A century has passed since World War I started, and the Middle East finds itself on the brink of a new era. Recently, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, stated that the time had come for the Kurds to seek self-determination, while the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared caliphate over the territories it controls. As the land border between Syria and Iraq has practically vanished, the developments pushed Iraq toward disintegration. Against the backdrop of these changes, The New York Times published a new map of the Middle East, prophecizing that 14 new countries will emerge out of five existing territories. Meanwhile, a number of regional analysts describe the events as the downfall of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was signed in 1916.
At the time, imperialist powers had negotiated the birth of new nations with perfectly linear borders in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, to which many referred as the "sick man of Europe." The post-Ottoman order, to be sure, failed to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the region as the clash between secularist-nationalist groups and Islamist agendas came to an abrupt end with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. With the Syrian revolts evolving into a bloody civil war, chaos spread across the Middle East, and the Nouri al-Maliki government's reliance on sectarian policies and subsequent failure to rebuild Iraq threw the country into the fire. The victims of this new wave of disorder, without a doubt, are the peoples of the Middle East. But who will form the new order?
Unlike in the World War I years, regional powers could not possibly absolve themselves of the responsibility for failing to form a new order in the Middle East by pointing their fingers at global powers. This time, countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey must shoulder the burden of restoring order in the region. No longer can Iran and Saudi Arabia blame the U.S. and Israel to cover up the competition and polarization that their theo-political expansionism continues to fuel. Islamist groups, in turn, that claim to provide Muslim societies with a novel vision have either been removed from power, as in the case of Egypt, through military coup or ended up obsessing over violence in the name of jihad. Damaged by the legacy of nation-states, a great many slide toward an indefinite transition period rather than awakening and resurrection. We thus witness yet another wave of disintegration led by Muslim actors themselves.
The chaos, which reflects clashing national interests and sectarian clashes, shreds nation-states to pieces – as if to usher in a new period of emirates through non-state actors such as jihadist organizations and local tribes as well as proxy wars. The demise of secular nationalism gives rise to sectarian conflict and aggravates divisions between Sunni, Shi'a and Salafist communities. The execution of 1,700 Shiites by ISIS militants merely due to their sectarian identity, for instance, leaves Muslims irreparably damaged. And for the first time ever, differences over religious interpretation generate large-scale hostilities with prolonged effects. Radicals claiming to re-establish the caliphate spread the virus of excommunication (takfeer) to new hosts, as the voices of scholars calling for inter-sectarian unity against imperialist plans just a century ago are no longer audible.
Muslim countries engaging in a cutthroat fight with one another rather than promoting regional cooperation fuels the chaos. Let us hope that this new disorder won't turn into a black hole wherein the self-confidence and commitment to coexistence of Muslims disappear. Unlike in the aftermath of World War I, none but the Middle East's own children are to blame for the turmoil that the region experiences today.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.