x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Region's idealised past gets in the way of progress today

Within the Middle East, the prevailing view is that the region's woes are by-products of outside interference. Such a surrender to history reflects deep self-contempt.

Although the referendum on the future of south Sudan is attracting more headlines in the Arab world, civil unrest in Tunisia and Algeria, communal recrimination in Egypt following a recent bomb attack against a Coptic church, multiple crises in Yemen, and political confusion in Lebanon, as well as a host of lesser tribulations, tell a larger story. More and more, the Arab state seems incapable of managing effectively even its most basic challenges.

But you already knew that. An interesting question, however, is what does this tell us about the western colonial legacy in the Middle East? More specifically, what does it say about the tendency over the years of many Arab and western publicists to place the ills of the region at the door of European imperialism and American neo-imperialism?

There are academic programmes on the politics and history of the Middle East built around the premise that the region is still suffering substantially from the consequences of imperial abuse and an ongoing American effort to dominate the Arab world, usually in collaboration with Israel, depicted as a colonial project. Edward Said's book Orientalism remains more influential than ever among students and scholars, for having been the first to interpret Western scholarship of the "Orient" as reflecting a hegemonic impulse. There is an institutional interest in keeping the colonial paradigm alive, for without it many university departments would have to re-tool entirely.

And yet isn't it time to pause for a moment and look more carefully at the wreckage all around us? In many Arab states, Ottoman imperialism expired almost a century ago, while western imperialism ended over half a century ago, in some cases much longer. It is increasingly less credible from both an analytical and academic standpoint to argue that outside rule, particularly European rule three to four generations old, is primarily responsible for the bankruptcy, brutality and breakdown afflicting many contemporary Arab societies.

That's not to say that the study of imperialism is unimportant, and even less to idealise the Middle East's imperial past. However, ultimately imperialism, whether western or Ottoman, is a political and historical reality that deserves to be studied on its own terms, without ideological baggage loading down the process, so that we can better understand its mechanisms, its evils, but also its occasional benefits, and assess their impact on the modern Middle East.

Oddly enough, students of colonial studies will rarely accord 500 years of Ottoman imperialism the same import, or indeed outrage, that they will the considerably shorter period of western dominion. In some countries, for example Algeria or Morocco, that may be more defensible, given the longer stretches of European control, but it is less understandable with countries of the Mashreq and the Gulf.

It's a pity that such questions almost inevitably tend to be discussed in a polarised context. No one can deny the essential role of the western powers in drawing up the present borders of the Middle East. Many maintain that this inheritance is a major cause of current Arab problems. Arab nationalists lament that western powers never permitted the formation of a unified Arab nation, although they will conveniently ignore that unionist projects in the region have failed mainly thanks to inter-Arab rivalries. Pan-Syrianists complain that it was the West that first broke the Levant into separate entities, denying the possibility of a Greater Syria. In the end, however, the staunchest defender of the imperial-era borders is the Arab League, which is now recoiling at the probable breakup of Sudan.

Palestinians have a stronger case, arguing that the British Mandate created a time bomb by endorsing (then seeking to interrupt) Jewish immigration to Palestine, before making necessary a conflict-ridden partition plan. And when the mix was most combustible, the British withdrew, leaving chaos behind. That is undeniable, but there is no serious question that inter-Arab animosities and clashing ambitions greatly facilitated the emergence of a Jewish state. And when the Palestinians finally formed a liberation movement in the 1960s, for years it was under the thumb of Gamal Abdul Nasser's Egypt.

Within the Middle East, the prevailing view is that the region's woes are by-products of outside interference. Such a surrender to history reflects deep self-contempt. If we are passive victims of most events affecting our lives, our countries, and our social contracts, then in the end we are ciphers in a game played perpetually above our heads. Most disturbing, this despondent outlook has for decades been afforded legitimacy in study programmes (mostly in the West) that, similarly, give undue weight to foreign, particularly American, sway over Arab societies. A paradox of colonial studies is that though its proponents implicitly advocate Arab liberation, they work within a conceptual framework emphasising Arab dependency and irrelevance.

It's time to shift the goal posts and focus on how post-colonial Middle Eastern regimes have succeeded in imposing indigenous power structures on outside actors, usually dysfunctional structures, that are eating away at the foundations of their own states. Concentrating on Britain, France or the United States will not tell us much about Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt, the rule of Tunisia's Zein al Abedin bin Ali, the corruption in Algeria's ruling class, or the tortuous ways of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. The same applies to Israel, which has increasingly charted a home-grown path toward political self-impairment, against the better interests of its American ally.

But if you're expecting grand change in how most western and Arab observers and scholars approach the Middle East, think again. Too many people have invested too much in a western-centred approach to the region, built on a scaffolding of post-colonial guilt, to readily give it up. Meanwhile Arab states buckle under their own weight.

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