The Cause of Ethnic Conflict in the Middle East

Politics and the Economy of the Contemporary Middle East

Explain the cause of the ethnic conflicts in the Middle East.

When referring to the nature of any conflict, it must be emphasized that no conflict is a result of a single cause. Various conflicts and rivalries which appear to be a big threat to the Middle East and Northern Africa, are also an important menace for global security. The conflicts escalated especially after the end of the era of colonialism, when territorial issues started to emerge in the region, due to the fact that the whole region was segmented to be under the mandates of several Western countries. (Bleich, 2005) This kind of conflicts can appear not only on an interstate level, but also, in many cases they can be observed on an inner-state level. Causes for these conflicts widely vary, having grounds on religious, ethnic, political and social aspects. Each of the factors constituting the conflict creates certain dynamics in generating the latter. Thus, it makes the process of understanding it fairly troublesome. On the face, one can argue that peoples living in the Middle East are highly undesirable to have any conflicts, especially the Arab population of the territory, provided that most of it shares not only the same religion, but also fairly similar traditions and history. In this essay I will try to explain the intertwined relations of ethnicity and religion as an originator of conflict, and I will try to provide the causes of ethnic conflicts in the Middle East both from inner-state and inter-state aspects, backing them up with case studies of Arab-Israeli confrontation and the Kurdish issues in Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Even long before the latest happenings of the Arab Spring, religion was recognized as an engine of Arab politics. The elections held in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, where Muslim Brothers and Salafist partners together won two-third of the assemblies speak in favour of the arguments that give support for the idea of political Islam. (Fakir, 2014) Even though those in lead of Middle East maintained control over religious sector of their countries, (best proof of which are al-Azhar in Egypt, Muffis in Saudi Arabia, direct influence in Iraq in case of Sadam Husein) the great pains taken by them, turned out to be not strong enough to iron out the appeal of religion. (Juergensmeyer, 2013) However, the assertion that religion occupies central role in the given conflicts is not totally justified, the best proof of which is zero involvement of Shi’a minority and Copts in Egypt, the Christian and Baha’i minorities in Iran in rebellion of 1988, irrespective of undergoing high level of religious discrimination. (Juergensmeyer, 2013)

Most part of the ethnic minorities failed to accomplish their aspirations for having an autonomous state which is likely to result in future periodic confrontations. One of the major ethnic conflicts happening in this region is the issue of Kurdish people living on the territories of several countries in the Middle East. This is an issue of high priority in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and its significance keeps growing bigger paralleled with the population of Kurdish people, who appear to be one of the biggest nations in the world, who do not have an official state (30-40 million people). (Roy, 2011) The rise of the national identity among the Kurdish people has always been a complex and controversial process. The high risk of tension is still present in the Northern part of Iraq which is mostly inhabited by the Kurdish people. It is a potential source of a great number of confrontations between Kurds and the Iraqi government. Consisting of series of wars it broke out shortly after the collapse of Ottoman Empire to last until the invasion of Iraq in the year 2003. The first phase of Iraqi-Kurdish confrontation dates back to World War I and the arrival of British forces. It was back then when the leader of Series of Kurdish uprisings against British mandate declared the short-to-leave the “Kurdish Kingdom”. Ultimately it resulted in fail. Decades that ensued saw several more attempts to negotiate and fight against Iraqi rule, however, it was not until 1961 when history witnessed First Iraqi-Kurdish War followed by negotiation stage the unfruitful nature of which triggered hostility to start second phase of the confrontation known as Second Iraqi Kurdish War. The consequence was reinvasion of the northern part of the country by Iraqi government. The recharge of the conflicts involving Kurdish parties on one side and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on the other was witnessed by 1986 with Kurds gaining military backup from Iran. (Fox, 2005) This is the period when Iraqi government implemented a campaign which brought death to estimate of around 50.000 to 100.000 people. (Human Rights Watch, 1992) Rebellions that shook Iraq after the War in Gulf saw merely Kurds to document a success, that of unrecognized autonomy in the non-fly zone. However, this was by far not the most considerable gain of Kurdish struggle. With the overthrow of Saddam rule recognition of autonomy was reached. Even after the Gulf War, when the soil for creating an independent entity was given inner struggle (between two leading parties that of Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurds) stood wall to the way of national victory. (Fox, 2005) The case of Iraq shows that Kurdish people, being a minority in an Arab country, although most part of the minority having the same religion with Iraqi Arabs, sharing a history of several centuries as well as sharing their culture and traditions, still claimed independence, mostly due to the large population number (an estimated 6 million people) (Roy, 2011), and the idea of self-determination, accompanied with the ethnic tensions towards Kurds by the Iraqi government.

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The roots of the Kurdish issue in modern day Turkey are documented as early as the desolation of the Ottoman Empire, while the first documents proving the existence of this ethnic group in this area date back to 10th and 11th centuries. (BOÄžAZÄ°ÇÄ° UNIVERSITY, 2006) Since the early era of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds lived in peace with the local peoples, the historical fact that triggered the ethnic conflict, which still has a big impact on the development of the latter is the Treaty of Sevres, according to which the Kurds were promised a vast territory, which they called Kurdistan. The promised lands were never given to the Kurdish people provided that the treaty was cancelled because of the great pains taken by the Turkish newly born democratic government. But the struggle to get a personal homeland existed ever since the signing of the treaty. The most significant reasons for the Kurdish issue are the economic underdevelopment of the Kurd populated regions, along with the political lawlessness of the Kurdish population, the passive development of the social and cultural life and the ignorance of Turkish government towards the Kurdish national human rights. The aspiration of the Kurdish people for self-determination and the desire to play a political role proportional to its population in Turkey, also gives a firm background for the escalation of the conflict. Another major factor is the geopolitical location of the so-called “Turkish Kurdistan” which is considered to be in the very central part of Middle East and although it has always been a vast arena for endless wars throughout the history, the state policy of the Turkish government clearly prompts that the idea of independent Kurdistan will never come true.

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The conflict between Israel and Palestine, which then developed to a bigger scale confrontation between most of the Arab world and Israel is a good example of a range of inter-state conflicts. The precise start date of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not clearly documented as far as the fight over the territory has lasted for a considerable period of time. Central subject of which appears to be the dispute over drawing clear borders between the two countries. Undoubtedly the conflict is considerably more controversial and complex. To fully understand the causes behind the conflict between Arab and Israeli people one should not downsize the number of various factors, which trigger the escalation of the tension. On contrary, a holistic approach should be applied and even the smallest constituents are to count in order to get the real picture. After the United Nations resolution 181, Jews, who counted less than one third of the inhabitance of the region, owning only eight percent of the territory were given the chance of owning more than fifty percent of the Palestinian territories. (UN, 1947) This gave birth to a fight between Jews and Palestinian Arabs to which a solution has not been found yet. Two confronting sides longing for homeland wanted to be gifted national independence with the help of the powerful British state, who was a big colonialist back then. Self-determination and the independence, not alien to the nature of the conflict, did not, however, occupy the central rule in its origin. Regardless of the appeal to label the conflict as ethnic or religious the fundamental cause is political, that is to say a fight for control over territories. The micro concepts which narrows down the nature of conflict to a religious aspect, thus blaming on Zionism and Jewish identity ignore the fact that Zionism is a political ideology whereas Judaism bears a religious and cultural nature. (WRMEA, 2014) Not minimizing the role of religion in the given conflict, it should be mentioned that when talking about conflicts and their causes religion, ethnicity and politics interconnect, giving birth to so-called political religion. Thus, the geopolitical nature of the given conflict, spanned throughout the whole Arab region, adding a large number of ethnic shades and transforming the allegedly ethnic conflict into a political conflict and back to an ethnic one, this time on a much bigger scale, which led to open anti-Semitic propaganda by many Arab leaders. (, 2011) So, even if back at the roots the confrontation was more about gaining territories, further developments gave a solid ground to state that currently the nature of the latter is mostly ethnic.

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Taking into close considerations all the facts discussed above, we come to a conclusion that the accuracy is often lost in attempts to define the true nature of conflicts in Middle East due to the complicated and interrelated nature of the factors defining them. Territorial issues are considered to be as major causes for ethnic conflicts. Due to a number of migrations of the population, conquests, wars and other geopolitical processes the resettlement of nations was a common thing, which could lead to territorial claims. As an argument, both sides can bring up the fact that the disputed territory once belonged to either of them, which makes the solution a lot more complicated. Most part of ethnicities in the world does not own a state. (CIA, n.d.) Depending on the development level of their cultural, social, political and national self-consciousness or the fact that they used to have a state in the past, the idea of establishing a national state may emerge within a dependent ethnicity. Inner-state ethnic conflicts may transform into big threats for national security of a certain country, and inter-state ethnic conflicts into a range of long-lasting wars and hatred between two or more ethnicities.


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BOÄžAZÄ°ÇÄ° UNIVERSITY, (2006). The origin of Turkey’s Kurdish question: an outcome of the breakdown of the Ottoman Ancien Regime. BOÄžAZÄ°ÇÄ° UNIVERSITY.

CIA, (1948). The Kurdish Minority Problem. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2015].

CIA, (n.d.). Ethnic Groups. [online] CIA. Available at: [Accessed 24 Mar. 2015].

Fakir, I. (2014). Egypt’s example looms large in Tunisia’s elections. The Nationalist. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Mar. 2015].

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Klein, M. (2011). The Shift: Israel-Palestine From Border Struggle to Ethnic Conflict. Foreign Affairs, (Sept-Oct).

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UN, (1947). Partition Plan of Palestine. New York: The General Assembly of UN.

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