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Turmoil: What's Behind the Unrest Sweeping the Middle East?

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What's Behind the Unrest Sweeping the Middle East?

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A century ago, writes historian David Fromkin in his landmark book A Peace to End All Peace, "Few Europeans . . . knew or cared what went on in the languid empires of the Ottoman Sultan or the Persian Shah" (1989, p. 25).

It's hard to believe now, but a hundred years ago there was little interest in the Middle East or North Africa. Few "knew or cared what went on" there.

But in the last century everything has changed.

Oil is one reason. This is where most of the world's oil reserves are, so Western countries have gotten themselves involved in the area to guarantee their petroleum supplies.

Another reason is Israel. Before 1948 there had been no Jewish state in the Middle East for almost 2,000 years. All across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, Islam has been the dominant religion for 14 centuries, with scattered Christian and Jewish minorities here and there. The sudden birth of an independent Jewish country brought with it the hostility of hundreds of millions of Arabs across the region and has led to a number of conflicts since.

Without a doubt, the establishment of Israel raised the temperature in the area.

"War to end all wars" gives way to "Peace to end all peace"

World War I was a third cause of today's complex Middle East. Before 1914 the region was ruled by "the Ottoman Sultan or the Persian Shah," as Fromkin put it, but after World War I this vast region was divided into 22 Arab nations, which are hostile to Iran (Persia) as well as Israel—and a number even have serious hostility toward each other!

The inspiration for Fromkin's book title comes from World War I being described as "the war to end all wars." After the peace treaties were signed, Field Marshal Earl Wavell, an officer who served under the victorious British General Edmund Allenby in the Middle East, commented prophetically, "After 'the war to end war' they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a 'Peace to end Peace.'" Almost a century later, the region continues to be the world's main source of war, following centuries of relative peace under the Ottomans.

Desire to reestablish caliphate

A further reason should be added—the desire of Osama bin Laden and others to restore the Islamic caliphate that once covered the entire region and beyond. The caliphate—an Islamic empire ruled by a caliph, or spiritual successor to Muhammad —has not existed for almost a century since it was abolished in the aftermath of Turkey's defeat in World War I.

In the minds of the Islamic extremists like Bin Laden, there will be no peace until the caliphate is restored. Their hope is that the current turmoil is leading in that direction. Their dream is of an ummah, a united Islamic community under one caliph, living under sharia (Islamic law)—encompassing at first all lands that are and have been Muslim, stretching from Spain to Indonesia, and eventually the entire world.

Although Bible prophecy is very clear on the final outcome of the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, it does not give a great deal of detail about events between now and then. It does, however, give us an outline to which we should pay close attention.

And clearly, the Middle East is at the center of Bible prophecy.

Coming turmoil centering on the Middle East

When the disciples asked Jesus Christ about the events that would lead to His second coming, He replied, "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near" (Luke 21:20).

Jerusalem has been fought over more than any other single city in the world. In the last century it has been at the center of regional warfare on four separate occasions (1917, 1948, 1967 and 1973), with relatively minor skirmishes even more frequent. The Temple Mount in the heart of Old Jerusalem is the most disputed piece of real estate in the world, sacred to Jews as the site of the temples built by Solomon, Zerubbabel and Herod the Great and to Muslims as the location from which Muhammad is thought to have ascended to heaven.

Old Testament prophecies show that the Jews (the biblical tribe of Judah) would be settled again in the Holy Land prior to Christ's return. And Judah figures prominently in end-time events: "Behold, the day of the Lord is coming . . . For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem . . . Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations . . . And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east . . . Judah also will fight at Jerusalem" (Zechariah 14:1-4, 14).

Clearly this prophecy is set in the future.

The city is also central to the Christian faith as the site of Jesus Christ's death, burial and resurrection and many other events from His life and ministry. Nations beyond the Middle East have historically had vested interests in the area.

Interestingly, at this present time, hundreds of millions of Christians expect the second coming of the Messiah in their lifetimes, while many Jews expect His first coming, and hundreds of millions of Muslims are expecting their messianic figure, the Mahdi or "Guided One," to come. This of course adds to the Mideast cauldron and further complicates matters.

Demonstrations, riots rock the Middle East

Added to all these are the many recent upheavals in the region.

These were enabled in large part by a problem that's widespread in the region—financial distress leaving many, especially the young, feeling disenfranchised. Demonstrations and riots across the region have been triggered by organizers exploiting growing unemployment among the young and rising food prices.

Of course, the Middle East isn't the only area with this problem. Similar demonstrations and riots have been incited across Europe as austerity measures are being introduced; and demonstrations in some U.S. cities against government cutbacks fall into the same category. Millions of people everywhere feel poor and disadvantaged and are fighting for the basic human needs of food, jobs and housing.

A feeling of despair led Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia to set himself alight on Dec. 17, 2010, triggering demonstrations and riots. Exactly four weeks later, Tunisia's president fled to Saudi Arabia after almost 24 years in power, ending one of North Africa's many dictatorships. All Bouazizi wanted to do was provide for his family, but petty officials kept demanding bribes from him to continue his business, a situation all too common across the world.

With Tunisia as a catalyst, unrest spread to Egypt, leading to the same result—the collapse of a dictatorship that had lasted more than 30 years. The unrest rapidly spread to other countries across the region—nations that quickly either announced reforms or chose heavy-handed crackdowns in an attempt to remain in power.

Demonstrations across the Middle East were uniformly stirred up over high unemployment, rising food prices, a lack of basic freedoms, generally poor living conditions and a sense of hopelessness.

In the West, hopes arose for the spread of democracy and freedom, and that this would be another year of liberating revolutions, just as 1989 was across the communist world, leading to freer societies.

Many in North Africa and the Middle East also wanted democracy, but not necessarily Western-style democracy. Democracy is associated with affluence, which is positive. But what about equal rights for women and for all religions? That's not likely to happen anywhere in the Arab world!

Sobering realities behind events in Egypt

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on March 29, 2011, Mideast expert and former editor of The Jerusalem Post Bret Stephens wrote the following in an article titled "Egypt—the Hangover": "'The West seems to be convinced that the revolution was led by secular democratic forces,' says (my Egyptian friend) Mahmoud. 'Now that myth is shattered. Which means that either the old order'—by which he means the military regime—'stays in power, or we're headed for Islamist dominance.'

"Egypt's Copts, some 15% of the population and the largest non-Muslim group anywhere in the Middle East, have good reasons to be worried. Though the protestors at Tahrir made a show of interfaith solidarity, the sense of fellowship is quickly returning to the poisonous pre-Tahrir norm. Earlier this month a Coptic church south of Cairo was burned to the ground, apparently on account of an objectionable Coptic-Muslim romance. The episode would seem almost farcical if it weren't so commonplace in Egypt, and if it didn't so often have fatal results.

"The threat to the Coptic community is also a reminder that beyond the Muslim Brotherhood there are Egypt's still more extreme Salafis [Islamic originalists, so to speak]. 'The issue is not that they have gotten stronger since the revolution,' Mahmoud explains. 'It is that they are getting bolder. There is no counterbalance to their street dominance in certain poor neighborhoods. They're not scared of the government. They're not scared of being prosecuted.'

"Ahmed, another friend of Mahmoud, stops by to say hello. A graphic designer, Ahmed got a coveted job at an ad agency two days before the protests began in Tahrir, was laid off just a few days later, and remains unemployed today. Though it's now generally forgotten, the past seven years were economically good for Egypt thanks to the liberalizing program of former Prime Minister Ahmed Nafiz—a classic case, in hindsight, of revolutions being the product of rising expectations.

"But now that's in the past. Foreign investors are wary of Egypt, as are tourists, and the military junta currently ruling the state has embarked on a witch hunt against people who belonged to the 'businessmen's cabinet' that gave Egypt its fleeting years of growth but now serve as convenient bogeymen for a military eager to affirm its populist bona fides [with a populace favoring Islamic fundamentalism].

"Later I return to the hotel to listen to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Ambassador Margaret Scobey deliver upbeat assessments about developments in the country. Who are you going to believe: Secular Egyptians themselves or the crew who, just a few weeks ago, was saying the Mubarak regime was in no danger of collapse?"

Certainly, the current turmoil could lead to the triumph of Islamic extremists, which would give the United States more enemies like Iran. But there the similarity to Iran ends. Iran is overwhelmingly Shia Islam, while Arab countries are mostly Sunni Islam, and historically the two have rarely gotten along. About 85 percent of Muslims are Sunnis. Shiites are a minority and have felt persecuted for almost 14 centuries. A clash between the two would be a major conflict, disrupting oil supplies and making the world a much more dangerous place.

U.S. intervention constrained

Also writing in The Wall Street Journal, Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in his March 26, 2011, article titled "The Middle East Crisis Has Just Begun": "The United States may be a democracy, but it is also a status quo power, whose position in the world depends on the world staying as it is. In the Middle East, the status quo is unsustainable because populations are no longer afraid of their rulers.

"Every country is now in play. Even in Syria, with its grisly security services, widespread demonstrations have been reported and protesters killed. There will be no way to appease the region's rival sects, ethnicities and other interest groups except through some form of democratic representation, but anarchic quasi-democracy will satisfy no one. Other groups will emerge, and they may be distinctly illiberal.

"Whatever happens in Libya, it is not necessarily a bellwether for the Middle East. The Iranian green movement [calling for democratic reform in Iran] knows that Western air forces and navies are not about to bomb Iran in the event of a popular uprising, so it is unclear what lesson we are providing to the region. Because outside of Iran, and with the arguable exceptions of Syria and Libya itself, there is no short-term benefit for the U.S. in democratic revolts in the region. In fact, they could be quite destructive to our interests, even as they prove to be unstoppable."

While Western media is focused primarily on Libya's growing conflict and Western imposition of a no-fly zone, we should remember that other conflicts have not gone away. As Robert Kaplan puts it:

"Our most important national-security resource is the time that our top policy makers can devote to a problem, so it is crucial to avoid distractions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fragility of Pakistan, Iran's rush to nuclear power, a possible Israeli military response—these are all major challenges that have not gone away. This is to say nothing of rising Chinese naval power and Beijing's ongoing attempt to Finlandize much of East Asia. 

"We should not kid ourselves. In foreign policy, all moral questions are really questions of power. We intervened twice in the Balkans in the 1990s only because Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic had no nuclear weapons and could not retaliate against us, unlike the Russians, whose destruction of Chechnya prompted no thought of intervention on our part (nor did ethnic cleansing elsewhere in the Caucasus, because it was
in Russia's sphere of influence).

"At present, helping the embattled Libyan rebels does not affect our interests, so we stand up for human rights there. But helping Bahrain's embattled Shia, or Yemen's anti-regime protesters, would undermine key allies, so we do nothing as demonstrators are killed in the streets" (ibid).

The simple fact is that America cannot be consistent in supporting democracy in the Middle East and maintain its dominance of the region.

Support for democratic movements could easily backfire and lead to anti-Western governments coming to power, including Islamic extremists. If the United States is to maintain its superpower status in the world, it must continue to dominate the Middle East, the major source of the world's energy supply, as well as a strategically located region at the crossroads of three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa. A great deal is at stake for the Western world in the region.

Daniel's prophecy of conflict between two empires

Bible prophecy shows that two new major powers will soon be players in the Middle East. New, that is, in the modern world. But they are reborn or resurrected powers from the past in the same sense that Israel is.

Following two Jewish revolts that were crushed by the Romans in A.D. 70 and A.D. 135, the Jews were dispersed throughout the world until the birth of a new Jewish nation-state in 1948. God revealed to the biblical prophet Daniel events that would befall the Jewish people in the centuries ahead.

Daniel was a captive in Babylon during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar and his successors on the Babylonian throne. He survived the fall of Babylon in October 539 B.C. and lived into the time of the Persian conquest under Cyrus the Great, when Babylon was put under the rule of Darius the Mede.

Daniel 11 contains a most astounding prophecy, so detailed it can only have been revealed by God. In the time of Darius the Mede (verse 1), Daniel prophesied about the coming conflict between Persia and Greece, revealing that "a mighty king shall arise, who shall rule with great dominion"—a prophecy about Alexander the Great, who was to live two centuries after these words were written.

"And when he has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken up and divided toward the four winds of heaven"—a reference to the fact that Alexander's death in 323 B.C. at age 32 led to the division of his empire among four of his generals.

Two of these generals are of particular importance biblically.

One was Seleucus who took possession of vast territories to the east of Antioch, north of Jerusalem. The empire, established in 312 B.C., stretched across to India and Afghanistan and included all of what had been Persia and most of Babylon. Seleucus and his successors are referred to in the chapter as the king of the North. Their empire was to last until the Romans conquered it nearly 250 years later, making it a province in 63 B.C.

To the south of Jerusalem was the dynasty of another of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy. This dynasty lasted three centuries, until the death of the famous Queen Cleopatra in 30 B.C., after which her empire was annexed by Rome. This empire is referred to as the king of the South.

Whenever the kings of the North and South went to war, they at times trampled on the Jews who were caught in the middle. Details of the constant conflict between these rulers and their impact on the Holy Land are the substance of chapter 11, encompassing more than 150 years from the time of Alexander until the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who desecrated the temple in Jerusalem in about 168 B.C.

At this point the prophecy ceases to relate the interaction between the two dynasties and the Jews. However, that's not the end of the king of the North or the king of the South.

Biblical end-time prophecies that must come to pass

In verse 40 we see them both back again, now "at the time of the end," when "the king of the South shall attack him"—the king of the North.

Why suddenly "at the time of the end," a term used to describe end-time events that lead into the Second Coming of the Messiah, are these two kings mentioned again?

One reason is because of the restoration of a Jewish nation in the Middle East. For almost 2,000 years there was no Jewish nation there to be impacted by any events, and the whole prophecy was about the Jews and how they would be affected by these powers. Now that the Jewish state (officially called Israel but actually made up of descendants of the ancient Israelite kingdom of Judah, which was distinct from the kingdom of Israel) is back, events in the Middle East are once again relevant to the Jews.

But another reason is that there will once again be major powers to the north and the south of Jerusalem that will come into conflict, a major conflagration that will affect the Jewish people.

The ancient king of the South ruled from Egypt. Out of 22 Arab countries, Egypt is the most populous and has long been the most influential. When King Farouk was overthrown by the military in 1952, the young revolutionaries who came to power influenced similar revolutions throughout the Arab world.

Similarly, the revolution this year (influenced by events in Tunisia) has inspired demonstrations, riots and the fall of governments elsewhere in the Middle East. The latest nation to be convulsed by riots and demonstrations is Syria, which was in a national union with Egypt during the 1960s.

As Bret Stephens explained, the most likely outcome of the current crisis in Egypt is either a victory on the part of Islamic fundamentalists or the continuation of military rule. As the military has been in charge for almost 60 years and has failed to deliver, it seems quite possible that Islamic extremists will eventually triumph, headed by either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. This also could spread throughout the region.

Could we see a new caliphate?

One possible outcome of events in Egypt and other Arab nations is a partial caliphate of the kind that Osama bin Laden and others envision. It would not stretch from Spain to Indonesia, but it could certainly include many of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

Bin Laden himself is a Wahhabi, a member of an extremist and violent sect centered in Saudi Arabia. If the turmoil in the region spreads to Saudi Arabia, the world's major oil producer, the end could be a region very hostile to the West—with devastating results.

It would also likely lead to conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, a conflict that is already taking place in Bahrain, where a Sunni monarch rules over a majority Shia nation. Bahrain is also the site of a major U.S. military base, so the United States is not likely to side with those demanding democracy, as it would be against U.S. interests for the majority to come to power.

To fulfill biblical prophecy, a possible scenario in today's climate is that a powerful "king of the South" will unite various nations of Sunni Islam against a revived "king of the North."

What about the king of the North?

The king of the North in the ancient world was conquered and his territory absorbed by the Romans in the first century B.C.—thus Rome now became, prophetically speaking, the king of the North. The Bible shows that a revival of the Roman Empire will be the next superpower to appear on the world scene, supplanting the United States. (To learn more, request or download our free booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled.)

Centered in Europe, this "Beast" power will be a union of 10 "kings" or leaders (Revelation 17:12). "The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast" (verses 12-13).

When the king of the South attacks the king of the North, "the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships" (Daniel 11:40).

It is quite possible that current developments in North Africa and the Middle East may help drive the rise of the final European superpower foretold here. Current events show the urgent need for a stronger Europe, particularly now that the United States is badly overcommitted, financially overstretched and weary of further commitments.

What is happening now may well be a foretaste of events foretold in the last few verses of Daniel 11. Right now, some European nations are involved in NATO's no-fly zone and naval arms blockade against the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi, who has been provoking them for the best part of 40 years (see "Gaddafi's Violent Past Catching Up in Libya").

Britain and France are cooperating against Libya. The United States, already fighting in two major conflicts in the region, is reluctantly providing the largest share of military assets to the NATO effort. Tellingly, Germany is staying out of it. The most powerful European nation seems to be set on a go-it-alone foreign policy. As Germany will almost certainly be one of the 10 nations forming the final Beast power, this is an interesting development in itself.

Whether or not the current turmoil brings us right into events foretold in Daniel 11, the prophesied events are sure to come in the not-too-distant future. We certainly need to keep our eyes focused on the Middle East and these developments!