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10 Things you need to know about the Middle East: Part 1 of 2: everyone has a hard time understanding the world's most volatile and complicated region. Here are the basics from Ethan Bronner, former Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.


The Middle East is often called the Cradle of Civilization. It's where writing began, where the idea of an all-powerful God took root, and where the first known cities arose.

More than half the globe's people--its 2 billion Christians, 1.7 billion Muslims, and 13 million Jews--trace their spiritual origins there. Perhaps because of its long history, the Middle East is a region consumed by religious strife--not only between Jews and Muslims, but also between Muslims and Christians and among the various branches of Islam.

The Middle East also holds the world's largest oil and gas reserves. Because the U.S. relies on those resources, the tribal and religious tensions that plague the region are all the more significant to us.

The Middle East played a pivotal role in the defining news event of this century: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. All 19 hijackers were from Middle Eastern countries, as was Osama bin Laden, the plot's Saudi mastermind. As a result of the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, tens of thousands of U.S. troops have fought two wars--in Iraq and Afghanistan--over the past 11 years, and more than 6,000 American soldiers have died.

The region has been in the headlines a lot recently. The U.S. and its allies are concerned that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Syria is engulfed in violence. And after decades of brutal dictatorships, the citizens of several Arab countries have been demanding democracy and greater opportunity. Their revolts are known as the Arab Spring. It's still unclear how these movements (which have already toppled longtime dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya) will ultimately play out, but they will certainly have a major impact on the region and the world.

So the Middle East isn't just part of our history; it's vital to our current and future interests. Here and in the next issue of Upfront, we'll examine 10 questions that help define the region, its conflicts, and why it's all so important to the U.S.

1 What is the Middle East?

The Middle East stretches from the Arab countries of North Africa, into Asia, and all the way through Iran in the east. The Persian Gulf region--which includes Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia--is known for its oil wealth.

The region is made up mostly of Arabs, but it includes Persians (in Iran) and Turks (in Turkey). Most people are Muslim, but there are also significant numbers of Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian areas, and most Israelis are Jewish.

Arabic is the dominant language of the Middle East, but Iranians speak Farsi, Turks speak Turkish, and Israelis speak Hebrew.

Many Americans mistakenly think of Afghanistan as part of the region, and it's easy to see why: Most Afghans are Muslim and they write their languages in Arabic script. But technically, Afghanistan is considered part of both South Asia and Central Asia.


2 Who are the Sunnis and Shiites, and why do they always seem to be killing each other?

It all goes back to a 1,400-year-old feud in Muhammad's family. Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century in what is today Saudi Arabia. (Muslims believe Muhammad was a descendent of Ishmael, son of the Jewish patriarch Abraham.)

When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., a succession struggle occurred between his wife's family and his daughter's family. That dispute grew into a deep division between what became the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite (sometimes called Shia).

There are some differences in how they practice--such as how, where, and when they pray--but both groups believe that the Koran is the holy book and Muhammad was the world's last prophet.


Because Islam has always been closely tied to political power, the two groups became political rivals (like Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland). There's a long history of discrimination and mistreatment on both sides.

About 85 percent of Muslims are Sunni. But Iran, which is mostly Shiite, has often supported fellow Shiites fighting discrimination in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. In Syria, the situation is reversed: President Bashar al-Assad and his family and supporters are members of a Shiite branch of Islam known as Alawites. They're fighting Syria's Sunni majority, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers. Thousands have been killed.

Sunni-Shiite tensions that were long held in check by powerful dictators are coming to the surface with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab Spring revolutions. Rami Khouri, a political analyst in Beirut, says these tensions will likely get worse in the short term.

"In the long run," Khouri says, "these identities will become less important, but that requires democratic statehood and productive economies."


3 Why can't the Israelis and Palestinians make peace?

One of the great dramas of the modern Middle East was the founding of Israel in 1948. The Jews had been vulnerable exiles without a country of their own since they were expelled from their ancient homeland by the Romans around the time of Jesus Christ. At the end of the 19th century, Jews known as Zionists began arguing that Jews needed a state of their own. When 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the idea gained wider support.

The problem was that over the previous 2,000 years, their ancient homeland had not remained empty, and when significant numbers of Jews began moving back in the early 20th century, tensions erupted with the Arabs already living there. In 1947, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. But Arabs rejected this plan, and war broke out the following year. When the war ended in 1949 with an Israeli victory, Israel's existence had been secured, along with the seeds of Arab anger.

There have been several Arab-Israeli wars since, the most important in 1967, when Israel crushed the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, capturing large chunks of land from each. With those occupied territories came hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Today, 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, which Israel still controls.

Both Israel and the Palestinians support a "two-state solution," with an independent Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The problem is where to draw the borders. Israel is reluctant to give up territory it says is necessary for its security. Equally tricky is the status of Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The result has been a stalemate, with occasional violent rebellion by the Palestinians and harsh Israeli crackdowns in response.

The only hope for resolution, say many experts, is for a U.S. president to force both sides to compromise. But that goal has eluded every president who has tried to mediate a settlement in this longstanding conflict.

4 Is it all about oil?

A century ago, the British discovered oil in Iran. In 1938, Americans found even more oil in Saudi Arabia. The result has been deep U.S. and European involvement in the region to make sure governments there provide the oil-thirsty West with energy. That has often come at the expense of the people living in the Middle East and has helped keep corrupt regimes in power.

Before the discovery of oil, Saudi Arabia was little more than a vast desert populated by nomadic tribes and ruled by a king. Oil brought enormous wealth, a lavish lifestyle for elites, and influence in the region and the world.

The Arabs used that influence in 1973 when they imposed a months-long oil embargo to protest U.S. support for Israel and badly damaged the American economy. Recently, Iran threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil passes, in response to pressure over its suspected nuclear-weapons program.


Oil certainly does play a role in U.S. policy in the region. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says it's "oil that constantly tempts us to intervene or to prop up dictators." Indeed, U.S. dependence on Mideast oil is one reason why Democrats and Republicans both talk so much about energy independence.


5 Why does the Arab world have so many dictators?

Although the region is in the midst of what may be a historic transformation toward greater democracy, the Arab world has a stubborn history of dictatorship. Long after it became less common in other parts of the world, Arab leaders, both monarchs and military men, have continued to hand off power to their sons and preserve authority with brutal secret-police forces.

There are exceptions in the region: Israel is a democracy (although it rules undemocratically over Palestinians in the West Bank), as is Turkey. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia and Egypt have held elections, but both remain unstable and the future of democratic reforms is unclear.

There are many theories about why the Arab world has been so unreceptive to democracy. One is that Islam, with its emphasis on divinely inspired rule, and Arab culture, with its focus on patriarchal power, are not compatible with democracy.

Many find this explanation offensive. "Anyone who says Arabs cannot be democratic is a racist," says Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel.

Others argue that Arab dictators have cleverly put off democracy by playing up the danger that Islamist forces would take over and insisting that a strong leader is needed to stand up to Israel.

But this tendency toward authoritarian governments may be changing now with the Arab Spring revolts.

"This idea that the Arab world was immune to the movement toward democracy has been shattered," says Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And it's refreshing."

LOOK FOR PART 2 in the Sept. 17 issue of Upfront: Five more key questions about the Middle East, on democracy, women's rights, and more.




Before they read the article, ask students to make a list of recent news events from the Middle East. What are some common themes that emerge?

* Why do you think this region has been so volatile?

* What roles has the U.S. had in the Middle East, recently and in the past?

* Why is the region considered so important to America's interests? Do you agree with that assessment?


How do religious differences affect the Middle East today? Write an essay, supporting your arguments with details from the article.


Support your view: Is U.S. policy on the Middle East dictated by our reliance on the region's oil?


What does it mean to call the Middle East the "Cradle of Civilization"?

What caused the split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims? Is that distinction stiff relevant today? Explain. Why was Israel created? Do you believe that Israelis and Palestinians will ever make peace? Why or why not?

Do you think democratic governments will replace all of the Middle East's autocracies in your Lifetime? Explain.

What do you think is the single biggest source of turmoil in the Middle East and why?

Even though Afghanistan isn't technically part of the Middle East, why are its affairs so tied to the region?

Did this article change your view of the Middle East? If so, is the situation there more complicated or less complicated than you previously thought?


Most Muslims Live outside of the Middle East. Indonesia, a group of islands in Southeast Asia, has the world's Largest Muslim population. It's home to 200 million Muslims.


A New York times video takes a took at the Arab Spring revolutions.


(1) Which of these aspects of human civilization did NOT originate in the Middle East?

a the belief in a single, all-powerful God

b the study of geometry and astronomy

c the first forms of writing

d the first known cities

(2) Iran continues to make headlines because

a of its hostile relations with Iraq.

b it recently conducted its first democratic elections.

c it's engulfed in a bloody civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

d of its suspected nuclear weapons program.

(3) The region within the Middle East known for its oil wealth is

a the Persian Gulf.

b the West Bank.

c the Arab Spring.

d Farsi.

(4) One way that Sunni and Shiite Muslims are alike is that both

a adhere to a strict separation of church and state.

b believe they are descended from a son of the Jewish patriarch Abraham.

c follow the same spiritual leaders.

d worship together in the same mosques.

(5) A main obstacle to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians has been disagreement on

a whether the U.S. should be involved in the negotiations.

b whether Iran and Syria should give up land for a Palestinian state.

c where to draw the borders of a Palestinian state.

d what kinds of democratic reforms the region should permit.


(1) What are the biggest sources of tension in the Middle East?

(2) How did the discovery of oil in the Middle East change the region?

(3) What are some theories historians have offered to explain the prevalence of dictatorships in the Middle East? Which theory makes the most sense to you?

(1) [b] the study of geometry and astronomy

(2) [d] of its suspected nuclear weapons program.

(3) [a] the Persian Gulf.

(4) [b] believe they are descended from a son of the Jewish patriarch Abraham.

(5) [c] where to draw the borders of a Palestinian state.
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Bronner, Ethan
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Sep 3, 2012
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