How the Middle East Came to be (Pt 1)
The Middle East is often dismissed by many voters as being “too complicated” or “unfixable”. These are both reasonable stances. The Middle East is indeed an extremely complicated region, with a hodgepodge of different ethnic groups and various competing religions. And the problems in the Middle East are very hard to fix, and deeply rooted. However, in order to fix a problem, one must understand it. Thus, we will be taking a look as to how the Middle East turned into what it is today.
Our story starts in 632 AD, in modern day Saudi Arabia. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, has just died, raising a question on how to succeed Muhammad as the new caliph of the Islamic caliphate. The specifics of this disagreement are not important, but the outcome of this split was one of the most important events in global history. Out of this split, two distinct groups emerged -- Sunnis and Shiites, who over the centuries begun to differ more and more in their beliefs.
Soon after Muhammad's death, the mighty Umayyad caliphate rose. This empire was one of the largest and most important empires in history, and is the reason why North Africa and the Middle East are dominated by Islam. The Umayyads conquered a gigantic swath of territory, stretching from Pakistan in the east to Spain and Morocco in the west. As Umayyad warriors went, so did Islam. In Iran, Zoroastrianism was replaced by Islam. Tribal religions in North Africa were wiped out. Spain would remain Muslim until the reconquista and Spanish inquisition in the 15th century.
In 751 AD, the Abbasid dynasty took power, founding the Abbasid Caliphate. This caliphate largely replaced the Umayyad Empire, and was predominantly Sunni. Nevertheless, during the chaos of the Abbasid revolution, the Idrisid dynasty took power in Morocco, becoming the first Shiite caliphate. Despite the difference in religion, the Idrisids and Abbasids lived in relative harmony. In fact, it was far more peaceful than Europe following the Protestant revolution -- the 30 years war (which was a result of the Protestant-Catholic divide) was one of the largest wars in human history.
The 16th century was incredibly important in the history of the Islamic world. In the preceding centuries, the Ottoman Empire had slowly risen out of the ashes of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. In 1453, the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, and began an era of conquest that would last a century. The Ottomans were ruled by Sunnis, and thus, the Ottoman armies brought Sunni Islam with them, spreading it around the Arab world. The Ottomans greatly expanded from their homelands in Anatolia to conquer North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, the Safavid Empire also rose, conquering Iran and the Caucasus regions, as well as parts of Iraq. The Safavids imposed Shiism on these regions, forcing Sunnis living in the region to convert. In the process, violence increased between Sunnis and Shiites, who had previously been living in peace with each other. This was a major turning point in Islamic history. Additionally, the difference between Ottoman territory and Safavid territory is instantly recognizable when one looks at a religious map-North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant are all dominated by Sunnis, whereas Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan are all Shiite.
Over time, both the Safavid and Ottoman Empires would meet their respective ends. After a crippling war with Russia, the Safavids were conquered by Afghani tribesmen in 1722, and various weaker dynasties succeeded the Safavids. The Ottomans would meet their end 200 years later, after a disastrous loss in World War I. Allied armies, wanting to colonize the long declining Empire, took over all of the previous Ottoman held land. In its place was Turkey, which won its independence from the allies following a bloody civil war. Turkey was proclaimed a secular republic, under the rule of Kemal Ataturk, and grew increasingly more similar to Europe, rather than the Middle East.
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire also resulted in the creation and colonization of numerous other states. In the Levant, Britain colonized modern day Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Syria and Lebanon were colonized by the French. The House of Saud, with the help of the British, conquered much of the Arabian peninsula and established the country of Saudi Arabia, and Yemen also became an independent state. In Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi led a military coup against the ruling Qajar dynasty, founding the Pahlavi dynasty in its place and becoming ruler of Iran.