as a Jewish state.

So culturally speaking, almost all countries within this region are either majority Muslim and/or Arabic speaking. The exceptions are Turkey, which is largely Muslim, but Turkish speaking, and Iran which is largely Muslim yet the majority of its citizens speak Persian. Those two countries are also geographically peripheral to most physical descriptions of the region, even if they often feature centrally in the region’s politics, largely because of their significant size, population, and wealth.

How did the geo-political Middle East come to be?

The term “Middle East” was coined in the early twentieth century by British policy makers and journalists to distinguish it from the Far East — meaning principally India. You didn’t get many Middle Easterners self-identifying as such (as in, I am a Middle Easterner).

The spread of countries that we now have — nation-states, that is — emerged from the end of the First World War. Before this, most of the Near East (today’s countries of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Iraq) was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from the Sublime Porte, or Istanbul to you and me.

But the Ottoman grip on the region was slipping on the eve of the Great War, both from internal nationalist movements and from European powers competing with each other for dominance in the region. Britain wanted to control the route to its colonial interests in India, and subtly established a “protectorate” over Egypt to control the Suez Canal (1882) — by bombarding Alexandria into submission. France, meanwhile, established trading entrepots along the Levantine coast, thus gaining a foothold in the local politics and what was to become Syria.

To give a little context to a well-known story, let’s consider Lawrence of Arabia. He may seem like a side show, but certain recent books (Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia for example) show how influential he was in rallying the tribes of the Arabian Peninsular against the Ottomans during the First World War. This, of course along with the towering figure of Feisal, a major Arabian tribal leader, the founding father of Syria, and the first king of Iraq.

With the Ottomans out of the picture after World War One (they sided with the Germans) the European powers, notably France, Britain and Italy, decided who got what. The Europeans were pursuing their own agendas while they drew lines on maps. With their large-scale armies still in the field, they divided great swathes of territory which had hitherto been governed either locally, or loosely from afar, such as by the Ottomans, and before them, the Mamlukes, the Safavids, Abbasids and Ummayids, and even further back into to the ancient world with Byzantines and Persians.

Britain and France had agreed all of this beforehand, in 1916. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement presumed the coming dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. France got a large part of southern Turkey, most of Lebanon and a part of coastal Syria, with less direct control over the rest of Syria. Britain, already ensconced in Egypt, got most of Iraq and Jordan, and a large area around Jerusalem and the Gulf region — this explains Britain’s influence and connections in these regions today.

What ensued then was the setting up of puppet rulers over these new states. Egypt is an exception here (not the puppet-ruler bit,) as its “national” boundaries go way, way back to Pharaonic times, but all the other nations were inventions. While Egypt had borders that made sense (at least geographically, if somewhat less so ethnically, or tribally) it was not until 1922 that it gained independence from Britain, and not until the ’50s that the imperial power finally relinquished its grip completely.

The boundaries of the new nations — Iraq, Transjordan (later just plain Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, were largely random and did not accurately reflect homogenous ethnic or tribal groups as one might expect national borders to do. Hence today’s struggles within nations (and Lebanon’s destructive civil war between 1975–1990).

All of these areas were former Ottoman administrative districts — also of little meaning to the actual people who lived there. That is why countries such as Syria and Lebabon have little history of unity, their people being comprised of different tribes, and a surprisingly diverse array of religions and sects, including several different Shi’ia denominations, Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Christians.

Nor are all Syrians Arabs. Many (as many as 15%) are Kurds — meaning they speak Kurdish, a language related to Iranian. Such unity as Syria possesses, therefore, has been created over the last half-century, and its many differences papered over by the well-known figure of the Middle Eastern Dictator — in this case for most of that time it was Hafez al Asad, father of current President and noted war criminal Bashar al Asad.

We won’t deal with every country here, however. But to understand the making of the modern Middle East, we do need to discuss Palestine briefly — although we will address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in full elsewhere.

For now its enough to understand that after World War One, Jerusalem — another…you guessed it …Ottoman possession, became a British possession. To be precise, Blighty occupied Jerusalem and was assigned as a “mandatory power” (i.e. with a mandate to govern) by the League of Nations in 1920. British control over Palestine was fudged, and after World War Two, hounded by terrorist activity by both Arabs and Jews, Britain ceded control of Palestine to the United Nations. They partitioned it into Arab and Jewish areas. The situation between the Arabs and the newly arriving Jewish refugees, post WWII, spiraled into violence in the War of 1948, which resulted in the creation of Israel. Then the story really heats up.

The principal themes operating in the making of the modern Middle East, then, are colonial meddling, dying empires and their legacy, ethnic, religious and national identities, and the politics of land. Many political issues remain unsolved in the region, and many of yesterday’s solutions turn out to have been temporary, ineffective or downright counter-produtive — tomorrow’s crises.

Want to know more? Possibly much more?

Check out Roger Owen’s State Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. He’s an Oxford/Harvard politics prof and is one of a handful of go-to academics for this period/region.

Or: David Fromkin’s: A Peace to end all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. A journalist, this is a well-researched story about the European dissection of the Ottoman carcass, with a big cast of characters.

Or; Scott Anderson’s recent Lawrence in Arabia. Good story, good writing.

For those who don’t want to read anymore, see David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia(1962).

Or Pascali’s Island(Dir. James Dearden). Set on fictional Greek island in 1908, explores the machinations of the Great Powers on the eve of the war and the Ottoman collapse.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

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