Why can’t they all get along? It’s a question many of us would like to answer. Is conflict in the Middle East destined to be omnipresent? According to the Institute for Economic Democracy, the region has seen conflict for the past 1,300 years. The problems are largely rooted in control over resources. Religious differences and geopolitical issues have come into play as well. Perhaps part of the reason the region is so rife with conflict is because those who are trying to solve it do not understand the history of the area and the people living there.
First, we must differentiate between the terms nation, state and nation-state. In global context, a nation is a group of people who share the same ethnicity, culture and language but are lacking an independent government and are without borders. A good example is the Kurds, an ethnic group with populations in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. A state is an independent, organized political community operating within set borders. A nation-state is comprised of a single ethnicity, culture and language. Nation-states are extremely rare. The closest states to 100 percent homogeneity are North Korea, Iceland and Portugal.
I mention the Kurds as a prelude to greater discussion of Middle Eastern diversity. If we define the Middle East to include Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Qatar, or 14 states, we’re talking about more than 20 ethnic groups that speak more than 15 languages and practice more than 11 different religions. This is a giant departure from the common perception that everyone in the Middle East is ethnically Arabic, they all speak Arabic and are all Muslims. Understanding this diversity is important. Additionally, note that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not considered part of the region.
Another part that is essential in understanding why the region seems fated to war is the way people relate to their government. Especially in the areas in which we hoped to “spread democracy,” people do not feel a sense of partaking in government the way we do in the U.S. This, in part, has to do with religion and that people should be governed according to Sharia law, the sacred law of Islam. It is unreasonable to think implementing a democracy in Iraq, for example, would be effective. I use Iraq as an example because many scholars argue it is an artificial state — the borders still reflect those drawn by the World War II victors and do not actually reflect the will of the people trapped within the borders.
Understanding all of this in depth is necessary before further peacemaking attempts are made. One cannot hope to lead a people to what one deems is a better future without understanding the peoples’ past.