While the Arab-Jewish conflict remains the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, other grave conflicts that torment this region have their origins in ancient history.
The division between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam goes back to shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 and centers on who were to be his rightful successors. While they are at times at peace, centuries of dislike and distrust between the two sometimes breaks out into violence, as the world has witnessed in recent years in Iraq.
About 85 percent of Muslims are Sunni, but some countries in the Middle East are predominantly Shiite, notably Iran, Yemen, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. Iraq is also about 60 percent Shiite, but was ruled by a Sunni for decades—Ahmad Al-Bakr and then Saddam Hussein. The U.S.-led invasion of the country has led to Shiites playing a more significant role and could mean a close relationship between Iraq and Iran in the future.
Iran has been under the rule of Islamic fundamentalists since 1979 and is now trying to acquire nuclear weapons, which would drastically alter the balance of power in the region. Not only does Israel feel threatened by this development, but so do the countries adhering to Sunni Islam, notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
Iran's influence extends far beyond its borders, into Iraq and other countries. In Lebanon, the infamous Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah is supported by Iran. The Iranians also support the radical Hamas movement, which rules the Palestinians in Gaza and also has considerable support among those in the West Bank. Many Western nations, including the United States, Canada and the European Union, have declared Hamas a terrorist organization.
Radical Islam first gained world attention in modern times in the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the pro-Western shah of Iran. Iran became a theocratic republic under the domination of the ayatollahs, the religious leaders. Iran's influence has spread far and wide, even into Sunni Islam.
Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, is of radical Sunni origin. It operates to the east of Iran in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The former rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban, gave refuge to al-Qaeda before, during and after the attacks of 9/11, but were defeated during the U.S.-led invasion of the country later the same year. Still, the Taliban continues to fight against coalition forces in the country.
At the same time, there are various other regional conflicts. Egypt's southern neighbor Sudan has had an ongoing civil war for most of the years since independence from Britain in 1956. Somalia has spent the last two decades in an ungovernable state. Yemen suffers from intertribal conflict. And Lebanon's various factions often flare up.
In addition to these ongoing conflicts that could explode and become far worse at any time, many Islamic nations in the region suffer under cruel and despotic dictatorships that lack the support of their own people. This has enabled radical Muslims to gain influence as they work among the common people and provide them with needs their governments don't. So there's an ever-present danger of radical Islam spreading and gaining power in different countries.
It is difficult to find a country in the region that is truly stable other than Israel, which is constantly threatened by external conflict. Israel is so small it has to win every single war it fights—for if it loses one, it may cease to exist!
We should also note that Turkey, the country with the closest ties to the West after Israel (and formerly a good friend of the Jewish state), seems to be changing course and turning away from the West. A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey has been seeking membership in the European Union for more than 20 years, having first applied for acceptance on April 14, 1987. Although there is considerable support from some European countries to Turkey's membership, there is also a lot of opposition, notably from Germany.
On top of the divisive rejection from Europe, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted March 5 to proclaim Turkey's suppression of Armenians in 1915 an act of genocide rather than an act of war, as the Turks claim. This will undoubtedly have a negative effect on U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey for some months has been pursuing closer relations with other Islamic nations at the expense of the United States, the European Union and Israel. This is likely to continue.
The entire Middle East region, culturally and religiously extending into North Africa and South Asia, continues to be very volatile, with no sign of this abating.
While the biblically prophesied end-time "king of the South" could arise as a result of tumult in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a separate issue, one which has caused a number of wars since the birth of Israel in 1948. It remains the world's most dangerous unresolved issue in the world's most dangerous region. GN