Middle East fantasy borders and pan-Arab Islam

Ralph Johansen michele at maui.net
Thu Dec 19 12:56:05 MST 2002


The Guardian  Wednesday December 11, 2002

Here we go again

The family dictatorships that dominate the Middle East are the legacy of
fantasy borders drawn by colonial administrators. Now with the Bush
administration pressing to topple Saddam, says Jonathan Raban, we may be
about to repeat our mistakes - and do just what Bin Laden wants

Somewhere in the letters-home of Gertrude Bell, the doughty English
archaeologist and colonial administrator, there is a description of a
pleasant afternoon spent riding in the Mesopotamian desert in 1918 or 1919.
Bell trails a walking stick in the sand. Behind her, Arab boys erect cairns
to mark the future boundary between what will eventually become the states
of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Bell was one of the many British and French nation-builders who carved up
Arabia in the years following the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. The lines
they drew in the sand rarely corresponded to any pre-existent historical,
tribal, cultural or geographical reality. The nations they invented were
arbitrary agglomerations, their borders thrown up around dozens of warring
local sheikdoms. These fictional states were given kings (the British loved
to create monarchies in their own image) and elegant written constitutions,
as if the right sort of ceremonial language and regular 21-gun salutes could
somehow transform the chaos of post-Ottoman Arabia into a neat patchwork of
Denmarks, Hollands and Swedens with date palms and minarets.

A nation so fancifully constructed does not easily lend itself to
governance. You need a warlord, with a loyal standing army and a far-flung
force of secret policemen, to prevent the country from falling into the
turmoil that is the natural state to which it is perpetually tending. The
systems of government that have evolved in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are
paranoid family dictatorships with ancestral roots in a single city or
village. Thus the Assad family of Qurdaha, an Alawite village up in the
hills behind Latakia, Syria's Mediterranean port. Thus the Saud family of
Riyadh, an oasis-town in the Nejd desert, now the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Thus the Husseins of Tikrit, a town 90 miles north of Baghdad, and the
birthplace of Saladin. (Saddam's full name is Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti.)

If the European inventors of these countries believed that generously drawn
borders would encourage a commensurate enlargening of national as opposed to
local consciousness, the effects have been quite the reverse. To be an army
general, a security chief or a government minister in Arabia, it is
necessary to come from Qurdaha, Riyadh or Tikrit, and better still to bear
the name of Assad, Saud or Hussein. So the village, and the family, supply a
tyrannical ruling class which treats the rest of the country as an unruly
empire, to be held in place, as empires are, by regular shows of military
and terroristic power. In the case of Syria and Iraq, the reigning families
belong to religious minorities: the Assads are members of the eccentric
Alawi sect, though most Syrians are Sunni Muslims; the Husseins are Sunnis,
and Tikrit is a Sunni enclave in Shiite Iraq.

The least unstable states in the Arab world are emirates that have survived
intact from long before Picot and Sykes arrived on the scene. They too are
family businesses. The al-Sabahs of Kuwait, the al-Khaleifas of Bahrain, the
al-Thanis of Qatar, the al-Nahyans of Abu Dhabi, and the al-Maktoums of
Dubai have been in power for around 200 years. But these functioning
political entities are tiny. Qatar, for instance, is roughly the size of
Devon and Cornwall combined, with a third of their population; its neighbour
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is nearly five times the size of France.

The Sauds, Assads and Husseins practice a form of rule that works well
enough in a tiny country such as Qatar, but is a disaster when applied on a
larger scale. It fills prisons and graveyards and breeds among its
subjugated peoples the kind of impotent despair and fury that makes them
natural candidates for conversion to Islamist totalitarianism.

Consider the case of Hama in Syria, a city famous for its huge, groaning
water wheels (they are said by the local poets to make a sound like that of
women in orgasm). It is a centre of Sunni conservative puritanism, always
hostile to the secular Ba'athist regime of Hafiz al-Assad. In 1982, a group
of Sunni militiamen ambushed an army patrol in the heart of the old city,
and sparked an Islamic uprising against the provincial government. Assad
sent in the Syrian army under Alawite commanders. Most of Hama was
flattened. Between 10,000 and 25,000 Hamaites, most of them civilians, were

It is an important axiom of the Bush administration that Saddam has used
weapons of mass destruction "against his own people"; but the concept of
"own people" in Arabia needs footnoting, as the Hama massacre illustrates.
When Assad sent his army into Hama he was not moving against his "own
people" so much as attacking his traditional enemies, whose base lay within
his territorial jurisdiction. So it was with Saddam and the Kurds, and
Saddam and the Shiites. From the perspective of Tikrit, the Kurdish city of
Halabja and the floating villages of the Shiite Marsh Arabs did not contain
Saddam's own people: they were, rather, insolent colonial outposts that
needed to be taught a savage lesson.

In the Middle East, the concept of nationality is understandably weak: It
would be hard to feel patriotic allegiance to the capricious lines in the
sand traced by Bell and her kind. To say "I am a Syrian" or "I am an Iraqi"
means a lot less than to say "I am a Damascene" or "I am a Baghdadi". For
the ancient cities of Arabia - Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad,
Mecca, Medina and Sana'a - used to have the character of Renaissance
city-states, as grand or grander than Venice and Florence. Even now, when
you go to, say, Aleppo or Sana'a, you can feel their political
self-containment as a once great centre of civilisation and commerce. A
powerful sense of the civic, as it relates to people's home towns, is
matched by something very close to indifference to the national, and no
amount of enforced flag-waving and protestations of fealty to the dictator
in make-believe elections is going to change or conceal that fact of Arab

Yet one vastly potent nationalism haunts the Arab world; the idea of the
Ummah, the nation or community of believers. It is to the Ummah that Osama
bin Laden addresses his calls for armed resistance to the west and its
"puppet" dictators in the region. Notice that he never speaks of "Saudi
Arabia", his own home country; he always refers to it as "the land of the
two holy mosques," for to Bin Laden and his followers the Saud family are
usurpers, kept in place by the patronage and military might of the US. In
Osama's version of things, the country we know as Saudi Arabia exists only
as a piece of arrogant colonial mapmaking. Notice that in his most recent
audiotape he spoke of "our sons in Iraq"; meaning not Saddam and his Tikriti
henchmen, whose secular Baathist regime has long been on his hit-list, but
the faithful millions who live inside the artificial borders imposed on
Mesopotamia by the western powers when they summoned Iraq into being.

It is hard for us to understand the intoxicating appeal of pan-Arab Islamic
nationalism; the dream of an Arabia without borders, united under a restored
Caliphate, answerable only to Koranic law, the Sharia. To western eyes,
Sharia law, with its public stonings, beheadings, amputations, its male
triumphalism, appears tyrannical in the extreme. How could anyone see in it
the promise of liberation?

The answer lies in the despotic tyranny under which most Arabs now live.
President Bush said, "They hate us for our freedoms", but that is not true:
freedom is a rare commodity that Arabs would dearly like a lot more of. They
hate us, rather, for the condition of humiliating subjection in which they
find themselves, and for which, rightly or wrongly, they hold us
responsible. They hate us for Sir Mark Sykes, for Georges Picot, for
Gertrude Bell, for Arthur James Balfour (whose 1917 "declaration" was the
basis of the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine); for America's
steadfast support of what they perceive as corrupt and cruel regimes (like
that of the Saud family in its glittering hi-tech fortress of modern Riyadh)
and for its bland indifference to the injustice suffered by the

All this may be unreasonable of them, but that is why they hate us, and that
is why, in the poorest parts of Arabia, the favourite name to give a boy at
present is Osama; the latest folk hero of an impossible, idealised "Islamic
nation" that will transcend the petty frontiers of the hopelessly divided
and despotic Middle East. This is not meant to sound soft on Bin Laden: he
is a monster, but a monster born of desperate dreams that are widely shared
across an immense and unhappy tract of land.

Now we are going nation-building in Arabia once again. No one in the present
US administration seems to have any useful memory of our earlier adventures
in this department, and no one appears able to clearly distinguish between
the two crucially different bad-hats with sallow complexions, Osama bin
Laden and Saddam Hussein. No one seems to have noticed that toppling Saddam,
though it ranks a good deal lower on the agenda than toppling the Sauds, is
a necessary part of Osama's larger game plan. We are on the brink of an
intervention that will rank in Arabian history beside the Sykes-Picot
agreement and the Balfour declaration, and we are bringing to that
intervention a terrifying mixture of ignorance and amnesia.

· Jonathan Raban's books include Arabia (1979). His new novel, Waxwings,
comes out next year.

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