Home » Middle East / Islam » Concerning Middle Eastern ‘Backwardness,’ Part 1: European Colonialism

Concerning Middle Eastern ‘Backwardness,’ Part 1: European Colonialism

When studying global democracies from a regional perspective, it becomes immediately apparent that there is a large undemocratic stain on the map in the irrelevantly demarcated, and incredibly diverse region known as the Middle East. One cannot help but wonder why this stain has not yet been cleansed. It is an old stain that has already been purged from most of the rest of the world (Of 194 countries in the world, there are 116 classified as democracies, and 89 classified as ‘free’ according to the watchdog organization Freedom House). Perhaps the fabric on this particular spot is very difficult to clean? Or perhaps someone not from this region left the stain, and failed to clean it before they departed. The recent and still ongoing populist uprisings throughout much of the region present us with an opportune moment in which to examine this subject.

Orientalist literature (e.g. Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Barry Rubin, Fouad Ajami), as well as a largely Orientalist and sometimes Islamophobic western media, exaggerate Arab hostility to the outside world, misunderstands the role and appeal of fundamentalist Islam, and concludes that some sort of ‘Middle East exceptionalism’ results in low levels of development. It also proscribes western-style market economics and secularism as the cure. Historical and economic factors are often never mentioned, or quickly dismissed. Media pundits condescendingly asking why the region is so ‘backwards’ bring to mind a child who steps on a flower and asks his mother why it does not blossom anymore, or a father who has abused his children and ponders why they do not seem to fit in at school.

The Middle East does indeed score very low on political, social, and economic indicators, and is the most heavily militarized region on the globe, as well as one of the most violent. But why? This article postulates that, rather than cultural or religious causes, the primary reasons for the absence of meaningful democracy and freedom throughout most of the Middle East (there is not a single Arab democracy, but Turkey and Israel are democracies) are a poisonous cocktail of historical and economic factors. First to be examined is the historical European influence.

European Colonialism

A modern history of the Middle East is a history of foreign imperial domination and exploitation. As Fawaz Gerges, an expert on the region puts it, “The Middle East is much more embroiled in great power politics than any other region of the world.” The reason for this is that the Middle East has historically served as a key part of the Silk Road trade route, and in modern times, the world’s primary source for oil (56% of world oil reserves).

Almost all of the Arab peoples knew mostly foreign rule for a thousand years, being conquered by the Seljuks in the eleventh-century, and later ruled by the Mamluks from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. When the Ottomans conquered the region in the early sixteenth century, most of the Arab World was ruled for the first time from a foreign capital, Istanbul.

In the thirteenth-century, Genghis Khan’s Mongol army devastated what was then one of the most advanced civilizations on Earth, precipitating a six hundred year decline. At the time, Baghdad had a population of over one million, sewers, public lighting, and some of the world’s best hospitals and universities. The Mongols razed many of Islam’s greatest cities, and killed more people than all the bombs of the Second World War combined. Many cities only regained their thirteenth-century populations by the mid twentieth-century.

The Europeans were latecomers, beginning their direct imperial control in the late nineteenth century, descending like vultures on the once-mighty Ottoman Empire, which had reached the pinnacle of its centuries long decline. This marked the second round of European colonization, referred to as the ‘New Imperialism,’ and by the onset of the First World War, all of North Africa was under direct European rule.

The arrogant colonial masters openly stated that their dominance was due to their Christian cultural superiority, and they came with missionaries to convert the heathen Muslims. The French Archbishop of Algiers said it was his mission to convert the Muslims from “the vices of their original religion generative of sloth, divorce, polygamy, theft, agrarian communism, fanaticism, and even cannibalism,” and converted the Grand Mosque of Algiers to a cathedral. Before colonialism, Christians were generally respected by Muslims as Peoples of the Book and believers, but after the avarice of imperialism, were regarded as petty, unscrupulous conquerors.

The British claimed to come to Baghdad as ‘liberators’ in 1917, just as Napoleon had claimed when he invaded Egypt in 1798. They needed Arab support against the Ottoman Empire, so they blithely promised to grant the Arabs their independence from the Turks, yet plans for the partition of the Middle East had already been drawn up by both the British and the French the year prior. An Arab lawyer from Najaf (in present day Iraq) wrote in a local newspaper at the time, “We kept waiting for what we had been promised, only to see the [British] army officers strip us of our rights and eliminate our independence.” The British later violently crushed the Iraqi Revolt of 1920.

After World War One, the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement arbitrarily carved up the Middle East as we know it today between Britain and France, creating many small Arab states instead of a united Arab entity, in a typical policy of divide and rule. Indeed, in the words of Fawaz Gerges, “The very making of the modern Middle East is a colonialist construction.” Historian Margaret MacMillan documents the event in her pivotal work, Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World:

Lloyd George, a Liberal turned land-grabber, made it worse. Like Napoleon, he was intoxicated by the possibilities of the Middle East: a restored Hellenic world in Asia Minor; a new Jewish civilization in Palestine; Suez and all the links to India safe from threat; loyal and obedient Arab states along the Fertile Crescent and the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates; protection for British oil supplies from Persia and the possibility of new sources under direct British control.

Britain and France both made token statements about eventual independence, and euphemistically named their colonies “mandates,” entrusted to the “advanced nations,” but as then British Foreign Secretary George Curzon is documented as saying, “If we cannot get out of our difficulties in any other way we ought to play self-determination for all it is worth […] knowing in the bottom of our hearts that we are more likely to benefit from it than is anybody else.” As MacMillan writes, “The Arab world as a whole never forgot its betrayal.”

T.E. Lawrence never forgave himself for his role in the British betrayal of the Arabs. In a 1920 article for a British newspaper, he documents the situation in the British controlled regions of the Middle East:

There has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice […] Our government is worse than the old Turkish system […] How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?

Even following World War II, the old colonial powers still regularly intervened in the nominally independent states of Egypt, Iraq, Jordon, and Lebanon and continued to directly or indirectly exert their harsh colonial rule over Aden (Yemen), Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, the Trucial States (United Arab Emirates), and Tunisia. It was not until the mid-1960s that the states created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement became officially independent. The colonial experience resulted, for many Arabs, in disillusionment with western culture, and discredited the political values of democracy and civil rights, which were associated with Europe, and seen as hollow; and within the colonized world, hollow they were.

The new colonial states of the Middle East in the 1920s spent huge sums of money on police and security services, setting a precedent still held today. The average sum spent on security related matters by the colonial administrations of this period was approximately two thirds of their entire budgets. Further constraining their budgets from meaningful spending was the fact that these mandates continued to be subject to nineteenth-century commercial treaties which effectively prevented them from setting their own economic policies.

The European powers also instituted policies to intentionally magnify the sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions within their colonies, in order to discourage unified nationalist movements. One example of this is the French division of Syria into zones for the Alawis and the Druze. They also reinforced pre-existing elite power structures by further empowering tribal sheiks and large landowners, in the form of tax exemptions and legal powers. Any opportunity to evolve to a system in which a greater segment of society has political control and representation was stagnated. This led to a disconnect between state and society.

Puppet monarchies were favoured by the British over republics because kings could simply dismiss popularly elected nationalist politicians who wanted real independence. King Fuad of Egypt, for instance, regularly dismissed governments composed of members of the popular Wafd Party.

The colonial experience as a whole, and in particular the artificial borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, fragmented the Arab peoples and created multiple nationalisms instead of one unifying Arab nationalism. Because of this it was very difficult to create stability by consolidating national unity. With the creation of Iraq, for instance, the British turned three Ottoman provinces into one country, tying together the oil-rich areas of Mosul and Kirkuk in the north and Basra in the south, and in the process completely disregarding tribalethnic, and religious fault-lines. Believing that such an unstable country could not survive as a democracy, the British established the absolutist Hashemite monarchy.

Due to artificial boundaries, electoral competition in Arab states often exacerbates communal conflicts and empowers groups that threaten the territorial integrity of the state, and hence the state apparatus becomes more authoritarian. The primary Arab movements of pan-Arabism (during Nasser’s time) and political Islam have focused upon identity, unity, and authenticity, but not democracy. The legitimacy of the early post-colonial Arab states came from protecting identity (mostly from imperialism), as opposed to democracy.

Irredentism (advocating the annexation of another state based on common ethnicity or prior historical possession) caused by artificial boundaries resulted in security dilemmas over identity and territory. For example, Nasser’s pan-Arab movement worried other Arab states, and caused them to become more paranoid and authoritarian. The immeasurably destructive Arab-Israeli conflicts and Iran-Iraq wars are examples of conflicts over identity and territory.

The effects of the poisonous system inherited from the European Colonial powers are still seen throughout the Middle East today. As prominent Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi writes, most conflicts in the region “are essentially common, garden-variety outcomes of colonization, the arbitrary drawing of boundaries by the colonial powers, the decolonization process, and the rise of nation-state nationalism,” and these conflicts have led to “a strengthening of the executive authority at the expense of other branches of government and at the expense of the citizenry and its rights.”

Experiments with political liberalization are associated with colonial domination rather than self-determination (in contrast to India, for example) due to experiences with the British and French mandates, which instituted ‘liberalizations’ merely to make foreign economic activity easier. As if this were not enough, there are still other factors working against the states in this region, to be examined in the next article in this series.

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