How on earth did we end up with the horrible mess that is the Middle East today – and is it true that we in the west are largely to blame for it?
There are, of course, no simple answers or easy explanations, but there is a key to understanding how we got where we are and historian Margaret McMillan sets it out patiently and with great erudition in her book From First World War to Arab Spring: What’s really going on in the Middle East.
There seem to have been four big factors in creating the Middle East quagmire. The first two – the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the nation state – happened at around the same time. The second two – western ignorance of the Muslim world and attitudes to Arab democracy – are still with us.
Collapse of the Ottoman Empire
It’s hard for us today to grasp how big and how successful the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was. At its peak, around 1700, the empire stretched from Barcelona to Vienna in the west, to as far as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea in the east. It included Hungary, most of the Balkans, present day Greece and Romania, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, as well as North Africa and a slice of Asia that is today in Russia.
Although officially Muslim, the Empire practiced religious tolerance for much of the time, and Jewish and Christian communities existed in harmony with Islam. The two main sects of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, disagree doctrinally. (Sunnis believe any community leader can also lead the faithful in prayer, while Shiites believe only a member of the family of the Prophet Mohammed can lead prayers).
This divide has been likened to the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants, where Shiites are like traditional Catholics in venerating members of the holy family. Contemporary Sunni Islam is more like the militant brand of Protestantism of the reformation. The doctrinal differences are potentially just as explosive.
However the Ottoman Empire was so well integrated and generally well run that religious clashes amounting to civil war were mostly rare. This is probably because all citizens of the empire, whatever their faith or politics, looked to their leaders in Istanbul, rather than fighting among themselves.
For example, the great cities of Baghdad and Basra were both founded and built by the Ottomans. Both had very different populations, different predominant religious faiths, different ethnicities. They worked together because neither was seen as superior to the other, and both owed allegiance only to Istanbul. All this came to an end after the beginning of the twentieth century.
Throughout the 1900s, the Ottoman Empire’s power had dwindled as it fell further and further behind the west technologically. It was forced to turn to Britain, France and Germany to buy weapons, ships, railways and build modern factories. Modernisation cost so much that by 1875, the Ottoman Empire was bankrupt and was forced to seek a bail-out from British and French banks. To keep the British and French governments happy, it had to part with bases. Egypt had to accept the Anglo-French Canal Company running the Suez Canal.
Turkey was for a long time an ally of Britain. Britain had gone to war against Russia on Turkey’s behalf in Crimea in 1854 simply to keep Russia out. But when, in 1914, the First World War broke out, the Ottoman Empire was compelled to choose a side. Tired of Anglo-French interference, it turned to Germany. The result of this ill-starred decisions was that by 1916, the British and French governments were eyeing up the decaying Ottoman Empire, like antique collectors at an auction viewing,deciding what parts they’d like once Germany was defeated.
Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office and Georges Picot of the French Quay D’Orsay, met in London to re-draw the map ready for the postwar world. In drawing lines on a map of the Middle East, Sykes and Picot had one over-riding aim, and together they made one over-riding assumption.
Their aim was to obtain for their governments the prime territory in the region to secure land routes and shipping lanes to their overseas empires, while nominally leaving local people in charge. France wanted the region known as Syria. Britain wanted the ancient kingdom of Persia, with its sea access and its recently discovered oil. It also wanted to safeguard the sea route to British India along which much British trade passed and this meant also staking out Jordan and Palestine, and continuing the fiction of “protecting” Egypt.
Rise of the nation state
It was when Sykes and Picot got out their pencils and rulers that they introduced a modern and purely western assumption. The nation state is a relatively recent idea. Britain is a state because it is an island: France and Spain because they were powerful. But much of the rest of Europe had no such status. In 1800 there were around 500 political entities in Europe – from Dominions to Duchies, and principalities to protectorates. By 1900 there were only 20. The Italian states had unified in 1870. Germany became an empire in 1871. Greece fought a war to free itself from Turkish rule. Serbia and Romania came into being from the dying Ottoman Empire.
But while nationalism may be a natural aspiration for people who are ethically similar, speak the same language and share the same faith, the nation state was completely foreign to the Arab peoples of the Middle East. Yet thanks to Sykes-Picot that is precisely what they got.
The lines on the map that the two foreign ministry officials drew up in secret in London in 1916, became international law with the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. But these were not the old Ottoman regions of that name: rather they were brand new self-governing nations inside their own borders. Instead of looking to a Caliph or Sultan in Istanbul for guidance and rules, they were now forced to work out their own destiny. Given the religious and ethnic divisions between them, especially between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the inevitable result was conflict.
For example, in the post-1919 sovereign state of Iraq, the capital, Baghdad, was owned and run by a Sunni minority, while Basra, and much of the rest of the country was populated by Shiites – because of Sykes-Picot and its neat pencil lines, a small Sunni elite now ruled over a Shiite majority.
The British government told the Arabs during the First War that they would be rewarded with the Ottoman lands if they rose against the Turks. The Arabs kept their side of the deal but it was Britain and France who hung onto most of the kingdoms. They also told the Jews that they could have a homeland in Palestine, as long as this did not interfere with existing Palestinians, sowing the seeds of yet another enmity and ethnic conflict.
While Britain and France continued as great powers for some years after the First War, the region was reasonably stable despite these tensions, apart from the violent emergence of Israel in 1947 and the Suez crisis of 1956 in which Israel colluded with Britain and France to put down Arab nationalism.
Western ignorance of Islam
It was Britain that brought about one of the greatest Middle East problems of all – that of Israel and Palestine – and for reasons that are still haunting us. When Britain gave permission after the First World War for Jews to emigrate to Palestine to found a Jewish homeland, it was at least in part because British people could understand and sympathise with Jewish religious aspiration to return to the land of the Bible and to the holy places which Christians shared with Judaism – Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Yet, at the same time, almost all people in the West, especially the British, were blind and deaf to the same aspirations of Muslims, for exactly the same holy places, for the same religious reasons. This wasn’t so much a deliberate snub as a complete failure to grasp Arab values and aspirations, based on British ignorance, xenophobia and bigotry. As far as almost all British people were concerned, Muslims were simply barbarians – fanatical religious nutcases, typified by the Mad Mahdi and other Mullahs, who they saw as spouting war and terrorism.
While the Balfour declaration of 1917 specified that Jews were allowed to build a national home in Palestine as long as it did not impact the Arabs already living there, this was merely a formal recognition that the people already living there had human rights – no-one in Britain for one moment thought that Arabs in the region could have as strong a religious attachment to Palestine as the Jews. And yet the reality is that the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire had ruled Jerusalem for 1,000 years – making it accessible to Jews and Christians as well.
But as France and Britain lost their long-term influence over the region – partly cultural, partly financial, partly military – the Middle East began to take on the schizoid self-harming character that fuels today’s violence. America ham-fistedly tried to restore the rule of the law to the region by military force and lashings of aid, but neither bribery nor the threat of force is enough to overcome the bitterness, jealousy and religious intolerance introduced by the west.
Western attitudes to Arab democracy
When the map of Europe and the Middles East was redrawn after the First World War, one principle observed by the new League of Nations was that new countries should be independent of influence by the Great Powers and should determine their own future through democratic means. In some countries – notably Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – these aspirations were at least partly fulfilled. It was expected that Western countries would be open to democracy. But there was little or no evidence of self-determination or democracy in the Middle East.
Because of the importance of the region, Britain and France used their imperial influence – waning but still strong – to hand power over to local ruling families who became puppet kings, who usually formed alliance with Muslim clerics to maintain themselves in power and thus became despots. Later, some monarchs were replaced by Generals, but they too continued to act as tyrants.
An idea grew up in the foreign offices of the West, that Arabs were different from westerners. The typical Arab, they believed – or professed to believe – wasn’t politically conscious and had no need of the trappings of democracy. Thus the west turned a blind eye to the tyrannies of the kings and generals. Oil wealth consolidated their tyrannical position still further.
When, as occasionally has happened since the Arab Spring, a popular Islamic party has been democratically elected, the results of those elections are simply ignored by the kings, the generals and their allies in the west.
One example cited by McMillan is typical of many;
“When Hamas won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, taking 72 out of the 132 seats, Washington, to Israel’s relief, refused to recognize the results. The Americans and the Israelis consider Hamas a terrorist organisation and refuse to deal with it. America’s allies followed suit and disregarded the results of what were generally believed to have been completely free and fair elections.”
Historically, it is no surprise to find that many Arabs long for the stability and prestige that went with being a part of the Ottoman Empire, and having a Caliph as political, spiritual and moral leader to look up to. Coca-Cola, Apple iPhones, and Facebook hold little attraction in comparison with an Islamic Caliphate that promises to turn back the clock to more peaceful times, even if the path back is that of violence.
Tragically, even when ISIL is defeated and the British and Americans have once again packed up and gone home, there will still be the ethnic and religious tensions artificially imposed by Sykes-Picot and there will still be millions of Arabs longing for the return of a Muslim Caliphate in the region to replace nation states that didn’t make sense when they were created by us, and still don’t today.
Margaret McMillan’s brilliant study of the Middle East is one book that every politician, soldier and journalist should read before visiting or writing about this most troubled region of the world.