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The historical setting for today's conflicts in the Muslim world
- a lecture given at the seminar Militancy in Islam and its relevance in Afghanistan held in Stockholm on March 10-11 2005

Versailles - a peace to end all peace

An explanation often given for the lack of democracy and the complex political problems in the Middle East is that not only Islam but also the Arab political culture are fundamentally anti-democratic. The thesis put forward in this context is the same as the one used to explain Russia's distinctive character, namely that like Russia the Muslim world did not undergo the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, that is to say the historic events that are the foundation for the modern European project and its conception of the world. The way of thinking that characterised Islamic rationalists such as the Persian doctor and philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) and the philosopher Averroës (1126-98) in Córdoba was not institutionalised and the philosophers, the natural scientists and the rational sciences were forced out of the formal educational and cultural sector as early as the Middle Ages. Religious orthodoxy should thus already then had won the victory over rationalism, a fact that still today characterises large parts of the Islamic world.

Although a great deal speaks in favour of this argumentation, it is, however, far from the whole truth. Neither the decades following the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire nor later the political realities of independence were particularly favourable to the development of democratic traditions and political systems. The French and British European mandate period was followed by domestic governments led by monarchs or by officers who had been trained at the military academies of the mandatory powers not to take over independent democracies but to serve as instruments for the interests of the former colonial powers and to pursue a "rule and divide" policy. Weak economies, inadequate education systems and high unemployment rates made the growth of efficient democracies impossible.

The regimes were too authoritarian and too based on special interests to be able understand the necessity of democratisation, and the interest in the West in democracy and human rights outside Europe was not as pronounced as it is now. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s many accepted the suppression of democratic rights on the grounds that this was necessary both for the survival of their own nation and for the sake of Arab unity and for the fight against Israel. Also in Europe an Arab socialism based on a one-party system was in many quarters claimed and considered to be a precondition for economic development. This applied not least to the now so discredited FLN version of Algerian socialism.

Above all, the national unity and stability that are essential for a functioning democracy had been undermined from the very beginning when national borders in the Middle East were drawn to suit the purposes of the colonial powers. The division of the Ottoman Empire that was the result of the peace settlement became a peace to end all peace in the words of the American historian David Fromkin. The current problems in the Middle East have their origins in the decisions to divide this region taken by the victorious powers during and after the First World War.

The promises of independence given to the Arabs for their participation in the war against Turkish-Ottoman supremacy were not kept. To accommodate the national interests of France and Britain, new states were constructed with borders that did not correspond to the historical, geographical and religious realities. The Middle East became what it is today because France and Britain made no effort to create dynasties, states and political systems that would survive in the long term while, at the same time, they irreparably damaged the old political order. They totally ignored the fact that the borders were being drawn in a region with an ancient and proud civilisation and they appear to have assumed that national identities which took centuries to develop in Europe would take root within a decade.

In November 1917, in the Balfour Declaration the British government proclaimed, "His Majesty's government view with favour 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."

European arrogance towards the Arabs is perhaps most clearly illustrated in this Declaration in which a British minister promises a country that was not his to a people who were not resident there against the will of the local inhabitants and without consulting them. Although the Jews, the majority of whom were recent immigrants, made up less than ten per cent of the population of Palestine in 1917, it seemed perfectly natural to Balfour to depict the Arab inhabitants as a negligible non-Jewish population.

The European Middle East problem, that is to say the matter of French, British, German and Russian influence in the great game was solved, but at the same time it gave rise to a Middle East problem in the region. The agreements concluded after the First World War over the heads of the Arab population are the core of all of today's conflicts in the Middle East and they are an explanation for the bloody civil wars in Lebanon, the daily attacks and acts of violence in Israel and in the occupied territories and the present fighting in Iraq.

For the British it was not least important to secure the overland route to India, establish military bases and airfields and secure the Suez Canal. Britain was given a mandate for Palestine and the Mesopotamian areas which were given the name Iraq - "the well-rooted country" - while France was given Syria and Lebanon. The Balfour Declaration was confirmed in the mandate for Palestine and the mandate powers were urged to "secure the establishment of the Jewish national home" and the Zionist Organisation was recognised as a partner in the endeavours to achieve this objective.

For France and Britain the mandates were primarily an authorisation to safeguard their imperialist interests and endeavours without having to take on the role of colonial power. Instead of attempting to build robust states on a sound historical, economic and geographical basis, France chose a rule-and-divide policy and played off the various Christian communions and Muslim sects against each other which is the basic reason for the problems that still plague the former French mandates Lebanon and Syria.


When Mount Lebanon became a French mandate in 1920, a political-administrative decision was taken in Paris that was to have far-reaching consequences and which is the main cause of the problems that still afflict Lebanon today. To the relatively homogeneous mountain region with its Druse and francophile Maronite Christian population, the French now added both the areas to the south as well as the Bekaa valley between the Lebanon and Antilebanon mountain ranges, two areas with a large Shiite population, and the coastal plains with the Sunni dominated cities Tripoli, Beirut, Saida and Tyr. There were also several Christian minorities in these areas, chiefly Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic who did not have the Maronites' European focus but saw themselves as an integral part of their Arab environment. Like the Sunnis who had been linked to the mandate without being consulted, they had no Lebanese identity whatsoever. The population in the towns along the coast and in the Bekaa valley traditionally considered themselves part of Greater Syria and had their natural link to Damascus and other cities in the Syrian interior. For the inhabitants of the southern area that had been incorporated into the mandate, Galilee in Palestine was for historical and geographical reasons the area they felt a link to, ties which were definitely cut when Israel became an independent state.

The starting-point for this unnatural geographic union was that France would always be present in the region as a uniting factor and as a guarantor of a dominant role for their protégés, the Maronite Christians, in the artificial polity, le Grand Liban. This is reflected in the political structure which Lebanon received on its independence in 1943. The unwritten "national pact" meant that power was divided among the leading families. Representation of the different denominational groups in state organs was based on an arbitrary French census from 1932. The result was that to every six Christian posts there were five Muslim posts. Furthermore, the President was always to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the National Assembly a Shiite Muslim, etc.

The pact may be said to have been a reluctant and forced Maronite acceptance of the fact that, despite all, Lebanon was part of the Arab world and not a European outpost that would continually seek French or other European protection. At the same time, the Maronites considered it to be understood that the Muslims would recognise a certain measure of Christian, that is to say Maronite, supremacy and abandon all ideas of Lebanon's being included in a Greater Syria or in other ways wholly integrated into the Arab world.

Hence, right from the start this pact had several built-in weaknesses which in themselves were the seeds of Lebanon's later misfortunes. The Christians, particularly the Maronites, were over-represented in the political bodies, a situation which became successively more pronounced due to the considerably higher Muslim birth rate. Major religious groups such as the Shiites, Druses and Armenians were under-represented in all political bodies and in the army from the very beginning. The demographic balance was further upset by the inflow of about 100 000 - mainly Sunni - Palestinian refugees to southern Lebanon after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War.

The open Lebanese society with its weak central power was a natural centre for Palestinian political and military activities. Southern Lebanon became a base for operations against Israel and, conscious that the Lebanese central authority could not offer them any protection, the Palestinian groups came to ignore the host country's authorities. In this way the already weak confidence in Lebanese central power was further undermined. It received its death blow, however, through the Israeli attacks on Lebanese areas which followed in answer to Palestinian action against Israel. The Israeli retaliation attacks became increasingly violent and directed not just at Palestinian refugee camps but also at Lebanese villages and towns, whose civilian populations had to pay the price for Palestinian actions.

Characteristic of the complexity of the Lebanese crisis, however, was that Palestinians were not involved in its outbreak in 1975. Instead, the unleashing factor was a socio-economic conflict between poor fishermen and Maronite capitalists. It developed into a conflict between a local leader and the symbol of the feeble central power, the army. The war subsequently developed not only into a sectarian struggle between Muslims and Maronites and a national conflict between Lebanese of different religious backgrounds and the Palestinians and the Maronites but also occasional wars between rival Maronite militias, conflicts which still lie under the surface in today's relatively calm Lebanon.


When the French took control of Syria they had the experience of the resistance to French colonialism in Tunisia and Algeria in mind. To counteract growing Arab nationalism which was further fuelled by the failed promises of independence, Paris gave autonomy to the Alawi minority in the mountains east of the port of Latakia and to the Druses in Jabal Druse south-east of Damascus, making them independent in relation to the Sunni Arabs in Damascus and only accountable to the French. The Druse, Alawis and other minorities received tax benefits and subsidies from the French government. They were above all recruited to the army. The Damascus region was regarded as occupied territory and was patrolled by Senegalese troops with the aid of Alawis, Druses and Kurds. The Arab population felt more humiliated and exposed than during the Ottoman Empire.

To the national forces known under the name Troupes Spéciales du Levant and which became the Syrian army after independence, the French mandatory power consistently recruited men from religious and ethnic minorities: Alawis, Druses, Ismailites, Christian Arabs, Armenians, Kurds and Circassians. The obvious aim of this policy was that the Sunni majority, whose men were not encouraged to join the army, could more easily be kept under control. None of the other groups could gain a strong enough position to be a threat or even an annoyance to the colonial power.

Special efforts were made, furthermore, to recruit people from the minorities living far from the capital Damascus and far from the regional centres and from among those who came from economically underdeveloped areas such as the Alawi mountains where the population would be attracted by the opportunities the army offered. Both the leading Sunni families and the Sunni middle class in the cities and the landowning farmers in rural areas - among whom anti-French national currents were strongest - refused to send their sons as officers to these special troops which were considered to be the tools of French imperialism. Furthermore, they traditionally looked down on the military profession.

For gifted but poor Alawi country boys the army was the only way to get ahead in life. For the few who could continue their education after elementary school, the military academy in Homs was the natural, possibly the only, entrance to higher education and climbing up the social ladder.

The Arab Baath Socialist Party, founded in the 1940s by a Greek Orthodox Christian, Michel Aflaq, appealed particularly to the religious minorities. The Baath ideology was explicitly pan-Arab certainly but its secular and socialist message appealed to the young Alawis and the party carried on a conscious and effective campaign in the educational establishments in the minority areas. The Baath Party became the natural choice for politically interested Alawis. Hence, on independence the Alawis played a role substantially greater than their share of the population they represented in what was later to be Syria's political central nervous system - namely in the army and the Baath Party.

On 8 March 1963 a new military coup was carried out by a coalition of Baathists, Nasserites and politically independent officers. It signified a fundamental change in the political life of Syria even though the traditional power struggle between rival groups with different socio-economic and regional backgrounds continued according to previous patterns. The political power was now in the hands of people from the rural areas and the lower middle class. In some cases they came from the proletariat and the religious minorities - groups that had previously been kept out of the power game.

The coup was followed by a purge of political opponents in the army. Half of the 700 officers dismissed were replaced by Alawis who were often placed in key positions that enabled them to neutralise the decisions of any Sunni superiors. The crews in the armoured battalions stationed in strategically important places were most often Alawis while their officers were Sunnis. In reality, however, these crews only obeyed other Alawi officers, whose real influence thus exceeded their formal influence.

The Alawis now also controlled the entry to the military academy and, not least important, appointments within the intelligence services. The power struggle now became increasingly an internal Alawi struggle, particularly after launched a new but unsuccessful coup in September 1966 which cost the Druse officers continued influence. In February 1968, the only remaining compact Sunni power bloc made up of officers from Hauran province in the south of Syria was purged and in 1968-69 it was the turn of the Ismaili officers.

When Hafez al-Assad seized power in Damascus in November 1970 in the twenty second military coup since 1949 the journey of the Alawis from an economically disadvantaged and exploited existence in a remote Syrian rural spot to absolute power was thus completed 25 years after independence. When al-Assad, before his death in the summer of 2000, handed over the Alawi throne to his 34 year old son Bashar the main threat to the succession had come from the young president´s uncle, Hafez al-Assad´s younger brother Rifa´at.


While France broke down the existing political and social structures to safeguard their national interests in Syria, Britain tried to create a new nation state in Mesopotamia to accommodate theirs.

The Basra and Baghdad vilayats in Mesopotamia had for a long time been neglected provinces on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, however, the British became more and more interested in the area as part of the overland route to India. In the early 20th century the importance of Mesopotamia grew when production from the newly found Persian oil wells controlled by British companies began to be shipped out from the Persian Gulf. British interest was further heightened in 1899 when Germany was granted a concession by Istanbul to build a railway from Konya in the Anatolian highlands to Baghdad, to be subsequently extended to Basra. A German presence in Mesopotamia would threaten both the oil interests and the British interests in India.

In addition to this, the Arab campaign for national liberation started to make itself heard in these regions. Primarily in order to safeguard the oil pipelines, British troops from India landed in Shatt al Arab in the initial stages of the First World War and took Basra. An expeditionary force sent north to take Baghdad was forced to surrender in 1916 to Turkish troops at Kut al-Amara. Baghdad was taken the following year, however, and in 1918 British troops had pressed on as far as Mosul.

After having invaded Baghdad, Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude, the Tommy Franks of his time, issued a declaration with the following message:

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators. People of Baghdad remember for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her allies for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity or misgovernment."

When the British received a mandate to rule Iraq in 1919, there was no Iraqi people as such. Basra in the Shiite south of Mesopotamia had always turned to the Gulf and India, Baghdad had strong contacts with Iran while Mosul in the north which was not yet formally included in the mandate and where the Kurds were in the majority, had its network of contacts in Turkey and Syria. Lieutenant General Maude was soon forced to establish that Mesopotamia was an area where 75 per cent of the population was tribal "with no previous tradition of obedience to any government".

In 1920 the population of southern Iraq staged a revolt, protesting against the fact that the British had not kept their promise to leave the area after the defeat of the Turks. In this uprising which was called the Great Iraqi Rebellion, Sunnis and Shiites were united for the first time, albeit for a short period, in a common struggle. A British officer admitted with a sigh of resignation that the only way to put an end to the uprising was "wholesome slaughter". The British succeeded in restoring order after, among other things, bomb attacks against the civilian population with some use of war gases.

In an article in the Sunday Times dated 22 August 1920, T.E. Lawrence wrote:

"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster ….We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish government and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil….We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton and oil? 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?"

Churchill who was Minister of War at that time toyed with the idea of abandoning the entire project but the Prime Minister Lloyd George refused. According to the Prime Minister, if the British left it would mean that within a couple of years they had "handed over to the French and Americans some of the richest oil fields in the world".

The solution was to install a monarchy. The British choice was the Hashemite prince Faisal who was now compensated for having previously been driven out of Syria by the French as thanks for taking part in the war against the Turks. With his background as a direct descendant of the prophet he was seen as a person who would have sufficient nationalist and religious credentials to gain legitimacy but at the same time he would always be dependent on British support. The British therefore supported local sheiks and tribal leaders that opposed Faisal's attempts to create national awareness and strengthen national institutions. One of the main British objectives was to see to it that the king was stronger than each individual tribe but weak enough to oppose coalitions between several of them.

Another problem for Faisal was that he was not an Iraqi and that monarchy was a foreign form of government to Mesopotamia and was therefore regarded as a British invention. In a well organised referendum, he won 96 per cent of the votes. However, the real chief was the British High Commissioner supported by different Sunni tribal and clan leaders. There was therefore instability built into the new state from the beginning which meant that it could only be ruled by strong leaders. Furthermore, the Sunni minority held the leading posts in the new Iraqi army that was formed.

Stability was not improved by the fact that the issue of independence or autonomy for the Kurds promised in the 1921 Sèvres Agreement was removed from the agenda since oil had been discovered in the regions around Kirkuk in the Mosul vilayat which the new Turkish state under Atatürk regarded as part of its territory. The matter of the final status of the area was solved by the League of Nations in 1925 when it was incorporated into the British mandate in Iraq and the foundation was laid for Iraq's Kurdish problems.

Antagonisms about the future of the mandate arose at an early stage. For Iraq's part the desire was to have it replaced as soon as possible by an alliance with Great Britain that would lead to early independence and through treaties in 1921, 1922, 1926, 1927 and 1930 the new polity received its independence in October 1932 when, at the proposal of Great Britain, Iraq became a member of the League of Nations and the mandate was revoked. In the 1930 treaty, however, London secured far-reaching rights. The two countries entered into a 25-year alliance entailing consultation on foreign policy issues and mutual assistance in the event of war. The British were given preference for posts that required foreign expertise and they were accorded full freedom to use Iraqi rivers, ports and airports, and air bases were leased to the British army.

When the British left, they had installed a weak monarchy supported by a small Sunni elite. Rivalry between the different ethnic and religious groups made it impossible to establish a strong central government. The problem was exacerbated not least by the fact that the British hesitated for a long time as to whether the Kurds in the north should be incorporated into the new state or be given independence. Originally, France was to have sovereignty over the Mosul vilayat with its Kurdish population but the French abandoned their demand in exchange for a larger share of the Turkish Petroleum Company which was transformed into the Iraq Petroleum Company.

A military coup was staged in 1958 and the young King Faisal II was lynched by a mob. The first Iraqi republic also became an unstable creation with a history characterised not least by continually recurring Kurdish uprisings. The Baath Party came to power in 1968 in a coup in which Saddam Hussein played a role and he went on to seize power in 1979.

Developments now followed the same pattern as in Syria. As described above, a minority within the religious Alawi minority had used the secular and putativly socialist Baath Party as an instrument for reaching absolute power. In Iraq, political power was gradually gathered by the same means by a minority among the Sunni Arab minority which represents about 20 per cent of the population - officers originating from the provincial town Tikrit.

Ibn Khaldoun and the future of Iraq

Both in Syria and Iraq, political developments after independence may be explained by the historian Ibn Khaldun's 600-year-old theory of asabija. The word is difficult to translate and denotes a fanatic clan solidarity characterised by a never-say-die spirit. According to Ibn Khaldun the basis for political power was group solidarity, and groups with a common tribal origin - particularly from inaccessible poor areas - tended to have more asabija than people who lived protected lives in the towns. These group loyalties were often further strengthened by affiliation to the same religious sect. In the political power struggle, the group that demonstrated the greatest asabija finally triumphed.

When the British drew the borders for their mandate to rule Iraq after the First World War an American missionary warned them: "You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history". If the now tumbled Iraqi minority government after free elections is replaced by a new government with a broader political base that better reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the country, there is a great risk that the same development will be repeated. Strong political power is needed if present ties of loyalty with religious, regional or ethnic bases are to be broken. Every new regime aiming for such a position of power will, however, sooner rather than later not just for their political but also for their physical survival, be forced to depend on the loyalty in their own group, which will make it impossible to fulfil their original political intentions however good these may have been.

Of the parties that have stepped forward in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall, the Communist Party is the only one with an ideological background and the only that is trans-regional. As the Shiites are clearly in the majority, parties with this religious background dominated in the elections at the end of January this year. Should they choose to follow an Iranian path, which cannot be excluded, this would surely not be accepted by Washington with subsequent consequences for Iraqi faith in western democracy. Furthermore, a democratic Iraq as envisaged by the Americans would mean that the Kurds in the north would be forced to give up the independence they have now since over ten years been enjoying for the first time in their long history.

Since the Kurds as well as the Sunnis who boycotted the elections can block a new constitution the outcome might be a federal system which would led to a situation very similar to that in former Yugoslavia before the outbreak of the wars. Another possibility is some kind of Lebanese solution, that is to say to give the different religious and ethnic minorities parliamentary representation based on their share of population. Also the Lebanese example is, however as we all know, not particularly encouraging.

Ibn Khaldun's 600-year-old asabiya thesis is still of such relevance that democratic regimes also in the foreseeable future probably will be utopian in countries such as Syria and Iraq. An Iraqi identity might possibly be developed as a consequence of a common resistance to a continued American presence in the same way as Sunnis and Shiites were united in 1920 for a time in their resistance to British occupation.

The longer the American military presence in Iraq continues, the greater credibility will be given to Bin Laden's arguments that the Muslim world in its entirety was the main target from the beginning. Iraq was attacked and not North Korea which was a greater threat. Saddam Hussein's claimed possession of weapons of mass destruction proved to be a pretext for the war and the occupation of Baghdad is for many Muslims the most humiliating event since East Jerusalem was lost in 1967. As the capital of the caliphate over a six-hundred-year period the city has enormous symbolic value.

Furthermore, the rapid and total collapse of the Iraqi regime strengthened Bin Laden's argument that neither secular Islamism nor Arab nationalism can liberate the Muslim world but that salvation rather lies in Islam and a permanent violent military jihad. If just one per thousand of the population of the Muslim world believe in this argument, it means a recruitment base of over a million people. Blind terror directed against American and other western targets will therefore probably continue to be a phenomenon we are forced to live with in the foreseeable future. In a worst-case scenario the Cold War of the 20th century will be replaced by a very hot one without clear frontlines and waged with weapons we do not know how to combat or defend ourselves against.

Thus, the chances of the American invasion creating a western style prosperous democracy that spreads its light over the Muslim world are small. Instead, through the invasion of Iraq, both the prospects of such a development and of winning the war against terrorism might have been ground to zero.

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