By Clifford D. May
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After a long week of slitting throats, smashing antiquities and raping infidel slave girls, how do the Islamic State’s barbarians unwind? Some, apparently, discuss the finer points of history.
An Islamic State billboard I recently came across (on the Internet — not driving down the road to Raqqah, the Islamic State capital in what used to be Syria) shows a rifle affixed to a compass (the kind used for drawing arcs and measuring distances on maps), along with the inscription: “We are the ones who determine our borders, not Sykes-Picot.”
The reference is to two dead, white, Christian males, Sir Marc Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, British and French diplomats, respectively. They were the principle negotiators of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided into nation-states Middle Eastern territories that for centuries had been possessions of the Ottoman Empire and Sunni caliphate.
That treaty, leaders of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) believe, imposed upon the region an unjust political structure, one they are using force of arms to deconstruct and replace with a new and improved empire and caliphate.
I wonder: Where and when do Islamic State medievalists talk about such topics? Do they organize discussion groups in homes, schools and mosques? Perhaps they have book clubs. If so, I would recommend to them “The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East,” by Efraim Karsh, professor emeritus at King’s College London, currently teaching at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In it, he makes the case that the conventional wisdom is wrong: Europeans did not shape the modern Middle East to suit their imperialist, colonialist or satanic interests.
He contends that Middle Eastern leaders and rulers “have been active and enterprising free agents doggedly pursuing their national interests and swaying the region pretty much in their desired direction, often in disregard of great-power wishes.”
He adds: “External influences, however potent, have played a secondary role, constituting neither the primary force behind the region’s political development nor the main cause of its notorious volatility.”
Professor Karsh recalls what many choose to forget: Imperialism and colonialism were by no means only European-Christian institutions. Many of antiquity’s greatest imperial and colonial projects were Middle Eastern/Muslim.
From the 13th century to the 20th, the Ottoman Empire sought to conquer and expand — not least in Europe. Its collapse came about when its sultan decided to enter what became known as World War I on what turned out to be the losing side.
Even so, Mr. Karsh writes, Britain “remained wedded to the Muslim empire’s continued existence, leaving it to a local Meccan potentate — Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family — to push for the idea of its destruction.”
Mr. Karsh concludes that it was Sharif Hussein’s vision that transformed the region: “The emirate of Transjordan (later to be known as the Kingdom of Jordan) was established in 1921 to satisfy the ambitions of his second son Abdullah, while in the same year the modern state of Iraq was created at the instigation of Abdullah’s younger brother Faisal. Hussein himself became King of the Hijaz, Islam’s birthplace, only to be evicted a few years later by a fellow Arabian potentate, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, founding father of Saudi Arabia.”
Over the years that followed, outsiders had minimal impact on the region. Even after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, despite their considerable military and economic muscle, found themselves “powerless to contain undesirable regional developments” from the fall of Iraq’s pro-Western Hashemite dynasty in 1958 to the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
Washington and Moscow “were forced to acquiesce in actions with which they were in total disagreement.” Whatever successes other foreign nations have had, Mr. Karsh argues, have been “largely due to the convergence of their own wishes with indigenous trends.”
At present, of course, those trends are stunningly savage. “The last great Muslim empire may have been destroyed and the caliphate left vacant,” Mr. Karsh notes, “but the longing for unfettered suzerainty, though tempered and qualified in different places and at different times, has never disappeared, and has resurfaced in our day with a vengeance.”
The Islamic State, as well as such rivals as al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran, seek to overturn not just Sykes-Picot but also the broader Westphalian system of nation-states vowing to respect each others’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.
And not just in the Middle East. Mr. Karsh quotes Yusuf Qaradawi, “a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of today’s most influential Islamic thinkers, whose views are promulgated to millions of Muslims worldwide through the media and the Internet: ‘Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor.’“
The means to this end preferred by the Islamic State and al Qaeda is jihad or, to use the phrase President Obama prefers, “violent extremism.”
Iran is finding diplomacy useful: the deal recently agreed to by Mr. Obama and the leaders of five other powers will provide the clerical regime with funds, conventional arms and a path to nuclear weapons. Other Islamists envision “a gradual takeover of Western societies through demographic growth and steady conversion.” These approaches are not mutually exclusive. More likely, they are more mutually reinforcing. One might even call them components of a grand strategy.
Denizens of the Islamic State inspired by the message on the billboard really should invite Mr. Karsh to join them for coffee and baklava. In the unlikely event that happens, I’d advise him to send his regrets. It’s not that they wouldn’t regard his historiography as cutting-edge. It’s just that they may define that term a bit too literally.