It’s complicated, this relationship with the West

One needs to look at history to understand the relations between the Middle East and the West. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One needs to look at history to understand the relations between the Middle East and the West. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I’ve been invited to teach next semester at a university in Europe. The course, titled Encounters Between the Middle East and the West, has forced me to think of grand themes in this encounter, which is a fairly genteel word for a relationship that has been fraught with tension especially in the 20th century. These days, whenever the West is mentioned in the same phrase as the Middle East, the word “colonialism” is not far behind. The 20th century undoubtedly began with resentments brought about by the post-World War I arrangements that formally divided the Arab world between Britain and France.

But are we really clear on the details? We often hear that Sykes-Picot, the 1916 agreement between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East into zones of influence, is at an end. But Sykes-Picot was never applied. Instead, direct rule was agreed in 1918, tailored to the interests of Britain and France, undercutting alleged British promises made to the Arabs.

Who were these Arabs? Britain certainly betrayed its commiments on independence but Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons, to whom it made them, were not pursuing idealised notions of Arab nationalism and independence, but dynastic ambitions.

The colonial legacy is a complex one, difficult to break down into simplistic categorisations of western domination and Middle Eastern victimisation. No doubt there was much abuse of Arab societies and Iran by the colonial powers, but the relationship was frequently more than that.

The political systems in Syria and Egypt, for example, emerged from the colonial period more developed, pluralistic, and liberal than would later be seen under sovereign indigenous leaders.

And Lebanon, the most open country of the three, would see many of its democratic institutions established under French rule. The country continues to adhere to the tolerant 1926 constitution written during French rule after WWI.

This is hardly to praise colonialism. When King Farouk sought to eliminate all opposition in the interwar period in Egypt, he did so with the tacit approval of the British. And in Lebanon, the French may have put in place constitutional institutions, but they also suspended the constitution twice and in 1943, jailed most of the cabinet.

Yet, the narrative of western domination demands nuance, even as it has become central to an academic approach greatly influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism. Orientalism, he wrote, is “a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” In other words, the study of the Orient was a facet of colonial subjugation. This view still affects many interpretations of the West’s relationship with the post-World War II Middle East but it should not be applied uncritically.

The fact is that the post-war decades were often defined by Arab affirmation against western hubris. The Suez war of 1956 was the most overt sign that the British and French era in the Middle East was over, and that a new western power, the United States, had risen in the region. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, America would dominate the diplomacy of peace (even if comprehensive peace never materialised), becoming the indispensable mediator between Arabs and Israelis.

American power, then, was not a reflection of neo-imperialism. It was bolstered by regional states themselves, who often piggybacked on America’s agenda to pursue their own interests. If anything, the latter half of the 20th century was characterised more by an Arab or Iranian ability to frustrate or manipulate western states than by western hegemony over the region.

The Iranian revolution is a good example, no less than Syrian and Iranian success in undermining Washington’s efforts to push for normalisation between Israel and Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982. Similarly, Syria’s late president Hafez Al Assad successfully exploited the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to get the American green light to impose Syria’s writ over all of Lebanon.

In the last century, the West learnt that grand projects generally fail in the Middle East. After WWI, British and French ruwas largely a fiasco from the perspective of building political influence. Even the 2003 Iraq invasion, which some commentators insisted was a revival of imperialism, was nothing of the sort. For a moment, the Americans thought they could act like the British after WWI, but this was derailed by the Iraqis themselves and Iran gained the most.

That said, Iran’s project to expand its power regionally is proving no easier than for the western powers. In both Syria and Iraq, it is held hostage to sectarian dynamics that it helped provoke but can no longer control.

So, if there is any lesson to impart to my students, it is that relations between the Middle East and the West defy simplistic models. They are, to borrow from Italian writer Italo Calvino, “a story of pursuits, pretences, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions” that makes the “carousel of fantasies” stop.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On twitter @BeirutCalling

Published: December 24, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one