Scars of colonialism are not quick to fade

Tensions: European empire building after World War I left a legacy of turmoil in the Islamic world that is still felt today.

October 14, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

WHEN THE GAUNT, bearded face of Osama bin Laden appeared on American television screens only minutes after the bombardment of Afghanistan began last Sunday, he justified the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against America with a reference to the history of his region.

"What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted," he said. "Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years of humiliation and disgrace its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated."

Only 80 years? Usually the Islamic complaint against the West goes back at least 1,000 years to the Crusaders. But it was 84 years ago almost to the day that Alfred Balfour, then British foreign secretary, declared a policy in which the most powerful empire of the day supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The declaration became a modern pillar of Zionism's claim to Palestine.

And precisely 80 years ago, the British and French victors of World War I were redrawing the map of the Middle East. Balfour's declaration was only one of the many wartime agreements that had to be taken into consideration, but it was still a steadfast part of British foreign policy, even though Balfour's successor despised it.

"The Balfour declaration, for good or ill, clearly did complicate matters," says David Fromkin, a professor at Boston University.

The Jewish issue was just one many issues before the European powers completing their conquest of the world. The Middle East was the first piece of geography that Europe tried to colonize with the Crusades, but the last inhabited part of the world to come under its rule.

For the most part, the Europeans divided it up as they did Africa - to suit themselves, not the indigenous inhabitants. If anyone was in charge of the process, it was Winston Churchill. At his side was T. E. Lawrence, already a media star decades before David Lean's 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

Ultimately, England and France sliced up the Ottoman Empire that before the war stretched from its capital in Istanbul to the tip of the Red Sea, taking in what is now Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Yemen, and much of Iraq and Iran - then known as Mesopotamia and Persia.

It was the still-huge remnant of Muslim rule that once went from Spain across the south of central Europe and North Africa through the Middle East and all the way to India.

"Until the first World War, the Middle East, though subject to considerable foreign influence, was under mostly self-rule," Fromkin says. "After the war, the Allies moved in and cut up the region to suit themselves."

Fromkin presciently titled his definitive study of this process "A Peace to End All Peace," paraphrasing a line from British officer Archibald Wavell, a veteran of Mideast fighting, on the treaty that ended World War I, an ironic comment on Woodrow Wilson's statement that that was "A war to end all wars." The region has been soaked in blood ever since.

The Ottomans entered the war on the German side and lost. The victors took away their empire, creating political and geographical tensions that resonate to this day. Many now see the Ottoman days as part of a glorious past of Islamic domination.

"Bin Laden was talking about a post-Ottoman world, part of a worldview that sees things having gone wrong since Western powers came to dominate in the Middle East," says Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago. "It is also a worldview that casts the Ottoman era and the Islamic regimes that preceded it in a very ideal light."

Ottoman power was opposed by Arabs who resented Turkish domination and allied with the British in World War I, some hoping to expand their own influence and territory. Arab nationalists who emerged after the war taught their subjects that the Ottomans were oppressive conquerors. Yet Madeline Zilfi of the University of Maryland, College Park says it is no mistake that Ottoman days are now looked back on as the last time Muslims were in charge of their own destiny in a large part of the world.

"I think people in the Middle East started going back and reading about it for themselves and appreciating what their ancestors had done," she says. "The Ottoman state, for all of its faults, retained the loyalty of the vast majority of its Muslim subjects ... it operated wholly as an Islamic state."

Zilfi notes that even the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran invoked the Ottoman days, though the Ottoman Sunni Muslims were in constant conflict with the Persian Shiite Muslims of what is now Iran. She sees bin Laden's mention of it as part of his very effective act.

"If you listen to bin Laden, he comes across as something of a media maven who is able to pull out of a real grab bag what he thinks is going to play."

When Churchill, then in charge of British colonies, called together members of his government in Cairo in 1921, the rules of empire building had changed. No longer was the talk of bringing civilization to the uncivilized.

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