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From Paris Peace to Islamic State: WWI and the Making of the Modern Middle East

In honor of Veterans Day, Tuesday evening Colorado State’s history club hosted Dr. Andrea Williams, director of the international studies program, who discussed how the current Islamic State has been defined dating all the way back to the first World War.

Annually, the history club hosts an event on Veterans Day in order link history and a current event, according to history club President Hope Genty, a junior history major.


“As a club we pick a subject … then get in contact with an expert on the subject at CSU to put the event on,” Genty said.

According to Steven Hanley, a club member and a sophomore history major, the club members thought about talking about Ukraine or Sudan, but ultimately decided that the ISIS crisis was the best fit.

Williams, who received her undergraduate degree from Princeton and her Ph.D. from Georgetown, specializes in Europe and the Middle East. Her presentation on the 96th celebration of Veterans Day brought in about 40 students.

“The past is a vital part of understanding the current issues in ISIS,” Williams said. “History tells us two things: … We must recognize that we are already involved; history has linked us to these conflicts … Second, whatever we decide to do, we must tread very carefully. We must realize that every moment we are making history – we must not repeat past mistakes.”

According to Williams, the first World War posed Russia, England and France against Germany, Austria and Hungary. Other countries had to decide which side they would be on, or to stay neutral.

Therefore, a series of treaties, including the Treaty of Sevres, was an extension of large empires during the war and afterward. Originally, England and France intended to help in the war effort, but by the end more territory still meant more land.

“This was the height of imperialism,” Williams said.

While the Ottoman Empire had lended itself to the war, the region was ultimately cut up and borders were created that cut across cultural, ethnic and religious borders. England and France found value in pitting Arab tribes versus Ottomans. France and Syria both had land in the northern areas, and England took control of Iraq. The new borders created turmoil, which has created much of the chaos currently happening in the Middle East.

Ultimately, the many treaties and new borders that were created in the Middle East created a divided land where individuals were cut off from their former ethnic groups, and their land was held by Western nations.


“Iraq saw the rise of importance of oil in the 1920s … but it didn’t enrich the people evenly and ended up in the hands of British officials,” Williams said. “Turbulent history goes a long way to explain the unrest that continues in the region today.”

According to Williams, ISIS has made a real presence in Syria and Iraq. Syria has engaged in civil war for 3 1/2 years, and the situation there is not one of good versus bad but rather one that is bad versus worse. Also, in Iraq, ISIS has taken control of some key regional areas.

“In early June, ISIS stole $425 million from a Mosul Bank,” Williams said. “At the end of June, 1.2 million Iraqis had been displaced from their homes, and in July they advanced into Syria.”

ISIS has been killing nonbelievers and wants to recreate a state of stability that follows the sharia law.

“They use social media very well … Their aims are to recreate a greater kingdom, a much less tolerable one,” Williams said. “They use propaganda to show they want to create a strong, exclusive community with like-minded souls.”

According to Williams, the stability of ISIS has appealed to many individuals from all corners of the globe.

“History presents an escape: real world human interaction with glory, drama and horror, without thinking about the implications,” Williams said. “It can be a beautiful form of storytelling … but the past does have a bearing on the present.”

Collegian reporter Josephine Bush can be reached at or on Twitter @Jobush620. 

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