Jaipur, Jan 31 (IANS) A long spell of instability and violence lies ahead for the Middle East where “artificial borders” drawn post World War I are being slowly dismantled, but one model the region can learn from is India with its diversity and autonomy for states, says a chronicler of Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab revolt.
“I see a long period of chaos and bloodshed ahead for the (Middle East) region, where nations like Iraq and Libya are unravelling. But in the long term, I am optimistic that the Arabs’ culture of grievances and conflict with the West will abate,” Scott Anderson, author of “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the making of the Modern Middle East”, told IANS in an interview at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which ended last week.
In his book, Anderson, a veteran American war correspondent, contends that nearly a century of violent instability in the Middle East could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the British had kept the promise of self-rule made to Arab leaders, through T.E. Lawrence, a junior army officer who inspired and led their revolt against Ottoman Turk rule during World War I.
Instead, there came the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which two relatively junior diplomats – Britain’s Mark Sykes and France’s Francois George Picot – divided out, without much oversight, the Ottoman territories. And this was even at a time when oil had not been discovered in the region, said Anderson.
Thus were created various “artificial nations” like Iraq, Libya, Syria and even Jordan and Bahrain, bringing together various clans and tribes which had nothing in common with one another and would be virtually ungovernable under a central authority, he said. It was this Western imperialism that fostered a “culture of grievances” among the Arabs.
It didn’t take long after the departure of the local ‘strong man’ (e.g. Saddam Hussain or Muammar Gaddafi) for these countries to come apart.
“Iraq has effectively been three countries for some time now… similarly Libya which again seems to be breaking into the three ‘vilayets’ (provinces) as it was under Ottoman rule,” he said.
Here is where, Anderson told IANS, the Indian experience could be valuable.
“India, with its diversity, and individual states which have quite an amount of autonomy can be a model for these countries which are splintering into the shape they had during the Ottoman rule,” he said.
Anderson said there is a general tendency to see the Ottoman empire as failing but what are usually identified as its weaknesses – the lack of a cohesive centre and autonomy to various religions and ethnicities – actually ensured its survival.
He agreed that if one sees the situation in the Middle East after the Ottomans or in East Europe (the Yugoslav civil war) after the Habsburgs, then these empires – in hindsight – appear quite better than what followed them.
On Lawrence himself, Anderson says his interest was sparked on seeing the David Lean film, though after his research for the book, he found the acclaimed film “got all its facts wrong”.
“It (Lawrence’s life and career) is a fascinating issue for story-telling… about this little common man who wielded tremendous influence, but was increasingly divided – inspiring and leading the Arabs to freedom on the basis of promises he knew his country had no intention of keeping,” he said.
“He was a caught between two worlds… he was a complicated, strange man, didn’t have a very happy life,” he said.
On the Lawrence legend, Anderson said he was very well known during his heyday. But, since, he had been forgotten until the movie brought him back into the spotlight.
Lawrence’s success in guerrilla warfare cannot be underestimated, as he knew conventional warfare could not work in the Middle East – especially after trying (unsuccessfully) to ransom the huge British Indian army contingent besieged in then Mesopotamia by the Turks in 1916, he said. The nearly 13,000 men surrendered and nearly 70 percent of the British and 50 percent of the Indians died in captivity.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])