Middle East Turmoil

The present day turmoil in the Middle East & North Africa has it's roots in the European Colonial era?

voted YES
voted NO

Opening statements


Defending the

Dr. Mark N. Katz

Professor of Government & Politics - George Mason University, USA


Against the

Mr. Tarek Fatah

Writer, Broadcaster & Columnist - The Toronto Sun, Canada

Nowadays, the argument that European colonialism is responsible for present day turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is often rejected dismissively and even derisively.  The European colonial era in these regions, after all, came to an end long ago, beginning with the departure of France from Lebanon and Syria and of Britain from Palestine and Jordan in the mid-1940s and ending with the British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971.[i]  Considering all that has happened since then—including Soviet-American competition in the region during the Cold War; the region’s many coups and revolutions as well as inter- and intra-state conflicts; the gyrations in the price... Read more

The question that first needs to be answered is this: What is the present day turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. As a student of current affairs I have narrowed this down to the following:

  1. The current breaking up of the states of Iraq and Syria under the assault of the ‘Islamic State’ or Daesh as it is known in the Middle East and the attempted cleansing of all non-Sunni Muslims from the region by forced conversion, mass extermination and slavery of Kurds and Shia Muslims too.
  2. The turmoil in Libya and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by a military coup followed by elections that ended the so-called Arab Spring.
  3. The breakdown of the... Read more

The moderator's opening remarks

Dr. Iqbal Hussain

It has been nearly four years since Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire in protest to confiscation of his wares by police officials in addition to the poor living conditions. It proved to be a catalyst for what we experienced later on, as an ‘Arab Spring’ which rose off from Tunisia and affected almost every other nation in the MENA region up to Yemen. Some of which, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, to this day have not been able to successfully evolve themselves for what was originally a wave of ‘democratisation’.

The ‘peoples revolution’ to free their states from corrupt autocrats and oppressors, in order to install lasting democratic institutions, has resulted in millions being killed in an ongoing bloody civil war in Syria, Iraq as well as Libya. Now with an emergence of Islamic State (IS), matters have gotten more complicated, not to mention, the intervention of Western powers once again in the region, in the form of airstrikes.

This debate brings to you an attempt to find out, by productive argumentation, whether the present day turmoil in the Middle East & North Africa has it's roots in the European Colonial era of 19th and 20th Centuries. That whether the "borders in the sand" drawn by the Colonial Powers via the then secret Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 bear responsibility for the ongoing tensions in the Levant? Or is it something that has been brought upon by the errors of commission or omission by the rulers of the Middle Eastern and North African states themselves? Are political ideologies from within the region or with deep vested interests from outside the region such as nationalism, Arabism, socialism, Islamism, communism or capitalism responsible for the present strife and the ongoing conflicts in this strategic resources area?

These are some of the questions we hope to find answers to in this debate, where Dr. Mark Katz of George Mason University, USA is defending the motion. Going against, is Mr. Tarek Fatah of The Toronto Sun, Canada. Joining us later in the debate will be, Fomer US Ambassador to Syria & Saudi Arabia, Mr. Richard Murphy and Former UK Military Intelligence Officer, Mr. Frank Ledwidge as our honourable guests. We look forward to getting invaluable and insightful thoughts on this pressing issue by our debaters, guests and of course the audience, who are encouraged to vote and comment throughout the debate.

The proposer's opening remarks

Dr. Mark N. Katz

Nowadays, the argument that European colonialism is responsible for present day turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is often rejected dismissively and even derisively.  The European colonial era in these regions, after all, came to an end long ago, beginning with the departure of France from Lebanon and Syria and of Britain from Palestine and Jordan in the mid-1940s and ending with the British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971.[i]  Considering all that has happened since then—including Soviet-American competition in the region during the Cold War; the region’s many coups and revolutions as well as inter- and intra-state conflicts; the gyrations in the price of the region’s main export—oil; and America’s “War on Terror”—many consider it both unreasonable and unfair to blame the increasingly distant European colonial era for the region’s present day turmoil.

Yet past European colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa is responsible for much of the region’s subsequent turmoil.  This is because while the European powers are long gone, one highly important legacy of their rule remains:   the borders that they drew.  These borders were drawn (or Ottoman-era borders reified) as territories were acquired, and were sometimes redrawn later.  They reflected either the balance of power between European powers on the one hand and the declining Ottoman Empire and local rulers on the other, the balance of power between European colonial empires (primarily the British and French), or even bureaucratic politics within the British and French governments concerning the lines between neighboring colonies or protectorates within their empires.

As a result, the borders of the countries that gained independence from the European powers (as well as countries that were not colonized, but where the imperial powers drew the borders between them and their neighboring colonies or protectorates) were highly arbitrary.  After independence, the Kurds, Berbers, and various non-Arab African groups in southern Sudan who were majorities in their own small regions found themselves to be persecuted minorities in larger countries.  In Syria and Iraq, the Alawite minority that had collaborated with the French and the Sunni Arab minority that had collaborated with the British, intensified their hold on power after the Europeans left and oppressed the majority population (as well as other minorities) in those two countries.  And in Lebanon, Libya, and South Yemen (which the British had called South Arabia), European-drawn borders lumped together numerous confessional or tribal groups that did not cohere as a single nation.  Finally, while not a matter that just concerned borders, the British Empire contributed to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict through making conflicting promises to Jews and to Arabs about the disposition of what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine during World War I so that both groups would support Britain’s fight against the Turks.

The legacy of European colonial rule has also had a negative impact on the prospects for democratization in the Middle East and North Africa.  Instead of being the result of what some see as the primordially authoritarian nature of Arab culture or the Islamic religion, the European-drawn borders, as well as the ability of minorities which collaborated with colonial rule to retain power after it ended, have posed the most important barriers progress to democratization in the Middle East and North Africa.  Specifically, in countries where democratization would give rise to secessionist nationalism and/or violence among differing tribes and sects, it is not surprising that the demand for democracy has often been hesitant or that tolerance for authoritarian rule has been widespread.  It is also understandable (if not admirable) that ruling minorities—such as Sunni Arabs in Iraq before the U.S.-led intervention, and both the ruling Alawite minority in Syria and the ruling Sunni minority in Bahrain —have opposed democratization since this could be expected to lead not just to their loss of power, but exclusion from it as well (as proved to be the case under the leadership of Maleki’s Arab Shi’a-majority government in Iraq).

Furthermore, overcoming the legacy of European colonial rule has proven to be extremely difficult.  While many Arabs would agree that the borders between countries in the Middle East and North Africa were arbitrarily drawn and should even be erased, there has been no consensus on what should replace them.  Nasser and other Arab Nationalists called for the unification of the Arab world into one super-state.  Only Syria, though, accepted his invitation to join a United Arab Republic, but then withdrew from it three years later.  The attempts by Qaddafi to unite Libya with various other North African states met with even less success.

The legacy of European colonial rule in the Middle East and North Africa is under greater challenge now than ever before.  The U.S.-led intervention in Iraq did not succeed in establishing liberal democracy in that country, but it did succeed in replacing a Sunni minority regime with a Shi’a majority one in Baghdad as well as creating the basis for de facto Kurdish independence in northern Iraq.  Rebellions by the majority communities against minorities which had collaborated with the European colonial powers in Syria and Bahrain are also challenges to this legacy.   The effort by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to erase the border drawn by Britain and France between Iraq and Syria—and to also erase other borders in the region if it can—is an attempt to end to the legacy of European colonialism through the establishment of a new, Sunni-jihadist imperial order.  In Libya and Yemen, by contrast, the legacy of European (and even Ottoman) colonial rule is being challenged through internal fragmentation.

The legacy of European colonial rule in the Middle East and North Africa is that it served to prevent democratization in the region as well as to preserve an authoritarian order that has lasted for several decades.  It is less surprising that this legacy is now coming under increasing challenge than that it has lasted as long as it has.

[i] Egypt and Iraq became nominally independent even earlier, but remained under strong British influence until their pro-British monarchs were ousted by Arab Nationalist officers in 1952 and in 1958 respectively.  Two other states—Saudi Arabia and North Yemen—were never European colonies, but had been part of the Ottoman Empire.

The opposition's opening remarks

Mr. Tarek Fatah

The question that first needs to be answered is this: What is the present day turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. As a student of current affairs I have narrowed this down to the following:

  1. The current breaking up of the states of Iraq and Syria under the assault of the ‘Islamic State’ or Daesh as it is known in the Middle East and the attempted cleansing of all non-Sunni Muslims from the region by forced conversion, mass extermination and slavery of Kurds and Shia Muslims too.
  2. The turmoil in Libya and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by a military coup followed by elections that ended the so-called Arab Spring.
  3. The breakdown of the Somali sate and the rise of Al-Shabab, the Darfur genocide, the division of Sudan into two states, the unending occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco and the after effects of the 1990s Algerian civil war are others conflicts of Northern Africa.
  4. The Israel-Palestine dispute, the Gaza war and the tussle between Fatah and Hamas on the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish State.

Conventional wisdom in the Muslim World and in the North American and European diaspora of Muslims suggest the root of all the problems that confront the Middle East and North Africa are a result of either western conspiracies of are rooted in the century of European colonial era.

The fact is that despite the century of European colonialism, all the ‘turmoil’ identified in the conflict zones in the four areas I have listed above are rooted in Islamic history, Turkish Ottoman colonial rule and the rejection of modernity itself that has led to such turmoil. Allow me to elaborate on all the four areas listed above:


The rise of the Islamic State, Daesh in Syria and Iraq. 

The notion of an ‘Islamic State’ is ingrained in the idea of a political entity that has roots in the State of Medina and the expanding caliphate by The Prophet’s companions after his death.

What Daesh or ISIL are propagating and practicing today has everything to do with the practice of the first Ridda (Apostacy) Wars engaged by Caliph Abu Bakr.

The Apostasy or Ridda Wars were primarily about politics, not religion. They were conducted to ward off the danger of the first Arab state disintegrating. There is no doubt that had Abu-Bakr not taken swift action to put down the many rebellions and those who refused to submit and pay allegiance to him, the new state would have crumbled.

One incident recorded by most historians is the confrontation between Abu- Bakr’s general, Khaled ibn Walid, who belonged to the Meccan Quraysh tribe, and Malik ibn Nuwairah of the Banu Yarbu tribe near the Persian frontiers of Arabia.

On hearing of the Prophet’s death, Malik returned the tax monies that had been collected to his tribe, as he refused to recognize Abu-Bakr as the new caliph.

Infuriated, Abu-Bakr ordered Khaled to track down the dissident. The clash ended in the defeat of the rebel tribe. When the two men came face to face, Malik told Khaled ibn Walid that while he continued to be a Muslim, he would not accept Abu-Bakr as the new caliph. The disagreement between the two was not about religion; it was clearly a political dispute between two Muslims over tax collection.

Khaled ordered the rebel to be beheaded. Malik’s head was struck off and later used by Khaled as support for a cooking pot.

The clash between Malik and Khaled is perhaps the earliest incident in Islamic history of a political dispute being turned into a religious conflict and a declaration of apostasy—a death sentence.

And the rest is history.

Three of Islam’s first four rulers who we address as the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’ were murdered, one in his home by fellow Muslims and another while praying in a mosque during Ramadan.

If the political system introduced during the Golden Period of Islam by the four Rightly Guided Caliphs resulted in the assassination of three of them, triggered civil wars, led to secessionist conflict, and caused the slaughter of the Prophet’s family—who were left starving and thirsty on the plains of Karbala in Iraq—surely that system cannot be seen today as the model for tomorrow.

Yet ISIL is hell bent on bring back the past as the future while blaming a West that did not exist when we Muslims first started slaughtering each other.

Today when four Muslim countries—Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran—occupy the 30-million people of Kurdistan, it is not because of the borders drawn by the winning nations after World War One, but the racist notion among Arabs, Persians and Turks that the Kurds are lesser people or no people at all.

And if it were true that European colonialism is at fault for the misery of the Kurds for centuries of Ottoman and Safavid rule over them, there is no one in Europe stopping the Turks or the Iranians to walk away from the lands they occupy against the wishes of the people they occupy.

The ideology of ISIL originates not just from the 7th century brutalities that led to Prophet Muhammad’s grandson’s head being paraded in the streets of Damascus, but from Saudi Arabia today.

The same way ISIL invaded Iraq and took over Mosul beheading POWs and enslaving as sex slaves every non-Muslim or Shia woman they could lay their hand on, the Saudis did it in 1925 when they invaded the Kingdom of Hejaz and attacked the city of Taif and occupied Mecca and Medina. There were no Europeans involved in the desecration of Islam’s holiest places, not in 1925 and not in the 8th century by the Ummayad Caliphate operating out of Damascus.


Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Darfur and Western Sahara. 

When half a million Black-skinned Darfuris died at the hands of the Arab Janjaweed of Sudan in 2003-2005, it became the second time in modern history when a Muslim army had committed such horrific killings on a fellow Muslim people. The last one was in Bangladesh in 1971 when Pakistan killed over a million fellow Muslims before India intervened to halt the genocide.

Deeply embedded in the Islamist political psyche of the Arab jihadi is the belief of Arab superiority over the darker skinned people with Blacks being openly referred to as ‘Ya Abdi’ (O my slave).

The same attitude has led to one of the longest wars against occupation where Saharans under the Polisario Front are fighting against Morocco since 1974.

European colonialism may have created the straight lines of borders between Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara and Algeria, but to blame European colonial rule for the crimes committed against an indigenous population, is an outright lie and intellectual dishonesty.

Somali’s demise as a state has also got nothing to do with European colonial rule despite the fact that beautiful land of beautiful people ended up divvied up between Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland and of course Somalia itself.

Siad Barre’s dictatorship had more to do with the USSR and the Cold War and the resulting plunder for power by clans were not inspired by U.S., Britain, Israel, India or any secret conspiracy. Its death as a country had more to do with its Arabization and Saudisation. Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda franchise that lures so many diaspora Somalis into its jihadist narrative is not run by MI6 or the Mossad, but is the ISIL of the Horn of Africa.


Palestine and Israel. 

And then there was Palestine.

Let us examine how the Arab leadership in British Palestine dug one grave after another, kept falling into them, and kept blaming others for their misfortune.

After facilitating the defeat of the Ottoman army by the invading British, the Arab leadership in Palestine was in for a rude shock.

On November 2, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Once the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate over Palestine, the writing was on the wall. Britain was bound by the Balfour Declaration and a commitment to the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, while the Arabs, who had relied only on oral promises, woke up to the realization that they had been had.

However, before a Jewish homeland could be carved out of Palestine, Britain had other matters to settle. It would lop off more than three-quarters of the Palestinian territory east of the Jordan River and create a country called Transjordan (now Jordan), which it would then hand over to the runaway royal family of the Kingdom of Hejaz as a gift for their services in defeating their fellow Muslims, the Ottomans. The Palestinians who lived east of the Jordan River suddenly ended up with a new king and a new nationality.

From then until the creation of Israel in 1948, and until today, many opportunities that could have brought about a functional, sovereign, dynamic Palestinian state were missed or squandered via a policy of “all or nothing” that is even today the doctrine of Hamas. Let us have a look at three of these.

The Faisal-Weizmann Agreement of 1919:

This agreement was signed on January 3, 1919, by Chaim Weizmann, later president of the World Zionist Organization, and Emir Faisal, son of the king of Hejaz, as part of the Paris Peace Conference. (The two men had met in June 1918, when Arabs were helping the British advance from the south against the Ottoman Empire.)

Weizmann and Faisal agreed to a Jewish state in Palestine alongside an Arab kingdom that Faisal hoped to establish. However, Faisal attached a handwritten note to the agreement saying it was conditional upon the acceptance of British wartime promises to the Arabs of independence in a vast area of the Ottoman Empire.

As news reached Damascus, violent protests broke out among the Palestinians. Protest notes were sent out from Nablus and other cit- ies to the Arab delegation in Paris, rejecting any agreement with the Zionists regarding the creation of a Jewish homeland. The possible rapprochement between Muslim and Jew was snuffed out before it could even be discussed. Faisal, and, in future, his transplanted royal family, would have to live with the label of “traitor.”

The Peel Commission Plan of 1937:

After the Arab revolt in Palestine erupted in 1936, it became clear to the British that the possibility of implementing the Balfour Declaration, as it stood, was an impossible task. The Arabs were not simply the “other” – the “non-Jewish” residents of Palestine. Rather, they were the overwhelming majority of its population.

As violence abated in late 1936, the British appointed a royal commission of inquiry headed by Earl Peel to examine the underlying causes of the Arab revolt and to make policy recommendations to London. The Peel Commission was mandated to propose changes to the British Mandate of Palestine.

On July 7, 1937, the commission issued its report, recommending that the Palestine Mandate be abolished and mooting the idea of two separate states: the Jewish state was to receive a small portion in the west and north, from Mount Carmel to south of Be’er Tuvia, as well as the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee, while the Arab state was to receive most of the territory in the south and mid-east, which included Judea, Samaria, and the sizable Negev desert.

Today, one look at the proposed partition plan should convince any Muslim that the travails of the Palestinians are rooted in their own political and religious leadership, not a Jewish conspiracy.

What the Arab leadership rejected in 1937 should be remembered by all Muslims as a betrayal of their trust and support.

The UN General Assembly Partition Plan of 1947:

In April 1947, Britain asked the United Nations secretary-general to convene a session of the General Assembly to take Palestine off its hands. Within weeks, the General Assembly created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, or UNSCOP, with the mandate to recommend a solution to the Palestinian problem.

For two and a half months, the eleven-member committee, consisting of India, Holland, Sweden, Iran, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Canada, Australia, Peru, Guatemala, and Uruguay, went on a fact-find-ing mission.

None of the superpowers were represented, but three of the delegates had strong Muslim leanings.

The delegates of Iran and India were Muslim, and the Yugoslav delegate had to take the substantial Muslim minority in his country into consideration.

From the outset, the reaction to the un committee was predict- able. While the Zionists welcomed the UN mission, the Arab Higher Command issued a statement saying the un delegation was “pro- Zionist.”

The Arabs announced a total boycott and said they would censure anyone who talked to the delegation. (Nevertheless, they met the delegation in private and off the record.)

As the fate of the Palestinians was being decided, none of their leadership wanted to be seen as weak, thus leaving the field open to the Zionist leadership, who pulled out all the stops to impress upon the delegates the righteousness of their cause and their willingness to compromise.

UNSCOP voted to recommend to the UN General Assembly a partition of British Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state.

After months of lobbying by both sides, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted by two-thirds majority to pass Resolution 181, which called for the creation of a Jewish state on 55 per cent of Palestine and an Arab state on the rest of the territory, with Jerusalem and its suburbs to be governed by the United Nations in trust. As expected, the Jews rejoiced while the Arab leaders called for a “world- wide jihad in defence of Arab Palestine.”

The armies of Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, along with smaller contingents from across the Arab world, poured into Israel to attack it from every flank. Israel repulsed all of them, thus ensuring a long, tragic existence for the Palestinians. For all the bravado and fiery speeches of the Arab leaders, all they ever produced was hot air about their medieval machismo.

Much has been written about the 1948 war, which is rightfully mourned as the al-Naqba – catastrophe – by the Palestinians and celebrated as a new beginning by the Jews.

However, Muslims should take a look at the map of Palestine approved by the UN in 1947 and ask the question: Who should we blame for putting Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction? We cannot blame Israel or the UN. Israel after all had accepted the 1947 partition plan that would have left Jerusalem under UN trusteeship.

The blame falls squarely on the Arab countries who rejected the un resolution.

Should we Muslims not take ownership of the errors of the Arab leadership and learn from past mistakes to ensure we don’t repeat them?



Debaters, guests and users’ statements and comments are their independent thoughts, opinions, beliefs, viewpoints and are not necessarily that of MUSLIM Institute's.

Featured guest

Ambassador Richard W. Murphy

Former US Ambassador to Syria & Saudi Arabia

It is an overstatement to say that western ambitions and related conspiracies in region have been the only cause of its turmoil. The present day turmoil in the region has many roots, including Islamic history and the practices of Ottoman colonial rule as well as those of the European colonial powers. Older patterns of conflict are still present. History is a continuum where the stronger, whether in military, economic or ideological terms, has continued to impose its ways on the weaker.

The original caliphate was a new institution in its time. It spawned a series of dynastic empires that rose and fell in the region over ensuing centuries. The gradual decay in the authority of the Ottoman Empire whetted the takeover appetites of European colonial powers in the 19th century. Europeans promoted their concept of borders, nationalism and democracy which the new rulers then adapted to fit their authoritarian ambitions. For a period after the Europeans withdrew from direct rule, transnational doctrines such as Nasserism and Baathism enjoyed fervent allegiance. In today's Iraq and Yemen, when nationalism has faltered as a guiding spirit, tribalism has been a recurrent attraction. Islamic extremism has found new expression in ISIS.

The establishment of Israel and the Arab focus on support for the Palestinians provided a valued “cause” and gave the sense of achieving a consensus. However this did not halt the turmoil and the cause became one for outbidding between the Arab states. Many still view Israel as simply a malicious trick by colonialism designed to divide the Arab World. Others see the Arabs' battlefield humiliations in 1948, 1967 and 1973 as discrediting their cultural conviction that Jews could never beat Arabs as warriors. This proved to be a strategic misreading which contributed to Arab military losses.

While more recent events like the Palestinian intifadas, the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the recent conflict in Gaza were not Arab triumphs neither were they humiliations. The history of unconventional/asymmetric struggle between Arabs and Israelis has challenged Arab regimes as much as Israel.

This is not to say that Arab political traditions are purely despotic. The consultative tradition continues to be manifested in today's shuras and the Arab Spring was a dramatic demand for democratic practices.

The explosions of the Arab Spring in 2011 were a surprise only in their timing. For at least a generation, both Arab and non-Arab analysts had commented about the problems they were observing throughout the Arab World: its youth bulge and the growing problem of unemployment, inadequate educational systems, public frustration over lack of opportunity in politics because of its exclusion from decision making and the general dismay over the growing corruption of the leaderships. Modern communications provided instant circulation of news of dissent in what had once been distant and isolated Arab states. However, the assumption that the flight of the Tunisian President and the calls for democracy from Tahrir Square had created a new political era ignored the history of other revolutions. The subsequent economic setbacks and political insecurity have created nostalgia for older orders.

The declaration by ISIS that it had erased the borders between Iraq and Syria embodies the latest attempt in the Arab World to end what might be termed the Colonial Legacy. The current turmoil may destroy the sense in the Levant that there remains something called a Syrian identity as distinct from one being Lebanese or Iraqi. However, I submit that it is early to assert that the borders designed for the Levant by Sykes and Picot were so “highly arbitrary” that they could not survive. They may still prove to be strong enough.

The view that the colonial legacy had a negative impact on stability through its imposition of borders and stimulation of nationalism is intriguing but limited. The assertion that colonialism and nationalism represented historical steps towards modernity but prevented democratization through preserving authoritarian rule is more persuasive. Considered together both help explain why power sharing and pluralism in the governments of the Arab World have proven difficult goals to achieve.

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