“ARROGANT TO the point of blindness,” British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart Georges Picot “carved up the Ottoman empire, not unlike a butcher slicing up slabs of meat fresh out of the freezer,” a British columnist charged recently.
The diatribe, leveled by Spectator columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, is shared by many, most notably Henry Kissinger, an authority on diplomatic Machiavellianism, who wrote of the Sykes-Picot deal – a deal that had been meant to be kept secret – that it was “the foundation for later wars and civil wars.”
A century on from the deal, signed May 16, 1916, with the Middle East drowning in its citizens’ blood, it is indeed tempting to blame the Middle East’s turbulence on the Anglo-French intrusion and its blending of arrogance, ignorance and brutality.
“The Ottoman Sultan (of Constantinople) had wisely divided the Middle East into provinces along ethnic lines,” waxed nostalgic Theodoracopulos, whereas the Anglo-French duo “proved as ignorant as George W. Bush was to be 87 years later. Had they never heard of the Sunni-Shi’a divide?”
There is no arguing that what happened in 1916 was colonialist machination and conceit at their worst. The deal that was concocted while Allied armies were being butchered in Verdun, nonetheless looked to the day after victory, whose biggest prize – from the European viewpoint – was to be the Ottoman Empire’s severed limbs.
Though victory indeed resulted in the Sultanate’s dismemberment, no one in London or Paris thought of colonizing the other monarchies that vanished in the Great War’s aftermath – Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. This fate was reserved for the Middle East, in which European diplomats saw what they saw in Africa, India and China: strategic frontiers and fair game.
It was against this backdrop that the deal ignored previous commitments to the Sharif of Mecca by Britain’s Viceroy to Egypt. That is also why Sykes and Picot struck their deal behind the back of the Zionist movement, and at its expense, as they designated international rule for the Holy Land. All this was happening in the very London where at the very same time Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann was lobbying for the adoption of the Balfour Declaration.
Ploys aside, the deal’s infamy stems from its masterminds’ woeful unawareness that nations long dormant would imminently come alive, and that the imperialism the pair were serving was on the eve of demise.
The secret pact was publicized by Vladimir Lenin himself, who inherited it from Czar Nikolai soon after unseating him and learning that the Russian monarch had agreed to endorse the deal in return for part of what now is Turkey. Discrediting the deal as imperialism’s embodiment, Lenin’s scoop helped his propagandists glorify communism as the post-colonial future’s harbinger. And it stuck.
That is why, a century on, pundits are still tempted to blame the region’s woes on foreigners.
It was the victors of World War I, goes this rationale, who forced into political straightjackets antagonists such as Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites, or Syria’s Alawites and Sunnis, or Lebanon’s Shi’ites, Sunnis, Druse and Maronite Christians.
Though Sykes and Picot did not actually redo the atlas, but merely drew the line between the prospective British and French spheres of influence, their deal was soon fleshed out by the cartographers who penciled borders that later proved unworkable, and in some cases have also become irrelevant, from Libya to Iraq and Syria.
That is, of course, true. However, when seen in the broader context of post-colonial history, this external impact does not explain Arab civilization’s crisis, nor does it excuse it.
The modern Middle East marched forth over colonialism’s dead body.
This sequence was most forcefully displayed in 1956 when Egypt wrested the Suez Canal from British and French interests that controlled the strategic waterway through the Suez Canal Company.
PRESIDENT GAMAL Abdel Nasser did not win the consequent war, but he did gain the canal, and he did chase the European powers away from their last Middle Eastern strategic asset.
The Arabs, then, were no less victorious in their clash with colonialism than were the Chinese, the Indians, the Kenyans or the Vietnamese. The difference was that with the powers gone, Middle Eastern conflicts flared frequently in ways that were difficult to relate to the colonialists’ legacy.
The stuffing by foreigners of local rivals into single polities did not cause the bloody Iran-Iraq War ‒ because the imperialists did properly separate the Persians and the Arabs ‒ nor could Europeans be blamed for the strife along the years between Morocco and Algeria, or Libya and Egypt, or Iraq and Kuwait, all of which pitted Sunni Arabs against each other.
Moreover, if the borders demanded redrawing so as to better reflect ethnic and religious identities, why did the Arabs not get down to this business by themselves, say, through the Arab League? Who would have stood in their way had they asked the international community to recognize, say, a Sunni state between the Syria and Iraq the imperialists once mapped?
In India, for instance, the British also bequeathed a sectarian tinderbox back when independence loomed, and the assassinated Mahatma Gandhi was but one of its victims. Conflict with Pakistan, the violent emergence of Bangladesh, and the unsolved dispute over Kashmir are also seen as colonialism’s farewell gifts.
However, the subcontinent has produced a generally accepted political framework where an agricultural revolution was followed by an industrial revolution that soon sparked much social mobility and expanding prosperity.
The same can be said of Vietnam, whose splitting and bleeding in the wake of foreign intrusions were followed by a post-ideological quest to manufacture, trade, profit, prosper and to live and let live.
The Arab Middle East did not follow these patterns.
A country like Algeria, which defeated colonialism in the 1950s as impressively as Vietnam did in the 1970s, proceeded from there not to a post-ideological pursuit of prosperity, but to a bloody civil war that cost at least 100,000 lives. In that case, one can argue that intra-Arab strife was caused not by the arrival of foreigners, but by their departure.
Out in China, by contrast, economic enthusiasm did not wait for colonialism’s final defeat. It began well before Britain’s departure in 1996 from Hong Kong, and then continued in earnest, defying doomsday prophecies.
The opposite of this has happened in the Middle East.
Here, the last colonialist holdout, Aden, was evacuated by the British in 1967, only to join a Yemeni civil war that involved other Arab countries, and which in some ways is the same Yemeni war that is raging to this day. China’s sort of post-colonial prosperity has never been pursued, much less achieved.
Some, most notably the late literary theorist Edward Said, argued that the colonialist era’s damage has not been in the creation of untenable states, but in the very fracturing of a Middle East that was meant to be the kind of borderless expanse it was under the Ottomans.
Such nostalgia conveniently forgets several facts.
First, the Middle East was commercially free under the Europeans, much as it had been under the Ottomans. Many Arabs and Jews still remember, fondly, the relative ease with which people and goods traveled between Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut during the British and French Mandate periods.
Second, there have been two post-colonial attempts to integrate the Middle East. One was in the name of nationalism, the other in the name of globalization. One was led by Nasser shortly after the Suez Canal’s nationalization and resulted in an Egyptian-Syrian unification that lasted but three years. The other attempt was Shimon Peres’s in the 1990s, as foreign minister and then as prime minister, when he promoted his New Middle East plan.
The Arab elites rejected that vision, as expressed by the Egyptian publisher of Peres’s book, who prefaced it with the statement: “Shimon Peres proves unequivocally that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are authentic.”
It was part of a broader culture of recrimination that made Arab academics, literati, clerics and politicians blame Arab civilization’s crisis on non-Arabs, rather than engage in introspection and encourage impartial diagnosis of the region’s social decay, economic stagnation and political violence.
The escapism was mapped and decried by the late Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami, back in 1998, in his “The Dream Palace of the Arabs.” There has been, however, a contrarian school that, indeed, preached introspection and advocated self-help.
Syrian Philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm argued back in 1967, in the wake of the Six Day War, that the Arab world must secularize, democratize, embrace feminism and free its universities if it is to seize the future.
More recently, the 82-year-old al-Azm attacked in harsh words, from Damascus, the Assad regime for having built a police state that promotes cronyism and, as he put it, pits clan against clan.
Al-Azm is a Sunni and therefore his attack could be dismissed as his natural place within the Syrian conflict. It isn’t. Phrased in secular terms, and lending supreme value to modern education, his is a towering intellectual’s charge sheet against tyranny, theocracy and obscurantism throughout the Arab world.
Another such soul-searcher was the late Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate who was attacked by a knife-wielding Islamist who tried to assassinate him for his advocacy of peace with Israel, which Mahfouz saw as a bridge to Arabdom’s modernization.
MAHFOUZ AND al-Azm have worked from within the Arab world, at great risk. Mahfouz was ostracized by much of Egypt’s cultural establishment, and many of al-Azm’s works have been banned by Arab censors. That is why other Arab dissenters ended up in the West.
Ajami left Lebanon for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; liberal theologian Nasr Abu Zayd, who saw the Koran as a literary rather than purely divine work, and was declared an apostate by Egyptian clerics, fled to Holland where he spent 15 years, before returning to die in Cairo; and Syrian-born Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known as Adonis, the greatest living Arab poet, has been based in Paris for 60 of his 86 years.
A critic of what he has called the Syrian police state, Adonis says the Arab world’s main problem lies in the role it allows religion to play in its affairs. “Religion is not the answer to problems anymore,” he said in a recent interview with the New York Review of Books. “Religion is the cause of problems.”
This thesis, which was shared by Mahfouz, making both him and al-Azm major villains in the eyes of Arab Islamists – has nothing to do with European imperialism’s visitation of the Middle East.
Neither do the non-religious causes that are counted as obstructing Arab civilization’s path to progress, as voiced by critics like al-Azm, and listed by British journalist Brian Whitaker in his book “What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East:” the elites’ fear of social mobility; the suppression of women; education to obey authority and discourage criticism; and the cultivation of tribalism, which makes millions value family more than society, state, morality and law.
Where these problems originate and how they can be treated are weighty questions, but no case can be made that they are the fault of two long-dead Europeans.