Friday, September 19, 2014

Middle East for Dummies -- Part 1 (definitions)

As we continue to hear and read about events unfolding in the Middle East, it's amazing how little most of us know about the religious, cultural, and ethnic makeup of this troubled area.  Therefore, I've decided that I'll learn more about these issues and pass them on to my readers in order to make us all more informed citizens as we re-engage in the conflicts that seem to unfold there with unfortunate regularity.

ISIS (for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria):  The most commonly used acronym for the extreme terrorist group of Sunni Muslims that arose during the Syrian civil war and during the summer of 2014 seized large parts of northwestern Iraq.  

ISIL (for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant):  The acronym favored by President Obama and members of his administration for ISIS.  

The Islamic State ('IS', I suppose):  Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, calls his group (ISIS) and the territory that it occupies in Syria and Iraq simply 'the Islamic State'.  On Wednesday, September 17th, the front page of the New York Times agreed stating: 'American ground troops will not be involved in fighting the Islamic State, also known as Isis or ISIL.'  The Times has continued to use the Islamic State on subsequent days.

Caliphate, Caliph:  Al-Baghdadi (the caliph) has proclaimed the Islamic State to be a 'caliphate' which is a term for a Muslim territory ruled by a 'caliph' who exerts both religious and civil authority over the citizens of the area. The Islamic State aims to impose strict Islamic law (shariah) over all of the territory that it controls.  And the Islamic State aims to control more and more territory. Since IS is a Sunni Muslim organization, IS believes that the Sunni branch of Islam is the only true religion and that the very harsh Sunni version of shariah practiced by IS is the only true law.

Shariah, Sharia:  The system of religious and civil law and personal conduct contained in the Quran (Koran), the central religious text of Islam. Muslims believe the Quran was revealed by God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years.  Shariah provides various grisly forms of death for the sins of adultery, homosexuality, apostasy, and blasphemy.  

Sunni Islam:  Abu Bakr, the father of Muhammad's wife, Aisha, claimed the caliphate of Muhammad upon his death in 632 A.D.  Abu Bakr's followers are Sunnis.  Sunnis are the dominant Islamic sect in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, most of the Persian Gulf states, and most of northern Africa.  

Shi'a (or Shia or Shi'ite or Shiite) Islam: Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, husband of his daughter, Fatimah, by another wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, also laid claim to the caliphate when Muhammad died.  Ali's followers are Shi'a. Shi'ites are dominant in Iran (89%).  Iraq is split between Sunni (20-30%) and Shi'ite Muslims (60-70%) and Kurds (10%).  

Kurds, Kurdish, Kurdistan:  An ethnic group native to Kurdistan -- a region that crosses the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and even Armenia.  The Kurds speak the Kurdish language and are defined by their ethnicity, not their religion --in fact, although a majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, they practice many different religions and are generally tolerant of different religious practices.  The ethnic enclave of Kurdistan today includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and even a small swath of Armenia, which makes all of those countries nervous.
Map showing approximate borders of Kurdish area overlaid on current borders.

Palestinians:  An ethnic group who are the modern descendants of Arabic peoples that historically occupied Palestine, an area that is holy to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions.  About 85% of Palestinians are Muslim (predominantly Sunni).  While most Palestinians are crowded into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there are Palestinians living in Israel -- over 17% of Israeli citizens are (presumably Palestinian) Muslim. There are concentrations of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and there is a Palestinian diaspora around the world.

Ottoman Empire:  At its height the Ottoman Turks from their capital of Constantinople much of the Middle East, as well as southeastern Europe, North Africa and both shores of the Red Sea . 
While the Sultans were the absolute rulers and the Turkic people were Muslim, this was not a caliphate and the Sultans were not caliphs.  For many years a majority of those governed were Christian.  By Ottoman tradition, non-Muslim populations were granted state recognition and allowed to practice their own religion. The Ottoman Empire had been crumbling since 1830 and collapsed during the First World War when it was allied with the Germans.  By that time less than 20% of the Empire was non-Muslim (primarily Christians and Jews). 

Mandates:  territories that were under the influence and protection of either Britain or France following the First World War, although they were not technically part of their empires.

Palestine:   The Holy Land was one of the British mandates, and we all know how that turned out.  Somewhere during the emergence of the state of Israel in the late 1940's, the kingdom of Jordan became a separate state (over 90% Sunni Muslim) and many Palestinians became disenfranchised and basically stateless.  

Iraq:  Iraq was also a British mandate (known as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia).  It is troublesome that the British chose not to acknowledge that Iraq was composed of mutually antagonistic (or at least very distrustful) Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish elements which primarily occupied their own separate enclaves, except for the capital, Baghdad where Shi'a and Sunni Muslims coexisted uneasily.  

Syria:  Syria was a French mandate which contained distrustful elements of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.  We're well aware of what's happened there in the last three years of civil war with primarily Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime -- which has ruled Syria for about 50 years.   The Assad family is Alawite -- a branch of Shi'ite Islam -- and is supported and heavily influenced by Shi'ite Iran.

Arab Spring:  The wave of civil unrest and revolutionary uprisings known as the 'Arab Spring' actually began in December 2010 and continued through mid-2012.  Much of the unrest and rebellion of the 'Arab Spring' was reaction to the oppressive regimes of dictators who had long been in power. But it was also caused by tension between Islamists (primarily fundamentalist Sunnis), like the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt.  The Islamists were seeking to impose some form of shariah by confront more religiously moderate sectarian governments.  During the 'Arab Spring' dictators were forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. There were also protests in Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan.  

Jihad, Jihadi:  One thing that is common to both major sects of Islam, is the concept of 'jihad' -- the duty to fight for Allah.  Islamic scholars disagree on whether jihad refers to an inner struggle for Allah and against sin, a military struggle against non-believers, or both.  It is clear that the Islamic State believes that 'jihad' is the violent struggle by Sunnis against all other forms of religious belief and civil order. Those who engage in jihad are jihadis.

Lebanon, Lebanese:  Because the land of Lebanon was occupied by various groups over many centuries, it is composed of several ethnic groups -- about 54% are Muslim (split almost equally between Shia and Sunni) and just over 40% Christian split between several denominations including Maronites who are about 22% of the population.  From 1914 to 1932, Lebanon was a French mandate.  

Hezbollah:  This terrorist group based in Lebanon, is predominantly Shi'ite.  It is primarily focused on the defeat of Israel.

Hamas:  This is both a political movement and a rebel group that has been labeled 'terrorist' by the Israeli government, the U.S. government, and several other Western governments.  It is predominantly Sunni and is the dominant Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip.

PLO/Palestine Liberation Organization:  The PLO governs the 'West Bank'.  It is also predominantly Sunni, but more moderate than Hamas both politically and religiously.

West Bank:  The West Bank is an area occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.  Many countries (nearly 70% of member nations of the United Nations) have recognized the West Bank as part of the State of Palestine.  Israel continues to seize land and build and occupy settlements in the West Bank despite the condemnation of most other nations.

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