Flashpoints: Ethnic and Religious Conflicts

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Flashpoints: Ethnic and Religious Conflicts

Middle Eastern society is divided between various, often overlapping, groups. Religious, ethnic, social, and national allegiances all claim people's attention and loyalties. Many conflicts in the region have resulted from members of these various factions competing for access to political power and control of the region's natural resources. An examination of three particular groups illustrates some of the difficulties these different allegiances pose to stability in the Middle East. The troubles faced by ethnic Armenians (Christian Turks) in Turkey illustrate the dangers of the national boundaries that were drawn in the Middle East after World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). The plight of the Kurds (non-Arabic Muslims, or followers of the Islamic religion) in Iraq reveals how difficult it is for minority ethnic groups to win support in their search for independence or adequate political representation. In addition, the struggles between Sunnis (a branch of Islam that believes that the leader of the Islamic religion can be elected from any member of the tribe of the prophet Muhammad) and Shiites (a branch of Islam that believes that the leader of the Islamic religion can only be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad) throughout the Middle East highlight how religious, national, and social allegiances come into play in many of the region's conflicts.

The modern conflicts in the Middle East began with the fall of the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century) in 1918. After centuries of rule over a large part of the Middle East region, the Ottoman Empire lost land to European and Asian nations in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire hoped to regain its power by siding with Germany during World War I, but was ultimately defeated and the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist. Various ethnic groups who were once members of the Ottoman Empire began to fight for power and self-government in the region. Among the ethnic populations hoping for an independent nation of their own were the Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, Persians, Jews, and Turks. The success of these populations in securing political power within the new countries created by the League of Nations (the international organization created after World War I to preserve peace and cooperation between nations) depended heavily on their ability to gain the favor of the European countries, namely Britain and France, that would oversee the development of these new nations. Those groups that were able to work with and influence the European powers were rewarded with powerful positions within the Middle East that allowed some groups to obtain their goal of an independent nation. As certain groups rose to power in the Middle East, however, other groups, which were often minorities, were forced to either abandon their loyalties to their religions, ethnicities, and nationalities, or face the possibility of poverty, exile, or death.

The plight of the Armenians

Ethnic Armenians have lived in the Middle East region since 3500 bce. In 303 ce, during the reign of the Roman Empire (an empire that ruled between c. 27 bce and 476 ce and controlled territories ranging from Germany to Northern Africa and into the Persian Gulf), the Armenians adopted the Christian religion, a religion which was becoming more and more accepted in the Roman Empire, and developed their own distinctive language and alphabet. The Armenian culture grew in the mountainous region near Mount Ararat, and as the population increased over the centuries, Armenians came to live in portions of the present-day nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and the Republic of Georgia.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, areas inhabited by Armenians were controlled first by the Byzantine Empire (a section of the Roman Empire that ruled from c. 330 ce to 1453 ce in Asia and the Middle East) and then by the Ottoman Empire. Both Empires allowed the Armenians to practice their religion and cultures with little interference. But as the Ottoman Empire started to lose its control on the region in the early nineteenth century, the Armenian people soon found themselves in the middle of a conflict. Turkish and Russian political leaders battled for control of the land occupied by Armenians. In 1828 the Russian Empire took control of a portion of the Armenian population when it captured a region from Turkey that would become part of the Republic of Georgia. Armenians who lived on Georgian land were forced to choose between placing their loyalty with their fellow ethnic Armenians who still lived in Turkey or with their new Russian leaders. Most chose ethnic loyalty, and Armenian nationalism (the belief that a people with shared ethnic, cultural, and/or religious identities had the "right" to form their own nation) grew within the Armenian populations across the borders between the countries during the nineteenth century.

At first both the Russian and Turkish governments paid little attention to the Armenians. But as an Armenian idea of nationalism began to emerge, Armenians in each country started to stage protests and armed uprisings to fight for more rights for Armenians. Soon both the Russians and the Ottoman Turks retaliated. In the 1890s, the Ottomans reacted to several Armenian uprisings in eastern Anatolia (Turkey) by taking away the Armenians' rights as citizens of the Ottoman Empire. They also confiscated much of the property owned by Armenians and ordered the killing of tens of thousands of Armenians within Ottoman ruled regions.

In 1908 a political group called the Young Turks took over the Turkish government from the Ottoman Empire and attempted to keep the country safe from foreign control by creating a unified Turkish state. One of the highest priorities was creating a Turkish national identity, with a unified Turkish language and culture. The Armenian population, however, still spoke its own language and practiced its own culture, and was seen as a threat to Turkish rule. The Turkish government limited Armenians' ability to express their culture, restricting the use of their language and the practice of their cultural and religious celebrations. But the Armenians refused to give up their ethnic and religious ties and often clashed with the new Turkish government.

A planned genocide

Unable to assimilate Armenians into Turkish society, the Turkish government authorized the extermination of its Armenian population starting in 1914. An official notice from Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha sent on September 16, 1916, to the government of the Turkish province, or region, of Aleppo clearly detailed the plan: "It was at first communicated to you that the government, by order of the Jemiet [Young Turk Committee], had decided to destroy completely all the Armenians living in Turkey ... . An end must be put to their existence, however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex nor to conscientious scruples," as quoted by David Kherdian in his book The Road from Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl. Turkish and Kurdish soldiers rounded up Armenians and shot them, gathered them into churches that were then burned to the ground, or forced Armenian men, women, and children to march across the desert to Syria, a journey that killed many. The Armenian population had little success resisting the organized efforts of the Turkish government to destroy them.

The actions of the Turkish government, known as genocide (the complete destruction of a religious or cultural group), were called "crimes against humanity and civilization" by France, Great Britain, and Russia in 1915, according to Christopher Simpson's The Splendid Blond Beast. Nevertheless, when the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of World War I, the Turkish government remained in power over a smaller but intact Turkish society. The Allies (France, Britain, Russia, and the United States), however, recognized the existence of the Armenians and other groups, such as the Kurds, as distinct populations within Turkey, and they discussed with the League of Nations the possibility of creating separate countries for Armenians and Kurds.

In 1918, the Armenians were granted a small independent country on land that had once belonged to Turkey. The Republic of Armenia declared its independence in 1918, but due to the creation of many other countries from land taken from the Ottoman Empire, many Armenians still lived in Turkey or other nations. The Turks who wanted to regain the land they had lost to Armenians refused to let Armenians immigrate to the Republic of Armenia from Turkey and worked to keep other countries from allowing immigration as well. Turks also threatened to invade the Republic of Armenia to take back Turkish land by force. By 1920, however, Russia had come to the aid of the Armenians, and in 1922 the Republic of Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Oil before blood

Many countries opposed the mass killing of the Armenians by Turks between 1915 and 1918, but after the end of World War I, these same countries supported the Turkish government's control of the country of Turkey and the idea of a unified Turkish people. Armenians could not understand why the support of the international community had shifted, but many historians believe that the major powers in the Middle East felt that supporting Turkey would give them the best access to the oil that was then being discovered in the region. Even countries that called for Armenians to have their own independent nation, such as the United States, Britain, and France, aligned themselves with the Turkish government in spite of their sympathy for the Armenians. This explains why only Russia came to the aid of the Republic of Armenia in 1920, for Russia and Turkey had long fought over land and Russians would never be allowed access to Turkish oil in the early part of the twentieth century.

Because most of the world's governments supported Turkey due to economic reasons, the Armenian genocide was often described as "the forgotten genocide." After 1918, the international media often did not report atrocities committed against Armenians and many people were unaware of the mass killings that continued to occur in the country until it came under Russian protection. Because the Turks had used their economic power so effectively to influence the world into accepting their actions against the Armenians, German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) made plans to exterminate Europe's Jews during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) using the Armenian genocide as an example. Hitler believed that his planned genocide of the Jews would not draw the anger of the world as long as Germany remained politically powerful and influential over other powerful Western countries (such as England, France, Canada, and the United States). Unlike Turkey, however, Germany lost much of its economic power during World War II, and Hitler's plans for genocide were discovered and widely condemned. The genocide of the Armenians, however, was not officially recognized by the international community until the 1980s. Yet even in the twenty-first century, Armenian ethnic groups that reside in countries such as Turkey are denied access to political power in the region and often are denied the full rights of other citizens.

Kurds struggle for independence from Iraq

The Kurds are the "largest ethnic group in the world without a country," according to Kari J. Bodnarchuk in her book Kurdistan. Even though Kurds live in countries that are mainly Arabic, Kurds are not ethnically Arab and they speak a non-Arabic language called Kurdish. The Kurdish culture, which dates back to the world's first civilizations in 3500 bce, existed originally among people living in a region called Kurdistan, a two hundred thousand-square-mile area that encompasses parts of the modern-day nations of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. As part of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish people were governed by their own tribal leaders in Kurdistan. These Kurdish leaders had an arrangement with the Ottoman rulers to maintain order within their own population. But after World War I, as smaller independent nations were created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds lost any power they possessed over the region or their people. Although Kurds had been promised their own country by the League of Nations in the first negotiations that ended World War I in 1918, more powerful groups, such as the Turks, the Persians, and the Iraqis, were awarded this land instead. The Kurdish population was separated from each other as the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran cut through the former land of Kurdistan and the Kurds in these nations came under the control of these countries' governments.

Despite being separated from each other, the Kurds maintained a strong sense of national identity. Kurds living in each of the countries that formally made up Kurdistan have formed nationalist movements over the years to fight for the rights of Kurds to have their own independent country and to maintain the Kurdish way of life. The various states that contain large Kurdish populations, however, have remained "united in the belief that the Kurds should not break away and form their own country, state, or government in the Middle East," according to Bodnarchuk. In the Saadabad Treaty of 1937, for example, the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq agreed to use force if necessary to stop Kurdish nationalist movements. If the Kurds won control over the land they desired in each of these nations, they would have control of sizable portions of the Middle East's most prized resources: oil reserves and valuable sources of water. Therefore, the governments of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have all instituted programs to disrupt growing Kurdish national sentiment, forcing Kurds to disperse into Arab-dominated areas within their own countries or to leave their countries altogether.

Kurdish Freedom Groups

In the early 2000s the Kurdish population living in the Middle East exceeded thirty million people. At this time, three nations are home to powerful Kurdish independence groups: Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Turkey forbids Kurds to speak their own language or practice their cultural traditions. The Kurds in Turkey formed the Partia Karkaren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers' Party), in order to press for Kurdish autonomy (self-rule) there. Iraq allows Kurds some rights, and created a Kurdish self-rule area within its borders after the first Gulf War of 1991. In Iraq two separate Kurdish groups are working for independence: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Although these two groups often disagree and fight among themselves, they are the largest, most powerful Kurdish threats in Iraq. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran has worked since 1940 for an autonomous Kurdish region within Iran.

Over the years, Kurdish freedom groups have struggled with the governments of their countries and with each other over solutions to their stateless existence. Kurds in Turkey helped the government carry out its extermination of the Armenians between 1915 and 1923, in hopes that Kurds would be saved from the same fate and given political recognition for their actions. Turkey welcomed Kurdish help, but continued to deny Kurds political and social rights as it worked to establish a unified Turkish culture. Unwilling to assimilate into Turkish culture, Kurds fought with the Turkish government from 1984 to 1999 in battles that claimed nearly thirty thousand lives. Although the Turkish government gave limited political rights to the Kurds in 2002, by 2004 Kurds had announced an end to their ceasefire and again battled for their independence from Turkey.

Infighting between the Kurdish freedom groups throughout the Middle East has been exploited by the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, who provide weapons, funds, and safe havens to Kurdish rival groups in order to fuel divisions among the Kurds. These governments also aid the Kurds in order to promote their own agendas. In the 1980s, for example, when Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, Iran supported Kurds in Iraq in order to threaten the Iraqi government. Regardless of the many forces working against them, the Kurds have continued to fight in the twenty-first century for political control over their population and ownership of their former land.

Kurds in Iraq

The Kurdish population in Iraq has received the most international attention. Since Iraq gained its independence from Britain in 1932, ethnic, religious, and social divisions have prevented the state from forming a government that could rule without resorting to oppression or violence toward one group or another. Iraq maintained a large military in order to protect itself from other countries as well as from opposition from its citizens. The Kurds living in Iraq's northern region, who comprise nearly 20 percent of the country's population, have struggled within Iraq to obtain their independence.

The Kurds' distinctiveness of being non-Arabs living in an Arabic country set them apart, especially as the Baath Party came to power in Iraq in the 1960s. The Baath Party supported a Pan-Arab ideology (a system in which Arabic countries combine governments and resources under one ruling party in order to advance and protect all Arabic countries in the Middle East) and suppressed religious or ethnic groups that opposed its control of Iraq. Though many of the Kurds followed the same Sunni sect of the Muslim religion as most Iraqis, they did not support the Baath Party's attempts to unify the country, and challenged the government by fighting for their own independence and control over the northern Iraqi province of Kurdistan, where most Kurds lived. The Iraqi government refused to give the land to the Kurds for an independent nation, mainly because of the rich oil reserves found there.

In 1970 the Kurds signed a peace agreement with the Iraqi government, ending fifteen years of war. But the Kurds and the ruling Baath Party did not make amends. In 1974 the Iraqi government tried to intimidate Kurds by turning two Kurdish towns into rubble, and dropping bombs on and burning others. It also forced Kurds from their homes and moved Arabs into the emptied Kurdish towns. An estimated 1.5 million Kurds became refugees in Iraq and another one hundred thousand fled to Iran. By 1975 the Iraqi government tried to evict the Kurds from the country, forcing residents from eight hundred Kurdish villages near the Iran border.

Although the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88; a war in which Iran and Iraq fought over land and natural resources) turned the Iraqi government's attention from the Kurds for a short while, by the end of the war Iraq had recommitted itself to ridding the country of Kurds. The two main Kurdish groups in Iraq united to form the Kurdistan Front in 1987, in hopes of gaining Kurdish independence. But the Iraqi government fought hard to stop these efforts. In 1988 the Iraqi government began an operation called Anfal that was designed to destroy the Kurdish population in Iraq. From February through September 1988 the Iraqi government sent airplanes to bomb Kurdish villages, destroying Kurdish homes and farmlands, and forcing ten of thousands of Kurds to become refugees. In March 1988, the Iraqi government set off chemical weapons in the Kurdish town of Halabja. They used poison gas that killed by destroying the central nervous system, and mustard gas that burned the lungs and caused blisters on the skin. The attack on Halabja killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's (1937–) use of these gases against his country's own citizens horrified the world, but no country came to assist the Kurds, despite Kurdish pleas for help from the United Nations (an international organization founded in 1945 and made up of most of the countries of the world). Conflicts between Iraqi troops and Kurds resulted in many more deaths. Many Kurds were even shot as they tried to surrender to Iraqi troops. The extermination campaign waged by Hussein against the Kurds in 1988 claimed an estimated one hundred thousand Kurdish lives and forced nearly sixty thousand Kurds to become refugees.

A temporary source of relief for the Kurds came at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, when a group of countries from the United Nations including the United States, Britain, Canada, France, and Germany stopped Saddam Hussein and Iraqi troops from taking over Kuwait and possibly attacking Saudi Arabia. Although thousands of Kurdish refugees moved to Turkey in the aftermath of Iraq's defeat, those who remained enjoyed limited self-government in a region protected by Western forces in the north of Iraq. But by 1994 the two main Kurdish groups began fighting between themselves over who would control the region; their civil war lasted until 1998. By 2002 the Kurds had begun to work together again and had formed a functioning regional parliament (an assembly of people that make the laws of a nation).

With the forced removal of Saddam Hussein from office by a U.S.-led coalition (or alliance) of troops in 2003, the Kurds experienced another step toward political power. Kurds won control of 25 percent of the votes in the National Assembly in the Iraqi interim (or temporary) government that was elected in 2005 to replace Hussein's government, which had been taken out of power in 2003. In April 2005, Iraqis elected their first Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani (1933–).

Sunnis v. Shiites

Frictions between religious groups have also been a source of great conflict in the Middle East. After the Iranian Islamic revolution (a movement that overthrew the secular, or non-religious, government of Iran and gave power to Islamic religious leaders who created a government run by the laws of the Islamic religion) established a Shiite-led government in Iran in 1979, the rift between Sunnis and Shiites, two different sects of Islam, came to international attention. Before the rise of Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) in Iran, the most powerful Arab nations—including Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—had been dominated by Sunni Muslims. Bringing the antagonism between these two groups to the highest levels of national government threatened the ability of neighboring Middle Eastern nations to maintain peace.

The fundamental differences between the beliefs of the two sects date back to the beginnings of Islam. The primary difference between Shiites and Sunnis is over who should have been the successor to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, and thus who should be the caliph, or leader of Islam. Shiites (also called Shia) hold that the caliph should be determined through direct hereditary succession to the prophet Muhammad. Sunnis hold that the caliph should be elected from among members of Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh, but do not need to be directly related to Muhammad. The first caliph was not a direct descendant of Muhammad, nor were the vast majority of the successive caliphs, leading the Shiites to deny their legitimacy. According to the Shiites, only the fourth caliph, Ali, was legitimate. Ali, his family, and his followers were massacred in a place called Karbala in 680 ce by fellow Muslims supporting another potential caliph. This event, called the massacre of Karbala, made Ali a martyr (one who dies for his religious beliefs) to Shiites, and the celebration of his martyrdom has become an important annual religious event for Shiites. In addition, Shiites regarded the twelve descendants of Ali as the rightful leaders of their religious community. Sunnis disagreed with this view, and some Sunnis went so far as to consider Shiites' beliefs and religious practices as "a heretical movement that undermines the principles of Islam," according to Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke in The Arab Shi'a.

Though the theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites are easily identified, the greatest sources of conflict between the two sects of Islam are rooted in their cultural and political differences. Shiites consider themselves an oppressed minority, as they make up about 30 to 35 percent of the world's Muslim population, and in general they are less well off than Sunnis. Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of Muslims, between 65 and 70 percent, often consider Shiites as uneducated and antimodern. Shiites have been discriminated against in Arab society, and Sunnis have denied Shiites political and social equality. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy provided information from the New York Times that described Shiite oppression in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia: "There has been no Shiite cabinet minister, and only one Shiite ambassador—to Iran. Shiites are kept out of critical jobs in the armed forces and the security services. There are no Shiite mayors or police chiefs, and not one of the 300 Shiite girls' schools in the Eastern Province has a Shiite principal."

Shiites Hold Power in Iran

The only country in which Shiites hold ultimate political power is Iran. In 1977 violent riots broke out in Iran when Shiites protested the rule of the shah of Iran, who was backed by Western countries. Not even the murder of hundreds of Shiites by the military subdued the protestors, and by January 16, 1979, mass demonstrations had revolutionized the country and installed the Shiite leader the Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme authority in Iran. The Ayatollah called for Shiites throughout the world to rise up and take control of their countries. Though Shiites did begin working toward gaining power in various Middle Eastern nations, no other country experienced an Islamic Revolution such as that in Iran.

Shiites in other countries, however, have gained access to existing political structures. Shiites comprised more than 60 percent of the population in Iraq but were refused political power by the Sunni-led government for most of the twentieth century. In 2005, after Saddam Hussein's government was removed, the Iraqi population elected a Shiite majority to Iraqi government posts. Similarly, Shiites in Lebanon, who had formed united groups and militias (small independent armies) in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, gained power in the Lebanese government, and in 2000 Shiites held the same number of seats in the government (27) as Sunnis. But the militant Shiite group Hezbollah continued to provoke controversy in Lebanon. Hezbollah received financial support and weapons from Iran and promoted a Shiite revolutionary agenda very similar to that of Iran.

Simon Henderson, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed to political power as the driving force between the continued conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, he noted, "many Saudis are convinced that there is a grand Shiite conspiracy to form a contiguous Shiite bloc [a group of people united by a common interest] extending through Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon." While there is no proof that a single Shiite organization has emerged to gain power in Middle Eastern countries, it is clear that the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Shiites for political dominance in the Middle East is a problem that will continue to cause conflict in the region in the twenty-first century.

For More Information


Bodnarchuk, Kari J. Kurdistan. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2000.

Fuller, Graham E., and Rend Rahim Francke. The Arab Shi'a: The Forgotten Muslims. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Halm, Heinz. Shi'a Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1997.

Haneef, Suzanne. What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims. Chicago: Kazi Publication, 1996.

Kheridan, David. The Road from Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl. New York: Beech Tree, 1979.

LoBaido, Anthony C., Yumi Ng, and Paul A. Rozario. The Kurds of Asia. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 2003.

Sciolino, Elaine. The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1991.

Simpson, Christopher. The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law, and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. New York: Grove Press, 1993.


"After Decades of Oppression, Iraqi Kurds Celebrate Their New Power." Independent (April 9, 2005): 35.

"IRAQ—The Kurdish Factor." APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map (April 18, 2005): N.p.

"Tripoli: A City Now 'Up for Grabs."' U.S. News & World Report (August 15, 1983): 18.

Web Sites

Armenian National Institute.http://www.armenian-genocide.org/index.htm (accessed on July 8, 2005).

Armenian Research Center.http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/ (accessed on July 8, 2005).

Henderson, Simon. "PolicyWatch #970: Saudi Elections in Regional Perspective: The Shiite 'Threat' Theory." The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=2274 (accessed on July 8, 2005).

Kurdistan Regional Government.http://www.krg.org/ (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"Sunnis vs. Shiites." Islam Web.http://islamicweb.com/beliefs/cults/shia.htm (accessed on July 8, 2005).