What Can We Learn from Modern Historical Middle East Conflicts?

Dear United Nations Commission for Preventing Religious Conflict, I am sure that your position as religious mediator within the United Nations means that you have dedicated your diplomatic careers to analyzing past religious conflicts so that we may be able to avert them in the future.

The UN itself was formed on the basis of preventing a repeat of the Holocaust—and the organization’s very motto is “Never again.” With all due respect, much more could be done to prevent religious conflicts in the future than has already been accomplished. The main problem could lead to religious conflict is the intolerance and xenophobia of other religions that lead members of a certain faith to go to arms against those who are different. Such is the influence created by conflicts in the past, and something we need to tackle as the unified leaders of the free world. By looking at the conflicts during the 20th century, specifically India and Pakistan, Iran, and Israel and Palestine, we can make a model of these disagreements and determine what lessons can be learned.

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The conflict between Indian Muslims and Indians of other religions has been ongoing for centuries, but it was not until the time of independence when the arguments really heated up, and the divide spread. As visionaries for a free India like Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were trying to unify Indians together and compel the British to grant independence, there were internal problems within their own camp. Many Indians were worried what the new government would look like, especially in terms of representation. Groups like Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League began advocating that the former British colony of India be split up into more than one country. This is where the first problems began to arise. Rather than accept the diversity of their future country, religious zealots were so afraid of other Indians that they began to accuse them of plots to oppress the Muslim or Sikh populations, and used this phantom oppression as a springboard to get what they wanted.

Pakistan was formed, and it led to decades of a Muslim extremist dictatorship, in what remains an unstable country today. The disagreements between Muslim Pakistanis and Indians did not cease once the nations were divided. Violence along the borders ensued for decades, and it was unsafe to even be outside because of the risk of a fight starting. In some cases, border-crossing trains were intercepted, the people on the train were massacred by the receiving country, and the train was sent back across the border. This happened on both sides of the conflict.

More recently, India and Pakistan have been arguing over who gets control of a small region in the north, Kashmir. Full scale wars occurred in 1947, 1950, 1971, and 1999, but sporadic engagements between the two countries is constant, and the fact that both countries are armed with nuclear weapons makes it so much more volatile. Nuclear weapons have only been used in war once, and that was to put an end to the most devastating event in human history. A nuclear war over a small mountain region would cause the needless destruction of millions of lives. The province itself is divided about its own fate, with the majority wishing to be assimilated into Pakistan. Their voice remains fairly silent in this disagreement, despite the fact that they are the actual subjects.

By studying the ongoing disagreements between Muslim Pakistan and largely Hindu India (although Sikhism and Buddhism are also common,) we can learn that when a group that is trying to achieve a certain goal, it can often impede their progress if they are divided amongst themselves. Also, merely separating the two quarrelling groups is not enough. The disagreement itself must be extinguished, preferably diplomatically, before we can expect it to go away. Lastly, religious conflicts between two groups can often spill over into other areas, and make for a miserable existence amid the war and violence, as we can observe in Kashmir. Moving west, the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran is one centered almost entirely around religion. The rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi during the 20th century is a time that is synonymous with autocracy, decadence, and the suppression of free thought.

The shah’s personal secret state police, SAVAK, was vilified for their foul treatment of rebels and dissident free thinkers. He and his father before him were infamous for their secular nature that not only led to distrust from their people, but also contributed to their desire for a nation where Islam was whole-heartedly embraced, rather than crushed or hidden away like Samad Behrangi or their religious leader, the ayatollah. The revolution of 1979 led by Ayatollah Khomeini was meant to usher in a new era of religious freedom for Iran, however it was only convenient if you were a devout Muslim. Islamic law began to be enforced, and everyone was meant to follow the lifestyle dictated in the Qu’ran, even if you were Jewish or secular. Democracy was another thing that this revolution promised to bring but did not hold true to its promise. Although they were rid of monarch, a lot of the power in the new government went to the Supreme Islamic Jurist, a position filled by the Grand Ayatollah, the most important leader in Shi’a Islam. There is also a Council of Guardians, a group of holy men who approve many of the functions within government. The President and parliament have power, but not when it really comes down to it. In present times, Iran is viewed as the most dangerous power within the Middle East. Their extensive arsenals, possible nuclear weapons program, and fact that their soldiers are 100% willing to fight and die in the name of Allah make them a frightening force. Iran is led currently by hardline conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reserved Islam-devotee Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The government has made comments against the United States and Israel, and has implied that one day Islam shall take over the world. It’s such a shame that religion, something meant to bring fulfillment to our lives, has turned Iran into such a unaccepting, exclusionary place. From Iran, it is evident that those who promise religious freedom often mean to create freedom for observers of their own religion, and may oppress those of other faith. The same goes for democracy. Religious leaders may advocate democracy, but will often choose religious guidlines over civil liberties if a choice is necessary. Wrapping up with modern Iran, those who so zealously embrace their religion will be willing to die for it, and will often shun their established enemies violently and vehemently.

The conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians one of, if not the hottest topic in the Middle East has it has been for decades. The foundations of the conflict began thousands of years ago, when Israelite Jews were kicked out of the area by Philistine Arabs, thus the name “Palestine” replaced Israel and Judea. The theory of Zionism brought Jews back to the land of their ancestors, and immediately a disagreement about the rightful owners of the land ensued. The Jews had lived there for thousands of years, but were removed centuries ago by the Philistines, who have also lived there for centuries. As long as land gained by military conquest is not fair and doesn’t count, then technically neither group should be there. Regardless of who’s right, neither group plans on leaving any time soon, so the conflict has to be solved by mutual agreement or unfortunately, total annihilation.

Disputed territories between the two nations have included the West Bank of the Jordan River, Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. All these territories were at some point controlled by Israel (if not still today,) and most were gained through military action. However, that’s not to say Israel goes around taking other peoples’ land. The 1948 War, Suez Canal Crisis, Six-Day War, and Yom Kippur War often left Israel in a position in which it could merely defend itself, or continue the fight to the Arabs’ land and prevent further invasion. After Israel took control of these regions, they faced accusations that it had been their plan all along to expand the Jewish state and oppress Muslims.

Although very unlikely, this was an effective tactic for the Palestinians to ruin the reputation of the Israelis, even when they were merely upset that their wars had failed. The conflict today consists not of war, but of civil uprisings and militant groups that are centered around Muslim Nationalism. As unfortunate as it may be, they are slandering Islam and turning it into a justification for holy wars against anybody who ever stands in their way. Groups like Hamas, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Islamic Jihad use their devotion to Islam to create a hateful sentiment towards Israel, and are responsible for countless attacks on Israelis, both armed and civilian. Sometimes, conflicts are so impossible to find a “right” side, that a compromise can be the only option, difficult as it may be.

A situation that the UN has tackled time and time again would be whether land conquered through justified military action is rightfully owned by the winning force, or whether they should be compelled to return the land. Our last lesson, as disappointing and solemn as it may be be, is that Islam can often be used to justify foul crimes against humanity, and it is necessary to separate radical groups from peaceful Muslims. By analyzing these past conflicts, it is clear that they represent a true learning experience for the Committee for Preventing Religious Conflicts. The main thing to focus on would be promoting tolerance and accepting those of other religions in the political, cultural, and historical spectra so that we may work to make the world a better place to live in.