Every week Funny Or Die News brings you a new Explainer, an in-depth full-on slide-tackle overview of an important issue, throwing so many words at your face it will make you want to gouge your eyes out.
There are many places where shit is fucked up on planet Earth, but it sure does seem like shit is real fucked up in the Middle East, right? To begin to understand why, please come along on a journey with me, won’t you? I read about 50 Wikipedia articles and condensed them into the following 4000 words, so clearly I am now the world’s leading authority on this topic. Plus, I added the occasional snarky comment here and there. If that sounds like your jam, read on.
WHAT IS THE MIDDLE EAST?
“The Middle East” is a term used in English speaking countries to refer to a region of the world that is kind of in the middle of the map, but also kind of to the right-ish (depending on the map you’re looking at, of course). Some have criticized the term for being implicitly Eurocentrist. So for alternatives, you can also call it the “Mid East” if you’re in a hurry or “The Orient” if you’re a racist grandpa (that’s an example of the snarky comments that were promised above).
Like many terms used to organize the world for caucasians in developed nations, individuals living in the Middle East are not likely to self-identify as being “Middle Eastern”, but more likely to think of themselves as belonging to a particular nationality (Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, The Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and some consider the North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco as well as central Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan to be culturally a part of the Middle East), their respective ethnic groups (Arab, Persian, Turk, Kurd, Azeri, Assyrian, Maronite, Circassian, Somali, Armenian, Druze, and more), or their respective religious faiths (Islam (with Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and other variants), Judaism, Christianity, Bahai, Madaeism, and more).
In the modern era, these different groups, spurred on by foreign help/intervention/hornet-nest-kicking, have found themselves in conflict. Wikipedia documents 87 serious armed conflicts since 1900 in the Middle East, including at least 12 ongoing conflicts:
- Arab-Israeli conflict (1948 - present; 84,000+ casualties)
- Islamic Insurgency in Saudi Arabia post Gulf War (1995 - present; 300+ casualties)
- Iran-PJAK conflict (2004 - present; 700+ casualties)
- Fatah–Hamas conflict (2006 - present; 600+ casualties)
- South Yemen Insurgency (2009 - present; 2,100+ casualties)
- Yemeni al-Qaeda crackdown (2010 - present; 3,000+ casualties)
- Bahraini uprising (2011 - present; 100+ casualties)
- Syrian Civil War (2011 - present; 210,000+ casualties)
- Sinai insurgency (2011 - present; 680+ casualties)
- Iraqi insurgency post-U.S. withdrawal; includes spread of ISIS (2011 - present; 21,500+ casualties)
- Syrian Civil War spillover in Lebanon (2011 - present; 475 casualties)
- Islamist unrest in Egypt (2013 - present; 3,000 casualties)
In other words, shit is fucked. To understand how all of these different groups came to be lumped together in modern geographic parlance, let’s take a look at what Howard Zinn calls “a lil’ motherflippin’ history lesson, y’all.”
ANCIENT HISTORY: EARLY ORIGINS OF SHIT GETTING FUCKED (250,000 YEARS AGO)
Somewhere around 250,000 years ago cranial expansion and the use of stone tools marks the origin of homo sapiens, as heavily documented by visual paleontologist (and sometime cartoonist) Gary Larson. Today homo sapiens use tools like iPhones and unicycles and passive-aggressive-follow-up-emails, but evolutionarily we’re the same species as these early ancestors of ours.
Many paleontologists believe in the so called “Out of Africa” theory (not to be confused with the 1985 Robert Redford film of the same name, and definitely not to be confused with the 1988 Eddie Murphy gem “Coming To America”). This theory states that there is a single origin for all homo sapiens, starting in Africa 400,000 to 250,000 years ago and migrating outward.
Q: Was shit fucked 250,000 years ago?
A: I can only imagine that early homo sapiens in the region didn’t always play nice with those stone tools.
PRE-HISTORY: EARLY CIVILIZATIONS & THE SEEDS OF SHIT GETTING FUCKED (5,000 - 10,000 YEARS AGO)
The Fertile Crescent is an area of land that stretches from the Nile Delta to the Persian Gulf, including the area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as Mesopotamia. The term “fertile crescent” was popularized by archaeologist James Henry Breasted, after his first choice for the term - “The Earth’s Pussy” - was deemed “too nasty” by his uptight academic colleagues.
The area gets its name due to its relatively fertile soil and suitability for crop cultivation when aided with irrigation. This is when compared to the surrounding environment, which is probably comprised entirely of sand dunes and angry looking vultures picking the long since sun hardened skin off of unidentifiable skeletons.
This fertility of the land matters for our story here because fertile land meant that people could grow crops. When people can grow crops, they don’t have to travel around looking for food. When they don’t have to travel around looking for food, they can stay in one place and allow their population to grow, which allows for as of before impossible divisions of labor which allows people to specialize in things like arts and crafts and technologies, which when taken all together, thanks to the storage capacities of those lil’ ol’ temple granaries, allows for the transition from being nomadic hunter-gatherers or shifting-cultivators into, you know, civilizations with culture and stuff.
The birth of agriculture, food storage, and permanent human establishments is what makes the Fertile Crescent such a significant area in the development of humanity. The first known permanent farming settlements are found in the area around the upper Euphrates river, dating to 9000 BC, which later leads to some of the first known city states, such as Eridu. Many think that Eridu was possibly the first city in human history, and could be the location of the Biblical Tower of Babel. Many hipsters think that Eridu was really cool when it was founded around 5200 BC and had some really interesting artisanal mud-brick fish hut gastro-pubs, but by 5100 BC it had gotten all corporate and lame.
However, permanent establishments also had the unforeseen consequence of giving people a reason to start to really care about who owned what land. And that gave people a great reason to start wars.
HISTORY BEGINS: EMPIRES RISE AND FALL, SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND DOWN (5000 BC - 226 AD)
Following the rise of city states like Eridu, full blown empires first began to emerge in Mesopotamia, which is the area also has the nickname of “the cradle of civilization” (which also gave rise to the phrase “robbing the cradle of civilization” - look it up on UrbanDictionary.com if you don’t believe me).
The Summerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires emerged as the first civilizations. They dominated Mesopotamia from the beginning of the historical record (around 3100 BC) until the Achaemenid Empire conquered Babylon in 539 BC, which lasted until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, which lasted until his death when it became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire.
Despite how much they tried, these early civilizations were sadly not able to develop hoverboard technology. They were just fighting too much.
STONE AGE (3.4 million BCE - 3300 BCE): stone tools; saber tooth tigers constant threat; cool to have “Fight Club” cave painting
BRONZE AGE (3300 BCE - 1200 BCE): advent of metalworking; develop earliest viable writing systems and get into writing the word “smelting”; don’t feel too inferior to “silver age” because hey at least they got something
IRON AGE (1200 BCE - 500 BCE): widespread use of iron and steel; development of alphabet allows for more advanced writing systems, which in turns leads to other developments in religion, art, technology; majority of English metal band Iron Maiden’s discography recorded during this period
During this time period, we see the first examples of shit getting fucked up in the modern style: people fighting over areas of land which they feel they deserve/want/need/are-entitled-to more than the people currently on that land.
For example: the Summerian Empire was conquered by Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, declaring himself “King of Persia.” Starting around 550 BCE, Cyrus conquered most of Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the Caucus, spreading early Persian culture and helping to establish the origins of a later Iranian identity. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, at one point 44% of the world’s population fell under the rule of Cyrus the Great, the highest percentage of any empire before or since. Also according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the farthest a human has spit a watermelon seed is 68’ 9”. So, you know.
Alexander the Great was impressed by Cyrus the Great. So impressed, in fact, that when he succeeded his father and became king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon at the age of 20 (nepotism much???) in 336 BCE, he spent the next decade on an all out military campaign, conquering from the areas of modern day Greece to Egypt to Pakistan. Just as Persian culture had spread with Cyrus, Alexander’s conquest saw the diffusion of Greek culture. And although his military gains didn’t last long (after his death local feuding and civil unrest resulted in the fracturing of his vast kingdom) he did establish a lasting precedent of military intervention from dudes from the west.
Over the next several centuries, control over Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas shifted hands multiple times. I guess you could say they were playing a sort of “HOT MesoPOTATOmia” [note: the original writer of this piece has been fired for this pun; a new writer will continue from here on out; FOD News apologies]. Ahem. Where were we? Ah yes, from 247 BCE - 224 CE, the Parthian Empire dominated the region and became a global center of trade and commerce. Starting around 114 BCE, China’s Han Dynasty extended the Silk Road trade route through the Parthian Empire all the way to Europe. The Silk Road was actually a connected series of trade routes that helped to spur economic growth and cultural dispersion. Fun fact: the only good you couldn’t trade on the Silk Road was silk.
ENTER ORGANIZED RELIGION: AS IF SHIT WASN’T FUCKED ENOUGH ALREADY (5th CENTURY BCE)
ZOROASTRIANISM: ORGANIZING THE CULTS (10th CENTURY BCE - 1st CENTURY BCE)
Tribes in the pre-historic era had their own proto-religious beliefs (historians sometimes call them cults to indicate their relatively local nature). As local farming establishments turned into city states turned into empires, and as writing developed and manuscript technology improved, the codification and spread of religion over a wide geographic area became possible. The Parthian Empire (247 BCE - 224 CE) was one of the first civilizations to have an official state religion in the form of Zoroastrianism, although most scholars believe that adherence to the faith would have varied widely reflecting the heterogeneity of far-reaching local cultures and practices. Zoroastrianism originates from the ancient Persian philosopher Zoroaster. You had to join the religion if Zoroaster surprised you with a sword and carved a Z into your clothing. Sometime in the 5th century BCE, Zoroaster simplified the previous pantheon of ancient Iranian gods into two opposing forces of good (Spenta Mainyu) and evil (Angra Mainyu) under a single monotheistic God (Ahura Mazda). They chose not to include the God of Pizza (Pappa Johnua).
JUDAISM: THE BEGINNING…OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF EXILE AND OPPRESSION; OY VEY IST MIR! (10th CENTURY - 1st CENTURY CE
Around this same time in the 5th century BCE, exiled Judahites in Babylon were also getting into the whole monotheism thing as they began to codify pre-existing monotheistic Israelite beliefs into a unified religion. Around the 10th century BCE, The Kingdom of Israel split into the states of the Kingdom of Judah (whose capital was Jerusalem) and a now smaller Kingdom of Israel. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE; competing military campaigns from Egyptian and Babylonian forces resulted in the destruction of the Judah and the exile of its elite in 582 BCE. Most scholars agree that it was after this deportation from their homeland that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was collected and codified. The period of exile ended with Zerubbabel, the penultimate King of Judah, leading the Jewish people back to Jerusalem and constructing the Second Temple in 516 BCE to replace the temple that had been destroyed when they were exiled. The Second Temple era of Judaism lasted until 70 CE, when the temple was again destroyed by the Romans. If you traveled back in time to the year 70 CE and told the Jewish people that things were rosy from there on out, you’d be a G_ddamned liar.
CHRISTIANITY: SKIPPING THE YEAR “ZERO” DIDN’T PREVENT SHIT FROM GETTING FUCKED (1st CENTURY BCE - 3rd CENTURY CE)
Most historians agree that there was a historical figure named Jesus Christ who was born in Israel and later crucified by the Romans for his religious teachings. Christianity began as a Jewish sect influenced by Zoroastrian beliefs. Following the death of Jesus, the apostles of Peter and Paul worked to collect and codify the oral teachings of Jesus, which led to Christianity emerging as a distinct religion. Roman rule, which extended to the Levant at this time, persecuted Christianity for centuries. It wasn’t until the decline of the Roman empire around the 4th century CE that Christianity began to emerge as a globally influential religion. “What Would Jesus Do?” was originally a trite Roman joke that Roman schoolchildren told, the punchline of which was “Get persecuted by Romans.”
ISLAM: MUHAMMAD AND THE SUPERIORITY OF PRAYING FIVE TIMES A DAY (7th CENTURY CE)
Seven centuries after Jesus, somebody else wanted to get into the prophet game. Muhammad was a man from the Arabian city of Mecca who, in the year 610 CE, is said to have begun to receive the direct word of God through revelations from the angel Gabriel. Following what had been trendy for other religions at their start, Mohammad and his followers were persecuted in Mecca, so they fled to the city of Medina where the beliefs of Islam were formally codified. Following Mohammad’s death, there was controversy over who should be his successor. A majority of his followers backed Abu Bakr, the father of his wife Aisha; another contingent backed his son-in-law Ali. Followers of Abu Bakr formed what would become the Sunni sect, which makes up 80% of Muslims worldwide today. Followers of Ali would become Shia. Many people have died over the centuries due to this disagreement, which is another thing we can add to our “Like, literally no good ever comes from fighting over arbitrary and relatively minute religious differences, right?” discussion.
ISLAMIC GOLDEN AGE: PUTTING PREVIOUS STONE, BRONZE AND IRON AGES TO SHAME! (7th century CE - 15th century CE)
Following Abu Bakr being named the first leader or caliph, Islam began to spread as people throughout the Arabian peninsula converted. In 642 Caliph Umar ordered a successful full scale invasion of the Sasanian Empire, marking the end of the final Persian empire, leading to the decline of Zoroastrianism and the rise of Islam in the region. By 750, the Islam caliphate (or state) had spread from the modern areas of Morocco to Pakistan. Islamic doctrine dictated that Jews and Christians were Ahl al-Kitāb, People of the Book, meaning that all of the faiths followed the same God of Abraham. Under Muslim rule, they were permitted to continue their own religious practices and customs, and as such many Christians and Jews welcomed the expansion of Islam in place of previous oppressive regimes. However, where it wasn’t welcomed, Islam was imposed by force.
Some say that Wikipedia was founded in 2001, but others dates it’s spiritual origins to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 9th century, a place where scholars from around the world were brought in attempt to collect and build upon the collective knowledge from the lands of its expanse, including ancient Greek, Roman Persian, Indian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations.
Knowledge was highly valued during this time. Bro, you don’t even know how much these Arabs loved knowledge. During the 10th century, the scholar Alhazen is considered by many to the the creator of the modern scientific method, and made huge developments in the fields of optics and theoretical physics.
The Golden Age was going great for Islam and the Middle East until, you guessed it, shit started to get fucked again. In 1258, Mongols captured Baghdad, which at the time had been the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. And it wasn’t even Genghis Khan that did it, it was just some lesser Mongol. And in 1492, European Christians did a reconquista (which is Spanish for “afternoon nap…and then we murder the infidels”) and retook the Iberian peninsula after over 700 years of Arab rule, which we can add to our discussion “Religions claiming that a piece of land rightfully belongs to them, even though for such claims you have to go an arbitrary amount of time back into the past but no further, because at some point some other group thought of that land as their land, so can’t we all just stop fighting and agree there is enough land for everybody?”
THE RISE OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE: NOBODY’S BUSINESS BUT THE TURKS SO STOP ASKING, OKAY? (15th century - 1924)
The Ottoman Empire rose to power in 1453 with Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople. Mehmed II was a great military commander, whereas Mehmed I was just sort of … meh. At the height of its power under Suleiman the Magnificent in the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire included parts of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. It remained intact until World War I. Throughout this time, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire assumed the title of Caliph, leader of the Muslim world.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers. In 1915, nominally because government authorities attributed military losses to Russian forces to the local Armenian population siding with the Russians, the Ottoman Empire began what some consider to be the first modern genocide with the systematic and state approved killing of over 1.5 million Armenians. This shit is too fucked to make a joke about it here.
Following defeat in the war, the Allied powers forced the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the Caliphate. The former Ottoman lands were partitioned into distinct nations, initially under French and British mandates as set by the League of Nations (a prequel to the United Nations): France held mandates over Syria and Lebanon; Britain held mandates over Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan (later just Jordan; then it became Snoop Jordan, then Snoop Lion the Country, then back to just Jordan). The Kurds were promised their own state by the Allied Powers, but in the end Kurdish settlements were instead divided up among the states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran in favor of other geopolitical interests.
It is easy to trace a lot of the modern strife in the Middle East back to this partitioning of states, both in terms of the ethnic groups forced to be a part of states in control of possibly opposing groups that didn’t have their interests in mind, as well as disapproval and distrust of Western intervention in Middle Eastern affairs. We can only assume that after the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 that the Allied powers enthusiastically high-fived as they said in unison, “Mission accomplished!”
SHIT GETTING FUCKED UP IN MIDDLE EAST IN MODERN TIMES (WORLD WAR I - PRESENT DAY)
Following the literal redrawing of the map of the Middle East at the conclusion of World War I, the Middle East continued to see huge transformations throughout the 20th century.
Starting in the 1940s, mass production of natural stockpiles of crude oil began to give the region huge economic gains and a new global strategic significance, in particular Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Did oil contribute to fucking shit up in the Middle East? Rhetorical question: did Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood drink Paul Dano’s milkshake?
One of the pivotal moments in the Middle East in the 20th century was the founding of Israel in 1948. Based on an order from the United Nations, upon the conclusion of the British Mandate for Palestine on May 14th 1948, the establishment of a Jewish state was declared, which the Zionist Organization announced would be called the “State of Israel.” Arab armies invaded the following day. The first fucking day it was a state, Israel was attacked, and it has basically been fighting ever since, resulting in over 80,000 deaths and counting. Israel remains the world’s only Jewish majority state (at around 75% of the 8 million inhabitants). Israel also remains the pièce de résistance in our discussion “Humans are really good at getting into tragic and complicated social situations in which there is blame on all sides but the one thing we can agree on it is wrong when innocent children must pay for the sins of their parents.”
In general, Britain and France largely withdrew their presence by the 1960s, but only to be supplanted by the U.S. exerting political, economic and military influence in the region. It’s like some sort of gypsy cursed the Middle East to have at least one Western power meddling with its business for all time (this is an offensive thing to say about both the Middle East and about gypsies and, for how funny of a joke it is, is quite frankly not worth it). For example, in 1953 the US helped lead a covert coup d’etat in Iran, removing the democratically elected prime minister (not a conspiracy, just Cold War politics as usual). In 1979, massive demonstrations would lead to what became known as the Iranian Revolution, in which the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned and Iran officially became an Islamic Republic. Shortly thereafter, Iran and Iraq decided to go to war for most of the 1980s, instead of just enjoying glam metal music and cocaine parties like the rest of us.
The Middle East began the 1990s with the Gulf War (1990-1991) which was known in the US as Operation Desert Storm. It was also known as the “Iraq War” at the time, which is cute because at the time people didn’t know that in 2003 we’d start a new war in Iraq and would need to use that name again. The Gulf War was precipitated by Iraq invading Kuwait. The international community was fairly united in condemning this bonehead move from Saddam Hussein. The US came to the defense of Saudi Arabia and after a series of five weeks of air strikes, deployed troops on the ground to reclaim the area. Just 100 hours later, the UN issued a formal ceasefire declaration. Escalations in enforcing the terms of this ceasefire would in part lead to the renewed Iraq War of 2003.
The Iraq War of 2003 (Iraq War 2: Faster and Furiouser) was allegedly because CIA intelligence showed that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) which would have violated the terms set forth by the United Nations. However, public support of the US invasion of Iraq was undoubtedly bolstered by the largely held but entirely false belief that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th terrorist attacks; at the outset of the war, polls showed that 70% of Americans falsely believed there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11 (source).
Now, let’s take a few steps back. The Soviet War in Afghanistan lasted from 1979 to 1989. This brutal war lasted a decade and resulted in the deaths of over one million civilians. A coalition of insurgent groups known as the Mujahideen fought the Soviet-led Afghan forces, and received weapons and billions in funding from the United States in order to stick it to the Ruskis (Cold War politics as usual). One of these was an Arab insurgent group led by a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. This group would later evolve into al-Qaeda, and would be responsible for terrorist activities against Jewish and Christian countries who were believed to be conspiring to destroy Islam.
Following bin Laden’s death at the hands of Chris Pratt, al-Qaeda became less a top-down-led organization and more a loose collection of groups. One of these groups, initially known as al-Qaeda in (AQI), was formed in 2004 and fought against the US during the Iraq War. Over the eight years of the Iraq War, AQI grew in size as it joined other splinter groups and recruited members under the banner of the alleged economic and political discrimination of Sunnis at the hands of the Iraqi government. In April 2013, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group renamed itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and in June 2014 declared a new Caliphate (remember that supreme Islamic empire thing from the sections above? They want to bring that back). ISIL is now large enough (some estimate it numbers over 80,000 in size and is growing) that in addition to being a jihadist extremist group it also operates as an unrecognized militant proto-state in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. It’s unclear what strategy is best to dispose of this unequivocally evil group hellbent on mayhem and destruction, but what is clear is that as long as ISIL is around shit is going to be fucked up in the Middle East for a long time. While President Obama has indicated that the US will once again take the lead on fighting ISIL because “that’s how we roll”, history seems to indicate that for long term sustainable change extenral intervention is not as effective without local pressure from surrounding Muslim nations coming together to denounce and expel ISIL.
CONCLUSION: WHY IS SHIT SO FUCKED IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
This shit is complicated. After spending the past few weeks reading these Wikipedia articles in all of my spare moments I feel dumber and more discouraged than I did before. Human societies are complicated and when assessing history it is all to easy to assign causation after the fact. But when it comes to really be able to draw any meaningful lessons about how to improve in the future, things are less certain. We seem to be doomed to repeat our mistakes for all time.
So, why is shit so fucked in the Middle East? Because humans live there and humans are really good at fucking shit up. Will shit be fucked forever? Probably. But maybe if we collectively take a breath and let the sins of our fathers and mothers be forgiven, we can change the eternal return of the same fucking shit [cue [Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.”](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcIs3rAEytk)]
Okay. Now time to go read some Wikipedia pages about something that doesn’t depress the fuck out of me. I think I’ll start with pallas’s cats.