North Africa, West Asia

Sowing the seeds of conflict in the Middle East

Whatever else they were guilty of, the two authors of the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair, displayed an astonishing ignorance of history.

Roger Hardy
6 September 2016
British soldiers on guard at Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1920. Matson Collection. Public Domain.

British soldiers on guard at Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1920. Matson Collection. Public Domain.Many people, understandably, are perplexed by the violence and disorder of the Middle East. They look at, say, the conflict in Syria and ask: how did it come to this? 

Part of the problem is that the media focus on the crowded foreground and neglect the all-important historical background – in particular, the formative period in the emergence of the modern Middle East, in the age of empire. 

To understand the conflicts and crises of today’s Middle East, we need to understand how it emerged in essentially its present form, in the half-century between 1917 and 1967. When the British left Egypt, 77 per cent of the population was illiterate, per capita income stood at £42 a year, and the life expectancy of an Egyptian male was 36.

The region was shaped in important, and fateful, ways by the First World War and its aftermath. The Ottoman Empire, which had governed the Middle East for four hundred years, had taken the side of Germany. After its defeat, Britain and France divided the Arab portions of the empire between them. The post-war settlement left a legacy of deep mistrust – and unwittingly sowed the seeds of many of the conflicts of today, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Lebanon problem and the statelessness of the Kurds.

Arabs who dreamt of independence felt betrayed when they found they had exchanged Turkish for European rule. ‘The ghost of the Peace Settlement,’ wrote the historian Albert Hourani, ‘has haunted Arab politics ever since.’

A bitter harvest

European domination of the Middle East and North Africa had profound consequences for the region and its relations with the west. First, colonial rule was from the start contested. Only two years after the French occupied Algeria in 1830, a charismatic young warrior and Sufi scholar, Emir Abdul-Qadir, led a 15-year revolt. This, and a subsequent rebellion in 1871, were suppressed with great ferocity. Arabs and Berbers, the country’s two main ethnic groups, were united in opposing French rule. An anonymous Berber poet wrote of the bitterness the French left in the wake of these revolts:

They have sowed hatred in the villages.

We store it under the ground where it remains,

The abundant yield of a harvested field.

The same sentiment was apparent elsewhere. Throughout the region, with relatively few exceptions, colonial rule provoked resentment and in many cases rebellion.

The French were taken by surprise by the Great Revolt in Syria in the 1920s, which broke out in the Druze region south of Damascus and soon spread to much of the country. In Iraq, the Shi’a of the south rose up against British rule in 1920, and the colonial power responded by using air power against this and subsequent unrest, whether among the Shi’a tribes or the Kurds of the north. In Palestine, it took the Arab Revolt, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, to knock the stuffing out of British complacency. 

Aftermath of French bombardment of Damascus, 1925 (Library of Congress). Public Domain.

Aftermath of French bombardment of Damascus, 1925. Library of Congress. Public Domain.The most sustained violence was in Algeria. Experts continue to debate how many died in the war of independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, but it was not less than half a million.

Nation-building

Second, colonial rule challenged the basis of Middle Eastern societies. Under Ottoman rule, for all its deficiencies, the region had a certain coherence – culturally as well as politically – which it never regained. The idea of the nation-state was novel and, initially at least, alien. British and French officials drew the new borders – those infamous ‘lines in the sand’ – to suit their imperial interests. In many cases, they were scarcely a natural fit. As a result, the process of state-building and nation-building was fraught with difficulty.

What’s more, even when they proclaimed a ‘civilising mission’, the colonial powers did little to educate the mass of the people. Instead they educated a small collaborative elite which could provide the schoolteachers and low-level functionaries they required. When the British left Egypt, 77 per cent of the population was illiterate, per capita income stood at £42 a year, and the life expectancy of an Egyptian male was 36.

Emir Abdul-Qader (Library of Congress)

Emir Abdul-Qader. Library of Congress. Public Domain.A pattern of intervention

Third, and perhaps most crucially, colonial rule was part of a broader pattern of intervention. This went back to the era of Disraeli and Gladstone, when the European powers picked at the decaying corpse of the Ottoman Empire, and extended beyond the colonial period to more recent interventions – most notably the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Whatever else they were guilty of, the two authors of that invasion, George Bush and Tony Blair, displayed an astonishing ignorance of history. They seemed blissfully unaware that, for more than two hundred years, western intervention in the Middle East had produced a nationalist response – and that prolonged occupation provoked prolonged insurgencies.

And when insurgencies are crushed, the hatred is stored:

… under the ground where it remains,

The abundant yield of a harvested field.

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