I found this summarization of Arab history online. I think on reddit. I had copied it into a text file to read later. Good read.
Before we start we have to define the Middle East. Let’s take it to include the Arab world including North Africa, Israel, Turkey and Iran, since these countries all have an inter-related history.
To answer your second question first, no, the region we call the Middle East (I prefer West Asia & North Africa personally and will use it from here on) has not always been as ‘destructive’, at least perhaps not in the sense you describe it. Before the Islamic era, Mesopotamia – current day Iraq – was a cradle of civilization, let’s not forget. But I’m sure you mean in the Islamic times, in which case the answer is still no. Between approximately the 9th century AD and the 13th century, the Arab world was the great cultural powerhouse of the day, and Arab-Islamic caliphates ruled from Cordoba in southern Spain to Iraq/Iran (the border being hazier those days). Baghdad and Cordoba were two of the great intellectual centers of the world. Ibn Khaldun, one of the great names in philosophy and certainly within Arab philosophy, lived in the 14th century. But between successive civil wars, coups, other in-fighting and of course the Crusades, the Arab-Muslim empires began to weaken, and the Mongols stole a good chunk of the Arab lands when they invaded. They sacked Baghdad in 1258, and one could probably argue that the eastern Arab region has still never recovered from that loss. Then, gradually, the Turks came to the fore, successfully capturing Constantinople and destroying the last remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453. From that time the Ottoman expansion just kept increasing – by the mid-17th century, at their height, the Ottomans ruled from the Balkans and Greece down to the Persian Gulf, and from there to Tunisia. By this point the intellectual decline had sunk in, but it wasn’t, as I understand it anyway, all decay (as many would make it out to be today). Keep in mind that by this point Europe was entering or had entered the Enlightenment and was coming into the fore of culture, philosophy and of course military. By the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ and falling apart.
So there was a time, and it was a very long time, when the region was the America or British Empire of the known world. Of course the history of the Ottomans and Arab Caliphs is greatly underplayed in Western history, but that’s only because we all tend to focus on our own history. The ‘near eastern’ empires have no impacted Britain or America so much as they have the countries nearer to them.
Now, how it’s become ‘fucked up’, as you put it, is more complex. One of the major reasons is the very messy British diplomacy of the First World War. By the time WW1 was under way, the Arab world was actually in a time of renaissance, called Al-Nahda (if this world sounds familiar to you, it’s the name of the Islamist party at the center of Tunisian politics). That began in the mid-19th century, after the Muhammad Ali, khedive of Egypt (technically an Ottoman vassal, but in practice Egypt was its own country at this point), sent a team of scholars to France. The post-Revolutionary French ideals came with them and there came the earliest sprouts of modernization at this time, including texts by men advocating women’s rights (though the rights advocated would seem backwards in today’s age, they were revolutionary at the time). Newspapers were introduced to the Arab world, Egypt became home to one of the earliest film industries, the Arabic text was modernized, etc.
Amongst all this came the nationalist ideal, and one of the important men here was Sherif Hussein of Mecca, one of the great tribal sheikhs. He lobbied the British repeatedly for support to a claim of independence before the First World War broke out, to no avail. It was only when the war began, and when the Ottoman Empire entered it on the German side, that the British took an interest in Arab separatists.
The British promised Hussein and his sons their support; they promised to bring all the land that is rightfully his to rule under his grasp. But what constituted his land was intentionally left ambiguous. The Arabs took it to mean all Arab lands, from the Hedjaz to Mesopotamia. The British were trying to keep things open in case of other deals – which came to be.
That was their first promise in the war. Their second was to France, who had a political faction that had long claimed French rights over Syria (the French claim of colonial ownership over Syria is the most spurious I’ve ever heard: they justified Syria as French lands because 800 years ago, it was the French who led the disastrous First Crusade and for this failed invasion the land was rightfully theirs). Eventually, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was struck. They drew a line dividing the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire, from Acre (in Israel) to Kirkuk (in northern Iraq). All north of the line would belong to France, all south of the line to Britain. The Palestine region would be a buffer zone, with ownership split equally between them. The artificial lines they drew, as in Africa, completely ignored the pastoral nomads who had for centuries passed from one of these regions to another, and were now confined to whichever side they happened to be caged on once the lines came to made proper.
Their final promise was to the Zionist lobby at home in London. Zionism was still a bud of an ideology at this time and hadn’t quite taken off, but hoping to win support of the Jewish community world-wide with this. (May be a bit wrong here). The British government came to promise to support the Jewish right to their ancestral homeland – i.e., Palestine.
So the British promised the Arabs Arabia. To the French they promised all of Syria, half of Mesopotamia (as well as Southern Turkey) and a buffer zone in Palestine. And to the Zionists, they promised them that same Palestinian strip of land.
Needless to say, their ability to live up to any of these promises failed to meet up with the rhetoric. Feisal, Sherif Hussein’s son, was crowned king of Syria months before the French moved in to secure those lands and was forcibly removed – he then became king of Iraq, where his line would rule until 1958, when the Ba’ath performed their coup. The Al-Sauds, who the British also supplied weapons to, took over most of the Arabian Peninsula and ousted the Hashemite dynasty from its long reign in Mecca. These new kings spread their Wahhabi creed across the land they now reined. It had previously been mostly confined to their neck of the woods – in their town of Riyadh, now of course capital of Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden and his Saudi followers were all Wahhabis. The Hashemite dynasty still lingers, having managed to survive in Jordan.
The French were brutal colonialists, often worse than the British in their methods (see their work in the Algerian war of independence for example). To create loyalty amongst their new subjects, they raised the minorities into power. In Lebanon, the democracy was (I believe still is) split along religious lines, with Christians being given the major seat of power. In Syria, they empowered amongst others the Alawites – of whom Bashar Al Assad of today is one of. So you see, those changes in the political makeup of the countries have remained even to this day, after colonialism.
The British, amongst other things, also managed to alienate the Zionists and helped feed the fire into what would become the Nakba (disaster) of the Palestinians and the declaration of the Israeli state. But I don’t know that part of the history too well and won’t go into it.
So, following the First World War and the rampant imperialism of Britain and France and following the decolonization after the Second World War, one of the polarizing aspects became the foundation of Israel. The various Arab countries immediately declared war, and with little to no intel and little to no co-ordination they attacked. Psh, Israelis? Who do they think they are? We’re morally superior to them! Unfortunately that dim-sighted view still remains amongst some.
The plight of the Palestinians, pretty much from the beginning, became a political weapon which statesmen would use to keep the peace within their own country. Israel was the perfect scapegoat they could always point at – though they could never really do anything, because no one could ever set aside their differences. The only time they actually managed to was during the Yom Kippur war, when Egypt and Syria managed to co-ordinate a successful opening offensive. The war ended in a draw, but the Egyptians touted that half-victory, such was (is) the strength of Israel that they’d rejoice for just that.
The failed war on Israel inspired nationalists in the region, and here we get all the coups – in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya – all, so they say, for Arab nationalism. The 50s and 60s were the time of Pan-Arabism, which failed to do anything except bring these strongmen into power – Nasser, Assad, Saddam, Gaddafi – who all failed to live up to their promises.
Meanwhile, in the Arabian peninsula, oil was discovered and capitalised on, and a few small nations on the fringes of the Arab world became exorbitantly rich over the course of a few decades, especially the Saudis. What’s important to understand is that not since the earliest days of Islam have the deserts of Arabia been any hotspot of the region. The capitals of the early caliphates quickly moved Syria, Iraq and Egypt – Cairo and Baghdad both having been created by caliphs. The golden age of Islam wasn’t focused close to these bedouin lands and for the Ottomans, the Arab portions of their land were an accessory to their Balkan jewels. And, by a stroke of luck – or maybe it was a curse – these lands, which were so backwards, suddenly came to be immensely wealthy.
It took time to actually grasp their wealth – taking American and British hands off the oil profits took years. But once these countries had done so, and after the 1973 oil crisis when Saudi Arabia especially flexed its muscles and showed what impact it could have over the entire world, their power grew and the Wahhabi creed was given the chance to spread.
Wahhabism is a branch of Salafist Islam, which essentially holds that the first generation of Islam – that of the Prophet’s – was the single perfect time in all history. Everything before it was corrupt; every after it is a corruption. So Salafis strive to live as though the were in the 7th century, to the greatest extent possible. There are stories of hardcore Salafis who would stop mid-meal to ask “Did the prophet eat chicken?” and not continue the meal until they’d poured over the Quran and hadith to check; if he hadn’t, they would be obliged to throw it out. The 1979 Siege of Mecca, when a group of fundamentalist Salafis (fundie fundies) occupied the Ka’ba and its mosque, took things in a bad direction. These men took over at the turn of the 15th Islamic century and claimed to be fulfilling religious prophecy. They would take over the land and implement their Salafi beliefs in a way which the Saudis had currently failed to. These terrorists – led by a bedouin called Juhayman, literally ‘Angry Face’ – were swiftly put down. But, fearing another uprising such as their’s, the Saudis became more fundamentalist in their policies at home, instituting many of the things the terrorists had wanted – such as more religious studies in schools at the expense of the sciences.
Egypt had long been the cultural capital of the modern Arab world, but Saudi would rival it through sheer wealth. It was they that brought the hijab and abaya back, after the Egyptian feminists of the early 20th century first liberated themselves from these darker sides of Arab-Islamic culture.
Another great problem that arises from the Sauds and their like is that, as they have the oil money, they aren’t very inclined to give invest their money in wise ways that could produce a country of great culture and economy – instead you have a police state that showers money on its citizens to keep the quiet. That will work until the oil wells dry up in 40-50 years, and then we might see some more, great changes as we see today in other parts of the Arab world.
Some further reading:
A History of the Arab People, Albert Hourani is one of the great works on the subject. He focuses on culture and politics a lot.
The Balfour Declaration, Jonathon Shneer and A Line in the Sand, James Barr are about the two agreements the British made with the Zionists and the Arab nationalists and compliment each other quite well.
The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan, is the book that made me fall in love with Arab history (saying this as an Arab myself). His slant is of the Arabs as a people who have been under foreign control for six hundred years, from Ottoman domination to modern American control. It’s a very readable book, focusing on the history of a primary few, really – special emphasis on Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Algeria above others.
The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk, is part autobiography, part history by one of the greatest correspondents alive today. He covers the history of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam’s Iraq, the Armenian massacre and more – to be honest I still haven’t finished this book. He brings up such horrible truths of history that one is forced to put the book down every 50 odd pages out of a sort of depression. Of the listed books I recommend it right up there alongside Eugene Rogan’s.
What’s REALLY Wrong With the Middle East, Brian Whitaker, is a study on the various ‘malfunctions’ of Arab society and what could fix it – it came out in 2009, preceding the Arab Awakening, though newer published versions and the Kindle edition include updated introductions taking into account the events of the last year. Another book I’d highly recommend.