How the Middle East Got to Now: Part 2

Updated: Jun 21, 2020


Last week we introduced you to a little thing called the Middle East. We looked at how colonialism was the driving force behind the region's development and how this development led to an era of instability. If you haven’t read the first post in this five-part series, check it out here.

Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at Islam and how a few very extreme branches of a peaceful religion emerged during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

But before we get into it, two warnings:

1. First, I’m neither Muslim nor am I from a Muslim-majority country. I've done my best to discuss the Islamic religion in this post, but if there are any glaring issues or cultural misinterpretations, please let me know.

2. Second, this post is what I call information heavy. Usually, I will try to stay away from information-heavy posts. But in order to capture the nuance of such an enormous religion, I think it’s important to be information heavy here.

With that said, let’s get into it.

Abraham and his Religions

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are pretty much the same religion.

I wonder how many readers I just lost.

Don’t believe me? Let’s check it out.

1. They’re all considered Abrahamic Religions for a reason. All three religions began with the original form of Judaism around 300 BC.

2.They’re all monotheistic religions, meaning they each have one God. (Also, all of their Gods are eerily similar to one another...)

3. They all have very similar Holy Books. Crack open the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Torah and read each book front to back. Go ahead, I’ll wait. They’re very similar, right?

Better yet, here’s a timeline to make it little easier for you:

See, I wasn't lying! The first mention of the word "Israel" was around 1,200 BC. Judaism was thought to have formed about 1,000 years after that. Then, Christianity branched off right after the Roman Empire began. Finally, Islam emerged about 600 years after that.

And here’s my favorite part about all of this. These religions didn’t STOP branching off from each other. Much like evolution, religion continues to branch and change and will continue to branch and change in order to fit the standards and beliefs of our society.

Let's look at Christianity for example:

(There are a lot more branches than what you see here, but you get the idea.)

The best part is that Judaism and Islam aren’t any different in this regard. They’ve both got a ton of branches in their respective religions too.

Let’s look at Islam.

(This is also not entirely accurate. I've simplified it for your sake!)

Keep this visual in mind. This is what we’ll be talking about today.

Islamism and the Square-Rectangle Rule

There are two big groups that emerge from Islam: Sunni and Shi’ah. For all intents and purposes, I’d compare this to the Catholicism/Protestantism divide in the United States.

Here’s a breakdown of religion in the United States:

Source: ASARB

It doesn't matter which color represents which branch of Christianity. That's not really the point.

Now here’s a breakdown of Islam in the East:

Source: You know where it's from (Wikipedia)

Again, the color representation doesn't matter.

Here's my point: The division of religion in these two images is very similar.

Different religions form based upon geography, social pressures, political climate, etc. It happens everywhere.

And with Islam, you've got many different beliefs even within the same religion. Some of these different beliefs that emerge are ultraconservative movements, which came to be known as Islamism (not to be confused with Islam).

Confusing, I know. I don't know why they named it this. I don't make the rules.

These are the branches of Islam that are considered to be part of Islamism.

There are more groups of Islamism than this, but these are the major players.

Unfortunately, when an American hears about the Middle East and Islam on the news, it’s usually in regard to Islamism (remember, not Islam).

It’s important to separate Islam and Islamism. You can remember this difference by using the Square-Rectangle rule from Geometry.

Or worded another way….

But what do Islamists (remember, not Islam) and ultraconservatives believe?

Generally speaking, they believe Western influence (European and American) is destroying the world. As a response, Islamists call for the creation of a strict Islamic society (similar to the Ottoman Empire) that follows a strict interpretation of something known as Sharia Law.

Sharia Law is a structure of law that was put into place with the creation of Islam. Think of it as the Islamic version of Christianity’s Ten Commandments or a religious version of the United States’ Bill of Rights. (This isn’t entirely accurate, but you get the idea.)

Islamists (remember, not Islam) believe that Sharia Law is the proper mechanism for guiding life, government, and society. Islamists take a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and of Sharia Law, much like Fundamentalist Christians do with the Bible.

"The Earth is 10,000 years old."

What emerges from Islamism is a bunch of groups that gained popularity in the early 20th century as a response to colonialism, Western culture, and an unstable life.

One of the branches that emerges from Islamism is known as the Salafi movement.

A Closer Look at the Salafi Movement

Let’s look at that tree of Islam again.

Let's get closer:

A little closer...

Okay, good! Stop here. This is the Salafi movement.

The Salafi movement is an ultraconservative and extreme form of Islam, and while it is not an inherently violent form of Islam, the views it espouses lends itself well to violence and terrorism.

Why? Because Salafi adherents believe Islam is a zero-sum game, meaning that Islam either wins or loses. Their goal is to stop the flow of Western influence and to spread Islam around the world.

See? Not inherently violent. But you could probably understand how a movement like this could eventually become violent.

And you guessed it, the Salafi movement eventually became violent.

This violent group of Salafism came to be known as the jihadist movement, or Salafi-Jihadism.

Side note: While the word Jihad is associated with ultra-violence in the West, the original term wasn't. Jihad is defined as “a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam”.

Now let's take a little trip in our time machine and go back to the early 20th century where Salafi-Jihadism began.

A History Lesson

Remember, the Middle East is in full recovery mode. Colonialism is ending, the Ottoman Empire has collapsed, and new governments and countries are springing up everywhere. The West is sticking their nose in everyone’s business. New ideas are spreading faster than you can believe. Governments are pretty unstable with ideas clashing and joining together and splitting apart and joining together again. There are groups forming that support the government. There are groups forming that don’t support the government.

Hell, just look at how many new countries/governments were created since 1920.

Eight. I count eight new countries.

To make matters worse, these newly independent governments and countries weren't technically 100% independent. Many of the countries still had European soldiers all over them, telling them what to do and, in some cases, running their governments.

With that said, let's hop out of our time machine and check out the birth of the Salafi-Jihadist movement.

It all began in Egypt in the early 20th century with a little-known group called the Muslim Brotherhood. And just like your favorite hipster band before they sold out and went mainstream, the Muslim Brotherhood began to pick up steam in small social circles through word of mouth. From there, they quickly gained influence and a cult following.

Side note: the formation and growth of the Muslim Brotherhood is actually a very interesting story about a guy who went to college in the United States, loved Hollywood movies, and then started one of the deadliest movements known to man. I suggest you check it out.

"Forrest Gump was good, but Pulp Fiction deserved the Oscar that year. Also, I love killing people."

At some point, the Muslim Brotherhood turned to violence and Salafi-Jihadism.