Saturday, February 05, 2011

"The states of the Middle East are modern creations"

"Whatever their claims to antiquity, all the states of the Middle East are modern creations, a result of the collapse of the Ottoman and Czarist Russian empires at the end of World War I, and of the interaction of these states with a modern global system of political, military, and economic power.

When it comes to particular forms of claim and symbol, a similar modernity applies. Neither the claims of Islamists nor of Zionist politicians to be recreating a lost past are valid. The concept of the Islamic state, propounded in Shi'ism by Ayatollah Khomeini through the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, and that of a revived Caliphate, endorsed by conservative Sunnis including al-Qa'ida, are modern political projects. The state of Israel, for example, bears no relation except rhetorically to the ancient kingdoms of Solomon and David. Many of the most potent symbols of contemporary politics are also recent creations. Thus the Saudi monarchy's claim to be khadim al-haramain ('Servant of the Two Holy Places') was introduced only in 1986, and then in order to head off rival claims by King Hussein of Jordan to be the patron of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem; while Osama Bin Laden's comparable term for Arabia, bilad al-haramain, ('Land of the Two Holy Places') is an invention of his. All the monarchies in the Middle East claim ancient, ritualised, legitimacy, but they are, in fact, creations of the twentieth century, of the vogue for kingship that, late in the day, swept the Arab world, and, not least, of attentive, and at times military, support given to them at times of crisis by their more powerful friends in Europe and the US."

--Fred Halliday, 100 myths about the Middle East

PS: See Joel Wing's excellent post "A Look Into Iraq's Creation, Governance, And Disputed Territories: An Interview With Stephen Donnelly, Former U.S. And U.N. Official", which shows that today's borders in the Middle East are mostly a result of Ottoman maps and Ottoman administration. Donnelly says that the notion that today's Middle East is a modern creation of western powers is actually a myth: "This myth, with accompanying imagery of British adviser Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill dividing up the Middle East during an English Garden party (before jumping down Alice’s rabbit hole for further entertainment), is incorrect and misleading."


Don Cox said...

I think this is mostly rubbish.

Mesopotamia, for instance, is a natural geographic region. One might exclude the Kurdish parts and include Kuwait, but basically it has been a known country for millennia.

So has Egypt.

Israel is basically the area occupied by Jews 2500 years ago, and regarded by them as home ever since.

Perhaps Syria, Jordan and Arabia are more dubious divisions.

Joel Wing said...

This is actually incorrect. Most of the Middle Eastern states, but not all, are actually based upon Ottoman provinces. I recently looked at a map of the Ottoman Empire from 1683 and Egypt has almost the exact same boundaries as today, So did Tunisia. Libya, Algeria, etc, as well. There were large desert regions connected to them later on, but their northern boundaries were almost the same as their modern ones. Kuwait on the other hand, was carved out by the British from Iraq's Basra.

Read the interview I just did. Iraq is also based upon the Ottoman Empire.

Iraqi Mojo said...

They forgot to give the Kurds a state. If the Al Sabah clan got their own country, why didn't other clans and tribes? Why don't the Shia living in the east of the Arabian peninsula have their own country?

Joel Wing said...

Probably because they largely stuck with existing provincial boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Like I said, with a few exceptions, ie Kuwait, the modern Arab states are based upon Ottoman boundaries going back hundreds of years.

Here's a link to a 1683 Ottoman map.

Here's another from the 1500s.

Here's a map of the three areas that would become Iraq in 1914, and note, the Kurdish north is included in the vilayet of Mosul, and that did not include the Kurdish areas of Basra, or the Kurdish areas of Syria or Turkey.

Joel Wing said...

Sorry, that should say the "Kurdish areas of Persia" not Basra

Iraqi Mojo said...

Thanks Joel for linking to those maps. The first link you posted is not working.

So the Ottomans also did not recognize Kurdistan as separate province. I did not know that.

Before I had my coffee this morning I took a look at your post about Iraqi maps and your interview with Stephen Connelly. Looks like another excellent post. I will read all of it in a few minutes.

Joel Wing said...

Here's the Ottoman map from 1683