The latest US bombing of Iraq is claimed to be a defence of the Yazidi people. This religious minority follows a version of Zoroastrianism, which was the religion of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam.
The Middle East is often portrayed as a place torn apart by deep-seated hatreds and senseless wars fuelled by religion. The very existence of such communities as the Yazidi and Iraqi Christians shows that its history has been very different.
Religious intolerance is not “age old”, but has been intensified by the imperial powers that have dominated the region for a century and a half.
The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that religion is the “heart in a heartless world”—something people turn to for comfort and a sense of hope. He wrote that religious ideas are not eternal, but develop with the social conditions around them.
Islam first arose in the seventh century. Most of the Middle East was ruled by either the Persian Empire based in modern Iran or the remains of the Roman Empire.
Both were oppressive to minorities. The Roman Empire was Christian, but enormously intolerant to anything its rulers saw as heresy. There were repeated attacks on Jews and unorthodox Christians.
When early Muslim armies spread many welcomed them as liberators.
A Jewish writer at the time told how “the creator has brought the Kingdom of Ishmael [the Arabs] in order to save you from wickedness”. A Syrian Christian historian said, “God… delivered us out of hands of the Romans by means of the Arabs… to be saved from the cruelty of the Romans and their bitter hatred of us.”
For a while the whole region was run as one state, the Caliphate, but this divided into kingdoms.
This was not a time of simple peace. Powers and centres rose and fell. Sometimes violent splits emerged and sometimes minorities faced persecution.
But the region remained in general one of the most advanced areas of the world—and one of the more tolerant.
In these states Jews and Christians could practice their religion and had certain rights as long as they paid a poll tax. Over the centuries this status, known as “dhimmi”, was extended to all non-Muslims.
This was not equality, but it was much better than the treatment of religious minorities in much of Europe at the time. The difference becomes clearest with the Crusades.
In 1077 a Turkish army conquered Jerusalem. A rumour spread across Europe that Christian pilgrims had been mistreated or even massacred.
This provided the excuse for an invasion by thousands of European knights in the first of the Crusades.
Crusaders killed many Christians, Jews and Muslims as they travelled, then put Jerusalem to the sword.
Crusader Raymond D’Aguilers wrote, “Men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.”
The Crusaders were pushed out of Jerusalem after a century of battles—another war held up as an example of the region’s unending savagery. But evidence shows a very different Middle East.
Some 300,000 documents, known as the Geniza collection, found in an old Cairo synagogue show a long period of co-development. The Jewish writers of the documents shared the same kind of lives as their Muslim and Christian neighbours. They worked as traders and farmers and bought or rented property.
Right up to the 20th century, Jews spoke in Arabic and shared the culture of others in the Middle East.
For around 400 years before the 20th century most of the region was part of the Ottoman Empire, based in modern Turkey. The empire was Muslim, but Jews could work as government advisers and served in parliament.
As the empire went into slow decline, rising capitalist powers—Britain, France and Russia—competed to grab its territory. They created the religious intolerance that has dogged the Middle East’s recent past.
By 1880 there were 90,000 Europeans resident in Egypt. They were exempt from local law and didn’t have to pay taxes. In a period of extreme austerity for all Egyptians they flaunted their wealth.
Egyptians rose up and the British responded with a naval bombardment that flattened much of the coastal city of Alexandria. A full scale British invasion followed.
Rival powers offered the idea of liberty to people in each other’s empires. Lawrence of Arabia—British officer TE Lawrence—promised British aid to create independent Arab states if they rebelled and supported Britain in the First World War.
British imperialists had no intention of keeping that promise. They had signed the Sykes-Picot agreement with France, carving up Ottoman territories between their empires.
The Middle East had already been an important hub for trade routes, but with the discovery of oil it became an imperial prize without equal.
Britain backed the call for a Zionist state during the First World War partly to undermine Germany. But it went on supporting it after the war.
Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem, said it could be “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”.
He looked to Britain’s first colony in Ireland. Protestants from Scotland had been settled in Ulster in the hope that they would always be more loyal to the empire than their neighbours.
This was the root of another long conflict often blamed on religion.
Far from the Middle East exporting its problems to Europe, racism from Europe spread to the Middle East. Zionism developed in response to antisemitism in Europe, not in Palestine.
Such divide and rule tactics have always been a mainstay of imperialism. Britain and France have been replaced as leading imperial powers by the US. It continued their poisonous policies through the 20th century.
The most recent example is the occupation of
Bogged down in a ground war against a unified opposition, US leaders moved in 2005 to divide Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian Iraqis.
They encouraged the growth of Shia sectarian Badr brigades in the interior ministry. They convinced some Sunni resistance groups to turn on their colleagues through “Awakening Councils”. They built walls to divide the capital Baghdad into sectarian neighbourhoods.
Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who led Shia resistance at the time, warned his followers against sectarian attacks. He said, “Do not forget the plotting of the occupation, for if we forget its plots, it will kill us all without exception.”
His warning was tragically prophetic. The US succeeded in breaking the unity of the resistance.
It managed to keep its grip a few years longer by shattering the society it occupied. The scale of sectarian violence made many Iraqis start identifying first as Sunni, Shia or Kurd.
Groups like the Islamic State today are the product of that occupation. They recruit out of divisions it sowed, anger at the corrupt sectarian state it left behind, and despair at the failure of united resistance to beat it.