Correcting Obama on Middle East conflicts

In his State of the Union address President Barack Obama stated that conflicts in the Middle East “date back millennia.”

This has been disputed by Arab researcher and Arab Spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi who also pointsb out that it isn’t rooted in Shiite versus Sunni conflict.

From Obama’s speech:

The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.

But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.

But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.

There’s a lot of deliberate propaganda and ignorant inaccuracies in discussions on Middle East and related Muslim issues.

El-Baghdadi (Iyad El-Baghdadi @iyad_elbaghdadi) has tweeted as number of clarifications.

On claims that Sunni versus Shiite conflict has been entrenched for a long time.

In the late 19th century, Shiite scholar Al Afghani was a prominent member of the anti-colonialist, pan-Islamic revival movement.

Al Afghani’s disciple was none other than prominent Sunni scholar Mohammad Abduh, who would later become Egypt’s Grand Mufti.

One of the Sunni Abduh’s lasting works was his commentary on Nahj al Balagha, one of most important Shia references.

In 1931, Iraqi Shia cleric Kashif al Ghita led Sunni clerics in prayers in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, at an anti-imperialist conference.

In the 1940s, Pakistan, a majority Sunni state, was founded by Jinnah, a Shiite Muslim.

In the early 1950s people answering the Iraq census didn’t know whether to pick “Sunni” or “Shia” coz many were mixed.

In 1958, Egypt’s Grand Mufti declared that Shiism will be taught in Al Azhar as the fifth school alongside Sunni schools of jurisprudence.

In the 1960s Sunni Saudi Arabia supported the Zaydi Shias in Yemen in a civil war against Egypt-supported Republicans.

In the 1980s, the majority of the Iraqi army fighting Iran in the Iraq-Iran war was made up of Arab Shias.

In the 1990s & 2000s, Shiite Iran supported Sunni Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The Sunni versus Shiite claims often ignore the significant Kurd component of the Middle East mix.

As a whole, the Kurdish people are adherents to a large number of different religions and creeds, perhaps constituting the most religiously diverse people of West Asia. Traditionally, Kurds have been known to take great liberties with their practices. This sentiment is reflected in the saying “Compared to the unbeliever, the Kurd is a Muslim”.

Catholics versus Protestants was seen as a major factor in the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland but it was only a part of the problems that were more union versus independence, and didn’t mean all Catholics and Protestants had been in conflict forever.

It’s common for religious and ethnic groups to become allied in conflicts and power struggles (which is what most conflicts are) but the religion or the ethnicity is not necessarily the problem.

El-Baghdadi pointed out problems when weapons and power create conflict, often using   “divide and conquer” as a tactic.

The current dynamic isn’t a conflict of sectarianism but a willful and cynical sectarianization of a regional power struggle.

Tyrants are rarely ideologically committed to Sunnism or Shiism; but are happy to exploit either when it’s expedient.

Sectarianization became the pragmatic thing to do. Hatemongering ideologues became useful and hence became stars on TV and media.

Hatemongering ideologues also play a part in social media blogs, often being useful for and used by the enemy.

Fact is, I acknowledge the old theological rift and the communal differences but I emphasize their modern political weaponization.

Has the region been sectarianized? Yes. Are the differences real? Yes. Is the current war posturing an ancient theological dispute? No.

It is exploiting religious differences in a power struggle.

Many theological and communal differences are innocuous, mundane, and not particularly deadly, until they are weaponized for power.

In civil wars and in inter-state wars factions of convenience are often exploited by those seeking power and control of territory.

The country borders of the Middle East hadn’t naturally evolved, they were imposed by colonial powers in the relatively recent past – mostly in the split up of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. France was mostly responsible for splitting up the ‘Levant’ area (Palestine-Syria) after WW1.

ISIS doesn’t care about the imposed borders  and is operating where it thinks it can establish a power base across Syria and Iraq (ISIL=Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

They have tried to exploit ongoing problems in Iraq (in part created by the US invasion) plus the civil war in Syria.

President Obama appears to be trying to present the US as a solver of Middle East problems “that date back millennia”.

Our foreign policy hast to be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, even without al Qaeda, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks. Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees.

The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.

“The world” does not look to the US to solve these problems. Quite a bit of the world see the US as a meddler that makes things worse.

Some claim that ISIS arose due to the US invasion of Iraq earlier this century. It has certainly had some negative effects and the problems look a long way from being solved despite the tough talk of Obama and the  bombs dropped by the US and other countries with colonial history in the Middle East.

The current Syrian situation is far from as simple as Sunni versus Shiite.

Syrian civil war.png

And that’s just part of the problem that doesn’t show the Iraqi divisions. Here’s a wider view:

Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese insurgencies.png

Military situation as of January 11, 2016, in the Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebaneseconflicts.


Note: Iraq and Syria contain large desert areas with limited populations. These areas are mapped as under the control of forces holding roads and towns within them.

Detailed map of the Syrian Civil War
Detailed map of the Iraqi insurgency
Detailed map of the Lebanese insurgency
Detailed map of the Libyan Civil War
Detailed map of the Nigerian insurgency
Detailed map of the Sinai insurgency
Detailed map of the Yemeni Civil War
Detailed map of the Taliban insurgency

That’s going to take a bit more than some speech writer sound bites from the President of the USA to solve Mr Obama.

Iyad El-Baghdaditweet source: The Conflict in the Middle East Is Not Between Sunnis and Shias and Doesn’t ‘Date Back Millennia’

Leave a comment


  1. mrMan

     /  19th January 2016

    “The country borders of the Middle East hadn’t naturally evolved, they were imposed by colonial powers in the relatively recent past”
    Imposed national borders are always at the centre of these conflicts, the same thing happened in Bosnia. A victor draws an arbitrary line through a map, and leaves the bisected cultural groups to mitigate how to live with it. Oh what a surprise – war.

  2. Brown

     /  19th January 2016

    This is Arab against Persian, tribe against tribe, family against family and Islam is the gunpowder that makes all the noise. The noise wasn’t loud before because they used sticks, swords and muzzle loaders but now we have big and really dangerous toys so its just noticeable. Given the numbers engaged and room required when you have artillery the bar fight has just spilled over into what was a gated community.

    The other issue is that Islam has, as a key desire, to create an Islamic kingdom on earth so their, whatever, can return and rule. Such expressed political goals make it distinct from other religions that live within the secular rules but meet on occasion to burn incense while chanting, bash a tambourine or have a cup of tea on Sundays.

    Other religions looking to personal spiritual development have poked their noses into politics from time to time but that meddling was not a key part of doctrine and was often in contradiction to it. Islam is the problem.

  3. Blazer

     /  19th January 2016

    ‘Other religions looking to personal spiritual development have poked their noses into politics from time to time but that meddling was not a key part of doctrine and was often in contradiction to it.’….surely you jest!Throughout history the Archbishop of Canterbury,the Pope,Evangelicists in the U.S,(look at the X Brewhren here),religion is involved in war/politics up to its eyeballs.

    • Brown

       /  19th January 2016

      Bollocks. The Anglicans and RC’s have meddled politically where they should not and that is contrary to their brief. People like Bishop Latimer were preaching against that in the 1500’s (and got himself burnt at the stake for his trouble). The Ex Brethren are of no consequence at all and to give them any credit for funding something stupid is, well, stupid.

      The middle east is a shambles, along with Europe now, because of one religion. Next time the Jehova’s Witnesses call I’m going to give them a telling off.

  4. Correcting PeeGee on Middle East conflicts

     /  19th January 2016

    ISIL does not equal “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” that is ISIS.

    ISIL actually equals “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant “.

    Mildly amusing that your post is correcting Obama when you made that basic error.

  5. Timoti

     /  19th January 2016

    Man, Mike-o loves semantics.


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