Then, in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople
(now Istanbul), and that empire controlled most of the Middle East until well
into the first quarter of the 20th century. The European response, which
also began in the 16th century, was to colonize as much of the rest of the
world as possible, including the Americas, Africa, and a good deal of Asia.
This empire building lasted for about 400 years.
After World War I, and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations
assigned most of the Middle East to France and Great Britain. Iraq, Jordan
(then Trans-Jordan), Palestine, and some Gulf States went to Britain. Syria and
Lebanon went to France. Through it all, Saudi Arabia remained independent. But
by 1920 most of the Muslim world was under some form of colonial rule by a
The United States never colonized the Middle East in a military or politically
imperial way. However, our need for oil, which was discovered there in the
first decade of this century, allied us with and sometimes forced us to support
leaders such as the Shah of Iran, who did not represent what traditional Islam
It was a classic clash of cultural values. Many Muslims called it
"Westoxification," and many Americans thought Muslims "undeveloped." We could
not or did not desire to share the basic values of Islam. A sizeable number of
Muslims, Sunni and Shiite alike, see the materialism and technocratic mindset
of the West (itself a stereotype) as barriers to their worship of Allah and
threats to the very foundation of Islamic family life and the larger Muslim
society. So Muslims felt put upon and violated by us; to a degree, they saw
themselves colonized by the economic power of Western countries, the United
States in particular.
World War II saw the emergence of two superpowers, the United States and the
Soviet Union. At the same time Western European countries saw a weakening of
their hold on the colonies in Asia and Africa. And now that the colonial powers
have withdrawn from the Middle East, Muslim nations are again drawing attention
to themselves and are a force to be dealt with in international politics.
Much of this attention is fueled by anger, a sense of humiliation, and a loss
of self-esteem. Bernard Lewis, a well-known orientalist who taught at the
University of London and most recently at Princeton University, says that
Muslim rage against the West is a result of "a growing awareness among the
heirs of an old, proud, and long-dominant civilization of having been
overtaken, overborn, and overwhelmed by those whom they had long regarded their
inferiors." This rage has not only triggered tension between the West and
Islam; it has also caused conflict among the Middle Eastern neighbors
themselves, the likes of which we have not seen for centuries. The kind of
intertribal warfare going on today between Iraq and Iran, Lebanon and Syria,
and Israel and Jordan is reminiscent of the numerous wars, often religiously
motivated, among European nations in the 17th and 18th
History is a reliable teacher, and the understanding of ourselves and others is
deepened if we listen to its message. The message from Islam is that to deny
the importance of religion in one's history and identity is to destroy one's
culture and one's self.
Reprinted by permission of the University of Arkansas Press.
Copyright 1992 by Ira G. Zepp, Jr.
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