From the conquest of the Arab lands by the Ottoman Turks in the early 16th century, they were not an independent people. Until World War I most of the Arab world lay within the Ottoman Empire. Other parts had become colonial territories of the European powers during the 19th century as the Ottoman Empire began to shrink.
The Arabs yearned for a free and independent Arabic-speaking nation. In the 20th century they were to become independent—yet not one nation but more than 20. One great frustration for the Arab world today is that there are 22 Arab countries and little immediate prospect of Arab unity.
While subjects of the Ottoman sultan as the 20th century dawned, the Arab world was at peace. Few would have guessed then how fundamentally this region was to change in the next few decades. In the year 1900 the Middle East was indeed, as described in the introduction, a “political backwater.”
The catalyst that rearranged the regional map was World War I. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, was the event that triggered the war. Within weeks all the major powers of Europe were involved. Problems in the Balkans had been building up as the Ottoman Empire declined and retreated from its territories there. Nationalist sentiment among the various ethnic groups was stirring up feelings against foreign imperial rule, directed against the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the Turks.
At the onset of war, it was not clear which side the Ottomans would be on. Finally they opted to support Germany and Austria against the alliance of Britain, France and Russia. This proved to be a fatal error in judgment. Within a few years it led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of Turkish domination of the Arab world after centuries of rule.
A century later it is still difficult to comprehend how the assassination of a fairly obscure European archduke could lead to such tumultuous change and to a century of seemingly never-ending violence, but that shot heard 'round the world is still reverberating.
Nationalist and ethnic aspirations lead to change
Before the assassination, ethnic aspirations were surfacing throughout Europe and the Middle East. In the Victorian era imperialism had been the vogue. The idea that one nation, usually considered superior, could rule over others less able, was perfectly acceptable in a Europe dominated by multiethnic empires.
Many of these empires were quite benign, allowing different ethnic groups within their borders a great deal of freedom, including the freedom to carry out business and to prosper. But the desire for national homelands was building up partly as a result of increased educational opportunities that encouraged the reading of national literature, thereby fostering a sense of national identity.
This rise in ethnic consciousness was not limited to Europe. The Middle East was another area where people wanted to fulfill their national aspirations.
The trend for each ethnic group to seek independence was one that would play a large role in the 20th century, fulfilling the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24. When asked by His disciples what would be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age, one of the problems He foretold was an increase in ethnic tension. “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” He prophesied (verse 7). The Greek word translated “nation” is ethnos—from which the English word ethnic is derived.
With the development of democratic institutions in a number of countries, ethnic groups had representation in capitals and were able to press their case for more autonomy. Many, though, wanted total independence. This tension was a leading cause of World War I and a major consideration at the peace conference in Paris that followed.
The Paris conference led to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which led to the creation of new countries throughout Europe and the Middle East. The old empires were gone—new, smaller nations replaced them, further complicating international relations. The “war to end war” had been replaced by the “Peace to end Peace,” as British officer Archibald Wavell put it.
Brewing Arab revolt
On the eve of World War I the British already constituted a major power in the Middle East. Originally they had become involved to protect their lifeline to India, the most prized possession of the British Empire. Benjamin Disraeli, a British prime minister of Jewish descent, had arranged the financing of the Suez Canal, considered a vital artery of the empire.
The British controlled Egypt, the location of the canal, but did not annex it as a colony. They also ruled Aden, at the southern tip of Arabia, and held other strategic territories around the Persian Gulf.
Thus when World War I broke out, the British were in a perfect position to sponsor an Arab revolt against the Turks, allies of their enemy Germany. This Arab revolt began in the Hejaz, the coastal region of Arabia along the Red Sea where Mecca and Medina sit, on June 10, 1916, two years into the First World War. The revolt was led by the grand sharif of Mecca and leader of the Hashemite clan, Hussein ibn Ali (1852-1931), a descendant of Muhammad through the prophet's grandson Hasan. Hussein was an ancestor of the present Jordanian monarch, also a Hashemite.
Ironically, in this revolt the Arabs sided with Christian British forces against the Muslim Turks, but the desire for an independent Arab nation was paramount. Two of the sharif's sons led the Arab forces, financed by the British and assisted in the field by the famous British soldier T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). The Arabs understood that victory would mean an Arab nation.
This understanding came about as a result of correspondence between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and Sharif Hussein between July 14, 1915, and March 30, 1916. In a series of 10 confidential letters between the two, Sharif Hussein offered to help the British by revolting against the Turks, in exchange for a promise of independence for the Arabs after victory. The British agreed to this, with the exclusion of some areas, including those under British control.
The uprising was successful. In October 1917 Allied forces under British Gen. Allenby invaded Palestine, capturing Jerusalem on Dec. 9. For the first time since the Crusaders were defeated in 1244 the city was once again in Christian hands. Now, after 400 years of peace under the Ottomans, began a century of conflict centering on the City of Peace.
Earlier the same year the British had taken Baghdad. The following year Damascus fell. Three days after falling to the forces of the Arab revolt, Gen. Allenby and Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein, entered the city. Faisal, leading 1,000 horsemen, was lauded by the populace, relieved at the end of Ottoman rule and elated at the prospect of an independent Arab kingdom.
Following the defeat of the Axis powers, the empires of Germany, Austria and the Ottomans all collapsed. The Russian Empire—allied to Britain, France and, later, the United States—had already fallen to communism.
The world was never to be the same again. World War I marked the end of the old order.
Contradictory promises set the stage for conflict
Anxious to win the war, the British had given contradictory promises to the Arabs and Jews and also to their allies, the French and Russians.
In November 1917, with the fall of Russia to the Bolsheviks, the revolutionaries suddenly found themselves in possession of secret papers from the former czarist regime and the interim government. They made public a secret agreement made in May 1916 called the Sykes-Picot agreement, named for Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, the chief British and French negotiators. This agreement showed that the British and French had plans to carve up the Ottoman Empire, dividing the spoils among themselves, without giving any territory to the Arabs.
In the same month, just five days before the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, the British had issued the famous Balfour Declaration, named after their foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour. This declaration pledged British support for a national Jewish homeland in Palestine. These conflicting promises were to cause endless problems for the British in the years to come—and even greater problems for the Arabs and Jews.
Arabs had fought with the British against the Turks, contributing to the Allied victory over the Central European powers. In return, they expected full control of all Arab lands, other than those already under European colonial rule such as Egypt, Aden and Algeria. They certainly expected Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Palestine to be directly and exclusively controlled by Arabs.
Palestine, the modern name for the ancient biblical territories of Israel and Judah, often referred to as the Holy Land, had been under Islamic control since the seventh century, except for a brief period during the Crusades in the 11th century. Jews could live in Palestine, but any attempt to create a Jewish homeland would be resisted.
At the peace conference in Paris that led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Arab delegates (and T.E. Lawrence) were betrayed as the victorious allies divided the Ottoman Empire between British and French spheres of influence. The newly formed League of Nations formally gave Britain a mandate to rule over Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. The French received a similar mandate to rule over Syria and Lebanon. Neither the Jews nor the Arabs received what they had been promised—not then, at least.
Britain inherits a dilemma
Palestine was the biggest problem. For a while the British allowed unrestricted Jewish immigration, but this led to Arab outcries. Fearful of a Jewish takeover, the Arabs demanded that the British end Jewish immigration. This they did—but on the eve of World War II, in which 6 million Jews would be put to death in the Nazi Holocaust. The escape route to Palestine had been cut off just when it was needed most.
In the three decades that the British controlled Palestine, the political map of the region continued to change. The Egyptians regained their sovereignty in 1922 and Iraq in 1932, though Britain continued to have considerable influence in both. Lebanon received independence from France in 1941. Syria followed five years later in 1946, the same year in which the British created an independent Palestinian- Arab state when it gave independence to Transjordan (shortened to Jordan).
Following the end of World War II in 1945, an exhausted Britain began her withdrawal from empire. Pakistan and India were given independence in 1947. A withdrawal from Palestine was to follow less than a year later.
The British could no longer keep peace between the Arabs and Jews. Jewish terrorists had blown up the King David Hotel, British military headquarters in Jerusalem, with the loss of almost 100 British soldiers. As with India, there was no longer any support at home for Britain to risk the lives of its men to preserve peace between hostile forces. The British notified the recently formed United Nations, successor to the pre-war League of Nations, that they would leave Palestine, giving the UN six months' notice.
The birth of Israel
The United Nations voted to divide Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews, with Jerusalem to become an international city. The Israelis accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it. As the British left, Jewish leaders proclaimed the birth of the independent Jewish nation of Israel the evening of May 14-15, 1948. Within hours, armies from five surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel, determined to destroy the fledgling state with its population of a mere half-million.
The war lasted until early the following year, with Israel gaining territory in addition to the land granted by the UN resolution. Most of the Arabs in those areas left their lands and have been refugees ever since, consigned to makeshift settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Those Arabs who stayed in Israel were granted citizenship in the new country—and, ironically, today enjoy considerably more personal freedoms than their fellow Arabs in Arab-ruled countries.
More wars followed. In 1956, Israel sided with the British and French against Egypt in an attempt to take back the Suez Canal, seized by Egypt's revolutionary government. American intervention forced the three nations out, a big boost to Arab nationalism. Within a few years the French lost Algeria and became irrelevant in the region. The British lost almost all their empire within a decade of the Suez Canal crisis and withdrew completely from the region by 1971.
Replacing them were the Americans and the Soviets, the two Cold War antagonists using proxy states in the Middle East to thwart the other's interests and ambitions.
Old empires swept away
But Arab nationalism was unstoppable. The desire for Arab unity was still on the minds of people throughout the Middle East.
And the Arabs were not alone in breaking away from European colonial rule. New nations around the world were being born with the collapse of the European empires after World War II. World War I had seen the collapse of those European empires that ruled over large parts of Europe. Now those empires that had colonies around the world were following suit. Never before had the map of the world changed so dramatically.
To illustrate just how fundamental a change took place, realize that immediately after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles there were no independent Arab nations. Apart from Persia (Iran) and Afghanistan, both non-Arab countries, there were no independent Islamic nations anywhere on earth.
The overthrow of the Ottoman sultan had led to the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic—that is, while its people remained mostly Islamic, the government officially became secular and moved in a Western direction. Although Egypt was independent from 1922, its king was not an Arab and the British still dominated the country behind the scenes. All other Islamic regions of the world were under European control. Oddly enough, the biggest Islamic power at this time was Great Britain by virtue of its ruling the Indian sub-continent, including what are now Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Today there are 57 Islamic nations, most of them ruled by Muslims. This includes 22 Arab countries, which hold the majority of the world's known reserves of oil—the lifeblood of the world's economy. Is there any wonder that the Middle East and Islam have suddenly come to the forefront of world affairs?