By Samuel Scott
JERUSALEM — As those who have seen “Lawrence of Arabia” may recall, T. E. Lawrence’s goal of Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) during World War I ran into two not-so-small barriers: the national ambitions of the British and French empires combined with the collective inability of Arab tribal-chiefs to reach a compromise on political self-rule.
Under the infamous Sykes–Picot Agreement, the Middle East was divided between Britain and France after the Allied victory over the Ottoman Empire and other Central Powers in the conflict. (See the image at the left for the specific zones of control.) Interestingly enough, European empires generally collapsed after the collective economic, political, and military stresses of World War I and II — soon after their worldwide presences had reached their overextended heights. Throughout history, one rule has always remained true: from the Roman to the British Empires, the declines of nation-states often begin as soon as they have expanded far more than it is possible to maintain and preserve. But that is a topic for another time.
The point here is that the Arab Middle East — which does not, of course, include Iran, which is Persian — has not had anything resembling the existence of nation-states for centuries (if ever). And this is important.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the people of Europe (both former Romans and migratory groups of the so-called “barbarians” of northern and eastern Europe) eventually founded individual nation-states — countries comprised largely of a single nation of people based on ethnicity and individual cultures that had been developed over hundreds of years:
The kingdoms — one could say “tribes” — depicted in this map of Europe in 500 A.D. eventually coalesced, consolidated, or disintegrated into the countries as they exist today through methods including political marriages, continental warfare, and societal upheaval. Still, there are both benefits and drawbacks to states based on ethnicity. For the former, countries that have uniform characteristics — say, a “France” whose citizens are Franks and Roman Catholic — will develop a civil society that will improve the state politically and economically since people, rightly or wrongly, subconsciously prefer to associate with those who are similar to themselves (see the voluntary self-segregation among ethnic groups in the neighborhoods of any major city). For the latter at an extreme, countries like Germany and Turkey in the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide may attempt to expel or murder those citizens or residents who do not conform to the norm.
Regardless, the development of European countries largely followed a general path:
- The military conquest of territory
- The development of political self-determination
- A decision to create countries or separate into individual ones based on the aforementioned ethnic or societal characteristics
(The last two may occur before or after each other depending on the specific historical-events within each country.) However, this process took many centuries, and it is likely still not complete. As Pat Buchanan noted in a recent column:
Indeed, [former British prime-minister Neville] Chamberlain knew almost nothing of Czechoslovakia, inside whose borders, set at the Paris peace conference of 1919, dwelled 7 million Czechs, dominant over 3.25 million Germans, 2.5 million Slovaks, 800,000 Hungarians, 500,000 Ruthenians and 150,000 Poles, all of whom had been consigned to Prague without their consent.
Czechoslovakia was an artificial nation, its borders drawn up by Allied mapmakers to compensate the Czechs who had risen up against the Habsburg Empire and helped to defeat the Kaiser.
The world today is like Czechoslovakia 1938, only infinitely more so.
(Before I continue, I need to make a comment to prevent the obvious comments that I will receive. In my articles, I quote sources and experts from the far left to the far right — and everyone in between — whenever I either agree with them or think they make a point that is worthy of consideration. Whatever one thinks of Buchanan, evaluate his opinions based only on their merits — not on him personally. A good person can make a bad point, and a bad person can make a good point.)
As Buchanan notes, the definitions of European countries are still in process despite hundreds of years of history, especially in the age of globalization. But here in the Middle East, this process has yet to begin.
In the order that I outlined above, the first step in the creation of a state is the military conquest of territory. The Middle East has never proceeded beyond this stage as a result of the actions of entities including the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and various European empires. Individual peoples — or tribes, if you will — have never had the opportunity for self-determination because of the actions of outside powers.
At most, Arabs had been largely aligned with their local tribal-chiefs and religious leaders — but these are communal affiliations rather than political ones in a European context. (Of course, this raises two questions: must global-geopolitics proceed in a manner similar to Europe over centuries — as Francis Fukuyama famously asserted — and are nation-states the most-stable and productive forms of political organization, since the United States is the most-famous exception by virtue of being a state comprised of many nations?)
As a result, there is not really any such thing in the Middle East as a Syrian, Palestinian, or Iraqi (at least not yet). For various reasons, people in these countries or communities have artificial identities that were imposed externally rather than developed internally among themselves. It is just one reason among many why the Middle East has never become a stable part of the world.
However, it is also a reason why the ongoing riots and turmoil in the Arab world both scare and inspire me. If these peoples can create a sense of identity and civil society while instilling a personal stake in their own countries in themselves, then that will bode well for peace and stability in the long term. However, as Europe itself has shown — this takes a long time. Europeans fought bloody wars among themselves for centuries before their borders and identities were largely set. (Germany and France, for example, are no longer on the verge of war over Alsace-Lorraine. However, the economic integration of the continent after World War II has also been a significant factor — no one wants to invade a country if doing so would destroy his economy as well.)
But perhaps a similar process could occur quickly in the Middle East. Today, time and so-called progress move much more quickly. What would have taken decades in medieval times can now take just years. So, some light at the end of this unstable tunnel in the Middle East may be seen soon.