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How were the modern nation-states of the Middle East created?

The map of the Middle East, as we know it today, was shaped by the events of the first world war. Prior to that time, the Ottoman Empire controlled much of the area.

The Ottoman Empire (1300-1922) ruled a vast territory that included much of the Balkans, Anatolia, the central Middle East to the borders of Iran, and most of North Africa. It was a multiethnic, multi-religious state ruled through an extensive administration under laws derived from Islam and by the sultan's dictates. The Ottoman Empire was a world power and a significant player in European politics. In fact, the Ottomans ruled one-quarter of Europe for hundreds of years until the 18th century.

Challenges to Ottoman supremacy before 1800

By the turn of the 18th century, Ottoman power was beginning to weaken. In 1683, the Ottomans had staged an ultimately unsuccessful siege of Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Less than 100 years later, in 1774, for the first time in their long history, the Ottomans were forced to give up significant Muslim territory to an opponent, Russia, in the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca.

A 19th-century Turkish sultan in an undated photo [ enlarge ]

Structural changes in the wider world ultimately outpaced Ottoman reforms. The growing centralized power of industrialized European nation-states performed more efficiently than the larger, decentralized Ottoman system, and new sea routes to the East circumvented prosperous land routes through Ottoman territories.

European imperialism

British soldiers in formation before the ancient Sphinx and pyramids on Egypt's Giza Plateau, c. 1893 [ enlarge ]

While Ottoman power waned, the influence of the European nation-states grew. All of the great powers of Europe -- Britain, France, Germany, and Russia -- sought to control natural resources, create markets for their industries, and establish colonies around the globe. They competed for political and economic influence in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, North Africa, and Iran prior to World War I. France occupied Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881; the British took control of Aden (in Yemen) in 1836 and Egypt in 1882; and Italy occupied Libya in 1911.

The Ottoman response and the rise of nationalism

In the 19th century, the Ottomans tried to combat the growth of European power and influence. They trained their armies in new techniques and equipped them with up-to-date weapons. They created new government structures and state school systems modeled on those of Europe. They borrowed money to develop their infrastructure, building railroads, telegraph lines, and modern ports. Ironically, modernization got them further under the control of the Europeans, who provided the loans.

Intellectuals like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Qasim Amin encouraged the reinterpretation of Islamic principles in response to the modern world as a way to break free from European colonialism. Secular nationalist movements, like the Young Turks of Anatolia, also arose. Secular nationalism was particularly strong among non-Muslim communities, which could not fully participate in Islamic nationalist movements.

By the 19th century, nationalism within individual states was beginning to challenge the authority of the multicultural Ottoman Empire. Greece won independence from the Ottomans in 1832, and other Balkan nations began to follow suit.

World War I

Ottomans in Turkey during World War I [ enlarge ]

In World War I, the Ottoman Empire joined forces with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Some Arab states joined the British under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca. In return, the British promised them independence after the war. The British and French, however, had already made a secret deal (the Sykes-Picot Agreement), carving up the Middle East between themselves into areas of direct or indirect control.

A final complication was the Balfour Declaration made by the British in 1917, promising their support for "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people." This agreement conflicted with the promise of Arab independence and set the stage for much further conflict.

The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement helped create a legacy of resentment toward colonial rule and distrust of Western motives that persists for many in the Middle East.

The mandate system in Arab states

In 1920, the Ottoman Arab provinces were divided between Britain and France along the lines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, with borders drawn up entirely by the colonial powers. Mandates from the League of Nations gave France control of Syria and Lebanon. Britain held mandates over Palestine, Iraq, and the newly created Transjordan. To mollify the Arabs, the British made the sons of the Sharif of Mecca rulers of two of these new states: Faisal was made king of Iraq, and Abdullah was made king of Transjordan, later Jordan.

Some groups had their hopes for a nation-state dashed. The Kurds were briefly promised an independent state by the Allies in 1920, but in the end other interests triumphed: The areas of Kurdish settlement were divided among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Modernization in Turkey and Iran

Nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), shown in this undated photo, left a legacy of aggressive Westernization in Turkey. [ enlarge ]

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created a new state in Anatolia and Thrace. Atatürk embarked on an aggressive campaign of Westernization. He changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin characters, instituted a new law code based on Switzerland's, worked to give women the right to vote, and even ordered men to wear European hats instead of the fez. Most Turks are still proud of Atatürk's Westernizing and nationalist legacy, although there have been some amendments to its more extreme aspects.

The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, and President Nixon chat in the Oval Office, September 24, 1973. [ enlarge ]

In Iran after World War I, a military commander, Reza Shah Pahlevi, took power. He, too, was an aggressive Westernizer, but his reforms did not take root as deeply as Atatürk's. The chief result was the creation of a wealthy Westernized class divided from the general population, which retained closer ties to traditional culture and Islam.

Nasser leads Arab nationalism

Gamal Abd al-Nasser (1918-1970), shown in this undated photo, became Egypt's first president after his 1952 overthrow of King Faruq. [ enlarge ]

In the interwar years (1919-1939), Arab nationalist opposition to the British continued to grow. By 1952, Gamal Abd al-Nasser led a coup against the Egyptian king, was named president of Egypt, and ended official British influence. He became an enormously popular symbolic leader for all Arabs. He tried to unite Egypt and Syria into a single United Arab Republic, but this enterprise lasted only a few years.

Political structures today

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Some Middle Eastern states are governed by a royal family, with a parliament or advisors. These include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Morocco. Iraq and Syria are each governed by the strong leader of a dominant political party, the Ba'ath, which has a secular, socialist ideology. Bashar al-Asad, president of Syria, took over from his late father Hafez al-Asad in 2000, while Saddam Hussein has been president of Iraq since 1979. Most other states in the Middle East are republics, with a president and elected legislature.

The role of democracy

While many Middle Eastern states have superficial democratic institutions or some genuinely democratic components within the state structure, their governments are often oppressive and do not allow open criticism or effective political opposition. Political openness varies widely throughout the Middle East. For example, Iraq is a completely authoritarian state; Iran has an ongoing struggle between political moderates and authoritarian religious leaders; and Morocco has many elements of a functioning democracy. Israel and Turkey do have vigorous and relatively open political debate.

When governments face popular discontent with their lack of political openness, they may try various means to shore up their legitimacy. Oil-rich states use their revenues from oil on social spending, like a cradle-to-grave welfare system, while Iraq and Iran use Islamic or anti-Western rhetoric to appeal to public sentiment. Citizens of Middle Eastern countries are, however, often brought together by genuine feelings of brotherhood with their fellow citizens, other Arabs, and/or other Muslims, and often feel strongly about regional political matters, such as the Gulf War or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Ethnic minorities

Most governments in the region are dominated by a single ethnic and religious group, but there are significant minority groups that often struggle to maintain their cultural identity and at least some political influence.

Kurdish families at a refugee camp in Isikveren, Turkey, near the border with Iraq [ enlarge ]

Major ethnic minority groups include the Kurds (in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria) and Berbers (in North Africa). Members of both of these groups are fighting for greater autonomy within -- or independence from -- their countries, but face stiff resistance. Armenians in Anatolia had similar ambitions in the early 20th century, but their nationalism was seen as a threat by the state, and huge numbers of Armenians were displaced or killed. Lebanon was created by the French as a mandate separate from Syria in order to preserve the political autonomy of its Christian population. The system of government was developed to share power among the several religious groups in the Lebanese population: Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, Druze, and Shii Muslim.

Israel is a special case. As a Jewish state, it is both homogenous and multiethnic. Jews from all over the world -- including Eastern Europe, Russia, North Africa, the United States, Ethiopia, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran -- have emigrated to Israel. Many Arabs also live in Israel as Israeli citizens. Most of them are Muslim, but some are Christians. Many rights, however, accrue only to Jewish citizens. For example, a July 2002 court decision forbids Arabs from living in Jewish areas located on state land (which constitutes the vast majority of the total land in Israel). And non-Ashkenazi Jews may face social discrimination within Israeli society.

As of August 2002, Palestinians continue to seek the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While most of the international community, including the United States, has voiced support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, continued Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterattacks have prevented the conclusion of a permanent peace plan.

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Jump To:

Challenges to Ottoman supremacy before 1800

European imperialism

The Ottoman response and the rise of nationalism

World War I

The mandate system in Arab states

Modernization in Turkey and Iran

Nasser leads Arab nationalism

Political structures today

The role of democracy

Ethnic minorities


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