Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Colonialism and the Middle East

Today with all the problems in North Africa and the Middle East, the actual conflicts between governments and between the people and their own governments are often matched by an equally contentious fight over where to place the blame for all of this. We are, after all, living in the age of irresponsibility, where it is certainly never, ever “my” fault. It is always easier, of course, to blame someone else. Blame another country, blame another religion, blame another race, blame another party or political system. This, of course, absolves one of the very painful and difficult duty of critical reflection and self-improvement; of taking it upon yourself to solve your own problems. Why try to fix things when all of your problems are the fault of another? In many cases, though, this can lead to downright comical twists and turns and downright acrobatic contortions of logic. In the United States, for example, many of the same people who cheered on the Bush administration in spreading the gift of democracy to the people of Iraq have lately been condemning the present occupant of the White House for supporting popular rebellions against dictators in the name of democracy when that democratic process leads to anti-American regimes.

Similarly, many of those who cited the existence of the terrorist prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba under George W. Bush as being at fault for making people hate the USA are now quiet as church mice after President Obama failed to make good on his oft-repeated promise to close the facility. The blame now must reside elsewhere I suppose. Likewise, it is almost funny to see the leadership of the European Union congratulate the people of North Africa on achieving democracy when they are so adamantly opposed to submitting themselves to the democratic will of their own peoples. However, the Muslim community, and particularly the Arab Muslim community, are no less adept at these blame games than the western and (hardly even nominally these days) Christian countries. I find it particularly strange to see so many disgruntled Arab Muslims shouting abuse at the west and calling for Islamic unity and the creation of a new Islamic caliphate considering that, during World War I, it was Arab Muslims who fought alongside the Christian Allied powers in bringing about the destruction of the last, legitimate Caliph of Islam who was the Turkish Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

My favorite, though, is when they blame the problems in the failed republics of North Africa and the Middle East on western colonialism. Though “western” is really casting too wide a net as the only European countries that colonized North Africa and the Middle East were Great Britain, France and (very briefly) Italy. Spain had a tiny foothold but it never came to much. However, if you just blamed everything on the British, French and Italians you inadvertently let America off the hook based on the silly technicality that the United States has never had a colony or mandate in the region, so it is better to just say “western” colonialism just so everyone from America to Norway will be warned. Though, with Gaddafi gone, at least Switzerland will be able to sleep a little easier at night from now on. This is also a smart move because most people in the world think colonialism to be an inherently evil thing and even most people in Europe, even most people in the countries which had the largest colonial empires in the world (Britain and France) consider colonialism a terrible and shameful thing.

Just to be clear, for anyone new to this game, I am not among those who think it so. I do not pretend it was all good, but I think it was more positive than not and, while I speak only for myself in this, I find it a little absurd that anyone in the Americas in particular would decry colonialism considering that none of the countries and most of the people of the Americas today would not exist without it. That being my mentality, I am particularly sensitive to colonialism being the modern whipping boy for every problem in the contemporary Third World, to say nothing of the Middle East and North Africa. Of course, everything that is today is based to some degree on all that has been but when it comes to colonialism I think the negative aspects are being exaggerated. I think this is particularly true considering North Africa and the Middle East which were under European colonial rule for a period of time that amounts to a mere speck on the world history timeline when compared to the length of time the region was under the colonial rule of the non-Christian, non-western and non-European Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Consider this: Algeria was a colony of the Ottoman Empire for 300 years and was only a French colony for 132 years and during much of that time French rule was quite limited. Tunisia was an Ottoman colony for more than 131 years and was a French protectorate for only 75 years. The territories that are now Libya were colonies of the Ottoman Empire for 360 years then were an Italian colony for less than 32 years. Egypt was under Ottoman sovereignty for 365 years while the British held control over Egypt for only 40 years. Palestine was under Ottoman rule for 401 years and a British mandate for 26 years. Syria was ruled by the Ottomans for 402 years and was a French mandate (along with Lebanon) for a mere 21 years. Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire for 387 years and was then a British mandate for a mere 12 years. That is pretty much the whole of North Africa and the Middle East (the “Middle East” being defined in my education as the area from Egypt to Iran) other than Iran which had never, officially, been under the rule of a European power though it did have a British sphere of influence in the south and a Russian sphere of influence in the north (though not every Russian would consider Russia a “European” country by any means). So, how is it that “western colonialism” is held to blame for nearly every problem in the modern Middle East and North Africa when in most cases European rule lasted less than fifty years rather than the colonialism of the Turks who ruled the region for centuries?

Now, it should be obvious but I will point it out just to be on the safe side, this does not mean I think the Middle East and North Africa should instead blame modern Turkey for their current problems instead of “the west” (which Turkey is trying to join, but that’s another story). As mentioned, if anything, the Turks would have more reason to blame their problems on the Arabs for turning on their Muslim brethren in the First World War to fight alongside Britain, France and Italy in bringing down the Ottoman Empire. Even after the Turkish Sultan, the Caliph of Islam, called upon all Muslims to unite in a jihad against the Allied powers, Muslims from the Empire of India to the Arabian peninsula and French Algeria disregarded this call and did their part to bring down the Islamic Ottoman Empire -along with her own allies which were Orthodox Bulgaria, Roman Catholic Austria-Hungary and the Protestant and Catholic Empire of Germany. The Arabs have no room to blame the Turks for their present situation and the western powers should not attempt it either. Today the western world complains endlessly about the conflicts and civil wars and unrest in the Middle East, conveniently forgetting that before their predecessors brought down the Ottoman Empire, this was a fairly pacific region and when there were troubles it was the Turks who had to deal with it, not the French, British or Americans. As with any empire, critics can point to examples in the Ottoman Empire that were not so nice but then there was no Assad regime in Syria, no Saddam Hussein in Iraq and no Gaddafi in Libya under either the Turks or the Italians.

Everyone, from individuals to entire nations, rise or fall and live or die based on the choices they make. Blaming colonialism for modern problems is pointless and provably false. The Korean peninsula was, for a time, under the colonial rule of Japan and the Japanese did not always treat the Koreans with absolute loving kindness, however, South Korea still managed to become an extremely successful and prosperous country. North Korea, obviously, did not but, as South Korea proves, the Japanese cannot be held to blame for that. North Korea is a failed state because it adopted an astoundingly stupid political and economic system. North Africa and the Middle East are no different. Where they have problems, it is the result of choices they have made. For the Middle East and North Africa the choices made include cutting colonial ties, pursuing bad policies and, in the cases of Libya, Egypt and Iraq, overthrowing existing monarchies in favor of militaristic republics. Sometimes it only takes one mistake to derail things if that mistake is big enough and as long as you play the blame game that one big mistake will never be corrected.

The Ottoman Empire is a good example again. Their big mistake was getting involved in World War I. If it makes the Turks feel any better, that was a common mistake at the time as it was a mistake for everyone who got involved in the Great War who had a choice in the matter (I say for the benefit of the Belgians) even if they were on the winning side. Everyone says that the Ottoman Empire was in decline and doomed to inevitable collapse. True, compared to periods in the past, Ottoman Turkey was in decline but, again, that was based on choices and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was not inevitable. This is something people seem to like to say to avoid having to think about real problems and their consequences. They said the same thing about Austria-Hungary; that it was doomed to collapse and there was nothing anyone could do about it, war or no war. As we have talked about before, that was nonsense. Had it not been for the war, it is entirely possible Austria-Hungary would have gone on and might still be with us today. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire was in pretty bad shape but they were making changes, they were developing, updating, making some poor decisions but some wise ones as well. The Ottoman government had control of its own territory, maintained law and order, was in the process of developing a modern infrastructure and when war came managed to threaten the Suez Canal, force the biggest surrender of British forces since the siege of Yorktown in America, had troops in southern Russia and drove the Allies off of Gallipoli. They didn’t win, but that is a respectable list of accomplishments for an empire in decline, supposedly on the doorstep of “inevitable” collapse.

The last Sultan
If the Ottoman Empire had stayed out of World War I, and better yet if the other major powers had as well, with the discovery of vast Arabian oil reserves in 1938 they may well have made one of the biggest recoveries in history and there would have been none of the subsequent regional conflicts that have bedeviled the world from then to the present day. However, what was done is done. How about the countries as they exist today? A simple look around would be much more beneficial than playing the blame game. Which countries have been the most poor and oppressive -and thus unstable? Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Tunisia all have one thing in common: republicanism. Which have been the most stable in the region? Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Oman. What do they all have in common? Monarchy! I know, you were going to say oil but that’s not entirely true (though you cannot deny it certainly helps). The Sultanate of Oman has very limited oil reserves and the Kingdom of Jordan has practically none at all while even with considerable oil wealth, republican dictatorships like Libya and Iraq still managed to make the lives of their people miserable. So, there are good examples to follow, there are successful models to draw upon. All that needs to happen is for people to stop blaming colonialism, stop blaming foreign countries, stop blaming movies or cartoons no one has even seen and take responsibility for your own recovery. Step one in that recovery should be the restoration of the one form of government that had, across North Africa and the Middle East, proven to provide the most stability and genuine progress while still respecting time-honored traditions -monarchy.


  1. Not a bad analysis, but I have deeply mixed feelings on the Ottoman Empire as I do about the present situation. The Ottoman Empire was far from benign when it came to its Balkan, Armenian and Arab populations, for starters. The Arab revolt led to the Hashemites and Saudis vying for contention (along with the Rashidis in Ha'il), but the fatal mistake comes down to the following:

    1) in 1920, the Kingdom of Syria was proclaimed with Faisal, later first King of Iraq, to be its ruler. Instead, the region was carved up arbitrarily with artificial borders of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine. Only Jordan, tellingly has been stable.

    2) the failure to secure Kurdish independence.

    3) the artificial boundaries in #1 led to the sectarian mess in Lebanon and Syria. Although I've always supported Lebanese Christian nationalists, who defended their homeland from the Assad regime and now Hezbollah.

    1. True enough, but by 1914 all of those who were unhappy with Ottoman rule had already freed themselves from it if they were able to. I doubt the Arabs would have succeeded in their revolt had it not been for the aid of the Allied powers and other peoples like the Kurds (as you mentioned) were not given independence anyway. If some of these groups had, there is still every reason to believe that (even if entirely justified) it would have led to one conflict after another as we have seen with the Jews being given their own state. My only point was that none of these problems, as they are now, would have happened if the Ottoman Empire had stayed out of World War I.

      However, the temptation for gain proved greater than the fear of defeat. I don't think those who condemn the Allied victory (usually out of sympathy for only Germany and/or Austria-Hungary) realize just how extensive Turkish goals were if the Central Powers had dictated the peace. The Ottoman Empire looked to re-take Egypt-Sudan, Libya, parts of southern Russia and vast expanses of central and south Asia to reclaim the Turkish ancestral homeland and more.

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    1. Nope, afriad not. Britain and France would not have been involved at all if the Ottoman Empire had not chosen to ally with the Central Powers and declare war on them. The last thing Britain wanted was to have to divert forces to defend Egypt and their gulf protectorates. As for why Britain didn't defend the Middle East monarchies, again, it comes down to the consequences of their own choices. They were not able to because they had no money. They could not afford an empire and a welfare state and the people chose the welfare state. Britain was in the position of having to choose because they chose to enter World War II on behalf of Poland, a war they could only win with American help and the British Empire was basically mortgaged to the United States to fight the Axis. It all comes down to choices and choices have consequences. The ones responsible for the downfall of the monarchies in Iraq and Egypt and Yemen are first and foremost the republican factions who turned against their monarchs.

  3. Good article. As an American Muslim I have mixed feelings about this situation but you do accurately highlight some of the irrational thought patterns of many of my co-religionists. As much as I love the Arabs (I married one) I'm often frustrated by the prevalence of hyper-emotional anti-western thinking and conspiratorial nonsense. That being said, the "west" is not completely innocent. I will not defend European imperialism (and as someone else mentioned, their callous carving of former ottoman territories has been a disaster)but you did point out the hypocrisy of animosity towards the Europeans while leaving the Turks off the hook. Of course the Turks being Muslim certainly is a factor but that's another discussion. Of course with America there is the propping up of brutal dictators and the embarringssly one-sided approach to the Israel/Palestine fiasco. This certainly isn't enough to be held accountable for the Arab world's current predicament, but it is certainly enough to understand why "they" don't like "us" too much.

    On a side note, I have to ask, why do most monarchists seem so dour and militaristic? This is one thing that tends to alienate me from this cause.


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