Reasons for the Mideast’s Despair

The West is quick to show disdain for the Muslim world and almost as quick to bomb it. But the only way to ultimately diffuse Islamic extremism is to understand the West’s historic role in causing the problem and then pursuing practical ways to address legitimate concerns, as Alon Ben-Meir explains.

By Alon Ben-Meir

The intensified public discussion about the root causes of violent extremism among some Muslims has focused mainly on the socio-economic and political conditions that exist in Arab countries and among Arab communities in Europe and the U.S., which provide a breeding ground for extremism.

But to effectively counter violent extremism, we must also carefully consider how the development of events in the wake of World Wars I and II have impacted the psychological disposition of the Arab population throughout the Middle East.

French diplomat Francois George-Picot, who along with British colonial officer Mark Sykes drew lines across a Middle East map of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, carving out states with boundaries that are nearly the same as they are today.

French diplomat Francois George-Picot, who along with British colonial officer Mark Sykes drew lines across a Middle East map of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, carving out states with boundaries that are nearly the same as they are today.

Starting with the arbitrary division of the region by Western powers, the wars, revolutions and scores of violent conflicts that followed have added layer upon layer of deep resentment and hatred of the West, and the puppet Arab leaders who were installed to serve their Western masters.

The following provides a brief historic, panoramic view of what the vast majority of the Arab population has experienced, which has informed their perception of the world around them, left an indelible mark on their psyches, and framed the beliefs and behavior of many.

President Barack Obama stated at the Summit of Countering Violent Extremism that “the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances [and] does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from the history of colonialism or conspiracy.”

Whether the colonial powers were only partially or fully to blame is hardly relevant because the Arab masses continue to believe that colonialism was behind the ills and suffering they endured. From the perspective of the majority of the Arabs, the developments of major events that followed the two World Wars simply confirmed their perception.

Even before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Britain and France reached a secret pact in 1916 (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) to divide Ottoman-held territories in the Middle East between the two powers irrespective of sect, ethnicity and religious affiliations. Dividing the “pie” between them was viewed as exploitive, arrogant and dismissive of the welfare of the indigenous populations, ushering in decades of strife and turmoil.

The creation of most of the Arab states following World War II hardly changed the plight of the Arabs living in these countries. The French and the British appointed governors, kings and emirs who ruled with iron fists, further intensifying hatred toward the Western powers and toward the authoritarian regimes under which they groaned.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was regarded as yet another Western conspiracy. The humiliation of the Arab armies by the nascent Israeli forces, the loss of substantial territory, and the creation of the Palestinian refugees have added a further layer of deep resentment. The Israeli occupation, which led to the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, continues to feed the Palestinians a daily ration of indignity to this very day.

The 1953 overthrow of the freely-elected Mosaddegh government in Iran, engineered by the CIA and British intelligence because of the parliament’s decision to nationalize the oil industry, was seen as the most flagrant intervention in the internal affairs of a Muslim state. The installation of the Shah, a Western puppet, and his ruthless treatment of his subjects were never forgotten by the Iranians and still remain a source of anger and antipathy toward the U.S.

When Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was hailed as a nationalist hero, rose to power in Egypt and dared to challenge the West’s dominance and “ownership” of the Suez Canal, the French and British, in cahoots with Israel, answered with war.

The war with Egypt once again trampled Arab pride as the retaking of the Canal and the occupation of the Sinai by Israel was viewed by the Arabs as a blatant manifestation of the West’s vulgarity of self-entitlement and Israel’s hunger for more Arab land.

And then came the 1967 Six Day War. In 144 hours, Israel conquered Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian territories more than three times its own size. Though the defeat of the Arab armies on the battlefield was humiliating, it was the psychological defeat that shattered the Arabs’ self-esteem.

Although the 1973 Yom Kippur War salvaged Egypt’s national pride (Egyptian forces were allowed to remain on the East side of the Suez Canal, which provided Anwar Sadat a political victory), it did little to allay the Arabs’ humiliation as Israel continued to occupy Arab land on three fronts.

The 1979 Iranian revolution marked the first major Muslim country to revolt against the United States, sending a clear message to Arabs and Muslims that the West will no longer impose its whims with impunity. Unsurprisingly, the Mullahs’ victory did not change the core resentment and hatred toward the West.

Although the 2001 Afghanistan war was arguably necessary to destroy al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attack, the prolongation of the war, its destructiveness and the death toll were and continue to be seen as consequences of the West’s never-satisfied appetite for dominating Muslim/Arab lands.

The Afghanistan war produced a new generation of militant Muslims who operated both with and independent of al-Qaeda, ready to challenge Western powers and the autocratic Arab regimes that want to maintain the status quo.

Notwithstanding how much Saddam Hussein was reviled for his ruthlessness, the vast majority of Arab youth viewed the 2003 Iraq War as an unprecedented assault on the Arabs’ heartland and people. Iraq was essentially dismantled, pitting Sunnis against the Shiite majority; tens of thousands were killed and violent Islamists converged into Iraq, which eventually led to the birth of ISIS while poisoning a new generation of young Arabs with intensely anti-Western sentiments.

The Arab Spring, which ushered in great hope and promise for the future, turned out to be a cruel winter. The U.S. and the EU have selectively interfered in the various Arab Spring countries without any clear strategy, believing that pushing democracy down the throat of the people would provide a panacea for their political ills.

All considered, the vast majority of the Arab people accept their lot in silent desperation. But the relatively small minority who are engaged in violent extremism rose to defy by whatever means both Western powers and the authoritarian Arab regimes. These jihadists differ in age, financial ability, education and family prominence; they do not fit a single profile nor do they follow a single path to extremism.

However, they all have one thing in common: hatred of the West and the own corrupt leaders. They no longer believe that their governments will heed their call for change; they believe Western influence is a curse and only jihad can change their destiny and the course of history.

Religious extremism and the deliberate distortion of Islamic teaching provided the outlet that could justify any violent action to remedy decades of servitude and subjugation. Dying while fighting the enemy is extolled as martyrdom, the ultimate sacrifice that opens the gates of heaven and offers true freedom and dignity, of which they were deprived on earth.

Though the use of force is at times necessary to destroy an irredeemable foe such as ISIS, it is critical to recognize that no amount of military force can eradicate ideology and religious conviction. A multitude of measures are necessary to counter violent extremism, including education, economic assistance, job opportunities, integration, addressing grievances, engagement in social activities, and much more.

But to successfully combat this long-term problem, Western powers must act on a number of fronts to set the stage for reconciliation. Reconciliation must begin by recognizing and admitting to past mistakes. Regardless of the extent of the West’s abuse and exploitation of Arab resources and people, acknowledging its long history of misguided policies is critical to establish a dialogue which is still largely missing in the strategy of countering violent extremism.

The West can offer a model of democratic government, but must not impose it arbitrarily. The Arab states will find their own way to reconcile religion with the form of democracy they choose, and the West must honor the outcome of fair and free elections.

The West owes many of the Arab states, especially those with overwhelmingly poor populations such as Egypt, the financial and technical support needed to embark on sustainable economic development projects that empower the people. Poor, hungry and despairing youth need food even before freedom, and job opportunities, healthcare and education before meaningless elections.

The U.S. must never cease its effort to diffuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring an end to the occupation, which provides a continuing source of extremism. In doing so, the U.S. addresses one of the Arabs’ foremost grievances against it, while strengthening Israel’s national security.

Finally, since the West and the Arab states have a common interest in degrading, if not eliminating, radical militants, their collaboration must be strategic in order to avoid the potential of creating a new crisis. Does the U.S. know what the fate of Syria and Iraq will be once ISIS is defeated, and how that will impact the Sunni-Shiite “war” spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Iran?

None of the above is meant to suggest that the Arab states have been merely the victims of imperialism. They have and continue to contribute to the plight of their people. The Arab world is rampant with inequality, gross human rights violations, and tens of millions of poverty-stricken young men and women with little prospect of finding a meaningful purpose to their lives.

If the Arab leaders want to end the scourge of violent extremism, they must assume some responsibility and not simply blame the West for their grievances and decades of socio-economic and political dislocation and despair.

Unless they invest now in economic development, education, healthcare and opportunities for growth, and allow for social and political freedom (albeit gradually), the radicalization of the young will only be intensified and the unforgiving storm will continue to sweep one country after another.

To be sure, countering violent radicalism will be a long and costly campaign. It will take foresight, courage and wisdom to learn from past mistakes. Together with the West, the Arab states must chart a new course of trust and mutual respect to tackle the herculean job that lies ahead.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected] Web:

10 comments for “Reasons for the Mideast’s Despair

  1. Gregory Kruse
    April 15, 2015 at 08:13

    This is a sloppy article. Two examples: “tens of thousands were killed” during the Iraq war; and the Afghanistan war was “arguably necessary to destroy al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attack”. Closer to hundreds of thousands were killed, and the “destruction of al-Qaeda” was part of a cover-up of the true cause and promotion of the 9/11 “attacks”. This article starts from a solid premise and lapses into pro-Western propaganda.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    April 10, 2015 at 22:41

    Wesley Clark told us that ten days after 9/11 he visited the Pentagon where upon he was informed of how the U.S. was planning to invade 7 Middle Eastern countries within 5 years. Colonel Raplh Peters wrote a plan which is similar to what General Clark spoke of. If the U.S. has accomplished nothing more, it has degraded these countries we have invaded enough to give our allies in the region the upper hand when in comes to military effectiveness. Recently, Dov Zakheim made a statement that even if Iran were to have a bomb that Iran would have a one percent chance of using it effectively against Israel. He stated however Israel had a one hundred chance of destroying Iran. So, creating chaos is a good thing if you are a U.S. Allie in the Middle East.

  3. incontinent reader
    April 10, 2015 at 20:18

    The West has never allowed a truly independent Arab country to exist without trying to displace its leadership and take control of its resources. Furthermore, there are examples of Arab leaders that invested in their country’s infrastructure and the quality of life of their people. Qadaafi is as good as an example as any, even if the MSM and Administration (and NATO and EU) would have the public believe otherwise. Assad is another even as the West was trying to force Syria to adopt a neoliberal model for its economy, and moreover, did more than its share to take in and care for refugees- almost a million of them- of the Iraq War, while the U.S. let in a few hundred. In both cases the West and it’s proxies had to demonize those leaders because their nations’ political independence and national economic programs were a threat to the neoliberal model and an impediment to the Western multinationals.

    • GaryA
      April 10, 2015 at 20:24


    • R McHewn
      April 11, 2015 at 20:59

      I would like to add the point that the US, in particular, has not allowed any nation to follow its own path of development, and especially so if their leaders actually represent/support the general interests of their own citizenry. Central and South America are filled with examples.

      That’s all I would add to your excellent observation.

  4. Julian
    April 10, 2015 at 18:16

    Many nations in the Middle East and Africa were literally drawn with a ruler. Straight borders, which could never have evolved naturally along ethnic, tribal, religious or geographic lines. The result was that people of different ethnicities and cultures were thrown into the same pot. This shows how little the imperialists of that time knew about the region of the globe they were playing god with.

    But always shifting blame solely on the West seems like a bit of a lazy excuse to me. As if Arab and/or Muslim societies were beacons of perfection before European imperial powers moved in. Many former Muslim nations were bogged down by endless squabbles over religious differences, disputes between high-ranking families (which often ended with one killing off the other to grab power), economic strife, etc.

    But sadly many extremists believe that former Muslim societies were indeed perfect and can only be revived by “purifying” current societies of “impurities”: nonbelievers, foreign influence, advances not mentioned in the Koran, etc. They forget that these influences were exactly what made past Muslim societies so enduring and progressive. Bagdad was once the cultural and intellectual center of the world in which even non-Muslims were welcome. Muslim societies were relatively tolerant of others (Jews, Christians) as long as they paid a special tax.

    • GaryA
      April 10, 2015 at 20:23

      Them “backward, Muslim savages” can’t hold a candle to their enlightened, European bettors who slaughtered ~100 million between WWI, WWII, the dirty wars in Latin America, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., etc., etc.

    • R McHewn
      April 11, 2015 at 21:08

      “Many nations in the Middle East and Africa were literally drawn with a ruler.”

      I rather think that this would show that the Imperial forces that drew up these borders of “most resistance” to harmony knew exactly what they were doing, rather than:

      “This shows how little the imperialists of that time knew about the region of the globe they were playing god with.”

      Much easier to control if you can get them to do their own killing of each other.

  5. Zachary Smith
    April 10, 2015 at 14:50

    The creation of most of the Arab states following World War II hardly changed the plight of the Arabs living in these countries.

    I’d imagine that was supposed to be “World War I”

    The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was regarded as yet another Western conspiracy.

    Modify that to “properly regarded” and it would be about right.

    After all, the fabulous and much-hyped UN Partition Plan gave a majority of Palestine to a minority group – the Jews. And it was land the UN had no right at all to give away!

    There is a great deal in the essay about the guilt of the West being involved in the creation of Israel and the other mucking-around in the ME. That’s all true, but there is also very little about the guilt of the nation of Israel in making a bad situation much worse.

    Cutting off Israel’s dole from the West is a no-brainer, except that isn’t going to happen. Germany is still providing state-of-the-art submarines to Israel, and Israel is fitting these with nuclear weapons. The US is still giving Israel billions of dollars every single year, and still providing cover in the UN for the murderous little nation-state’s every misdeed. That’s why THIS remark made me laugh:

    The U.S. must never cease its effort to diffuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring an end to the occupation, which provides a continuing source of extremism.

    Cease? That’s silly because no such “effort” has even begun!

    • Zachary Smith
      April 10, 2015 at 15:19

      Oops – it’s a bad idea to post without checking fundamental stuff. The author was correct about the WWII business.

      Why can’t there be an “EDIT” button here?

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