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This widespread attachment to the modern map is peculiar, given the equally widespread understanding of its origins. European powers — primarily the UK and France — conceived and imposed that map to serve their own interests, rather than those of the people living in the states they created. It has no roots in Middle Eastern history. It conveyed the patina of stability only as long as brutal strongmen enslaved the people. Its failure is directly responsible for the carnage of the 21st century. Astoundingly, few if any academic, diplomatic, or political champions of restoring the Levantine status quo question the map’s artificiality or challenge the injustice central to its creation.

Familiarity makes the statist mythology easy to explain: The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire enabled self-determination for a number of states. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms represent legitimate self-expressions of the people who have long lived within those territories. In the Levant, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine defined multi-ethnic populations who sought similar self-determination. The British and French successfully ushered the first four to independence. Unfortunately, the region’s Jews, bolstered by Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe, declared an ethnonational State of Israel, disenfranchising the Palestinians. The consequent lack of Palestinian self-determination remains the region’s largest festering problem; its resolution would open the door to peace, prosperity, and development.

This conventional wisdom suffers from a fatal flaw: it is riddled with falsehoods. In reality, the region’s state system was born when the European empires decided to decolonise. England and France drew lines on a map to create Middle Eastern states. Few of those lines represented anything other than European preferences.

Like every previous attempt at global organisation, the now-dominant nation state system conferred both significant benefits and significant costs upon humanity. Many of the benefits are obvious. Day-to-day crises notwithstanding, the liberal international order of nation states, and the market-oriented global commercial system that it has enabled, have improved living standards around the world. By any material measure — health, life expectancy, peace, prosperity — the benefits of today’s global order dwarf those of every earlier ordering.

Many of the costs are subtler. They rest in the hybrid nature of a nation state. Nationhood is an ancient concept, featured prominently in the Bible and the Homeric epics. A nation is a group of people who share feelings of kinship and commonality. Members of a nation — like members of a family or a tribe — claim a defining identity that marks them as distinct from all others. National identities may derive from bloodlines, faiths, principles, or citizenship, but a sine qua non of nationhood is that the nation’s members see themselves as forming a distinct, coherent entity.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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