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7.5: The Modern Political Landscape of North Africa and Southwest Asia

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    Today’s political map of North Africa and Southwest Asia reflects superimposed boundaries and a legacy of colonialization. The countries of this region have often been prone to political instability and conflict, and religious tension both between Muslims in this region as well as with the region’s many religious minorities has often led to violence.

    One key issue is that the geography of this region has often restricted development and transit to fairly narrow channels. Conflict can often occur over the control of these choke points. A chokepoint is a narrow passage to another region, such as a canal, valley, or bridge. North Africa and the Middle East has several, strategically important choke points including the Hormuz Strait, which provides the only sea passage into the Persian Gulf, and the Suez Canal, which was built to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. Who controls these choke points, and who they allow through, has often been a point of contention.

    European colonizers were generally slow to relinquish control in the region. Local groups often reacted violently in trying to secure independence. As a result, many newly created governments in the region consisted of military groups. In other cases, monarchs found either military support or joined with local religious leaders. For many areas in this region, the discovery of oil brought about significant wealth, but also reignited Western interest and involvement. During the Cold War, for example, the United States sought to limit Soviet influence in the region and maintain its supply of oil.

    Conservative religious ideology has sometimes provided a reaction against Westernization and foreign influence. In Iran, for example, the 1979 Islamic Revolution was largely a reaction against Westernization under a US-backed leader. The revolution established a theocracy in Iran, meaning a rule by religious authority, with the Grand Ayatollah, a Shia religious cleric, as the supreme leader.

    After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Saud dynasty partnered with the leader of the Wahhabi religious movement, creating the foundation of modern Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that promotes ultraconservative Muslim values. Women have a strict dress code emphasizing modesty and have guardians, usually a father, brother, uncle, or husband, and need their guardian’s consent to make major decisions or travel. Until 2018, women were forbidden from driving. A number of other practices are forbidden by Wahhabism, including watching nonreligious television programs, playing chess, and dancing. The penalties for breaking these prohibitions are often severe.

    In Afghanistan, a group of militant Sunnis, known as al-Qaeda, fought against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The organization was founded by Osama bin Laden and formed an alliance with the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist political movement also based in Afghanistan. With al-Qaeda’s military support, the Taliban were able to take control of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. They are known for their brutal oppression against women and acts of terrorism against civilian targets. As countries have modernized, Westernization and conservative religious values have continued to clash.

    The landscape of North Africa and the Middle East remains in flux. The most widespread political change in recent years was a wave of protests and revolutions known as the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2010 when a fruit vendor set himself on fire after being harassed continually by police. Widespread protests in Tunisia followed his death, calling for changes to the country’s issues with corruption, high unemployment, lack of political and personal freedom, and high food prices. After just ten days of demonstrations, Tunisia’s president, Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, fled in exile. From Tunisia, protests spread across the region, at times toppling governments that had been in power for decades (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of the Arab Spring (Derivative work from original by Kudzu1, Wikimedia Commons)

    At the heart of the causes behind the Arab Spring is inequality. In much of this region of the world, wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a select few. Young people in the region in particular had high levels of education but also high unemployment and played a central role in bringing about change. Social media was also used to organize and rally support, and diffused the revolution rapidly. Several of the countries that experienced an initial change in regime have seen several later waves of political change, as interim governments sometimes proved to be as ineffective as previous leadership.

    In Syria, however, despite widespread initial protests and calls for a change in leadership, president Bashar al-Assad not only refused to step down, but violently opposed protestors. Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath political party, a socialist and nationalist group seeking Arab unity, since the 1960s. Bashar al-Assad was elected president under a 2000 referendum and ran unopposed, giving some indicator of the lack of political freedom in the country. Soldiers were ordered to open fire on civilian protestors and many were killed or tortured. Eventually, the country declined into civil war, with the government fighting rebel groups who sought to overthrow it and civilians caught in the crossfire.

    The civil war in Syria also offered an opportunity for another group in the region to gain control of territory. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or just the Islamic State (IS), emerged in 2014 as a Sunni extremist group opposing the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Iraq had been ruled by the minority Sunni population for centuries, but with the overthrow of then-president Saddam Hussein, also a member of the Ba’ath party, the majority Shia population took control. Efforts to create a coalition government and include Sunnis, as well as the other minority groups in the country, broke down. Some of the Sunnis who had been political leaders or military personnel under Saddam Hussein formed ISIS and were eventually able to drive out Iraqi government forces in several key cities.

    From there, the group gained control of parts of Syria. For some time, much of Iraq and Syria existed as an insurgent state, a territory beyond the control of government forces. ISIS is widely known for its brutal tactics, including beheadings, sexual violence, and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The group sought to create a worldwide Islamic State with every Muslim country under its control. The United States declared ISIS defeated in 2019, though researchers note that while the US indeed took control of the last pieces of territories held by ISIS, thousands of ISIS fighters remain dispersed across Iraq and Syria and the group has the support of other affiliate groups and fighters across the world.

    Since 2011, the people of Syria have endured government assaults, violence from rebel groups, and attacks from ISIS. Over 400,000 Syrians have been killed, many of them civilians, and over 13 million have become refugees. Some refugees have remained in Syria, cut off from aid by government and insurgent groups. Around 4.8 million people have left Syria. Some have fled to Turkey and Greece by boat; many have died on the perilous journey. Europe and North America have debated whether to accept these migrants, with some countries arguing that Syrian migrants might actually be terrorists, and others acknowledging that the global community has a responsibility to help those in need.

    This page titled 7.5: The Modern Political Landscape of North Africa and Southwest Asia is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Caitlin Finlayson.

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