The intensified public discussion about the root causes of violent extremism has focused mainly on the socio-economic and political conditions that exist in Arab countries and among Arab communities in Europe and the US, which provide a breeding ground for extremism. But to effectively counter violent extremism, we must also carefully consider how the development of events in the wake of World Wars I and II have impacted the psychological disposition of the Arab population throughout the Middle East. Starting with the arbitrary division of the region by Western powers, the wars, revolutions, and scores of violent conflicts that followed have added layer upon layer of deep resentment and hatred of the West, and the puppet Arab leaders that were installed to serve their Western masters.
The following provides a brief historic, panoramic view of what the vast majority of the Arab population has experienced, which has informed their perception of the world around them, left an indelible mark on their psyche, and framed their beliefs and behavior.
President Obama stated at the Summit of Countering Violent Extremism that “the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances… [and] does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from the history of colonialism or conspiracy.”
Whether the colonial powers were only partially or fully to blame is hardly relevant because the Arab masses continue to believe that colonialism was behind the ills and suffering they endured. From the perspective of the majority of the Arabs, the developments of major events that followed the two World Wars simply confirmed their perception.
Even before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Britain and France reached a secret pact in 1916 (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) to divide Ottoman-held territories in the Middle East between the two powers irrespective of sect, ethnicity, and religious affiliations. Dividing the ‘pie’ between them was viewed as exploitive, arrogant, and dismissive of the welfare of the indigenous populations, ushering in decades of strife and turmoil.
The creation of most of the Arab states following World War II hardly changed the plight of the Arabs living in these countries. The French and the British appointed governors, kings, and emirs who ruled with iron fists, further intensifying hatred toward the Western powers and toward the authoritarian regimes under which they groaned.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was regarded as yet another Western conspiracy. The humiliation of the Arab armies by the nascent Israeli forces, the loss of substantial territory, and the creation of the Palestinian refugees have added a further layer of deep resentment. The Israeli occupation, which led to the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, continues to feed the Palestinians a daily ration of indignity to this very day.
The 1953 overthrow of the freely-elected Mosaddegh government in Iran, engineered by the CIA and British intelligence because of the parliament’s decision to nationalize the oil industry, was seen as the most flagrant intervention in the internal affairs of a Muslim state. The installation of the Shah, a Western puppet, and his ruthless treatment of his subjects was never forgotten by the Iranians and still remains a source of anger and antipathy toward the US.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was hailed as a nationalist hero, rose to power in Egypt and dared to challenge the West’s dominance and ‘ownership’ of the Suez Canal, the French and British, in cahoots with Israel, answered with war.
The war with Egypt once again trampled Arab pride as the retaking of the Canal and the occupation of the Sinai by Israel was viewed by the Arabs as a blatant manifestation of the West’s vulgarity of self-entitlement and Israel’s hunger for more Arab land.
And then came the 1967 Six Day War. In 144 hours, Israel conquered Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian territories more than three times its own size. Though their defeat on the battlefield was humiliating, it was the psychological defeat that shattered the Arabs’ self-esteem.
Although the 1973 Yom Kippur War salvaged Egypt’s national pride (Egyptian forces were allowed to remain on the East side of the Suez Canal, which provided Anwar Sadat a political victory), it did little to allay the Arabs’ humiliation as Israel continued to occupy Arab land on three fronts.