Did Britain and France carve up the Middle East into spheres of influence by drawing arbitrary lines on a map? Yes – yes, they did. But is it the root cause of Daesh and the wars that have ravaged the region in recent years? Well, yes and no.
Daesh and their echoes in the West push a narrative that has western foreign policy as the sole cause of today’s war and bloodshed in the region. They characterise this as a one hundred year mistake that began with the 1916 Sykes-Picot pact carving up the crumbling Turkish empire between the western powers. The end of the Ottomans, they say, destroyed a united Muslim caliphate that stretched from Istanbul to Mecca and Baghdad.
Reality is always a little more complex. There were secret colonial deals that did indeed betray the hopes of the Arab world. But there were also decades of local misrule and the emergence of movements that distorted past history to promote a romanticised idea of a mythical khilafah.
Daesh, for example, ignores the religious pluralism of the Ottomans and their abolition of barbaric punishments. They’ve stoned more people to death in two years than the Ottomans did in four centuries. Experiments in pan-Arab states foundered in the 20th century because, well, Egyptians and Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians were actually very proud of their identity. This is why Daesh spends so much time and effort demolishing the ancient glories of Iraq and Syria – an attempt to erase those very identities.
Sykes and Picot were colonialists of their own time. What they did was reprehensible given the promises made to Arab allies at the end of the First World War. But the actions of Daesh are not rooted so much in past foreign policy as in an ideology that rejects values we all share: human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and gender equality. The ambition is not to right the wrongs of Sykes-Picot but to subjugate millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, Afghans, Qataris, Kurds, Egyptians, Turks, Libyans, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Somalis, Saudis and other Muslim nations under the iron heel of a self-proclaimed and phony khalifah.
The fact a full century has passed since the Sykes-Picot agreement highlights how long ago this was… Are we all powerless victims of historical world affairs, with no control over any aspect of our lives? People like Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Sadiq Khan have shown this is certainly not the case! In the face of immense challenges, the best of human nature is awakened.
We should condemn Sykes and Picot – but we can’t blame them for today’s horror show.