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Why is the Middle East so turbulent?

The Middle East is a very complex place for Westerners who have not studied or lived in it to understand. This simple backgrounder offers a brief explanation.

Update 7.17.17: New Vox video explainer on the Middle East Cold War

A long held partial explanation for the region’s turbulence has been rooted in the post-WWI partitioning of land along geopolitical lines ignoring ancient cultural and tribal traditions. Not only did that sow the seeds of instability but also fostered hostility toward the Western nations that imposed it. Religious divisions have defined the more recent regional antagonisms.

Aren’t all Muslims followers of Islam?

Islam is the 2nd largest religion in the world (Christianity is the largest) with 1.8 billion followers. While Christianity has a number of denominations, e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, etc., Islam has basically two: Sunni and Shi’a. A non-Muslim might think the differences are subtle (like Catholics and Protestants who simply agree to disagree). The divisions are firm, however, which has internally bound the respective communities but also created interdenominational tensions, sometimes to extremes. For more detailed background, see:

Why was Iran – a Muslim-majority country – attacked by Muslim extremists?
While Shi’a followers make up only 10-15% of worldwide Muslims, they form a majority in Iran (95% Shi’a) and Iraq (65%). All other Muslim countries in the world (except Lebanon) have substantial Sunni majorities. In the region, this includes Saudi Arabia (88% Sunni), Egypt (99%), Syria (74%) and Turkey (73%). This makes Iran a target for Sunni extremism. While extremists and terrorists are the tiniest minorities within any group, Sunni extremists may try to destabilize Shi’a-majority Muslim countries like Iran and Iraq.

Are the names we hear in the news related to specific Islamic denominations?

The names of terrorist groups in the news sometimes can be linked to denominations of Islam but the incentives for terrorism are almost always multifaceted, reaching beyond simple theology to economics, politics and history. Therefore the general term “Islamic terrorism” is no more accurate or specific than labeling bombing of Planned Parenthood clinics as “Christian terrorism.”

Further Reading:
Groups predominantly affiliated with extremist Sunnis (which typically employ high-casualty killings):

ISIS. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and by the Arabic acronym Dæsh

Al Qæda. Multinational extremist group formed by Osama bin Laden in 1988, responsible for the 9/11 hijack attack as well as others in the Middle East, North Africa, India and Europe

Al-Shabaab. Militant group based in East Africa once affiliated with Al Qæda

Boko Haram. Based in northeastern Nigeria (an 88% Sunni country) once affiliated with Al Qæda and ISIL

Hamas. Founded in 1987 in Palestine

Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, but came to recent prominence with the election of Egypt’s president in 2012. It proposes Sharia law for affairs of state and society

Taliban. Fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan believes in harsh enforcement of Sharia law

Groups predominantly affiliated with extremist Shi’ites (which tend to engage in kidnappings and targeted assassinations):

Hezbollah. Multinational extremist group supporting militia and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Syria (the Assad regime) while based in Lebanon