WWI does not matter to the Middle East
War is not something we remember it is something we live...
Around this time 100 years ago, European powers decided to confront each other in a war that devastated them all. But it was not enough for them to fight their own wars, they had to drag the world into it. And so, a European conflict became a world war.
Who needs to remember anyway
It is certainly a time for reflection, and many writers, historians and political commentators are taking the time to do just that. But I think that in my part of the world, the historical event will pass largely unnoticed. A tweet here, an article there, but I doubt any serious thinking will happen. Here we are quite busy with the current wars going on. We have Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Lebanon. We also have the threat of nuclear proliferation. We have states that are barely standing on their feet such as Egypt. We have ISIS. We still have al-Qaeda and its offshoots. We even have our own Caliphate – so forget about the Ottomans! We have mass killings, mass rapes, indiscriminate destruction of civil neighborhoods, war crimes, dictators, generals for display, men looking for glory, men crying from glory, children learning how to die, and we have children learning how to kill. In such a region who needs to remember WWI?! War is not something we remember it is something we live.
In such a region who needs to remember WWI?! War is not something we remember it is something we liveAbdullah Hamidaddin
Some people insist that we must learn about the war because – they claim – we are still living the consequences of that war. True - they say - it was a European war but we were dragged into it; the Ottomans with the Germans, and the Arab revolution of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, with the British. This - it is said - was the war where the dream of an Arab kingdom was almost realized. This is the war which divided the region and drew its modern map. We are living the consequence of this war to this today, and thus we need to understand it.
I don’t see that. I can say almost the same about the Peloponnesian wars or about the Greco-Persian Wars. Every event in the past had an influence on us for sure. But not every event is worth bringing into the analysis of the present. And WWI with the redrawing of borders is in my view unimportant in understanding today.
Forget history, yesterday is enough
Many analysts have a habit of using distant past events to explain what is going in the region. A stark example is explaining the current Sunni-Shiite conflict by going back to the 8th century! Another example gaining currency now is the Sykes-Picot agreement, which is considered to be the beginning of all the ills in the region.
Forget that most people do not understand the 8th century properly or that Sykes-Picot had little to do with drawing the regions borders, why do we and others bring in so much distant history into contemporary political analysis? Perhaps people from outside the region do it because they want to make it simple for them. The past is neat; it has no shades of grey. For those in the region in think the reason is because we do not want to look into ourselves well enough. The present is our doing. So let us focus on the past, something which others did.
WWI did lead to the initial division of the region into states. The whole Arab-Israeli conflict was born out of a war meant to end all wars… But we are not living the consequences of that war. Enough events had happened since then that played a much greater role in shaping our present and constraining our future. There has been a historical disconnect from the events of the First (and also the Second) Great War. The Arabs had their chances; but instead of working for a better future they bickered and fought and wasted the many opportunities they got.
We the Arabs have been the agents of the major events which influence our region today. Pan Arab nationalism was our own doing with all its consequences. The 1967 defeat was not a result of the Balfour Declaration but a consequence of an Arab leader’s irrational adventurism. Rejecting the peace process with the Jewish state all through the 1970s was an Arab decision. The Iraq-Iran war was not a continuation of the wars of Ali and Muawiyah in the 8th century. The invasion of Kuwait did not happen to fix a colonial mistake. And the rise of Islamic terrorism was not in the first draft of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
History cannot explain the region. History can provide us with myth to use when to attempt to explain it. And if I were to give an advice to someone who wants to understand what is going on: do not read its history. Read its present.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1
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