There is some key history being overlooked and misunderstood about the war in the Middle East. We cannot have an educated opinion on foreign policy until we understand what our enemies are fighting for and why. To understand this we have to look back in time 100 years.
In 1918 The Middle East was divided between European powers as part of a peace agreement to end WWI. ISIL, (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, aka. Daesh or incorrectly ISIS) and Al Qaeda are fighting to re-create a sovereign Islamic State that has not existed since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the death of the last Caliph in 1924. They are fighting to unify and free the Middle East from the colonial influences that have played a huge role in the region since the UN Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.
ISIL plans to govern their new State based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Islam, which justifies it’s cruel tactics as the quickest means to secure a peaceful and unified state that would offer it’s citizens a high level of social services and protections in exchange for religious purity and loyalty, as spelled out in the Koran as Sharia Law. The Islamic State is ruled by the Caliph, the religious and political leader of the Caliphate and descendant of the prophet Mohammad.
The new European imposed borders of 1918 did not take into account the existing locations and history of the ethnic groups which they contained, and as a result the new borders often put warring neighbors together in disastrous combinations, (such as the Sunni, Shia and Kurds in Iraq.) The era of European colonialism and these new borders catapulted the region into chaos and wars for independence. By the end of WWII the region had largely acquired the borders we now know. These new borders gave the traditional lands of many ethnic groups to others, creating new enemies between groups that had previously co-existed. (Israel and Palestine, Turkey and Armenia.) Many believe that this was done intentionally in order to permanently destabilize the region, to ensure European influence and to guarantee access to the region’s resources. Oppressed ethnic groups who lost land and were split between nations and many others will never accept the legitimacy of these often arbitrary borders. The desire and quest for sovereignty of ones homeland is universal.
This is why Bernie Sanders has said repeatedly that the war in the Middle East is a “war for the soul of Islam”. It can never be “won” by outsiders and our continued control in the region can only add fuel to the fires that justify their cause in the first place. From their perspective they are fighting for freedom too! It is important to note that attacking the US and our Allies is not a primary goal of ISIL or Al Qaeda.. it is a means to drive us from the Middle East. If we were to withdraw our troops it follows that the terrorist threat to us would end. Terrorism as a tactic would not end, but we would no longer be it’s target. ISIL would focus on fighting it’s neighbors in order to expand it’s territory. This is the primary goal of the Islamic State. This is why Bernie Sanders says that the Nations of the Middle East need to stand up and lead the fight against ISIL which is at war with them over territory and that America should take only a supporting role.
Who are our allies in the Middle East? Since we are not trying to conquer or colonize the region, our main objection and justification to fight ISIL has to be that they are a strict and oppressive dictatorship governed by Sharia Law and ruled by an unelected monarch… but if that is the case our line becomes very blurry. Our ally Saudi Arabia fits that description too. Saudi Arabia is our closest ally not because we agree with them on moral issues or how the region should be governed but because they provide us with oil and we provide them with weapons. Saudi Arabia is now the 3rd largest military spender in the world. If an aspiring terrorist wanted to be armed and trained in the Middle East they would do well to get their training and weapons from the Saudis before joining ISIL.
Is our goal in the Middle East stability? Justice? Democracy? Depending on how we answer we generate three very different lists of our allies and enemies. Should we be continuing down Hillary Clinton’s path of arming and training strict adherents to Islamic Fundamentalism and Sharia Law? How can we know that their loyalties are to their individual Middle Eastern countries and not to a unified Islamic State?
The United States (of America) has a long history of overthrowing democratically elected progressive leaders that pose a threat to the US agenda in their countries. The US has killed close to 50 times more Middle Eastern civilians in the Gulf Wars than American Civilians who were killed in 911 and by Al Qaeda and ISIL in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their casualties of soldiers are also much, much worse than ours. UNICEF estimates that at least 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the US embargo of Iraq in the 90’s. If our agenda is humanitarian we have failed miserably. We see ourselves as the good guys, but from their perspective that is a hard case to argue to the orphans and family’s scarred and broken by war. Our foreign policy doesn’t fight terrorism, it breeds it.
Intention, action and outcome are not the same thing.
Radical Islamic Fundamentalism is undeniably horrible but it is not to be confused with Islam as a whole any more than Radical Christian Fundamentalism as practiced by the KKK is to be confused with Christianity. I believe that once the immediate threat of outside occupation is gone the peaceful Islamic majority will eventually take the power back from oppressive extremists.
Many parts of the Middle East including Turkey, Iran and Iraq have long histories as world leaders in education, women’s rights and the hallmarks of free society, both in ancient and modern times. Even in the most oppressive Middle Eastern countries you only have to go back a generation or so to find people who remember working and living a more or less modern European lifestyle. I recommend the brilliant animated film “Persepolis” for some insight into Iran, Saudi Arabia and underground culture in oppressive Middle Eastern countries. The political movement that catapulted the region into the modern era of Islamic theocracy was less about religious fundamentalism and more about religious freedom as the Middle East sought to free itself from the iron fist of the communist Soviet Union.
The vast history of Islam as the seat of science and math and the high degree of open society enjoyed in the Middle East is often overlooked entirely in the western narrative. It cannot be said enough that the libraries of Babylon, (now Baghdad, Iraq) where writing was invented, the Library of Alexandria (in Ancient Egypt) and then the universities of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) were the heart of the educated and free world for millennia while Europe was still mired in the Dark Ages. As the crossroads of Eurasia, the silk roads and the rich energy reserves of the Middle East guaranteed that the region was the heart of culture, industry and trade since the dawn of civilization.
However long it will take for the Middle East to find peace, it will take longer the more we continue to ship them weapons, train them at warfare, bomb them and their children and escalate the tragedy that is this war, from all perspectives. Awarding western corporations huge construction contracts directly undermines the region’s self-sufficiency and sovereignty. Endorsing or opposing their leaders undermines their legitimacy and independence. We and our Allies do, however, have an enduring responsibility to the region. We should continue to send food, medicine and humanitarian aid as long as the region needs it. We should continue to send help when we are invited to do so and take great care to not overstep and disrespect those that we hope to help.
This war is in the Middle East but it is to be expected that the hate and violence will sometimes spill over onto our shores as well. The “lone wolf” shooter in Orlando may have done what he did for ISIL but they didn’t plan it or do it themselves. In fact ISIL has only ever taken credit for two mass killings in the US. This was a hate crime and a retaliation for war. How will bombing the hell out of a region already in total ruin heal the hatred? It can only breed more.
by Sara Wolf