Season 1: World History

World History Ep. 16: 20th c. Middle East or, “Who knew religion was so important to people?!”

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Think about the Middle East. They’ve been controlled by Persia, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire, and now the European mandate system. The last 60 years have been the first opportunity various ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East have had to sort themselves out since 600 BCE. And they’re doing it within borders drawn by Britain. What could go wrong?

Today we’re going back to the 20th century Middle East, or as I like to call it, “Who knew religion was so important to people?!”. We’ll look at Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the roots of modern terrorism. And I’ll do my best to not get myself in trouble while doing it.

Act 1: Israel/Palestine

Act 2: Iran

Act 3: The Rise of Islamic Terrorism

It’s important to understand that these conflicts and terrorist organizations arose in response to the Cold War politics of the 20th century. As we’ve seen, the Middle East has dominated world history and continuously been one of the massive, united empires in almost every era of world history. The last 100 years, people living in the Middle East have experienced the epic decline of the Ottoman Empire, control by European powers, and intervention from the west even after independence. And this is all occuring while each state is trying to figure out its new national identity, which is especially difficult considering a lot of their borders don’t make a lot of sense, mixing of Sunnis and Shiites, splitting up ethnic groups, you name it. So, similar to Africa, the perceived chaos in the Middle East right now is, as far as I can tell, temporary.

More broadly, across the “Third World” and the Middle East, Cold War politics came to a head against centuries-old issues relating to land and religion. Latin America tried to assert its own identity, but the United States wasn’t having any of it. Southeast Asia fought for its independence from western imperialism and the Indian subcontinent broke apart after millennia of forced unity. Africa inherited the legacy of colonial governments, with mixed success. The Middle East, given its first opportunity to determine its own borders and identities since Mesopotamia, erupted.

Next episode, we’ll end this epic saga of world history… for now. We’ll figure out what the heck has been going on in the world in my own lifetime. What were the 1990s about? (Spoiler: no one knows.) How do you win a War on Terror? And what is the history that we are currently living through today that someone else will make a podcast about in 50 years? Only time will tell.


To be continued.