Sunday, January 25, 2015

The End of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis

I just finished The End of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis, a very sobering rumination of how the Middle East is being taken back by Islam with a rejection of most modern European innovations (Democracy etc) except for current military capabilities and weapons of mass destruction.  This short volume seems to define the period that is ending.  Mr. Lewis discusses the difficult situation of Iran's ideological positions.

In 1798, when Napoleon entered Egypt, the indigenous people were shocked at the ease with which the French were able to conquer the land and ever since have had to contend with imperial powers meddling in Islamic affairs.  

One must always be aware that a Muslim mindset expects success in all aspects of political and religious affairs because Muhammad, in their view, was not only a successful prophet but also a successful king/conqueror, creating a large nation.  The modern Middle East reflects the influences of England, France Russia and the USA, however, now it is clear that the European nations and the USA desire to withdraw from the region and as result of this withdrawal, the different factions of Islam are jockeying and rallying for position and supremacy in the region. Who will be the next Islamic power? ISIS, Iran, Turkey?

Mr. Lewis ruminates about Anti-semitism that has morphed into a virulent strain of Israel bashing. Iran and Turkey seem to lead in the ferocious rhetoric.  As ever the optimist, Mr. Lewis does not give up on the region but is willing to wait for the emergence of a just power similar to the Ottoman empire, one in which the Jewish people were able to generally prosper.  As Iran continues toward the Nuclear threshold, there is always the hope that it's leadership will develop into another Cyrus and not a Haman. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Chatham House Version and other Middle Eastern studies by Elie Kedourie

Professor Elie Kedourie takes on the official British narrative of the making of the Modern Middle East and makes some razor sharp analysis showing that the British experts like Arnold Toynbee and H. A. R. Gibb and others of Chatham House err egregiously in their understanding of Arabic culture and civilization.  Professor Kedourie shows that the British narrative and understanding is more a matter of romanticising and expressing guilt of being a colonial powerhouse then actually effecting a natural Arabic nationalism.  He also shows that Zionist pressure helped push an unwilling Iraqi Jewish community out of Iraq.

The politics of WWI creates a dilemma for Britannia: to destroy or not to destroy the Ottoman empire.  What once was recognized as the long standing stable policing of the Middle East becomes an object of conquest and aggression in the war against Germany.  According to Kedourie, the notion that the Arabs would just rise up and destroy the Ottomans is fantasy and that it is the British that really conquer and prop up various ambitious individuals as an official ruling class and sell the idea that they represent the majority of the people.  Mr. Kedourie is convinced  that all the representative governments set up in the various modern countries of the Middle East are a sham.

In his analysis of Toynbee, Mr. Kedourie shows that the famed historian is really a radical who doesn't stomach politics but rather appreciates culture and art, theorizing that the rise and fall of civilizations are based on violence and aggression.  Any civilization that rises violently and aggressively is bound to fail.  Toynbee manifests guilt in his writings about the West's imperialism. That the West is guilty of violence and aggression, Toynbee agonizes but never seems to be able to see the wanton violence and aggression in the Arab world.  Toynbee's guilt is so deep seated that he blames Judaism for creating an aggressive world through the "chosen people" concept.  The West's arrogance is rooted in a concept of being 'chosen'.  Judaism is a fossil because its 'maccabean' aggression made Jewish civilization doomed to death.  Toynbee is never willing to acknowledge the living traditions of Judaism of which he was truly ignorant even when he discovered legitimate scholars of Rabbinic Judaism like G. F. Moore or R. T. Herferd.  His guilt blinds him of the aggressive nature of those in the Arab world who become the ruling class.

Mr. Kedourie shows that those at Chatham House believed Zionism was a terrible mistake, hoisted and forced upon England due to Zionist propaganda and American Jewry. Mr. Kedourie shows clearly the falsehood in such an opinion since before WWI the Zionists and American Jewry lacked all such encompassing influence.  He shows that the British Government selfishly pursued a Zionist program. Underestimating the aggressive nature and superiority complex of the Arabs force swift changes in Britannia's attitude toward Zionism.  In favoring Arab nationalism, Chatham House downplays the persecution of the other minorities in the region like the Armenians, Assyrians and Maronites.

Interesting analysis is uncovered by Mr. Kedourie when he points his sights at the Iraqi Jewish community.  He claims that the community was interested in making compromises to stay since it was well ensconced culturally and professionally in the business community.  Mr. Kedourie shows that not only Iraqi intransigence contributed to the Jewish exit but Zionist pressure also help displace the Iraqi Jewish community.

This contribution is an excellent work of scholarship and insight about the Modern Middle East.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Peace To End All Peace by David Fromkin

This major contribution to the history of the Modern Middle East places the roots of most, if not all, the challenges coming out of the Middle East today to the imperial lusts of England and France dating back to the first World War and the defeat and break up of the Ottoman Empire.  Almost in diary form, Mr. Fromkin tells the story of Britain's victory and policies that were put in place when the British defeated Germany and Turkey. Hence the entire book is a discussion of WWI through 1922.

One learns about the necessary interests of safeguarding the colony of India and the so called "Great Game" on how to keep Russia and the subsequent Soviet Union out of the Middle East.  It is a story of secret deals and betrayals of the French and the Arab families that ultimately are given the trust to create new states in old places that were owned by the Ottomans.  Famous personages like T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia fame) are deflated and the so called 'Arab Revolt' is really an exaggeration.

The Balfour Declaration places Zionism on the British Agenda but slowly and then swiftly becomes a sore spot when the British underestimate Arab irredentism. Winston Churchill attempts to keep Zionism on the agenda although scaled back to only that which was west of the Jordan river to the chagrin of Weizmann and other Zionist leaders.  Churchill's determination was a matter of the integrity of the government's pledge and not necessarily out of love of Zionism.  Although there is plenty of evidence that personally Churchill sympathized with the aspirations of the Jewish people.

Churchill comes off in this history as an extraordinary astute of observer.  His plan to a swift victory through the Dardanelles is nothing less than brilliant even though the military professionals hesitated and ultimately lost their nerve when casualties mount.  At one point, Churchill is critical of the break up of the Ottoman empire because he sees the Ottomans as a stable buffer to keep the Russians out of the Middle East, hence a safeguard for keeping India.  One witnesses the mounting dept of the British Empire and how Churchill successfully reduces the expenses dramatically and efficiently.

The making of the Modern Middle East seems to be an outgrowth of the victors' arrogance.  The UK thought it could dictate terms on different levels - secretly or publicly- and expect its will carried out.  One gets the impression that it might have worked if there was enough money to spread around.  Feisel's initial warmth toward Zionism is more about cupidity expecting something big - Syria and Lebanon - from the British than an honest assessment of Jewish aspirations.  The French however also expected Syria and Lebanon which complicates the deals and the entire situation.

Mr. Fromkin's historical record is an outstanding volume that deepens one's understanding of the one of the most unstable areas in the world.