Several strands weave together and occasionally threaten to strangle this most vital region. The morass of religion, politics and economics intersects and far too often collides. The twentieth century witnessed global contact fraught with contradictory aspirations. The dominant role the United States continues to play reflects these contradictions: dependence on oil, commitment to democracy, efforts to combat the terrorism and the preservation of Israel. It is an area of rational calculation and revolutionary values with Iraq at its center.


For centuries, foreign powers have shaped both internal and regional events in the Middle East. Religion too has been central to the development of the region for millennia. Along with religion came culture, resistance, and frequent exploitation by leaders who used faith to shape and manipulate the lives of the masses.

The "Cradles of Civilization" began in the Middle East. The first records of settled societies were in this region: Sumer, Mesopotamia, Akkadia, Egypt, and Persia were among those civilizations that had complex legal and administrative systems. They were the centers of art and science. Conquests by other states in the region began in the 8th century before the Common Era (BCE): Assyria in 722 BCE, Babylonia in 586 BCE, Persia in 550 BCE and finally Macedonia under Alexander the Great between 334 and 323 BCE.

These indigenous empires were replaced by three phases of foreign rule: the Muslims in the 600s (Figure 2a), the Ottomans in the 1500s (Figure 2c) and the the Europeans in the early 1900s (Figure 2d). The political unity of the Muslim world disintegrated in the 9th and 10th centuries, but the region retained some of its unity through a common legal and commercial system, as well as shared literature, high culture, and religion. By the 11th century, European Christians began to challenge Muslim predominance in the Mediterranean, retaking Sicily and much of Spain by the mid-12th century. At the same time, the papacy inaugurated the Crusades(Figure 2b). Although the religious purpose of recapturing the area from the Muslims failed, trade between the Middle East and Western Europe was established. The last nomadic group to migrate west from inner Asia, the Mongols, arrived in the 13th century. Originally pagans, the Mongols soon embraced Sunni Islam and became its zealous defenders.

Late in the 13th century, a Muslim warrior known as Osman began to lead successful raids against the Byzantine strongholds in western Anatolia. His followers, the Ottomans, extended control in all directions, forging an empire that would be the principal political force in the western Islamic world for 600 years. At its height in the second half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire included southeastern Europe, Anatolia, Iraq, western Iran, Greater Syria, Egypt, the western Arabian Peninsula, and the coast of North Africa between Egypt and eastern Morocco. Further east the Ottomans' contemporaries and rivals the Safavids, established a dynasty in Iran and Afghanistan between 1501 and 1722 and imposed Shiite Islam the official religion of the modern Iranian state.


Although there had been some contact between Europe and the Middle East for centuries, by the mid-18th century the region took on greater importance to the Europeans because of its strategic position en route to India and other parts of Asia, areas increasingly central to European economic and political development. As industrialization progressed, first in Britain and then in other European nations, the demand grew for both raw materials and markets for manufactured products. Groups within the Ottoman Empire were affected by this contact with the West. Ideas of nationalism appealed to intellectuals and a nascent middle class. Against these ideological directions were economic considerations, most importantly the British desire to develop and protect its oil interests.

After WWI ended, Middle Eastern nations took steps towards political independence yet retained many aspects of the colonial system. Although the stated purpose of this Mandate System was to foster eventual independence, it enabled European nations to benefit from resources, and permitted local elites power and opportunity for individual wealth. The inequity of this arrangement fueled anti-Western and nationalistic sentiments. Indeed anti-Ottoman sentiment was easily converted to anti-European attitudes. Europeans were unwilling to cede real authority as independence came to individual Middle Eastern nations from the 1920s to the 1960s. An important legacy of this era was the local ruling elite that was both trained by and beholden to Western power.


The creation of an independent Jewish state perpetuated instability in the region. In November 1947, the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish areas, and Britain announced that it would leave the region by May 15, 1948. The Jews accepted the proposal, but the Arabs rejected it as a violation of their right to self-determination. Violence erupted and soon turned into full-scale civil war. When Israel was declared an independent Jewish state upon British withdrawal, forces from neighboring Arab countries joined the war against Israel. Armed conflict between Israel and the other nations in the region continues. To this day, it remains a tension fraught with strides and struggles, with the ultimate hope of a two state solution. This path is frequently interrupted by violence, defiance, terrorism and retaliation.


Despite the secular position of most Middle Eastern leaders in the early years after gaining independence, many in the area now promote a revival of Islam. Given the strong link between these first national leaders and the West, those who are now pro-Islam are often anti-Western. This attitudinal development was fostered by the spread of literacy, wider access to education, and the growth of modern communication networks. With the formation of new classes and political institutions came increased pressure to end foreign rule and to widen political participation. Most early political movements were secular and the years immediately following World War II seemed to be a time of great hope and optimism for the peoples of the Middle East. By the 1970s, however, Muslims in many countries began to seek, often violently, the revival of Islamic law in both governmental and wider societal spheres. The most successful attempt to establish an Islamic state was the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1978 and 1979.

The Islamic revival has many causes: the perceived failure of mass political movements in the second half of the 20th century, the deeply undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes in power in almost all Middle Eastern states, continued tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, pro-Western attitudes of rulers like the Shah of Iran and Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, the increasing gap both within and among states between rich and poor, and widespread misery and despair caused by war, inflation, unemployment, and poverty. Politically motivated Islamic groups continue to operate in many Middle Eastern countries in the early 21st century. In general, these groups express anger and frustration against what they regard as corrupt and illegitimate regimes, against U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and continuing U.S. support for Israel. However, violence has not been confined to the struggle against tyranny and injustice, but has also been directed against individual advocates of tolerance and democracy. Most Middle Eastern governments have responded with varying degrees of repression, both against Islamists and those urging respect for human rights. It is also widely believed in the Middle East that the West, and especially the United States, largely controls the affairs of the region, and that the corrupt governments of the Middle East survive because the West needs them in order to protect its interests there. These beliefs have caused considerable anti-Western sentiment and widespread feelings of cynicism and disempowerment. (1)

(1) www.msn.encarta:Middle East: History: Islamic Revival and Iranian Revolution


The major sources of tension in the Middle East today are insurgent violence, religious fundamentalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. High oil prices help maintain the authoritarian regimes but the potential for instability persists amidst calls for both more democratic and theocratic governments. Certainly the US role in the region underscores many of these contradictory goals. Dependence on oil, ideological commitments to democracy, preservation of Israel, Palestinian rights and the need to combat terrorism all compound and frequently confound those who work to bring stability to the region. Leaders wish to fight terrorism but frequently act in ways that make it easy for groups such as Al Qaeda to flourish. The original US hope that the removal of Saddam Hussein would result in a moderate, pro-western Shiite force in Iraq as a ballast to fundamentalists in Iran has clearly failed and as some observers have noted is strengthening fundamentalism in Iraq. Violence among Sunni, Shiite and Kurd forces within Iraq has implications for the overall stability in the region. One fear is that it will lead to renewed hostilities within other countries. Iran has a Shiite majority as well. Sunni dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait might come to the aid of their co-religionists within Iraq.


1. Do Islamic fundamentalists speak for the masses?

2. How has the history of foreign involvement in the region shaped current political issues?

3. To what extent is religion a proxy for economic and political issues in the region?

4. On what issues are the nations of the Middle East united?

5. How has religion been central to the region since the dawn of civilization?

6. What external realities and internal problems are common to all nations of the Middle East?

7. What did independence really mean for the individual nations of the Middle East?

8. How was the rise of Islamic fundamentalism been caused as much by internal conditions as a response to external ones? Is Islamic fundamentalism simply a response to Western attitudes and behaviors or does it go deeper?

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (