The Middle East is the Arab core of the Muslim world. But thinking about the Middle East as exclusively Arab doesn’t work. Doing so excludes Turkey and Iran, plus a very large Kurdish population spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
As well, viewing it as exclusively Muslim is deeply flawed. It would mean focusing on just a small part of the Muslim world. It also overlooks the Jews, Christians, Druze, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Bahai, and other religious groups in the region.
Overall, the population is concentrated in the mountains of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Secondary concentrations are found on the eastern Mediterranean coast and the southwestern and southeastern Arabian Peninsula.
But here's where it get particularly interesting:
The complexity of ethnic groups is partly due to the nature of mountainous regions, but also to the policy of the Ottomans. The Ottomans dominated this region for centuries. But unlike Muslim and Christian conquerors, they didn't pursue religious uniformity through forced conversion as long as the populace pledged their allegiance to the Ottomans.
Thus, when the Ottomans retreated after World War I, they left behind a chaotic jumble of ethnic groups tied to various religions. Each group had the strength to survive but lacked enough strength to conquer the others. The consequence is inherent instability.
We have, of course, witnessed this instability for a long time, held in check only by tyrannical rulers.
The lowlands are mainly desert and relatively underpopulated, which means that aggression was limited to low-level conflicts. On the lowlands, it is relatively easy for conquerors to come and go, and transform the population to reflect their values along the way.
The mountainous northern region has highly diversified cultures and religions, and the terrain renders it difficult to conquer completely. Aggressors may control the main roads and mountain passes, but going into every valley is impossible. Mountains give the advantage to the defender, and unless a region is strategically critical, the conquerors will opt to leave them alone.
The outcome is that mountain regions around the world—like the Caucasus, Balkans, or Appalachians—tend to protect unique cultures from annihilation. And proximity to people who differ from you results in conflict. These conflicts are ancient and repeat themselves.In diving into the geographic and ethnic diversity, Friedman comes to a conclusion, of sorts, that is at the same time encouraging and discouraging. His assessment is that ISIS is unlikely to make a lot of headway because of the geographic and ethnic diversity of the region, but at the same time a lasting piece amongst all of these groups seems highly unlikely. I encourage you to read this analysis and see if you agree.