THE MESS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
WHY THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT IS A SYMTOM RATHER THAN A CAUSE
While many people talk and write about the Middle East few seem to know (or, if they know, refer to) the background of the mess, so I am offering here a few observations.
For many centuries (from about 1300 to 1920) the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, a state that in its peak included not only the Middle East but also all of North Africa (including Libyan and Algeria), the Balkan peninsula (what is now Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Rumania, the parts of Yugoslavia, and, for about a century, Hungary), a good part of southern Ukraine and Russia (including Chechnya), and, of course, Turkey. For several centuries the Ottoman Empire was a formidable military power terrorizing Europe with Ottoman armies besieging Vienna twice. (The last time was in 1683.) The military fortunes of the Ottoman empire started declining in the 18th century and its disintegration started in the 19th century and was completed by the end of the first World War.
Why the big decline of the Ottoman Empire? It was an authoritarian state with a strong religious character. The Sultan was not only the emperor but also the Caliph, the leader of Moslems all over the world. Other religions were tolerated but their adherents "knew their place." (I speak on the basis not only of what I have read but also from personal experience. Both of my parents were born in the Ottoman Empire and lived there until they were expelled together with other Christian Greeks after WW-I.) In order for the Sultan and his clique to keep their power they used religion to keep the Moslem majority of their subjects backward. The existence of religious minorities (Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Egyptian Copts, etc) allowed the rulers the opportunity to create an educated middle class to help administer the empire. For example, tax collectors were rarely if ever Moslems (one of my Greek great-grandfathers was a tax collector for the Sultan). In addition, every effort was made to cultivate suspicion and hostility amongst the various ethnic groups. The Sultan was safe from revolt because those in power bellow him were not only suspicious of each other but also faced the hostility of the mass of poor Moslems who saw them as oppressors rather than the remote and ostensibly benevolent Sultan.
Off course, all hell would break loose when the oppressor from the top was removed. Greeks and Bulgarians slaughtered each other in Macedonia in the early 1900s. Even 90 years later Serbs, Bosnians, and Croatians were at each other throats. The current Sunni/Shiite strife in Iraq has similar roots. (Keep in mind that Iraq was curved out of the Ottoman Empire around 1922.) In 1922-24 one and a half million Greeks were expelled from Turkey, from lands they had been living for over 3,000 years. Many ordinary Turks were jealous of them because they were the merchants and the craftsmen. My mother told me that Greek children would go to school to learn how to read and write while Moslem Turkish children would to school to chant from the Koran. (I have confirmed this story from other sources too.) The expulsion is described in Greece as The Catastrophe. I was surprised to hear later that in Turkey it is also described as the demographic catastrophe. After most of the skilled people were expelled the standard of living plunged even if the assets of those expelled were looted. One of my great uncles went back to Turkey around 1920 and he found the Turks in their old town living in abject poverty. He was told: "when you people left you took the blessing of God with you."
With the possible exception of Turkey itself most of the countries broken off the Ottoman empire fell under authoritarian regimes, first colonial, and then home grown dictators and kings. They had little incentive to educate the masses of their citizen and raise their standard of living because they found themselves in possession of the oil wealth. And lo and behold they also had a great scapegoat, the state of Israel. For me the Arab/Israeli conflict is no different than the numerous sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the remnants of the Ottoman empire, it just gets far more press coverage.
The Moslem world was kept down by the Ottoman Sultans for over 700 years. They missed not only the industrial revolution, they also missed the renaissance. (The first Turkish printing press was not established in the Ottoman Empire until 1729, while Jewish, Armenian, and Greek printing presses had been established in 1527, 1567, and 1627 respectively. Moslem religious authorities objected to printing as been sacrilegious.) Now their rulers wish to keep them down and blame variously the West and the Jews. It should be noted that anti Western attitudes predate the current conflicts. The Earl of Cromer, author of Modern Egypt (London, 1908) notes: "the westernized Egyptian becomes usually a promoter of anti-western ideas in his country." The modern observation that the Arab elite tend to be far more anti-American than the uneducated masses has been often repeated in our news media with the usual explanation that the elite are more aware of Israel's mistreatment of the Arabs than the masses. But this quote shows that the attitude was already there in 1908 when not only Israel nowhere in site but also before the Balfour declaration that promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Can the West do anything to help the Arab masses? Stop pouring billions of dollars in the coffers of dictators and absolute monarchs by buying their oil. Can we stand up and say that we will not buy oil from a country that oppresses its own citizens?
A lot is written in the Western press about terrorists. Please keep in mind that the same regimes that spawn terrorists are killing many more of their own citizens than foreigners. It is no coincidence that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. It is an old trick of oppressive governments to direct the wrath of their citizens to outside targets. Direct military action to help people from a bad regime rarely works. It has been said that "freedom is not given but taken." Thus quick solutions do not work and the best we can do is police action to defend ourselves from terrorist actions. For the long run, lets stopping funding them by purchasing Middle East oil.
Please have no illusions that a "resolution" of the Arab Israeli conflict will have any significant effect. After all they will be still plenty of places where some Muslims are unhappy and in the midst of either open or covert armed strife. Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, and, of course, several countries in Europe.
Original BLOG Posting: August 2006