As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Why History Matters? Understanding how the empire makers of 1914 shaped the contemporary problems in the Middle East

Welcome to class poster

Welcome to History 111! Today's introduction to the semester includes two goals - one that is quite simple - to explain what you can expect from me and what I can expect from you over the next three months - and one that is a much more difficult goal - to convince you that history matters!

Goal #1: To explain what you can expect from me and what I can expect from you throughout the semester

Throughout the semester, I expect that each of you will:

  1. Make an intellectual commitment to the academic community that we will create this semester. Cartoon, "I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say."Such a commitment requires:
  2. Empower yourselves individually and collectively during class discussions by asking questions about anythingyou don’t understand and providing intellectual input.
  3. Attend class regularly and arrive on time with your cell phones turned off. 
  4. Respect everyone’s viewpoint, style of learning, and attitudes about the class.
  5. Remember that this is a college level course and as such, requires hard work - each of you must invest time and commitment to the academic coursework in order to be successful.
  6. Sit in the back row of the classroom if you take notes on an ipad or laptop so you will not distract your classmates.
  7. Make an appointment with me or the teaching assistants whenever you have questions or issues about the course.  This gives both me and your TAs an opportunity to get to know you - which, in turn, strengthens our academic community. Please do not wait until the end of the semester - we want to get to know you as soon as possible.

In return, you can expect that I will:

  1. Help build an academic community in which all of us are encouraged to speak, to be heard, and to begin thinking critically about history.
  2. Tell you a chronological story that unfolds like a book in which each chapter builds on the last and ends with interesting and important conclusions. History Matters Poster
  3. Uncover the rich multicultural history of America through what Dr. Ronald Takaki has called “a different mirror” – a mirror that merits a deep understanding of all Americans.
  4. Teach thematically by providing a context for a real understanding of American history.
  5. Encourage you to understand that history is complicated and rarely has easy, "happily ever after" endings. Many complex controversies, conflicts, and compromises have shaped American history over the past 150 years.
  6. Illustrate that history matters - that historical facts and events are relevant to, and carefully interwoven into, the fabric of our everyday lives.

These last two expectations bring us to our second, more complicated goal for today.

Goal #2: To convince you that history matters

100 years ago this month, marks the beginning of World War I. Four and a half years later when it was finally over and "peace" prevailed, the victors had dramatically changed the world. Map of the worldThese complex changes - the subject of today's discussion - laid the foundation for the chaos currently tearing Iraq and Syria apart - as well as many other regions of the Middle East. So in order to really understand the current violence and terror in Syria and Iraq, we must move back through history and learn about the complex controversies, conflicts, and compromises that have shaped this region. In so doing, it is my hope that you will clearly see how and why history matters to each of you, today, in the 21st Century.

To get to this history, we are going to address a series of questions:

Question #1: What is the recent history leading up to the current crisis?

Map of Sunni and Shia populations in Middle East and Asia

Long before the March, 2003 American invasion of Iraq, problems existed between the Shi'a Arabs - the nation's largest religious group - and Sunni Arabs - the smaller religious group. While the minority Sunnis dominated economic and political life during the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, his government severely restricted or banned outright many Shi'a religious practices and conducted a brutal campaign agains Shi'a communities. When the Shi'a, American-backed Nouri al-Maliki came to power in 2006, the tides were reversed. For eight years, the majority Shi'a Arabs have received many advantages no longer available to the Sunni minority. And a kind of civil war has evolved between the two different branches of Islam.

Sunni discontent is not confined to Iraq. For the past three years, Syria has been involved in a violent civil war between government forces of Syria's Shi'a backed President Bashar al-Assad, anti-government rebels who began as pro-democracy protestors, Kurdish rebels, and the Sunni Islamist extremist fighters - ISIS - who have been moving in over the last two years. Sunni extremism in both Syria and Iraq eventually led to the creation of the Islamic State - formerly ISIS - or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In early June 2014, ISIS began taking control over the Sunni portions of Iraq where close to 50,000 American trained Iraqi army officers and troops abandoned their weapons, shed their uniforms, and fled - leaving their sophisticated, American-bought weapons behind for ISIS. On June 29, 2014, ISIS renamed itself the Islamic State and then announced a plan to establish a single Islamic state - or caliphate - that would stretch from Syria down into Iraq.

Whether in Syria or Iraq, the Islamic State has brought violence to all non-Sunni peoples with whom they have come into contact. They have made it clear that only Sunnis who subscribe to Shari law are welcome in the Map of Kurdish populations in the Middle Eastconquered areas. People who refuse to move are killed and those who move most often flee to refugee camps in Jordan, Iran, and Turkey. By the end of August, in addition to the deaths of unknown thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, the Islamic State had forced nearly 180,000 families, or more than one million people, from their homes.

Complicating the picture has been the substantial Kurdish population living in Northern Iraq and Syria. As early as 1919, the Kurds - who had been part of the Ottoman Empire - had asked for an independent nation. However, in 1923 they were instead incorporated into the new country of Turkey, as well as in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Thus, the Kurds living in all four countries have been struggling for independence for over 90 years. In 1970, Iraqi Kurds came closer to that goal than ever before after they reached and agreement with the Iraqi government that they can actually govern semi-autonomously. Iraqi Kurdistan is defined as the three northeastern provinces of Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah, although they also occupy and claim parts of the oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Each of the four largest Kurdish communities have faced serious oppression under the governments in which they exist. Thus, Kurdish soldiers called peshmerga ( "those who face death") work to defend the Kurds against such oppression. However, when faced with the threat from the Islamic State, the peshmerga began to lose ground - that is, until the United States entered the picture through direct arms transfers to the peshmerga and the current drone air strikes.

Question #2: What is happening today in Iraq and Syria?

By early August, the Islamic State had conquered vast areas in Iraq's Anbar Province - including key areas around Fallujah and Baghdad - as well as Mosul. It then moved into Kurdish territory that spreads across the northern parts of both Iraq and Syria. Today, the Islamic State has conquered areas around Kirkuk and Sinjar in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria.

Map of ISIS controlled regions in Iraq as of August 2014

On August 8, President Obama announced that it would begin air strikes over the Islamic State occupied areas in Iraq, especially around Mount Sinjar, Mosul Dam, and Erbil. Between August 8 and now, American fighter jets and drones have attacked over 70 targets in northern Iraq as shown in the map below. On August 20, the United States experienced the first retaliation from the Islamic State with the release of a videotape showing the beheading of captured American journalist, Jim Foley. In the tape, the British-accented member of the Islamic State warned President Obama that more violence was on the way if the U.S. continued its air strikes. In response to the tape, Germany, Britain, and Italy have all made statements indicating that they will begin providing some sort of assistance to the American efforts as well as aid to the Kurdish.

Just why the United States did not get involved until the Islamic State moved into the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria is not really known, but some have argued that the oil-rich and Kurdish controlled areas, especially around Kirkuk, may have a role. Others argue that the U.S. has a stake in the move for Kurdish independence.

August 18, 2014 Map of American fighter jet attacks over Northern Iraq

After looking at the maps and learning just some very basic information about the current crisis, two things are absolutely crystal clear:

Question #3: What is the Islamic State/ISIS, what does it want, and why has it been so successful?

ISIS was initially formed in 2004 as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda. In its current form, ISIS was founded in Iraq in October 2006 with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi at its head. Soon thereafter, ISIS claimed responsibility for many operations against U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as for car bombs in Baghdad and in Shi’a areas of Iraq. In April 2010, after Baghdadi was assassinated, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the leader of ISIS and Photo of Isis, June 2014continued his predecessor's battle against the Iraqi government. In late 2013, ISIS broke with al-Qaeda because it had a different and more extreme goal - capturing the Sunni portions of Syria and Iraq to establish the caliphate.

And what is the caliphate as envisioned by the Islamic State? A caliphate ("succession" in Arabic) is an Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader known as a caliph ("successor") to Muhammad. Muslim empires that have existed in the Muslim world are usually known as caliphates. Contemporarily, a caliphate represents a sovereign state of the entire Muslim faithful - known as the Ummah - who are ruled by a caliph under strict Islamic law- sharia. Laws, then, for the Sunni Muslims living under the Caliphate, are made by God - as set forth in the Koran - not by the people.

According to Sunni Muslims, four Caliphates existed from 632-1924. The last Caliphate was under the Ottoman Empire and existed from 1517-1924. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the wake of World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk officially abolished the system of Caliphate in Islam and founded the Republic of Turkey.

Today, the Caliphate is a dream of a single empire that would unite all the Sunni Muslims of the world. Upon claiming the new Caliphate on June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the new Caliph, saying that his lineage can be traced back to tribe of Mohammed. He has commanded all Sunni Muslims to become supporters and citizens of a new transnational state governed by sharia law. To date, al-Bahdadi claims the Caliphate includes the Sunni-captured regions of Syria and Iraq. However, he has indicated at various times that the Caliphate eventually would expand into Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Southern Turkey.

Philip Jenkins, a religious history professor at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade explains that ISIS is trying to establish themselves symbolically as the leading force in reviving Islam. In so doing, "it almost limits the status of Muslim to absolute true believers who go along with ISIS ... The modern Caliphate is not just saying that Shi'a aren't real Muslims, they’re saying that many Sunnis aren't real Muslims either. They'd say any Sunni who doesn’t go along with them is not a real Muslim." (See "What is the Caliphate, Exactly?" from the Boston Globe on July 6, 2014.)

Today, the Islamic State forces are estimated at 50,000 to 70,000. However, it is clear that the Islamic State is growing as it continues to reach out to Sunni Muslims around the world. In mid-June, three members of the Islamic State, all speaking with British accents, issued a professionally edited recruitment video in which they explain all the spiritual and emotional benefits of joining the Sunni jihad in Syria and Iraq. The group's appeal has been successful; we have estimates that about 100 Americans and perhaps as many as 500 British citizens have joined Islamic State extremists in their struggle. Ultimately, the success of the Islamic State is largely built upon the rising discontent and violence between the Sunni and Shia - not just in Syria and Iraq, but anywhere in the world. Many of the Sunni minority have joined or supported ISIS after suffering discrimination in Iraq and Syria. But it's real success is staggering - a relatively small group of Sunni extremists calling themselves the Islamic State has destroyed the borders of two 21st century nations - Syria and Iraq. How and why this happened is key to our story of why history matters.

Question #4: How and why is this related to history?

The chaos in Iraq and Syria today is directly related to the decisions of British and French - and to some degree American - empire builders who carved up the defeated the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Yet few Americans ever learn about these early 20th century men and the nations they represented, their decisions, and how such decisions dramatically influence our 21st century world.

Our story begins with the Ottoman Empire - which was also the last Caliphate. For centuries, the Ottomans were the protectors of the Islamic faith and presided over the holy sites of Islam. A careful reading of the map below gives us a better understanding of the Ottoman Empire on the eve of World War I - 100 years ago.

Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914

The Ottoman Empire contained a diverse populuation. According to the official census taken in 1906, about 76.09% were Muslims (Turks, Arabs, and Kurds), 13.86% were Greeks, 5.07% were Armenians, 3.74% were Bulgarians, 1.24 percent were Jews, 0.26 percent were Christian, and 1.59 percent were "others."

In 1914, then, the ethnically and religiously diverse Ottoman Empire was crumbling while the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British, and French Empires were flourishing. Indeed, toward the end of the 19th Century, each of these empires - with the exception of Germany - had grown at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. When war broke out, the empires were carefully aligned.

Map of Allied and Central Powers during WWI

Almost immediately after the war began, Britain and France began to discuss how the Ottoman Empire would be carved up between them after they won the war. But they were not the only ones with hopes for what would become known as "The Big Loot." As the war got underway, what did the European powers hope to gain?Map of Ottoman Empire 1914

The war, then, from beginning to end, was always about "The Big Loot." And the men making the decisions about the loot were largely British and French who were on a "civilizing mission," believing that the Arabs and other people in the Ottoman Empire were incapable of governing themselves and would greatly benefit from their "enlightened" political and economic ideas.

In addition to expanding their political and economic influence into new colonial regions, the empire builders were well aware of both tapped and untapped oil resources that were located in the exact regions they hoped to control - especially Syria and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). But they weren't the only ones with their eyes on the prize. The Americans - especially those under the corporate leadership of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil - were also very interested in gaining control over potential oil fields. The competition for oil resources was well underway by the time the war broke out. Britain had been involved in a long-term dispute with the Dutch over control of oil resources in the Persian Gulf (Mesopotamia) and Baku (Russia). Standard Oil hoped to gain new fields - and in order to do so, they told both the Allied and Central Powers that they would help them supply their demands oil to fuel the new tank, automobile, and air technologies of World War I.

But to win the war, it was also clear to these empire builders that they would have to win over two populations in the Ottoman Empire - both of whom had different visions for "The Big Loot."

Meeting the needs of the Arabs, however, was complex and fraught with danger. Map of Hejaz and disputed area in Arabian peninsula 1914While the Arabs hoped that after 400 years of Ottoman domination to finally escape Turkish rule and create a truly Arab caliphate, they were not united.

Keeping all the potential land mines in their sight, the British and French empire makers created at least five major plans designed to reshape the Ottoman Empire:

Map of Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916


The bottom line - the British empire builders - with help from the French - were willing to do whatever they had to in order to win the war and to divide up "The Big Loot." And that included making many different and conflicting agreements with different groups promising different political futures for the peoples of the former Ottoman Empire.

Question #5: What finally happened at the end of World War I?

The consequences of the War were devastating.

While the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, the fate of the defeated Ottoman Empire was left to several other agreements between the victorious powers and members of the defeated Ottoman Empire:

  1. The Pan-Syrian Congress was held on March 8, 1920 an acknowledged "the right of the Syrians to unite to govern themselves as an independent nation." Thus, delegates declared the existence of an independent Arab state of Syria that included Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and portions of northern Mesopotamia to be governed by King Faisal.
  2. Treaty of Sèvres held on August 10, 1920 was intended to bring peace between the Allies and the Ottomans. The Allies agreed to the Kurdish desire to create an independent Kurdistan. But the treaty was not ratified, largely because the fight for Turkish independence had begun which brought the treaty discussions to an abrupt halt.
  3. San Remo conference in April, 1920, signed by England, France, Italy, and Japan (with the United States as an observer), divided the Ottoman Empire empire into three mandates: Iraq, Syria and Palestine. The resolution also included the Balfour Declaration that called for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Map of 1920 League of Naitons mandatesThe boundaries of the mandates were not declared and were left to be decided by the newly-created League of Nations. Thus began the Syrian and Iraqi quest for independence.
  4. League of Nations mandates were decided in 1922. Each mandate was supposed to be ruled by the British or French "until such time as they are able to stand alone." Through the mandate system, the British and the French were able to get the control they wanted over the Middle East - the exact control they had decided in 1916 under the Sykes-Picot Agreement with one exception - Palestine was not to be an international zone but instead, fell under control of Britain. Thus began the Palestinian struggle for independence as well as the Jewish struggle for independence.
  5. Treaty of Lausanne signed on July 24,1923 essentially ended WWI in what is now known as the Middle East. In the treaty, Turkey gave up all claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire and in return the Allies recognized Turkish sovereignty within its new borders. Included in the new Turkish state was the area the Kurds had been promised by the allies for an independent Kurdish state. Thus began the Kurdish struggle for independence.

And what is the bottom line of this "peace?"

  1. The Jews and Arabs got nothing remotely resembling what had been promised to them by the British during the war.
  2. The Kurds did not receive independence, despite a promise by the Allies and a nod from Woodrow Wilson. Instead, they were incorporated into the newly created nation of Turkey.
  3. The British empire builders largely created the modern Middle East.

And what have been the consequences over the past 100 years?

  1. The complex controversies, conflicts and compromises involved in British agreements during and after World War I and the subsequent countries that were created served a purpose - to disunite Muslims from each other. And such disunification led to almost 100 years of political instability throughout the Middle East.
  2. The main goal of Arab politics for the 30 years after WWI became getting rid of the colonial governments, rather than focusing on building functional governments that could meet the needs of their diverse people. At a time when Arab people could have faced the identity struggle between them - nationalism and secularism on the one hand, versus Islamism and sharia rule on the othr hand - they were instead embroiled in efforts to oust the colonizers.
  3. Once the colonial governments ended - Iraq in 1932, Jordan in 1946, Syria in 1946, and Israel in 1948 - a wave of Arab nationalism arose. This gave rise to the idea that a united Arab world would dilute the socio-economic, political, and religious differences between its populations.
  4. The wave of Arab uprisings beginning in 2011 is this generation's attempt to change the consequences of the empire building that took shape during and after World War I.
  5. The divisions that the British instituted in the Muslim world remain strong today, despite being created by empire builders almost 100 years ago. Thus, in the 21st Century, we are still dealing with the political mess that Britain created. And, according to many experts, that mess may very well lead us back into a war in Iraq.
  6. The contemporary problems in the Middle East have been many years in the making and it will take many more years before they can be resolved. There are no easy solutions to the complexities that have shaped the Middle East. No one nation - especially not the United States - can "save" Syria and Iraq. This sentiment is best expressed in the 2006 film, Blood and Oil: The Middle East and World War I:

    "In redrawing the map of the Middle East for the benefit of Western political and economic aims, and in selecting pro-western leaders to rule Muslims of various cultures and religious beliefs, Europe guarantees that the future of the Middle East will be plagued by civil strife, regional wars, and foreign occupation. The key ingredient for political stability - legitimacy - has been largely destroyed by a Western fabrication that ignored the history and traditions of the Middle East." (Blood and Oil: The Middle East and World War I available online at

  7. The big question facing the world today is should the arbitrary borders imposed by European powers be replaced with new borders along the region's problemmatic religious divide? While the idea - shown below in one hypothetical map of the region - is probably unworkable, this is already what ISIS has been creating. Today, the Iraqi government controls the country's Shia-majority east, Sunni Islamist extremists have seized much of western Iraq and eastern Syria, the Syrian government controls the country's Shia- and Christian-dominated west, and the Kurds, are legally autonomous in Iraq and functionally so in Syria.

Hypothetical map of redrawn Syria and iraq

Question #6: In the year 2014, why does this history matter? Or does it?

I would like to leave this question up to you. Please turn to 2-3 people near you and ask each other this question. After 3-4 minutes, we will come back as a class to discuss your responses.

This discussion of how and why history matters will be ongoing throughout the semester. To keep the conversation going, I would like to challenge each of you to pay close attention to what is going on in the United States and with our interactions throughout the world. When something arises, think about how and why an understanding of history would lead to a better understanding of the contemporary event. Everyone is invited to bring up any topic in the first few minutes of each class and to engage all of us in a discussion.

Selected Sources: