The United States has been mired up to the hips in policies of Middle Eastern counter-terrorism since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Most agree that little progress has been made from a global perspective. Iraq and Syria have become bastions of terrorists; Iran is still flexing its nuclear weapons capability muscles; Israel and Palestine are farther away from peace than ever before. The whole region has become a metaphorical hornets’ nest.
As Westerners, we tend to view the Middle East through our own lens–either as a melting pot of cultures, or worse, as a monoculture–but this idea could not be further from the truth. In order to make sense of the Middle East problem, we need to understand the factors at play with the people, cultures, and religions of the Middle East.
Background on Islam
Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in 632 AD until 652 AD, the followers of Islam managed to conquer southern Europe, North Africa, Persia, and the rest of what we now call the Middle East. Between 1300 and 1800 AD, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire helped spread Islam from central Turkey into parts of eastern Europe and large parts of central Asia. Today, countries with the greatest numbers of Muslims are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Multiple Ethnic Cultures
While predominantly Muslim, the Middle East is composed of several ethnic groups. Arabs are majority holders in most of the countries, but also present are Persians in Iran, Turkish in Turkey, Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; and finally, Jews in Israel. Afghanistan is highly diverse with populations of Kurds, Persians, Turkish, and multiple other groups.
Sunni vs. Shia
After the death of Mohammed in 632 AD, a civil war resulted in order to determine the new caliphate. Those who were in favor of the succession of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali become known as “Shia.” Those who were in favor of electing a new leader are now known as “Sunni.” The Sunni are largely backed by Saudi Arabia. Today, 10-15% of Muslims, mainly found in Iran and Iraq, are Shia.
In a poll of 1World Online voters, 59% think tribalism is the biggest threat to regional stability. One third of those voters think the threat can be overcome. There are multiple tenets of tribalism that make the Middle East complicated for those who would like to increase Western influence. Tribalism is indicated by an extreme decentralization of power so that individuals are only as powerful as the individuals they are grouped with. Hence, those individuals with large family units are more powerful than those who are on their own. Owning livestock, having large land holdings, and having many children are considered important in the culture. Neighbors who are not part of the same tribe may be challenged for resources.
Middle East tribal culture strongly values honor. Honor is earned by success at expanding territory and committing violence against outsiders. Victims lose honor. Victors gain honor. Tribal members must stick together at all costs.
Muhammad unified the Arab world by creating an “us” versus “them” system: Muslim verses infidel. The Bedouin raiders looked outward to expand and possess, then covert, greater territory. Arab and Islamic conquests included enslaving women and children and forcing men to convert or be killed. Muslims, too, must stick together in their fight against infidels.
Today, the close proximity of Arab Muslims and Jews in Israel has resulted in a bonfire that has no foreseeable end. Palestinians have lost so much land since the inception of the State of Israel that their sense of loss of honor cannot be returned with a mere ceasefire. In addition, Hamas has extended the battle beyond land conquest into the realm of religious cleansing.
The Islamic State (IS–formerly known as ISIS) has also used the concept of tribal cultural affiliation to great advantage. A breakaway faction of Al-Quaeda, IS now claims to have religious authority over all Muslims in the world although it is a Sunni dominated group. It also deems itself to be responsible for religious cleansing across the Arab world. In August 2014, the group announced a caliphate and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be caliph. At the same time, the group changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to the Islamic State. To date, reports indicate that IS is responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of people throughout Syria and Iraq. Currently, ethnic Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and Shabaks are at risk of being the victims of violence in northern Iraq. Despite the rapid growth of the group from over 4,000 fighters in June 2014 to over 80,000 by August, only 17% of 1World voters think that ISIS will take over in Iraq.
To date, the United States has used various tactics to deal with the “Middle East Problem.” It should be clear by now, especially in light of the tragic murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, that traditional diplomacy does not work with non-state terrorist groups like the Islamic State. In the past, the ability to control this type of group depends on a vice-like grip of a despotic dictator but the Arab Spring paved the way for IS when the coups deposed leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Strong resistance of a tribal unit like the Kurds or Shia can also push back on IS, but at this point, neither are in a position to defend territory or make an offensive against the rapidly growing IS. That leaves intervention from outside forces like the United States and Europe. Most 1World voters are against this idea: 60% of voters do not think intervention in Iraq is a smart choice. Most (33%) think it will worsen the crisis. 27% think the conflict is internal. Ironically though, most voters also think U.S. involvement is inevitable. 71% of voters think U.S. military operations are likely. 49% predict airstrikes and 22% predict a ground operation and 64% of voters agree that ISIS is a threat to the US as well as in Iraq.
In attacking the various ethnic groups of northern Iraq, the Islamic State has made quite a few enemies, including Saudi Arabia, the largest Middle Eastern country and Iran, the most populated one. However, since the Islamic State is rapidly gaining followers–some who are forced into service and others who want to be part of the successful movement–it is imperative that the United States and Europe act quickly to deter the expansion of IS into more stable areas of the Middle East. But at the same time, utmost caution must be also taken to target only IS. To cast too wide a net could mean losing the support of allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan and could provoke Iran to act defensively. The U.S. military certainly has the means to deploy a targeted response to the IS threat. It should be swift, strong, and immediate and our allies should be encouraged to support us in the effort. The last thing we need is to disturb another hornets’ nest in the Middle East.
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