The Legacy of European Colonialism / Eli E.Hertz

April 18, 2012
Israel is often referred to as a colonial power responsible for much of the instability in the Middle East. The problem is that this labeling is a total fallacy. Unlike nation-states in Europe, modern Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi nationalities did not evolve; they were arbitrarily created by colonial powers.

In 1919, in the wake of World War I, England and France carved up the former Ottoman Empire into geographic spheres of influence, dividing the Mideast into new political entities with new names and frontiers. Some of the newly created states' names came from classical antiquity, such as Syria and Palestine, while others were based on geographic designations, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Iraq, for example, was a medieval province with borders very different from those of the modern state, which excluded Mesopotamia in the north and included part of what is now western Iran.

Territory was divided along map meridians without regard for traditional frontiers (i.e., geographic logic and sustainability) or the ethnic composition of indigenous populations. The prevailing rationale behind these artificially created states was how they served the imperial and commercial needs of their colonial masters. Iraq and Jordan, for instance, were created as emirates to reward the noble Hashemite family from Saudi Arabia for its loyalty to the British against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia. Iraq was given to Faisal in 1918. To reward his elder brother Abdullah with an emirate, in 1922 Britain cut away 77 percent of their mandate over Palestine earmarked for the Jews and gave it to him, creating the new country of Transjordan or Jordan, as it later was named.

The European nation-state model was ill suited to the structure of social organization indigenous to the Middle East where clans, tribes, ethnic groups, Islamic sects, and regional loyalties dominate social units. Much of the conflict in Arab states today reflects that reality, and anti-Zionism has become the glue that holds them together.

Iraq is a case in point. Writing in the Guardian, Oxford historian Avi Shlaim notes that in the 1920s, pan-Arabists hoped Iraq "would be a national prototype for other Arab nations - a 'Prussia of the Middle East.' Iraq however was an artificial state," said Shlaim, "cobbled together by Britain out of three ex-Ottoman provinces, and bereft of any ethnic or religious rationale ... lack[ing] the essential underpinnings of a national bond." The Kurds in the north, comprising 20 percent of the Iraqi population, are a non-Arab Indo-European ethnic group that aspired to political independence as part of Kurdistan. The Shiite Muslims in the south (50 percent of the population) viewed Arab nationalism as a devilish plan by the rival Sunni Muslims (30 percent) to dominate them. "In the face of such deep and pervasive divisions, it was a well-nigh impossible task to achieve the two basic objectives of the Arab national movement: unity and independence." Yet many Arabs, writes Shlaim, saw anti-Zi onism as a convenient tool and grand cause that would unite Arabs by "keeping Palestine in Arab hands. ... Unity would be forged on the anvil of war against the common enemy."

Still, the Arabs' hatred of Israel has never been strong enough to prevent the bloody rivalries that repeatedly rock the Middle East from civil wars in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria to the war between Iraq and Iran, or gassing of countless Kurds in Iraq. Since their creation as states, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq (and their respective national identities) have been held together by demographic balancing acts or dictatorial regimes and anti-Zionist glue. The fragility of these national identities has been demonstrated time and again in civil wars, feuds, assassinations, coups, and uprisings sparked by tribal, ethnic and religious rivalries, and conflicting loyalties.

The manner in which European colonial powers carved out political entities with little regard to their ethnic composition not only leads to inter-ethnic violence, but also encouraged dictatorial rule as the only force capable of holding such entities together, according to Hebrew University Professor Shlomo Avineri. That phenomenon also poses a stumbling block that to this day makes democratization a difficult objective to achieve in places like Iraq.

Against this backdrop, members of the EU want another chance to remold the Middle East, including a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which the British were unable to resolve during 30 years of British Mandate rule. Even during that period, Great Britain's track record was poor, conjuring up a series of so-called peace plans that attempted to appease the Arabs so that they would accept the Jews. Today, the EU aims to solve the conflict at Israel's expense for a host of self-serving reasons.

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