The world has changed dramatically in the last 100 years-and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Not one of the nations of the Middle East has the same borders or governmental system that it had a century ago. Whereas Britain and the United States have enjoyed long periods of political stability, nations of the Middle East, a region at the crossroads of three continents, have seen little but turmoil and violence throughout the last century.
A hundred years ago, most of the region was within the Turkish Ottoman Empire, once a major power but by 1900 very much in decline. It fell apart during and immediately after World War I, replaced by new nations like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf States, all under direct or indirect European control, mostly British and French.
Further change came after the Second World War. Arab nationalists were incensed when the United Nations divided the British Mandate territory of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian areas. The Jewish state of Israel came into existence on May 15, 1948-and was immediately attacked by five Arab armies, all determined to crush the small country of 500,000 people before it could get off the ground.
The consequences of this division of Palestine are with us to this day. Most Palestinian Arabs, many of whom had settled in Palestine in previous decades, fled the new territory of Israel and have been living as refugees ever since. But the creation of the nation of Israel affected not only the Palestinians.
Rising tide of Arab nationalism
Four years after the 1948 war, radical Arab nationalists, set on victory over Israel and determined to end the continuing British occupation of their country, rose up and overthrew King Farouk of Egypt in 1952. Another four years later, the new nationalist government seized the Suez Canal from Britain and France. War followed. Egypt was defeated by the combined powers of Great Britain, France and Israel, but international pressure forced them out of Egypt and Cairo assumed control of the canal.
Elated that Europeans had been driven out of the Arab world’s most populous nation, Arabs in some other Middle Eastern countries rose up against their own pro-Western leaders, replacing them with Arab nationalist governments. Iraq’s monarchy, installed by the British along with constitutional government, was overthrown in 1958. Yemen’s royal government soon followed. In 1969 it was Libya’s turn when Colonel Muammar Gadhafi overthrew King Idris.
Meanwhile, France had lost its most important overseas territory, Algeria, in North Africa, after many years of bitter conflict. Then the British were, in turn, defeated in their colony of Aden, now a part of Yemen. Faced with increasing economic problems at home, the British announced their intention to withdraw from the region, leaving the small emirates on the western side of the Persian Gulf to fend for themselves.
America was destined to become increasingly involved in the area as the British and French withdrew. Fears of Soviet encroachment were realized with Egypt seeking Moscow’s help. The United States was set to become Israel’s greatest protector against the Arab world.
From the secular to the spiritual
Arab nationalism was soon followed by a new force, one even more anti-Western and posing a potentially greater threat to Israel and the West. Islamic extremists overthrew the pro-Western shah of Iran in 1979 and have controlled the Islamic nation ever since. Although most Iranians are not Arab and belong to the minority Shiite sect of Islam, Iran’s brand of strict Islam soon posed a serious threat to the Arab nationalists of the region, many of whom were secular and seemed morally suspect to the Iranian radicals.
In this unstable region, change was set to continue. An eight-year conflict soon began between the theocratic republic of Iran and the secular nation of Iraq. The United States supported the latter’s president, Saddam Hussein, to keep the radical Islamic forces of Iran in check (though the United States evidently did not arm the Iraqis as many now contend). America saw Iran as a serious threat, especially after the Iranians took captive the U.S. embassy staff and held them for 444 days.
In the same year that Iran’s theocratic government came to power, the Soviet Union invaded Iran’s neighbor, Afghanistan, determined to back up a communist government that had seized power there. For more than a decade the Soviets fought Islamic forces determined to drive out the invaders. The mujahideen rebels, backed by Pakistan and the United States, were led by a Saudi revolutionary named Osama bin Laden.
Following the Soviet withdrawal from the country (and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union), the Taliban, a radical Islamic movement that was as set on driving out Westerners as it was the Soviets, came to power.
After World War II, Arab nationalism gave the people hope. If the Western powers were driven out, people of the region assumed they would be better off. But many weren’t.
Their leaders, however, were. Corruption was endemic, benefiting those at the top while leaving the less advantaged worse off. Resentment grew. So did Islamic fundamentalism, as the radicals targeted the poor. Exploiting their grievances and offering simplistic solutions to their often complex problems, Muslim fundamentalists reorganized communities on strict Islamic lines, concentrating on assisting the poor with their needs and thereby building a solid power base.
The radical religious element is particularly critical of leaders who are deemed pro-Western, wanting the “infidels” (non-believers) out of the region. This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia, site of Islam’s two most holy places, Mecca and Medina, where fundamentalists are determined to drive out American forces.
Although the Saudi government is often described as pro-Western, Saudi Arabia is home to one of Islam’s most extreme and violent offshoots, the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Saudi funds finance mosques around the world, with Wahhabi imams (clerics) teaching young children this radical and violent interpretation of Islam. With surprisingly little resistance in Western nations committed to freedom of religious belief and practice, a radical Islamic fifth column is slowly but surely being built.
Radical Islam has made gains even since Sept. 11. Both Pakistan and Turkey saw their respective national assemblies change hands, with both now dominated by Islamic extremists, while their presidents remain secular and pro-Western. Nations throughout the Islamic world are facing increasing security problems from the extremists in their midst.
Trends warn of worse to come
Another factor in this complex part of the world has been the ever-growing Islamic birthrate. Whereas most Western nations have low birthrates, some not even replacing their populations and suffering population decline, the poorer Third World countries tend to double their populations every few years. This has certainly been the case among the Muslim populations of the Middle East. In contrast, the Jewish population of Israel has only grown through immigration as citizens there limit the size of their families like the rest of Western society.
During the last five decades, the declining numbers in the West have been replaced by growing immigrant families from poorer parts of the world, including Islamic nations. These demographic trends, if continued, could lead to immigrant majorities in some Western nations sometime in the new century. Already they have impacted countries socially, culturally, politically and in the area of security.
The percentage of Muslims in the nations of Western Europe is greater than the percentage of Jews in the United States. Many Americans are aware of how powerful the Jewish lobby is in the United States and how important the Jewish vote is in U.S. elections. Now Europeans are finding they must consider their Islamic populations in making major decisions. This is partly why there is an increasing divergence of policy over the Middle East, with France, Germany and others at odds with the United States.
Europeans have a marked fear of the consequences of war in the Middle East-civil disorder and terrorism at home could be the result of Western nations attacking Iraq.
Background to the conflict with Iraq
One reason the United States did not actively oppose Iraq in the 1980s was because of the secular nature of its ruling Baath party—a nationalist and socialist party similar to Hitler’s Nazi party (and, as proven over time, just as ruthless). It wasn’t that the United States approved of Saddam Hussein’s conduct; it was rather that Iraq and the United States shared a common enemy in the extremist Muslim political leaders in Iran. Similarly, early U.S. support for Osama bin Laden’s fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan was the result of a shared common enemy, communism.
The change in the U.S. approach to Iraq came with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saddam’s claim over Kuwait went right back to Ottoman days when the two countries were one administrative region of the Ottoman Empire. But his aggression, brutality and theft of oil were not allowed to stand. An invasion force of almost 40 countries liberated Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
But, in spite of his defeat, Saddam Hussein remained in power. One year after Iraq’s defeat, the U.S. president, George Bush, father of the current president, suffered defeat at the polls. The following year, during a visit to Kuwait, a radical group of Iraqis made an assassination attempt on the elder Bush’s life.
American and British jets have been patrolling the skies over Iraq since the end of the last war, and UN sanctions have continued. These actions put ongoing pressure on Iraq to end its development of weapons of mass destruction and have prevented Saddam from exerting full control over all areas of the country.
Iraq’s failure to comply with many UN resolutions has led to the present situation. Having suffered defeat once at the hands of Western nations, why does Saddam Hussein now risk his own life in another conflict?
The answer may lie in the fact that Saddam sees himself as another Saladin, the Muslim leader who defeated the Western Crusaders almost a thousand years ago. Saddam (meaning “one who confronts”), like most Arabs, wants to see today’s Western “crusaders” defeated and driven out of the Middle East.
Osama bin Laden has the same desire. However, these two men, who have brought so much grief to the United States, are motivated very differently. Saddam is not overtly religious whereas Bin Laden definitely is. Saddam is the voice of Arab nationalism, Bin Laden of Islamic fundamentalism. If the two band together-a possible outcome of this conflict, with the recent message from Bin Laden urging a united front among Muslims-the West would be in for an even greater challenge.
Could the United States be defeated?
A look at a world map illustrates just how much Islam has experienced a resurgence in the last 100 years. It is a similar trend to that of the seventh century, when the new religion of Islam spread out from Arabia in all directions, soon defeating the two great powers of that day, Persia and Byzantium.
Islamic forces have already defeated the Soviet Union by outlasting it through years of exhaustive fighting in Afghanistan. The U.S.S.R. was one of the two greatest powers of the latter half of the 20th century. Could the same forces also defeat the other, the United States-if not in this war, the next or the one after? Americans should never become complacent about such a possibility.
Already Islamic forces dealt a dreadful blow to America’s security on Sept. 11. As a direct consequence of their action, the U.S. economy suffered a major setback not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Serious chinks have been revealed in the armor of the Western alliance as nations disagree on the best approach to the new threat.
American and allied forces are active in many parts of the world trying to stem the rising threat from radical Islam. Victory in Afghanistan will only endure as long as Western nations keep substantial forces there. Even then, their authority does not extend much beyond the capital city of Kabul.
Meanwhile, U.S. and British forces are heavily committed to the Iraqi situation. Following a 40 percent reduction in the size of the U.S. military during the Clinton administration and a cutback of more than 75 percent in British forces in the last 50 years, an overstretched military from both nations has been sent in numbers not seen for many years to fight a war in the faraway Persian Gulf. Regular forces have been joined by large numbers of reservists from both countries.
Certainly military risks are involved. But there are also long-term economic and security risks in a war estimated to cost $50-200 billion. It will be a long time before the ripple effect of this conflict settles.
While few doubt America and Britain will win the war, they could easily lose the peace.
In recent months the U.S. dollar has been under pressure from other countries, reflecting a lack of confidence in the United States around the world. The new European currency, the euro, has been the major beneficiary of the greenback’s misfortune. Concern about a rising U.S. budget deficit and a trade deficit that was over $40 billion in both November and December have put America at greater economic risk. Another Sept. 11 could tip the scales.
Lack of a quick, decisive victory in war against Iraq would have a similar effect. One of the greatest fears is the possibility of rising anti-Americanism throughout the region as Arab peoples see the U.S. bombing of Iraqis on their television screens. Leaders throughout the region remain frightened about the political consequences. Political instability will inevitably lead to greater economic instability, which will inevitably affect the U.S. and other Western nations negatively.
Already some Arab oil ministers have called for oil to be priced in euros instead of dollars. This alone would have a severe effect on the U.S. economy, which has been largely built on cheap gasoline. With a falling dollar and a rise in the value of the euro, not to mention possible oil shortages due to war in the Persian Gulf region, fuel prices in the United States could rise substantially. A massive trade deficit might even mean America could not find the euros to buy enough oil.
The stakes are high for the United States, Britain and their allies in this strategically crucial part of the world.
An end to all war
At a time like this, with so much uncertainty and danger in the world, Christians need to remain focused on the coming Kingdom of God, the central message of hope and promise that Jesus Christ gave the world 2,000 years ago. Mark 1:14-15 Mark 1:14-15 14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you, and believe the gospel.
American King James Version×makes this clear: “… Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.’” He added the following admonition: “ Repent, and believe in the gospel ” (emphasis added throughout).
No matter what happens in the world, true Christians, those who have repented of their sins, know that “the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39 Acts 2:39For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call.
American King James Version×). In the preceding verse, the apostle Peter urged everyone to “repent and … be baptized … and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” without which it is impossible to enter God’s Kingdom.
Prophesying of this time, Daniel 2:44 Daniel 2:44And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
American King James Version×tells us that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed … it shall break in pieces and consume all these [human] kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” Revelation 5:10 Revelation 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
American King James Version×assures us that in this kingdom, those who in this life turn to God in heartfelt repentance and surrender to Him will be “kings and priests … and [they] shall reign on the earth.” They will assist Jesus Christ in finally bringing true peace to the whole world.
Jesus lived in an uncertain and troubling time, just as we do now. Conscious of this, He taught His disciples to pray daily, “Your Kingdom come.” Why? The answer follows: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 Matthew 6:10Your kingdom come, Your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
American King James Version×). Until the establishment of the Kingdom of God, we will not see peace.
Only when the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, is enthroned, ruling over this planet, will the Middle East and the rest of the world have the peace for which it has long yearned. Then, as Isaiah 9:7 Isaiah 9:7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
American King James Version×tells us, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.” GN