The trouble in West Asia runs along multiple interconnected threads, and it is hard to put a finger on some point and say, ‘Here lies the root of it all’. There is, however, a tendency to blame the region and its religion for its own woes, which is a gross ignorance, or ignoring, of certain facts.
Last week marked 100 years since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret pact between the French and the British to chop up the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Such treaties, along with the personal agendas and prejudices of Western officials, had a big role in drawing lines in the desert sand over which blood and oil have flowed for decades now.
Here are three books that will help you better understand the story of those lines in the sand:
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East: David Fromkin’s extensively researched book from 1989 deals with the period between 1914 and 1922, when Europe’s plans for West Asia took shape and substance. It masterfully exposes the multiple viewpoints — colonialist, pro-Jewish, pro-Arab and plain opportunistic — within the British establishment on what to do with the region. This led to warring communities being bundled together as new nations such as Iraq and Lebanon, kicking off the conflicts that still persist. It shows the evolution of the British policy in West Asia from an extension of the Great Game to control the land route to India, to a commitment to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Orientalism: Edward Said puts in context the mindsets of Europe’s imperial officialdom, of which we get a glimpse in Fromkin’s tome. Right from classical antiquity through the Renaissance to colonialism, the East has been exotic and uncivilised for the Western canon. Britain’s military and civil officials in Egypt and India inherited the ‘wisdom’ that the Eastern folks were inherently incapable of governing themselves, and that it was upon them to bear that burden.
The Forever War: From the past to the present. Journalist Dexter Filkins’s recounting of his time on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 is an immersive experience of the ‘war on terror’, a later chapter of the West Asia story. It puts you bang in the middle of street-to-street fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah, and close to the people on both sides of the conflict.