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In the Ottoman Empire, the Sunni Turks occupied the top rung. One step down, and by far the largest group in the Levant, were the Sunni Arabs. Other self-identifying Levantine peoples included Jews, Christians (of several denominations), Shia Arabs, Kurds, Druze and Alawites. These nations were all organic, indigenous, recognised and historic; the youngest of them date back “only” a thousand years. Jews, Christians, Kurds and several others predate the Arab invasion by many centuries.

When it became clear that the Ottomans were likely to fall, some Sunni Arab leaders began to see their “nation” as the proper inheritor of the Empire. In 1915, the Hashemite Sharif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, wrote to Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, claiming to represent all Arabic-speaking people east of Egypt. He proposed throwing Arab support behind the British in exchange for a British commitment to Arab independence.

McMahon proved to be a far better diplomat and draftsman than Hussein. Hussein clearly envisaged a continuation of the Empire under Sunni Arab (i.e. his) rule, extending across the Levant and the Arabian peninsula. McMahon managed to elicit his support in exchange for a vague endorsement of Arab self-determination. And Hussein soon faced bigger problems, as Abdulaziz al Saud swept westward from the Najd, conquered the Hejaz, drove the Hashemites into exile, and eventually unified the Peninsula as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

McMahon’s intentional vagueness proved critical to Britain’s postwar plans. Hussein’s putative empire was incompatible with the Balfour Declaration’s endorsement of Jewish self-determination, as well as with the Sykes-Picot agreement dividing the Levant between Britain and France. More importantly, it conflicted with the San Remo Peace Conference of April 1920 that enshrined Balfour and Sykes-Picot into international law. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to dismiss the vague Hussein-McMahon correspondence; Hussein’s imperial dream remains very much alive in the Sunni Arab imagination.

The persistence of this imperial dream is critical to understanding the region. Hussein’s vision had deep roots in both regional history and Islamic theology. Those roots have kept his inchoate empire alive — most obviously in the near-universal rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. No self-respecting empire can stomach minority self-determination within its realm — and no imperial dream can die until its putative rulers accept the full legitimacy of minority self-determination.

Inchoate imperialism explains far more than the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has given rise to several important Arab unification movements. The Ba’ath party, an explicitly fascist pan-Arab organisation, defined Arabism in linguistic (rather than religious) terms, and declared an Arab homeland spanning the 20-plus Arabic-speaking states of North Africa and the Middle East. Its 1947 constitution called that vast territory “an indivisible political and economic entity . . . All differences among its natives are casual and fake.”
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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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