You are in:

  1. Clio Home
Main navigation:

Perspective: David Fromkin on the Middle Eastern Question

Another excerpt from David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, 2009.

“For at least a century before the 1914 war, Europeans had regarded it as axiomatic that someday the Middle East would be occupied by one or more of the Great Powers. Their great fear was that disputes about their respective shares might lead the European powers to fight ruinous wars against one another.

For the government of Britain, therefore, the settlements arrived at by 1922 were a doubly crowning achievement. Britain had won a far larger share of the Middle East (and Britain’s rival, Russia, a much smaller one) than had seemed possible beforehand; but even more important the powers seemed prepared to accept the territorial division that had emerged in the early 1920s without further recourse to arms. …

The settlement of 1922 was not a single act or agreement or document; rather it was the design that emerged from many separate acts and agreements and documents that date mostly from that year. …

Thus Britain — like France in her sphere of the Middle East, and Russia in hers — established states, appointed persons to govern them, and drew frontiers between them; and did so mostly in and around 1922. As they had long intended to do, the European powers had taken the political destinies of the Middle Eastern peoples in their hands — and they do so by the terms of what I have called the settlement of 1922. …

…European officials at the time had little understanding of Islam. They were too easily persuaded that Moslem opposition to the politics of modernization — of Europeanization was vanishing. Had they been able to look ahead to the last half of the twentieth century, they would have been astonished by the fervor of the Wahhibi faith in Saudi Arabia, by the passion of religious belief in warring Afghanistan, by the continuing vitality of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere in the Sunni world, and by the recent Khomeini upheaval in Shi’ite Iran.

Continuing local opposition, whether on religious grounds or other, to the settlement of 1922 or to the fundamental assumptions upon which it was based, explains the characteristic feature of the region’s politics; that in the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy — no agreement on the rules of the game — no belief, universally shared in the region, that within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or of the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such. In that sense the successors to the Ottoman sultans have not yet been permanently installed, even though — between 1919 and 1922 — installing them was what the Allies believed themselves to be doing.

It may be that one day the challenges to the 1922 settlement — to the existence of Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon, for example or to the institution of secular national governments in the Middle East — will be withdrawn. But if they continue in full force, then the twentieth-century Middle East will eventually be seen to be in a situation similar to Europe’s in the fifth century AD, when the collapse of the Roman Empire’s authority in the West threw its subjects into a crisis of civilization that obliged them to work out a new political system of their own. …

The continuing crisis in the Middle East in our time may prove to be nowhere near so profound or long-lasting. But its issue is the same: how diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an ages-old imperial order to which they had grown accustomed. The Allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the region in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it.”