Book review: “A History of the Modern Middle East”
A History of the Modern Middle East by William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, 6th ed., (Westview Press, 2016).
This history does as the title promises, focusing more on the modern period of the Middle East, especially from the Ottoman Empire through 2015. The book covers the rise of ISIS but was written before the downfall of ISIS. It includes the Arab Spring of 2011, which Cleveland prefers to call the “Arab Uprisings.” It includes balanced discussions of areas from Turkey to Iran to the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt. It does not include neighboring countries such as the Sudan, North Africa or Afghanistan in the discussion, except where events there affect the Middle East proper, such as the Egyptian war in Sudan, the harboring of Osama bin Laden by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia and led to the downfall of Libya’s dictator, too.
The book gives much attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is appropriate, as well as thorough coverage of the Kurdish problem of being a people without a homeland.
Perhaps due to his focus on the modern period, Cleveland passes over the Crusades with barely a mention, which I found peculiar, since modern Arabs like Osama bin Laden referred to Christians as the “Crusaders.”
While Cleveland strives to present a balanced report of both the positive and negative traits of each people and each personality, he appears to have certain biases. He clearly is sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians verses the Jews, and is favorable to the Muslim worldview (for example, he blames Islam’s low view of women on the influences of the cultures neighboring the Arabs, and refers to the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate”). Nevertheless, he does a good job of explaining the various sectarian and ethnic groups, such as the Sunni and Shi’a, and minority groups like Arab Christians, Assyrians, Yazidis, Druze, Alawites, etc.
Four key pieces to the Middle East puzzle
Copyright by Bob Rogers.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, country singer Alan Jackson wrote a hit song, asking, “Where were you when the world stopped turnin’ that September day?” One line in that song expressed how little most Americans understand the Middle East:
“I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you
The diff’rence in Iraq and Iran.”
So how does one piece together the puzzle of the Middle East? There are four important pieces to the puzzle that are key. Fit these four pieces in place, and you will get a good picture of why there is conflict in the Middle East:
1. Muslims are not all alike. Most Americans assume that all Muslims are the same. In fact, there are two major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite. They have different doctrines, and a long history of bitter conflict. On the Shiite side is Iran, southern Iraq, rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Bashar al-Assad, dictator of Syria. On the Sunni side is most of the rest of the Muslim world, including northern and western Iraq, the government in Yemen, the Islamic State (ISIS), the majority of Syria, and such large nations as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Now take a look at the map above. See the two geographical giants, Saudi Arabia and Iran? Saudi Arabia is Sunni, and Iran is Shi’a, and the two nations are in constant struggle against one another. See Iraq between them? As Iran seeks to extend it’s influence, Saudi Arabia opposes Iran, and places like Iraq and Yemen are the battleground.
2. Middle Easterners are not all Arabs. Most Americans assume all Middle Easterners are either Arabs or Jews. In fact, there are three other major ethnic groups in the Middle East that speak different languages and have different cultures: Turks, Kurds and Persians. Jews dominate Israel, and most of the southern part of the Middle East is Arab, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but as one goes north, there are other ethnicities. Turks are the majority in Turkey, but some 20% of Turkey are Kurds, and Kurds are concentrated in southeastern Turkey. Kurds have a semi-autonomous self-rule in northern Iraq, and Kurds in northern Syria have dominated that region as they defeated ISIS during Syria’s Civil War. Iran is primarily Persian, but has Kurds in its western region. There are also ethnic groups in the Middle East like the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Druze in Lebanon, Assyrian Christians in Iraq, and Yazidis in Iraq (who speak the Kurdish language but have their own religion that blends Islam with Christianity and Zoroastrianism. ISIS considers the Yazidis to be demon-worshipers.).
3. Many of their national boundaries were forced on the Middle East. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled a vast area that included what is now Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (even Egypt was subject to the Ottoman Empire). The Ottomans sided with Germany in WWI, and lost everything but Turkey after the war. Europeans, who didn’t understand the region, drew new national boundaries to create many of the nations we now have in that region, most notably splitting up the region inhabited by 25 million Kurds into parts of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Thus the Kurds have been a mistreated minority in their own homeland. What is more, the Europeans created a new nation called Iraq, out of three former Ottoman provinces that had no natural commonality, with Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the middle, and Shi’a Arabs in the south. No wonder Iraq is in constant conflict.
4. There are two sides to the story in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before World War I, the population of Palestine was about 90% Arab. The Ottoman Empire turned over Palestine to British rule after WWI, and the British encouraged Jews, who had no homeland, to move to Palestine. Jews immigrated there in such massive numbers, buying up the best land, that by World War II, the Jews were nearly equal in number to Arabs. Palestinians deeply resented this, which they saw as an invasion of their homeland. After the Nazi holocaust of World War II, many more Jews fled to Palestine. Britain tried to divide the nation between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews, but this just led to war, which the Jews won, establishing the state of Israel in 1948. Feeling disenfranchised, Palestinians have resorted to riots and terrorism ever since then.
This is only a simplified summary of the Middle East. There are many other pieces to the puzzle, and other complicating factors. But if you understand these four key pieces above, you will have a much clearer picture of the Middle East puzzle.
(Dr. Bob Rogers has a Th.D. in Church History, and has taught History of the Middle East at The Baptist College of Florida.)