The Mideast’s Problem Is Politics, Not History

Chaos and conflict have become constants in the Middle East. Frustrated U.S. policymakers tend to blame ancient history. Said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech, the region’s ongoing transformation was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Of course, war is a constant of human history. But while today’s most important religious divisions go back thousands of years, bitter sectarian conflict does not. The Christian Crusades and Muslim conquests into Europe ended long ago.

All was not always calm within the region, of course. Sectarian antagonism existed. Yet religious divisions rarely caused the sort of hateful slaughter we see today.

Tolerance lived on even under political tyranny. The Baathist Party, which ruled Iraq and Syria until recently, was founded by a Christian. Christians played a leading role in the Palestinian movement.

The fundamental problem today is politics. Religion has become a means to forge political identities and rally political support.

As I point out in Time: “Blame is widely shared. Artificial line-drawing by the victorious allies after World War I, notably the Sykes-Picot agreement, created artificial nation states for the benefit of Europeans, not Arabs. Dynasties were created with barely a nod to the desires of subject peoples.”

Lebanon’s government was created as a confessional system, which exacerbated political reliance on religion. The British/American-backed overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953 empowered the Shaw, an authoritarian, secular-minded modernizer. His rule was overturned by the Islamic Revolution.

This seminal event greatly sharpened the sectarian divide, which worsened through the Iran-Iraq war and after America’s invasion of Iraq. Out of the latter emerged the Islamic State. The collapse of Syria’s Assad regime has provided another political opportunity for radical movements.

Nothing about the history of the Middle East makes conflict inevitable. To reverse the process both Shiites and Sunnis must reject the attempt of extremists to misuse their faith for political advantage. And Western nations, especially the United States, must stay out of Middle East conflicts.