What Factors Contributed to a Conflict-Ridden Middle East? | A World on the Brink
Dee Smith: In this episode of A World on the Brink, we are going to look at a part of the world where three continents and many cultures collide. The origin of the three great monotheistic religions, and the source of many of today's most violent conflicts, the Middle East. Today, the Middle East seems more in conflict than ever, and the conflict has become so complex that many of us wonder if it will ever be resolved. I'm Dee Smith, and in this episode, I want to examine and try to pull together some of the threads that have led us to this apparently intractable situation. From the Sunni-Shia split to the influence of Wahhabism, from the legacy of the First World War to the rise of Saudi oil wealth. From the epical events of 1979 in Afghanistan and Iran, to the Western invasions of Iraq in 1991, and of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. And from the formation of alQaeda to the rise of ISIS. It would be impossible to examine in detail all the elements that have led to this situation. Instead, in this episode, I want to focus on some of the crucial factors that have created the current situation, but which are generally less well-known. These comprise historic layers that are often misunderstood, or simply missing from the narrative that most people know. Conflict in the Middle East involves several large-scale divisions. The oldest of these is the Sunni-Shia divide, which not only underlies the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also fuels conflict in many other areas such as Syria. Historically, the Sunni-Shia split goes back to a dispute in the seventh century about who was the rightful heir to the founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad. But as with many such disputes, it is as much about power as about religion. Roderick Grierson: You could say that the Shia and the Sunni are simply disputing theological truths, but in fact, in almost any society, religion is not distinct from political and indeed military aspects of life. And for centuries, the two great centers of Sunni power and Shia power, the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire, they were arguing really over questions of power. And religion was a very important part of their identity, but they weren't simply fighting in some sort of abstract and academic sense over doctrinal differences. They were fighting over authority, and they were fighting over power, exactly as Protestants and Catholics were fighting over much more than simply theological differences. DS: But it would be a mistake to assume that these ancient enmities are entirely to blame for current struggles. What is less well known are the much more recent events that have led to this conflict many of the problems from which the Middle East still suffers began less than 100 years ago. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Middle East had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for the previous 700 years. This was the last of the great Muslim empires, and it was ruled by a sultan who was also a caliph, meaning that he held both religious and political authority. This was important, because for Muslims, both are believed to be essential for legitimate government. However, during the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was allied to the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, and was therefore on the losing side. RG: The first World War saw the end of several empires, but the greatest, the most significant, at least for the history of the Middle East, was the Ottoman Empire. DS: For much of the previous century, European powers had dreamed of carving up the Ottoman Empire for themselves. In 1918, with the end of the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France finally got their chance. A secret agreement was negotiated in 1916 by Mark Sykes on the British side and Francois Georges-Picot on the French. This Sykes-Picot agreement, as it came to be called, planned a series of mandates across the Middle East, which would allow Britain and France to control most of the region. The result was a series of new states with artificial borders, local monarchies, and colonial administrations. Ambassador Robert Jordan: I think one of the real motives in the Sykes-Picot arrangement was the notion that essentially the French and the British were going to divide up the economic spoils of war. They were going to divide up the opportunities for their businesses and their countries in a way in which they would make profits. They would have authority over these regions, and they didn't pay much attention to what were the natural boundaries, based on tribal relationships, religion, and family connections. DS: We're looking at the more recent history of the Middle East. It is essential to understand that the seeds of so much of the conflict that we see today were sown by Britain and France carving up the region and attempting to control its administration. Put simply, the redrawing of borders created countries that didn't exist before, and perhaps should not have existed at all. Modern Arab states, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, were essentially created by the Sykes-Picot agreement, more or less with a stroke of a pen. In this creation of new borders, different religious or ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, were divided, and others were thrown together. Often, this was done intentionally to disrupt older ethnic and religious affiliations and to create new political structures, peopled by different groups with competing interests, who would therefore be easier to rule and easier to exploit. In other words, the future of the Middle East was sacrificed for the immediate benefit of French and British rule. RG: The order that was established held together for some time, but not particularly well. And we began to see an imperial system replaced as independence began to be granted to various countries. It was replaced by some kind of local authority that allowed the largest minority, shall we say, to control the others. The crises that have beset the modern world from the Balkan War in the 90s, the violence in Cyprus, the Palestinian problem, the Israeli problem, Syria, Iraq, all these are countries whose borders were established as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. And it hasn't worked, and we're dealing with the legacy of that. DS: Not only did the Sykes-Picot agreement divide the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire into a series of colonial mandates, a westernizing revolution in Turkey led by Kemal Ataturk also removed the Ottoman Sultan. And with that, the caliphate, which had endured in one form or another for almost 13 centuries, through many empires, was gone. And gone with it was rule by a sultan and caliph who combined both religious and political authority. For more conservative political and religious leaders, and for much of the population in general, the boundaries invented by Sykes and Picot had imposed unacceptable Western structures on Muslim territory, and had put in place, governments controlled by European powers. And, thus began the latest chapter in the long history of resentment in the Middle East towards the great powers of the West. As a direct result of this resentment of Western governments and Western appointed rulers, the 1930s saw the emergence of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The agenda of these groups was to promote the importance of Islam in society. The maddening resentment grew over decades of what was essentially colonial rule, finally leading to a series of revolutions across the Middle East that replaced artificial monarchies and administrations with Arab leaders drawn from the army or the air force. It was in these revolutions that military leaders like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya came to power. These new leaders were nationalists whose principles were secular, modernizing, and authoritarian. But rule by military strong men did not quash the resentment of the citizens of these countries. Some wanted less authoritarianism, but many wanted less secularism and less modernism, as well as a larger role for religious authority. And the rule of the strong men did not allow for this. In fact, their rule led to decades of oppression. And of course, another event that fueled the hardening of the Muslim attitudes towards the West began in 1947 with the partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel, which was finally agreed following the horrors of Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II. This led to four regional wars between the Israelis and their neighbors, but the stunning defeat of combined Arab forces by Israel in just six days in the 1967 war was seen by many Arabs and by many Israelis as being too astonishing to be explained merely in human terms. For many Arabs in particular, this was interpreted as a sign that nationalist governments had been in effect abandoned by God. This, in turn, fueled more intensely religious feelings and the desire to create more obviously Islamic forms of government. And then, there were the shattering events of 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution. ARJ: The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets was certainly a turning point, because the Saudis, along with American help, decided that they would use religion as a motivating force to send Saudi foot soldiers into Afghanistan to repel the Soviets. Mohamad Bazzi: Two very dramatic wars that have in our modern era, increased Islamic extremism to a level we hadn't seen in a very long time. And that started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the jihad that was raised and the jihad that was fought against the Soviets, that was supported by Pakistan, supported by Saudi Arabia, that was supported by the United States. ARJ: The United States pretty much matched dollar for dollar the Saudi investment in kicking the Soviets out of Afghanistan through these means. What you then had was a society in Saudi Arabia that was completely consumed with the anti-communist, godless fight against this evil empire. DS: As it turned out, the key figure who emerged from the campaign in Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden. The son of a billionaire Saudi family, he joined the campaign against the Soviets and helped to organize fighters, weapons and money for the mujahedeen, the loose coalition of Islamist fighters in Afghanistan supported by the Americans. 10 years later, he formed al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is based on a strand of Islam dating back to the 18th century that has come to play a profound role in the evolution of the Middle East and indeed, in the practice of Islam throughout the world. This is Wahhabism. Wahhabism is essentially a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. Like the Protestant reformers of 16th century Europe, the Wahhabi wanted to purify Islam from what they saw as centuries of corruption and their belief that the original message of the prophet Muhammad had been forgotten. ARJ: King Abdulaziz, who by 1932 had cobbled together many tribes and many other elements of the Arabian Peninsula into what is now called Saudi Arabia. And they featured and propagated at that time their preferred version of Islam, which of course was Salafism, known today as Wahhabism. But they've come a long way from the multifaceted, tolerant and inclusive brand of Islam that really took into account many other sects. RG: The Wahhabi who arose in the 18th century in central Arabia were very keen to sweep all those forms of religious devotion away, in a way not unlike the reformers in Europe, in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. The family that was promoting this, the Wahhabi family itself, made a political alliance with the emerging dynasty of the Saudi and that political alliance still survives. As a result of the huge wealth that the Saudi state has been able to use to support that particular religious program, Islam throughout the world has changed. DS: The Wahhabi were of great importance in Saudi Arabia, but had limited impact on the rest of the world until they encountered the effects of Saudi oil money. And beginning with these discoveries, the history of the Middle East and its conflicts became inextricably linked to oil. It was oil that fueled the increase in power of the Saudi royal family and the expansion of Wahhabism beyond Saudi Arabia. It was oil that motivated Saddam Hussein to invade and occupy Kuwait in 1990, and it was that invasion that led to the final break between Osama bin Laden and the Saudi royal family, setting the stage for the jihadi extremism of the next decades. MB: So, al-Qaeda essentially emerged out of that war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The centralization and the meeting of the minds, and the exchanges that began to take place in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan, would affect the rest of what we would feel in the last two decades. Certainly, the idea that the plotting and the targeting of the US, as al-Qaeda did on September 11th. ARJ: We've seen extremism from time to time in the Middle East for decades and really generations. Part of what has happened, again, is a disconnect between the person on the street and those in charge in the regime. And so, Osama bin Laden, for example, was able to motivate his jihadis in a religious war against the Russians after they invaded Afghanistan. They then turned their anger toward the Saudi royal family after they came back from Afghanistan, and they felt that the Saudi royal family was corrupt, that their legitimacy was seriously in question, and bin Laden at that point, envisioned taking over and creating a caliphate that would extend to Mecca and Medina and take down the royal family. It took on an additional force, I think, at the time Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in late 1990. At that time, bin Laden had returned from Afghanistan, his jihadis had returned, and he went in to meet with King Fahd to talk about how to repel Saddam, because he clearly was threatening Saudi Arabia at that moment. And bin Laden said, let me do it with my several hundred thousand jihadis who are now armed and ready for a new fight, and King Fahd reportedly said to him, what are you going to do about Saddam's Air Force. You don't have an Air Force. And reportedly bin Laden said, we will take down the Air Force with the power of prayer. Well, that didn't quite cut it with King Fahd, and so they then invited Dick Cheney to come in as Secretary of Defense along with General Schwarzkopf, and Cheney and Schwarzkopf convinced the King and the leadership that 500,000 American troops could come in, could temporarily reside on Saudi soil and could repel Saddam. This set bin Laden off in a completely different level of antagonism to the royal family, and so he then swore to bring down the royal family. He was infuriated by this, as were his followers. DS: Of course, back in 1990, no one could have foreseen that the decision by the Saudis to let the American military onto Saudi soil would set Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda on the course toward the increased violence that would become so dominant over the next few decades, and most notably culminate in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. The unseen and unintended consequences of this decision is just one example of the complexities at play in the Middle East. And there are multiple levels of strategic miscalculation on every side in the recent history of the Middle East. US support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan ended in Soviet defeat and withdrawal, but it also led to the creation of what would become the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And in another striking miscalculation, al-Qaeda believed that attacking America on American soil would frighten the US out of the Middle East. MB: Bin Laden was focused on the House of Saud, he was focused on the ruling family in Saudi Arabia. He wanted change in Saudi Arabia, he wanted change in the monarchies in the Gulf, but also in the Arab secular republics. And it was Zawahiri who changed his mind about this. It was Zawahiri who pushed this idea on bin Laden that to be able to destabilize and ultimately overthrow those regimes in these Arab countries, he needed to focus on what al-Zawahiri called the far enemy, which he identified as the US. So, for Zawahiri, the far enemy was propping up these Arab regimes. They were propping up the near enemy, which he also wanted to get rid of, but over time he convinced bin Laden to focus on the far enemy, and he made this argument that if you, you al-Qaeda, was able to scare the US away from involvement and support of these regimes in the Middle East, then they would fall. They would fall like dominoes. The US did not get scared away, and actually got much more heavily involved in the Middle East after September 11th, and also because these regimes were stronger than Zawahiri and bin Laden thought that they were. DS: As a result of the attacks by al-Qaeda on the US on September 11th, 2001, a US led coalition invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan. The stated intention of the so-called second Iraq war in 2003 was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction that he was erroneously believed to possess, and to establish a democratic government in Iraq. But it did not go as planned. ARJ: We all believed at the time that Saddam possessed at least chemical and biological weapons, and that there was a legitimate reason for trying to change the regime there. What happened instead was a botched occupation, a decision after the invasion, which went quite smoothly. A decision after that time to disband the Ba'ath party, to disband the Iraqi military, and to turn over the occupation to the Defense Department of the United States rather than the State Department, which had been planning for a couple of years a way to maintain services within Iraq. And they had a number of Foreign Service officers who were training to take over the ministries, to keep them running, to provide services to the Iraqi people. But literally at the last minute, President Bush decided to delegate it to Secretary Rumsfeld, who was famously quoted as saying, we don't do nation building. And I think it was partly an effort to try to do it on the cheap. They already had boots on the ground, although certainly not enough boots, and there was a notion that the Iraqi people were going to be largely responsible for rebuilding their own society. I was told at the time that all of the State Department people who had been prepared to come in were even denied visas by Rumsfeld to come into Iraq, to assist in the rebuilding. DS: In hindsight, the aftermath of the Iraq war, along with Rumsfeld's decision to disband both the Ba'ath party and the Iraqi military, created a state of virtual anarchy in Iraq. The country became a breeding ground for radical Islamic groups. But to understand what has fueled the broader rise of extremist Islam, we have to understand the central position of Saudi Arabia. In many ways, Saudi Arabia is at the heart of developments in the Middle East, because the Saudi royal family have a unique position. They are the guardians of the two holiest sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina. But their influence in the wider world became much greater after 1938, when oil was discovered in huge quantities, endowing the Saudis with a level of wealth the world had seldom seen. And thus, they attained a dual primacy, both as the religious heartland for Islam, and as one of the world's largest oil producers. And in some ways, Saudi Arabia was one of the earliest and best examples of the resource curse. Stewart Patrick: The resource curse is the name that we've given to a situation where a country's economy is basically too reliant on a particular commodity. And usually these are exploitable commodities that often involve the involvement of foreign companies. They could be state-owned companies from another country like China, or they could be multinationals based in the West. And this creates a revenue stream that often is siphoned off by the elites in those countries. The other problem with the resource curse is that that dependence makes the economies of those countries extremely vulnerable to large scale fluctuations in the price of say, oil. And we've seen over the past decade and a half huge fluctuations. And so, during boom times, everything looks pretty rosy, but when it's lean times, suddenly all of that revenue stream that has allowed the rulers to be sugar daddies isn't existing anymore. ARJ: The Saudi religious establishment are funded by these petro dollars. They have billions of dollars to spend in building mosques around the world, in hiring imams, in bringing attention to the madrassas, which they also fund, the textbooks which they publish and send around the world. It has led to a diversion of state resources away from manufacturing, away from employment of women, and into a massive complex that devote resources largely to the production of oil. SP: When you have youth bulges within those countries where people are looking around and saying, we don't have many job prospects here, those folks are susceptible to a sense of hopelessness and despair and eventually radicalization, where they say, at least there's a message out there that might resonate with me and give me some hope and give me meaning in my life. And I think that's one of the driving forces behind jihadist extremism within parts of the Muslim world, but it's also a reason why you get youth getting drawn into insurgent groups. Helima Croft: We went from a situation where oil in the summer of 2014 was well above $100 a barrel, especially when you had ISIS overrun Mosul, and there was a real concern that we might be seeing real disruptions out of Iraq, to a situation in January of last year where we ended up at $27 a barrel. And so, for these countries that were very dependent on this resource to lose that much revenue has in turn caused tremendous instability. Now if we fast forward to what I'm concerned about now, what if they have problems servicing their debt. That will just exacerbate the political problems that were already preexisting in these countries. What I always say about many of these oil producing states, the sovereign producers, is they were really structurally unsound when oil was above $100 a barrel. The way these countries operated with often through patronage systems that were fueled through cash. What happens when the cash dries up? Can these governments stay in power? SP: A lot of the chaos that we see around the world is really a symptom of countries whose governments are either authoritarian or patrimonial, that is, they're sort of sucking of resources within those countries. A lot of them make their living on extractive industries. For instance, they're big producers of oil and gas, for instance. Normally you'd think that would be a good thing. But what we find instead is, having those sorts of resources, or other commodities that you can mine, for instance, what that does is it creates these revenue streams that then are siphoned off by an often kleptocratic elite that doles out patronage and favors to keep itself into power. The problem is that that's not infinitely sustainable. DS: The fallout of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 has been epical. Successive US administrations have pledged to withdraw from Afghanistan, but they have been unable to do so because of the weakness of the Afghan government, and the fear that Afghanistan will again become a failed state and a haven for terrorists, a haven from which they can strike other countries. This has led to what some in the US now call the Forever War. But it has also helped stoke the fires of jihadism. However, it is key that we consider what is happening in Islam in context rather than in isolation. If we take a step back, we can see that many of the most disturbing aspects of Islamic extremism are phenomena that have been repeated throughout history in different belief systems around the world. There are striking similarities between Islamic extremism today and what went on in the Protestant Reformation, where the most intense hostility would last 131 years, and ultimately result in the death of a third of the population of Europe. It is hard to see how that violence is different from the violence perpetrated by groups like ISIS today in the name of their own religious demands. In both cases, enormous numbers of people suffered horribly or died as a result of different interpretations of the same religion and the surrounding political struggles. In both cases, the disruption was as much about power as about religion, and in both cases, a disruptive new technology of communication created access and links that didn't exist before. For the Protestants, it was the printing press. For the Islamic extremists, it's the internet. So, is Islam a religion more violent than others? Given the history of conflict between Protestant and Catholic, just to take one example, I'd say not. Some people say that Islam is now going through its own Reformation. If that is the case, and if European history is any guide, we might expect this process to be very long and very violent indeed. MB: So, we've seen this debate for decades now about whether Islam is a religion of peace or a religion of violence. People tend to come down on one end of that ideological spectrum, that it's either extreme violence or extreme peace. The answer is in between, and the answer depends on place and circumstance. And I think just to step back just a little bit on that question of religion and how people practice religion, I mean, I think anyone who is devout will see kind of a perfection in their religion, and will see the ideals of the religion. And then the way it tends to practice and play out is very different from those stated ideals. In Islam in particular, I think we've seen, partly because of the outsized influence that extremist ideology has had, and because extremist groups have taken up terrorism fairly effectively and in ways that other groups haven't, so we see this association of Islam with violence thanks to fairly spectacular acts of terrorism. Inherently, there are things about Islam, sort of parts of the texts that do condone a level of violence. That had to do with protecting the early Islamic community because their religion was under attack in its very early days. There were tenets of religion that allowed this violence. DS: We have seen throughout history, and in all religions, that adherents can and do select parts of the religious texts and their histories and adapt these to the political needs of the time. And as conditions change, the principal focus of political action and of religious emphasis, and even of religious practice, changes too. Therefore, it's very important to understand that when people talk about Islamic extremists interpreting passages of their religious texts in order to justify religious extremism or violence, this is not a new phenomenon, and it's not specific to Islam. All religions, including Islam, can and do inspire wholesale and horrific violence at times. The morass of multiple conflicts in the Middle East has become so confusing and so heated that another conflict that was for decades seen as the core of the problem has more recently been overshadowed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, a recent example of dramatic change in political and religious focus is the transformation in Israeli-Saudi relations. MB: I mean, Israel is not a central issue in the way it was in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, even in the 90s, when you had the early peace agreements between Israel and Palestinians. It is a side issue to a large extent. I mean, there's still an underlying and difficult conflict between Palestinians and Israel. But to most people, I think, in the Arab world and in the Muslim world, that sense of awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken a backseat. ARJ: When I was ambassador, the Saudis believe that every bad thing in the world was the fault of the Israelis. Throughout much of the last 15 years, that has been the narrative. But because Iran has loomed so large now as a threat to the Sunni Arab states, everything bad in the world in their view right now is the fault of Iran. And this has allowed in a way for the Israelis to take a little bit of cover and to not suffer quite as much as the whipping boy of the Arab states. Interestingly, we are now seeing increasing examples of the Israelis doing business with the Gulf Arab states in particular. DS: But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does remain core to unrest in the Middle East, even if it has recently been overshadowed by other conflicts around the region such as the Syrian Civil War, which has been raging since 2011, or the Libyan Civil War, which began in 2012. When looking at all these conflicts, it is essential we turn our attention to another nation, one that often by proxy has a hand in multiple conflicts in many countries across the Middle East, Iran. Iran has been a major force throughout history. Today, it is once again on the upswing, and it is a growing and increasingly powerful and active regional player. The current regime in Iran began when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 through a clerical revolution. This was therefore the first revolution in the modern Middle East to be founded on explicitly Islamic principles, proclaimed as an alternative to the previous regime, and to the allies of the previous regime elsewhere. The result was a revolutionary agenda. Many observers see Iran as determined to undermine or destroy the authority of Sunni Islam in the Gulf and in neighboring regions. For example, the current civil war in Yemen is viewed primarily as a war between Shia and Sunni, the Shia side backed by Iran, and the Sunni side backed by Saudi Arabia. However, although Western states usually are willing to regard Saudi Arabia as an ally and Iran as essentially hostile, Saudi support of Wahhabism has changed the dynamic in the Middle East as much as Iran, and has cause far greater disruption throughout the Muslim world as a whole. At the same time, Iran's activities have pushed Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together, as both are concerned by Iran's nuclear program and its support of Shia-related parties, such as President Assad in Syria or the non-state actor Hezbollah, operating around Israel's borders. Actions by Western countries in the Middle East have been driven first and foremost by oil, and then by concerns for the security of Israel and the fight against Islamic terrorism. But another stated goal has been to promote or even impose democracy and peace in the region, if only as a means of advancing the goals already mentioned. However, in most cases, the outcomes have been the opposite. Western powers interfering in already complex webs of regional, social, and religious conflict without having a nuanced understanding of how the Middle East works have only compounded the problem, often making complex, difficult, and violent situations worse. The one thing Western intervention has consistently failed to do is to produce any lasting movement towards peace, or any increase in democracy. However, in late 2010, something occurred that, with little Western intervention, briefly seemed to be a native democratic uprising against the oppressive authoritarian governments that had been in place for decades. It came to be called the Arab Spring, and it began in Tunisia with a fruit vendor who set himself ablaze in frustration as a way of making a dramatic protest against a corrupt government. This one act set in motion a chain of events that spread like wildfire across the Arab world. Dictators were toppled. Within days, the Tunisian government fell. As the movement spread, Hosni Mubarak was deposed as president of Egypt. Many Western observers could scarcely contain their enthusiasm for what they saw as a new day in the Arab world. When demonstrations began in Syria, most observers assumed that the result would be the same. They were wrong. Syria's President Assad had no intention of giving way. His response to the protests was to send troops into the street. Protesters were shot, imprisoned, and tortured. And from there, the violence escalated and the Syrian Civil War had begun. There was too much military power, corruption and wealth in the hands of the autocrats and the privileged elite who supported them for them to relinquish their grip on power without a fight. And so, the very movement that many hoped would bring peace and a more Western style of government in fact led not only to civil war, but also paved the way for the rise of ISIS. MB: The Arab Spring, started in late 2010 and early 2011, was a historical moment in the region. It was something that we hadn't seen in a long time. It was popular, deep rooted uprisings by people who had been for decades, at least in many parts of the West, kind of written off as, they'll always go along with their autocratic rulers and with their regimes. James Hollifield: You know, there was a great hope and expectation with the Arab Spring. Some of us at the time, including me, were very pessimistic as to how that was going to end. But when you have entire societies and states that are in a meltdown, basically, the repercussions from that are going to be felt, you know, throughout the neighborhood. So entire regions can be destabilized when you have societies and states that are failing and create regional instability. HC: You know, people thought early on that Syria was going to be quick. I remember listening to some of these briefings early on in 2012, when people kept saying Assad's days are numbered. And one of my very good friends, Steven Cook, kept saying, no, they're not. Assad has nowhere to go. He will eat dirt, he will burn down his country, because he has nowhere to go. Micah Zenko: There have been 14 different countries who have bombed Syria since 2011. There are multiple countries that are sending weapons, aid to various rebel groups, and they are essentially fueling and enabling the civil war to go on, whether it's Russia and Iran on behalf of the Assad regime, whether it's the Gulf states, European countries, certainly the United States, that have been supporting various rebel groups in Syria who want to counter the Assad regime. DS: Another hugely destabilizing factor was the US led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. This increased divisiveness within the three major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds, and may yet lead to the breakup of the country. But more immediately, it left people in a desperate situation, and paved the way for replacing the strongman rule of Saddam Hussein with something even worse, the jihadi group now known as the Islamic State or ISIS. There are many things that lead to the birth of ISIS, but one in particular was the decision by the Americans to cleanse the Iraqi military of officers, and especially of senior officers, who belonged to Saddam's Ba'ath party. Deprived of power and money, these officers would provide much of the expertise on which the ideologues who founded ISIS could draw. The dismissal in 2014 of ISIS as junior varsity by Barack Obama was a grave mistake. Due in part to the disenfranchised Iraqi military commanders involved, it possessed real expertise in running the security apparatus of a dictatorship and in conducting military campaigns. And it possessed influential allies who could provide it with funds, weapons and medical supplies. But if the dissolving of the Iraqi army gave ISIS much of its know-how, it was the chaos of the Syrian Civil War that provided the perfect breeding ground. ISIS differs from previous jihadi groups, however, in the extent and effectiveness of its recruitment of people in Western countries. According to some experts, this even includes individuals who were not Muslim, and who only converted to Islam during the process of recruitment by ISIS. But when it comes to recruitment by ISIS of young people in the West, we have to ask if we are dealing exclusively with Islam, or if we are dealing with an Islamic version of the same sort of violence and extremism we have seen before. Is what we are really seeing a violent attempt to destroy the world and remake it for personal as well as political reasons, and to join groups that encourage or empower this kind of vision? A similar radicalization was seen among anarchists in 19th century Europe, among communists and socialists in the 20th century, and with Islamists in our own day, but now, massively empowered by the technology of hyper-connectivity. Andrew Solomon: The thing about the internet is that it generates communities of identity. It generates them at every level, and a lot of the time, these various pieces of identity or pieces of point of view, which might, if somebody felt, I'm the only one who's thinking this, simply peter out and disappear, instead receive reinforcement. But people seek out the opinions of those who are like them, and then when they discover other people think this too, they feel reinforced in it. There's a sense in which the internet has removed shame, and but has relieved shame more profoundly, because once you find a lot of other people who think what you think, you feel open to asserting it and being aggressive in it, as opposed to thinking, what I feel is shameful and I should learn to feel otherwise. MB: We've definitely seen a problem of radicalization in diasporan in Muslim communities, especially in Europe. Some of that has to do with effective recruitment by jihadist groups, especially ISIS, that's been able to target its recruitment toward the sense of social isolation that European Muslims in particular feel. RG: They were taken out of the world in which they had an identity that they knew and understood, an identity which their family had held for centuries, for generations. Suddenly they were in a completely different world, and were more or less at sea. Well, that same process is even more noticeable if you're in a society that is not Muslim at all. So, the appeal of some radical solution is undeniably attractive, and I think those are the reasons for it. I think there is a difference between people who sign up in a Western country and people who would be living in Syria and Iraq and sign up for it, partly because it's a long way away if you're a young man raised in the United Kingdom or France. And it is presented to you, it seems, as a kind of quest through which you can find a role for yourself. You can discover the manly nature of yourself. You're not the person who is simply put upon in the little world he currently inhabits, but will strut upon the stage of great political events. So, it has a kind of fantasy to it. It has a kind of dream. It's not in some ways unlike, it seems to me, the kind of fascination that earlier generations of students in Western countries had for communism and for socialism, students who'd never been anywhere near the Soviet Union. It was a counterculture, it was a way of stepping into another identity. HC: We've talked about the internet as the sort of thing that was going to bring us all together, just like globalization. Breaking down walls, breaking down barriers, one great human race. Same thing with technology. Initially it was seen as a way to knock down barriers, create a shared sense of humanity. RG: In the case of Daesh or ISIS, I think one is dealing with something very, very different. But the most noticeable thing about Daesh was that they were not really concerned with establishing an Islamic society of any sort. They wanted to see the end of the world. It was a movement that was based on apocalyptic texts, and they were very keen to see certain prophecies fulfilled so that the world would simply come to an end. The recruiters apparently look for a particular kind of alienation and confusion and build upon that to perfect their recruit for the role that they had in mind. In other words, it is as much about cultural dislocation and personal psychological struggle as it is about Islam. And I hasten to add, that is not an attempt on my part or an attempt on their part to pretend that this has nothing to do with Islam, because obviously it does. But exactly what, and exactly how? And even those who understand the phenomenon very well are struggling to make sense of it. HC: The ability of ISIS to really tap into people that felt disaffected in their own homes, so you didn't need to leave your home to become recruited, you didn't need to go find that recruiter in the mosque or somewhere else. They can find you behind your door of your bedroom as a young person. And so, I think that has been one of the dark side that we've seen. Wars can go on a lot longer than people think. That what can push people over the edge in terms of embracing extremism, it's a lot easier for disaffected people now to join these type of groups. I think about what happened with the rise of ISIS, and not thinking that, hey, if you leave Iraq under certain circumstances, and if prime minister Maliki continues to push forward with these very sectarian policies that leaves the Sunni community in Iraq thinking there's no place for them, that that is the seeds for ISIS. DS: The use by ISIS of the internet and social media to recruit individuals behind their bedroom doors is an innovation, but it is in large part the changing nature of technology that has made this possible. Extremist groups have become very skilled in identifying psychologically damaged, vulnerable individuals who feel like outcasts. But this part of the approach is not new. Much of the final stages of recruitment is still done in person, and issues of young people in Europe and the US being drawn into extremist groups are well documented in the 19th and 20th centuries. What has happened is that extremists now have a previously unimaginable technological advantage in reaching potential converts. With the recent loss of much of its territory, including its capital in Syria, the future of ISIS is in question. It has made plans to transition to more decentralized global terrorist activities, but without its territory, it is not clear that the ISIS brand, to put it in commercial terms, will have the drawing power it once had. But of at least equal if not greater concern is how Islamic jihadist groups will develop from here. What will the next chapter of Islamic extremism look like? And will it be able to draw converts from the West as successfully? We need to understand why ISIS was successful in doing this if we want to eliminate or at least limit this kind of activity in the future. Is there a growing sense of alienation in modern mass society that has made more people susceptible to radicalization? Has our modern technologically interconnected society actually created a sense of isolation and loss of meaning for many people? And is virtual connection really a viable substitute for physical community? Or if that is not the whole answer, then what is? Jeremi Suri: One of the worst things we've done is create a hyper-individualism. People who invest their talents and resources not in being martyrs, making themselves better, but also making their communities better. We need to highlight those examples, we need to encourage that behavior. That is what a generation of Americans and Europeans and Japanese got out of World War II and the depression, the sense that you couldn't go alone, that you had to be part of a larger entity. And we don't want to have to fight another war to learn this. We have to find another way to get ourselves there. One of the biggest mistakes I think, we made in our society after 9/11, was we didn't use that as a moment. So many young people came to my office, I'm sure came to others, and wanted to get involved, wanted to do something. And we didn't create a call to arms for public service, and we missed that opportunity. We might have that opportunity again now, though. Virginia Gerrard: Isn't religion, and isn't government, and aren't social structures that human beings have devised all about controlling baser instincts? I mean, Rousseau would say that, and Locke would say it in even harder terms. That we are maybe innately violent people, that we're innately greedy people, that whatever evolution gave us to survive in this world back when we were just coming out of being cavemen, maybe don't always service so well at this point in human history. We just need to train ourselves. If we accept that as a positive social good, and I think that's the crisis right now, not everyone does accept that as a positive social good that benefits everyone, or at least doesn't benefit everyone equally. The idea that we abandoned our tribalism for populist society. Then we need to maybe figure out a new toolkit to deal with our tribalistic impulses. Christian Michel: Tribes were really limited to maybe 100 individuals, and there was no hierarchy in the tribe. But nations, of course, are made up of millions and millions of individuals, and there is division of labor and there is hierarchy. But at the end of the day, there is that feeling that yes, we are all part of the same nation. Cosmopolitanism, I think, is on the rise, but it has that long fight to do against 200 years of nationalism. RG: I think politicians are often very skilled at identifying the weaknesses in their followers or their potential electorates, and I think they're often surprised by how easy it is to push certain buttons. I think politicians are very adept at creating identities and then using them against the people to whom those identities are meant to apply. JS: I think the historian would have to say that the world that we're moving into is likely to be more conflictual than the world we just had the last 50 years, because the last 50 to 60 years were remarkably peaceful. Not for everyone, but in terms of great power war, in terms of major conflagrations that people were accustomed to in the 19th and early 20th century, it was much more peaceful. And we're going to see more conflict. I think that's absolutely right. That doesn't mean complete world war. The world wars were also historically anomalous. But the history of human societies are histories of conflict over different ideologies and control over resources, and I don't think those conflicts, for example, in the Middle East, are going to go away anytime soon. DS: The Middle East exemplifies many of the problems of our current world. Its intersecting struggles, with currents moving in opposing directions, make it extremely complex, and it is driven by fear, anger, and sharp sectarian division. The rivalry between the ostensibly conservative and apparently modernizing Muslims continues to become more obvious, and yet, these are not simple or absolute divisions. Many Muslims, and many young Muslims in particular, show signs of conservatism and modernism at the same time. Such apparent contradictions exist within families, and even within individuals, just as they do among Jews, Hindus, Christians, and adherents of other faiths or of no faith who live in an increasingly complex world subject to such a dramatic acceleration of technological and social change. And these complexities suggest that it will become all the more difficult to find straightforward solutions to the problems that exist in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world. Our problems are becoming more intractable, it seems, rather than less. Behind the scenes like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could still erupt again. And within all these larger divisions of conflict in the Middle East, there are smaller conflicts. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, conflicts in the Middle East have a way of spreading and drawing more players in. What started as a popular revolt in Syria escalated into a civil war. It then drew in regional players like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and then global powers like Russia and the US. And failed or failing states, with all the problems and political contagion they bring, including massive numbers of refugees and the forced migration of large populations, appear on television screens or computer screens with a frequency unimaginable even a decade ago. The situation is changing all the time. It is conceivable that oil, which has driven the interest of so many outside parties, could slowly lose its importance due to technology driving the world towards renewables like solar power. What could that mean for Middle East conflicts? It could make them less urgent, but it could easily make them worse. The Middle East is a cautionary tale in understanding the direction that some important parts of the world are taking. Its complexity significantly increases unpredictability. Almost no one could foresee the Arab Spring or the rise of ISIS, and no one really knows what lies ahead. As these struggles evolve, so do the weapons employed to fight them. New technologies are being used to settle very old scores. At least three of the powers in the broader conflict have nuclear or near nuclear capability, and that's just the tip of the iceberg, as states and smaller groups develop cyber and other postmodern weaponry. Whatever the future of the Middle East holds, it's very likely to be something we don't see today. And if history is anything to go by, we can be certain its effects will be felt well beyond the region. In the next episode, we're going to explore the many rising threats our world faces, from nuclear, biological, and most recently cyber warfare, to threats related to our resources and systems, and finally to perhaps the greatest threat of them all, the enemy within.