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The Middle East and the West: The Clash with Islam

Inset of map showing major conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan in recent decades.
Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR /
Inset of map showing major conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan in recent decades.

In 1979, Iran's Islamic Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan foreshadowed a rise in Islamic radicalism. Violence intensified, with the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf war. By the mid-1990s, America faced a new enemy: Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. involvement in the Middle East is deeper than ever.

NPR's Mike Shuster concludes his series on the history of Western involvement in the Middle East with a look at the U.S. clash with Islam.

Historians consider 1979 a watershed for the United States and the Middle East. It was the year that the Shah of Iran was forced to flee his nation and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a spiritual leader revered in Iran but virtually unknown in the West, returned to his country after 15 years in exile.

Later that year, Islamic militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 diplomats hostage in a crisis that would last for more than a year.

Following the U.S.S.R.'s invasion of Afghanistan, the United States funded, armed and organized an anti-Soviet guerrilla war there. The move "would have horrifying unforeseen consequences many years later when Osama bin Laden, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would turn his anger and terrorist agents against the United States," Shuster says.

The Iran-Iraq war, from 1980-88, was another conflict that would have an impact on the United States. The United States shared battlefield intelligence with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and helped to resupply its weapons stockpiles. But a few years later, Saddam invaded Kuwait and "another erstwhile friend of the U.S. in the Middle East had become a deadly enemy," Shuster says.

Though a U.S.-led coalition swiftly ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, problems for the United States in the region would only multiply. Led by Bin Laden's al Qaeda network, terrorism against America and its allies erupted with murderous determination in 1993, with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, then bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1996, against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The new century additional turmoil: the failure of the Middle East peace process in 2000 and the new outbreak of clashes between the Israelis and Palestinians, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. war in Afghanistan a month later, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.