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by ProfDave, ©2022

The Ottoman Empire’s ethnic divisions, 1917 (public domain)

(Jul. 7, 2022) — As you will recall, the “Eastern Question” is a geopolitical term for the consequences of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the last half of the 19th century.  The definitive breakup of the Empire in 1918 led to the end of the Caliphate – the claim of the Sultan to be the successor of Mohammad and head of Islam – and the eventual establishment of new more-or-less secular states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.  Yugoslavia, too, but that’s another story.

Yugoslavia had been created by the Paris Peace conference in 1918 out of European remnants of the Turkish Empire that had lately been under Austrian control.  Although the population was largely Slavic (hence the name meant “South Slavia”), religion and ancient vendettas divided them: Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim.  During World War II partisans and militias had fought on both sides and against each other.  Hitler erected a puppet state in Croatia.  Marshall Tito (not his real name) succeeded in taking over and holding together Yugoslavia as an independent Communist dictatorship until his death in 1980.  His successors were not as successful.  When Communism collapsed in 1989, agitation against the Serbian domination of the federation could no longer be contained. 

Slovenia seceded in 1991, followed by Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Armed conflict ensued between eastern Orthodox oriented Serbia and western Catholic oriented Croatia.  Bosnia, with a mixed but heavily Muslim population, became a battlefield.  Serbian militias attempted to “cleanse” whole districts of their Muslim people with such systematic brutality that NATO felt compelled to intervene.  One of the lessons of World War II was that a dictator who was brutal to his own people was a danger to his neighbors.  “Ethnic cleansing” was not a new phenomenon in history, but Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosevic gave it a name – a very bad name.  Genocide broke out again between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999, leading to the American bombing of Sarajevo.  By 2008 Yugoslavia had been replaced by seven independent republics [see Duiker & Spielvogel 836-38].

Armenia, southeast of the Black Sea, had been Christian since 301 AD – before Rome.  It had been semi-autonomous under the Ottoman Empire, but parts had fallen to the Russian Empire in the previous century.  Conflict with Turkish authority had led to massacres 1896-98 and outright genocide during World War I.  The Treaty of Sevres set up an Armenian Republic in 1920 but it was promptly invaded by both Turks and Soviets.  Armenians fled to Lebanon, Palestine, and the United States.  Soviet Armenia gained its independence in 1989 but has fought ethnic conflicts with Muslim Azerbaijan over minority enclaves [see Duiker & Spielvogel 809]. 

Kurdestan is another conflicted ethnic region, south of and overlapping Armenia, stretching from northern Syria to Iran to Turkey.  The Kurds are an ancient people of uncertain origin and Sunni Islamic faith who hold themselves distinct from Turks, Iranian Shi’ites, Iraqi Sunnis, and Assyrian Christians.  Nationalist movements led to insurgency and repression in Turkey and the use of poison gas in Iraq by Saddam Hussein [“Who are the Kurds?,”].

Mesopotamia, of course, was the cradle of history 6,000 years ago, but modern Iraq dates from the League of Nations Mandate given to the British in 1920.  Much of it had already been occupied by British troops during the war in an effort to keep Persian Gulf oil production out of German hands.  While “mandates” look like imperial possessions, note the ideological shift to international responsibility: “Empire” had already become a political embarrassment to democratic societies.  Like so many imperial entities, however, Iraq’s borders ignored ethnic and historical conflict: a rural Shi’ite majority, a dominant urban Sunni minority, and a distinct Kurdish people in the northern mountains.  Civil unrest and anti-western agitation led to the establishment of King Faisal I, a Syrian descendent of Mohammad, under British supervision in 1921.  Formal independence followed in 1932 [see Duiker & Spielvogel 712].  Iraq supported the Allies during World War II but joined the Arab League in its wars against Israel.  Faisal II turned off Iraq’s oil pipeline to Haifa, Israel, and suffered a loss of oil revenues as a consequence.  A military coup overthrew the monarchy in 1958 and was itself overthrown by Ba’athists in 1963-66 and again in 1968.  The Ba’ath Party (or Arab Socialist Renaissance Party) was founded in the forties by French-trained Syrian intellectuals.  It represented itself as secular, pan-Arab, and socialist.  Arab states were considered provinces of a larger secular Arab nation.  The Ba’ath became the ruling party in the one-party states of Syria and Iraq, but they were rivals rather than allies.

Saddam Hussein (public domain)

The coup of 1968 brought Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr to power in Iraq, with Saddam Hussein as second in the party.  Hussein gradually assumed leadership and became President in 1979.  In reality, power was in the hands of a narrow elite of fellow tribesmen, but the party provided a totalitarian structure.  In the 80’s socialism was abandoned and industry privatized [Kafala], but not before Iraq’s Revolutionary Guards had been modernized and equipped by Soviet assistance.  Hussein used this instrument to attack Iran 1980-88 and Kuwait 1990.  He was not alone, however, as a candidate for leadership of a united Arab nation.

Iran had been ruled by the Qajar dynasty since 1794, but was beset by British and Russian penetration and internal tribal and religious (Shi’ite) resistance to modernization in the early 20th century.  The Shah tended to lean on foreign support against his own people.  In 1906, however, he was forced to grant a constitution.  Oil was discovered in 1908, leading to more foreign investment and the carving up of Iran into British and Russian spheres of interest.  In 1921, army officers mutinied in the name of Reza Khan (1878-1944), beginning a new Pahlavi dynasty.  Reza attempted reform and modernization, like Turkey, but did not seriously challenge the religious establishment.  During World War II, Iranian sovereignty was violated by British and Russian occupation [see Duiker & Spielvogel 710-12].  In 1945-46, the Soviets seemed poised to use this occupation to annex Iranian Azerbaijan, but American support prevented it [see Duiker & Spielvogel 772].  Under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-79), Iran became a staunch Western ally and one of the richest states in the region, with a booming economy, modern infrastructure, and a rising middle class.  Western education was introduced, and women were allowed to vote and enter the workplace.  There was, however, rising dissent among landless peasants, unemployed labor, and – most of all – religious conservatives who objected to the alien influences of western secularism, greed and sexual license.  Internal corruption and repression by the regime provoked further unrest.

Ayatollah Khomeini

Shi’ite Islam has no church hierarchy, clergy, or theologians, but experts in Islamic studies carry immense authority.  An Ayatollah is something between a chief Rabbi and a Supreme Court Justice [Goudarzi et al, abstract].  Drawing his authority from the sacred writings themselves, he can issue rulings that cannot be questioned by anyone but a more distinguished Ayatollah.  The incorruptible Ayatollah Ruholla Khoumeini (1900-89), though exiled to Iraq and then France, was enormously effective in condemning the Pahlavi regime as “satanic.”  In 1979 the regime collapsed, and an Islamic Republic was formed under Khomeini’s leadership and dominated by Shi’ite Islamic scholars. During the revolution, radicals stormed the American embassy and captured a number of hostages (eventually leading to the fall of President Jimmy Carter and the rise of Ronald Reagan).  The revolution embodied a resurgence of militant, vitriolic, rather theocratic Islam, in contrast to the Pan-Arabic modernism of Sedat and Hussein. United States was “the great Satan” and enemy of all Muslims because of its support of Israel.  The Soviet Union was not considered much better [see Duiker & Spielvogel 887-88].

Saddam Hussein took advantage of the disorder to invade Iran in 1980, beginning a bitter eight- year war.  Excuses ranged from Iranian support of Kurdish and Shi’ite resistance to the Iraqi state to border disputes in the Tigris-Euphrates delta.  Oil, territory, and religion were mixed.  Hussein used gas; Khomeini used children.  The competition in brutality ended in a draw.                                                 

Two years later, August 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, claiming it had once been part of Iraq.  It had been part of the Ottoman Empire whose Prince had placed himself under British protection, but not part of the League mandate.  Western powers had prevented it from being included in independent Iraq in 1932.  Now it was itself independent, rich in oil, and Hussein’s creditor.  The west, with frightened Arab partners, responded in “Operation Desert Storm,” liberating Kuwait and destroying Iraq’s military, but stopping just short of deposing Saddam Hussein’s regime [see Duiker & Spielvogel 888-89].

Palestine had been thrice promised: to the Jews, to the Arabs, and to the French, but became a British Mandate.  During the interwar period, Jewish immigration was allowed off and on.  Zionists were buying and developing the land.  This led to three cornered race riots between British authorities, Arab nationalists, and Jewish settlers.  The majority of Jews had been dispersed throughout the world in Babylonian and again in Roman times, due to the Jewish wars, almost 2000 years ago.  Note that Christians, Jews, and Muslims had been living together more or less peacefully in Palestine in the “House of Islam” for centuries.  Islam has always allowed indoor freedom of worship for Jewish and Christian minority communities, with submission to Shari‘a restrictions. 

Now the situation was changing as Islamic law was supplanted by European secular authority and the land was being taken up by modern, secularized (heavily socialist), European Jews of relatively high educational and economic standards.  The indigenous “Palestinians” became peasants in their own land.  During and after World War II, Palestine was swamped with refugees from the holocaust.  The Exodus affair, July 1947, in which the British navy forcibly turned back a shipload of holocaust survivors, was symbolic of immigration problems [“Exodus (1947)”]

Stalin pushed for Israeli sovereignty and the UN agreed.  Against Britain’s better judgment, the United Nations partitioned Palestine between the Jewish state of Israel and the Arab Kingdom of Jordan in May 1948 and granted independence to Israel.  Egypt and the entire Arabic world immediately attacked with all their military power.  Miraculously, Israel not only survived, but drove her enemies back well beyond partition lines.  Some Palestinians remained under Israeli control, while many more were settled in refugee camps throughout surrounding nations – a source of continuing hatred and sporadic terrorism for succeeding generations.

No peace was concluded, as the Arab League and its Palestinian clients were incapable of continuing the war but unwilling/unable to recognize the legitimacy of Israel or accept their losses.  An armed standoff continued until next time.

Great Britain had largely withdrawn from the Middle East, but still owned (with French investors) the Suez Canal.  Egyptian President Abdul Gamel Nassar staked the modernization of his country on harnessing the Nile with the great Aswan dam.  Unable to gain foreign financing, he unilaterally nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, defrauding British and French investors in a classic imperial scenario.  Perhaps French pride was smarting from the Algerian war.  Perhaps Britain wanted to show that the lion was not dead yet.  Perhaps Israeli intelligence interpreted Egyptian troop movements as preparation for an imminent attack.  In any case, Israel launched a preventive war, supported by British and French attacks on Alexandria, and seized the canal.  The Israelis won too quickly and the American 6th fleet intervened.  Khrushchev threatened London and Paris with nuclear missiles (!) and now came to the aid of Nassar with the funds he needed.  Communism became associated with the cause of Arab nationalism as Soviet arms and advisors spread out over the Middle East.  The UN sent peacekeepers to guard the Suez and the Egyptian and Syrian frontiers.  But the state of war continued.

In 1967, tensions between Israel and Egypt and Syria escalated to the point that it was deemed to be unsafe for United Nations peacekeepers.  Frankly, there was no peace to keep.  The United Nations did not have forces capable to defending Israel or Egypt or Syria from imminent attack.  Once again, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike, destroying or capturing three billion dollars worth of Soviet weaponry in six days, and occupying the Golan Heights of Syria, the West Bank of the Jordan, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt [Kieft 5/27/71].

Once again, no peace could be accepted by both sides.  The Arabs could not defeat Israel but refused to accept its right to exist.  Likewise, Israel was unwilling either to return strategic territory or to annex large Palestinian populations (granting them civil rights and compromising the Jewish majority of the Jewish state) in the face of incorrigible hostility.  It simply maintained occupation, with limited self-government, pending the peace settlement that never came.  Meanwhile military, agricultural, and residential settlements were established in the occupied territories, “creating facts on the ground,” with or without official permission [discussed at length by Gorenberg].

In 1973 Egypt and Syria struck first, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.  Israel was caught unprepared, and the myth of Jewish invincibility was shattered for at least a day.  Ironically, the new Egyptian president, Anwar Sedat, was moving towards a negotiated accommodation with the West and with Israel.  US President Jimmy Carter brought Sedat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin together for the first time at Camp David in 1978.  Israel returned the Sinai in exchange for peace and recognition.  The same terms were offered to Syria, but momentum was lost when Islamic militants assassinated Sedat in 1981.  Jewish dominion in the House of Islam is an affront to the Muslim faith [Lewis].  Although Arab states from Libya to Iraq were still technically at war with Israel, without the strength of Egypt open armed conflict became impractical.

The history of the Palestinian conflict over the last 40 years has been torturous but indecisive.  Palestinian generational hatred for Israel spills over periodically in riots and rocket-fire, but regional sympathy may be wearing thin – as we have seen in the recent Abrahamic Accords.  The Sunni gulf states, in particular, begin to view Shi’a Iran as a greater threat and Israel as a counter-balance.

Think About It:

Look at the development of the Eastern Question.  Are there any common factors tying it all together?  Which is more important, nationality or religion?


Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J.  World History, 6th edn., Boston:

Wadsworth, 2010.

Lewis, Bernard. Crisis in Islam; Holy War and Unholy Terror, on audio disc.  New York:                Modern Library, 2003.

Gorenberg, Gershom.  The Accidental Empire.  New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

Goudarzi, Masoumeh Rad, Jawan, Jayum. A., Ahmad, aid. B., “The Roots of Formation             of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Political Thought,” Canadian Social Science; 2009, Vol. 5             Issue 6, p65-80, abstract, retrieved 9/13/11 from    http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=6&hid=24&sid=c430e670-478c-4041-   -8f38-   bf2fdc61ab81%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d

            %3d#db=a9h   &AN=47566084

“Exodus (1947),” Answers.com, retrieved 9/12/11 from    http://www.answers.com/topic/exodus-1947

Kafala, Tarik, “The Iraqi Baath party,” BBC News Online/ (2011), retrieved 9/13/11 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2886733.stm

Kieft, David.  “Diplomatic History of Modern Europe,” lectures at the University of             Minnesota, 1971.

Munholland, J. K.  “Twentieth Century Europe,” lectures at the University of Minnesota,         1970.           

“Who are the Kurds?,” Washington Post.com (1999), retrieved 9/12/11 from             http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/feb99/kurdprofile.htm.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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  1. Beautiful essay.
    Nationality or religion. Which is more important? The answer is whatever propaganda can rally the troops, hurt/destroy one’s enemy & bring power above the masses to whomever wins.