How the past shapes the present
In continuing my look at the Middle East based upon my presentation in St Vincent, I listed significant events that impacted the region throughout history leading up to the present time.
The list of these events are as follows:
– Before the modern era – Roman and Persian Empires; colonialization/conquests
– Islamic Empire 7th century onwards
– Sykes-Picot Agreement & Balfour Declaration
– End of the Islamic caliphate in 1924
– Arab Nationalism:It rose to prominence with the weakening and defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.
– Creation of new nation states in place of the Ottoman Empire (Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, etc.)
– Centralization of political power. Loss of rural autonomy
– Implanting of western-supported regimes (especially monarchies) that use violence to maintain authority.
– Reorganization of social relationships among different groups. Privileging of some religious and social groups over others.
– Massive economic disruption. New economic relationships, with arrangements particularly benefiting western powers.
– New models: nationalism, “modernity vs traditional”
– Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’
– Gulf Wars
– Collapse of Regimes (Arab Spring)
– Syrian Crisis/Refugees
The Islamic empire had its genesis in the cities of Mecca and Madinah in the Arabian Peninsula (now called Saudi Arabia) in the 7th century. The faith served as a catalyst to unite the many warring tribes of the region and to challenge the colonialist empires of that time, namely the Romans and Persians. Islam was a social, political, economic and religious revolution which changed the region and ultimately catapulted the peoples of that area onto the world stage.
Historians report that within a century of the birth of Islam, the Islamic empire extended from Iberiain the west to the Indus River in the east. Polities such as those ruled by the Umayyads (in the Middle East and later in Iberia), Abbasids, Fatimids, and Mamluks were among the most influential powers in the world. The Islamic civilization gave rise to many centres of culture andscienceand produced notable astronomers, mathematicians, doctors and philosophers during the Golden Age of Islam. Technology flourished; there was investment in economic infrastructure, such as irrigation systems and canals; and the importance of reading the Quran produced a comparatively high level of literacy in the general populace.
After centuries, the dominance of the Islamic Empire waned as European powers gained in strength and sought to conquer and colonialize new territories and regions. As also noted by some commentators, “During the modern era most parts of the Muslim world fell under influence or direct control of European Great Powers. Their efforts to win independence and build modern nation states over the course of the last two centuries continue to reverberate to the present day.”
I don’t think I have exaggerated when I made the point that for all intents and purposes, the Middle East can be described as the playground for the superpowers of world. This is substantiated by what I and other keen observers believe are the two most significant events that impacted the Middle East in the modern era –– the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. These two events are a must-know if one wants to fully understand the foundation of many of the Middle East issues today.
The Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was a secret agreement between the United Kingdom and France, with the assent of the Russian Empire. The agreement defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in Southwestern Asia. The agreement was based on the premise that the Triple Entente would succeed in defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The negotiation of the treaty occurred between November 1915 and March 1916 and was signed on 16 May 1916. The deal was exposed to the public in 1917. The Agreement is still mentioned when considering the region and its conflicts in the present day.
The UK was allocated control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and River Jordan, Jordan, southern Iraq, and a small area including the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean. France was allocated control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. The controlling powers were left free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca.
Given the eventual defeat in 1918 and subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the agreement effectively divided the Ottoman’s Arab provinces outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of future British and French control and influence. An “international administration” was proposed for Palestine. The British gained control of the territory in 1920 and ruled it as Mandatory Palestine from 1923 until 1948. They also ruled Mandatory Iraq from 1920 until 1932, while the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon lasted from 1923 to 1946. The terms were negotiated by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot.
The Russian Tsarist government was a minor party to the Sykes–Picot Agreement and when, following the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks published the agreement, the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted.” The Agreement is seen by many as a turning point inWestern and Arab relations. It negated the UK’s promises made to Arabs through Colonel T. E. Lawrence for a national Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria, in exchange for their siding with British forces against the Ottoman Empire.
The Balfour Declaration was a letter dated November 2, 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It read: “His Majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on November 9, 1917. The declaration was in contrast to the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, which promised the Arab independence movement control of the Middle East territories “in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca” in exchange forrevolting against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The issuance of the Declaration had many long lasting consequences, and was a key moment in the lead-up to theArab–Israeli conflict, often referred to as the world’s “most intractable conflict”. The 100th year of that Declaration begins tomorrow and its effects are still very much felt today on the Middle East and indeed the entire world.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)