In 1915 a couple of minor diplomats, the Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François George-Picot, began negotiating to divide the Ottoman Empire, which had entered the Great War on the side of Germany. In 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed by France, Britain and Russia. By the end of the war, Russia was out of the game, following the Bolshevik Revolution, and Atatürk was busy saving the Turkish speaking remnant of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France had a free hand to divide the Arab lands between them. They drew weird boundary lines supposedly corresponding to the ‘nations’ of the region. They even appointed sovereigns to some of them, drawing on a bank of Arab pretenders among whom the Hashemite tribe were prominent. And they administered these territories under a ‘mandate’ granted by the League of Nations.
Of the new nation states only Lebanon and Egypt had any real claims to national identity. Both had large Christian populations – in Lebanon possibly a majority. And both had a long history of defiance towards the Sultan in Istanbul.
It should have been obvious that the other territories in the region – which we now know as Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Palestine – were neither nations nor viable states, but simply places on the map. Iraq was put together from a population divided between a Shi’ite majority and Sunnite minority, with a sizeable scattering of Christians, and a large population of Kurdish speaking Sunnites. Its boundaries, like those of Syria, had little historical foundation, and – with the exception of the Kurds, who are fiercely nationalistic – the Iraqi people defined themselves in terms of their faith, not in terms of their national identity.
We, in the West, have inherited a form of identity that is largely unknown in the Arab world. We identify ourselves in terms of our country and its law. This law is secular, man-made, and changeable. We owe allegiance to the nation, and we include within the nation people of different faiths, and different family ties.
In the Arab world people have not, on the whole, identified themselves in that way. Sunni Muslims have only a weak attachment to territory and a marked reluctance to view themselves as tied to their neighbours of differing faith by binding obligations. The secular law of the nation state has only a vacillating authority for them, since they regard themselves as governed by another and eternal law, laid down by God through the mouth of the Prophet. Their language is a universal language, attached to no specific territory, and their faith is a universal faith, which tells them that they belong to no particular place or time, but to the universal ummah of the faithful. In other words their faith confers upon them an identity which is not a national identity and which is indeed incompatible with secular law and national boundaries.
Not surprisingly, therefore, places like Iraq and Syria have been places of constant conflict, stable only when some usurping army officer or ruthless dynasty has been able to seize control, as happened with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Hafiz al-Assad in Syria. Both of those unsavoury characters retained control by means of the Ba’ath (‘resurrection’) party, which had shaped itself on Leninist principles, and exerted a terroristic control over the people through the operations of the secret police. Both countries were without legal opposition or a true rule of law. It was only natural that they should enter into conflict with their neighbours and with the wider world.
But this is where everything went wrong. President George W. Bush imagined that, by deposing Saddam, he would open the way to a new and democratic Iraq. This was to make two incredibly naïve assumptions: first, that democracy is the default position in politics, and secondly that you can achieve democracy even where there is no genuine nation state.
History tells us that the default position in politics is priest-haunted tyranny, and that democracy is achieved only by enormous efforts and usually not without extended periods of civil war, such as marked the English 17th century or the American 19thcentury. Democracy comes about when people lay down their arms, and agree to live with each other on terms, negotiating with those they dislike for a share of the action. A democrat is a person who agrees to be governed by someone from a different faith, a different tribe, a different family or interest group, a different worldview. What makes a democrat possible? The answer is: the nation. When you and I define our loyalty in national terms, we can put aside all differences of religion, tribe and ethnicity, and submit to a shared system of law. We participate in the making of that law, and agree to be bound by it, because it is our law, which operates over the territory that is ours. We have made a home together, and set aside our divisions in order to settle side by side.
That process never occurred in the Arab world, or if it did, only in fragile and unstable instances, such as Lebanon. The assumption that, because Iraq exists on the map, it exists as a nation state, with a true national identity, and that Iraqis will stand up for their nation and fight for its existence – that assumption was and is patently ridiculous. No sooner did ISIS appear over the horizon than the Iraqi troops abandoned their arms and their uniforms and fled back to their native villages. They behaved like a mercenary army conscripted by a foreign power. Which is essentially what they were. Of course they will fight for their religion – but their religion precisely divides them from other Iraqis, and cannot serve as a unifying force.
Only one community in Iraq has responded as we might to the invasion by ISIS, and that is the Kurdish community, which has been able to carve out a semi-autonomous region. Why is this? Surely the answer is clear. Being a Kurd is a matter of language, history and an ancestral claim to territory. It is a proto-national, rather than a religious identity. Hence when Kurds fight they fight for their country rather than their faith. And an emerging Kurdistan is likely to be the only peaceful fragment of the Iraq made in Britain and America. Let us hope that it becomes an ally of the West in the region. For it will probably be the only ally we have.
– Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center