In order to examine whether the Middle East is an invention, it is important to examine the importance of British and French influence on the region. The fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20sth The century marked the beginning of Western influence in the region and consequently created the “Middle East” we know today. By examining the role of the British and French in shaping state borders and state formations, as well as social and geopolitical aspects, it can be argued that the imperial rule of the British and French essentially invented the Middle East. Even the name coined for the region can be an indication of how the Middle East can be understood as an invention. The term Middle East is a Eurocentric term and was coined by the British according to the proximity of the region to Europe. As a result, the region can be interpreted in different ways, and which countries make up the Middle East is often a topic of debate. Many scientists choose to refer to the region as “West Asia”. This essay argues that the Middle East can be understood as an imperial invention created by the European imperial powers by adopting policies such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Mandate System, as well as the region’s response to such policies and how Nationalistically investigated overtime groups have contributed to the identity of the region. Edward Said’s “Orientalism” can support many of the claims made in this article and the policies examined, and shows how orientalist attitudes played a significant role in the “invention” of the Middle East and 21st Century Western influence and intervention in the region.
Orientalism is important to understanding British and French actions in relation to the Middle East region and how the region was “invented” by foreign influences. Lockman argues that the orientalism discourse was linked to “contemporary European colonialism” and was used by European states as a justification for exercising their power over the region (Lockman, 2004: p.88). Edward Said offers a number of overlapping definitions of Orientalism that can shed light on how Orientalism supports the imperial rule of European power over the region. Orientalism is not only defined as a “mode of discourse”, but also as a “style of thought” based on an ontological and epistemological distinction between “Orient” and “Occident” (Said, 1978: p.2)). The distinction between the “Orient” and the “Occident”, supported by a number of literature, enabled the West to present itself as superior to those in the Middle East, giving them a rationale for control and a strong voice in the region and its affairs. Said also defines Orientalism as a “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it, teaching it, regulating it and ruling it” (1978: p. 3). Making orientalism essentially a western style in order to dominate, restructure and have authority over the orient (ibid). Once again, many of the “statements” or prejudices made about the Orient allowed the West to assert its superiority over the region. One of the common orientalist attitudes was the belief that the Middle East was backward and in urgent need of civilization. It was this prejudice that justified the British and French colonial powers to implement the orientalist policy and “confirmed the European superiority over the oriental backwardness” (Owen, 2004: p.7).
However, the notion that the Middle East requires civilization is not a thing of the past, and we can still see it in the 21st from the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, in which the US claimed it would save Afghan women from the Taliban, to Macron’s recent visits to Lebanon after the Beirut explosion, which many viewed as a “new colonial surge” (Ghitis, 2020)). It was these orientalist prejudices of the Middle East and its people that supported many of the measures pursued by the British and French during the 1920sth Century. Ultimately, this would enable the imperial powers, as suggested by Said, to restructure a region that can be viewed as a “European invention” (Burney, 2012: p. 23).
The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 drawn up by the British and French is a clear indication of how the Middle East can be viewed as an “invention”. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France divided the region between the two imperial powers and created their own spheres of influence within the region. The British sphere of influence included Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. The French sphere of influence included Lebanon and Syria. It can be argued that, using the example of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the borders of these states are an “invention” […] decided by the European powers under conditions of colonial rule ”(Bilgin, 2016: p.357). It should also be remembered that the people of the region were given arbitrary limits and that they were not consulted when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was being drawn up. The establishment of arbitrary borders can be understood as an orientalist act, as the colonial powers did not recognize that the Middle East region had been compromised by various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. Instead, they blurred the region’s various identities into a homogeneous entity that better suited their interests. The effects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement can still be felt in the region today. For example, the Kurdish people can be seen as victims of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, with Saeed arguing that a Kurdish state was formed in their early twentiesth The century may have “saved millions of lives and helped reduce the risk of violence seen today in nation-states as a by-product of the Sykes-Picot Agreement” (Saeed, 2016). Today the Kurdistan region is divided between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, where the ethnic group has become oppressed minorities and fights for cultural and political rights in the states in which they live. This suggests that state borders are not the only example of what the Middle East is like as an “invention”, but also that the Sykes-Picot Accords are responsible for the divisions between the people of the region and those occurring today Conflict is responsible. The Sykes-Picot Agreement can be understood as a European attempt to found a new region, ignoring the existing identity of the region and connecting it to Said’s idea of Orientalism as the West “restructuring” the Orient around his own to complement your own interests. Hence, the Sykes-Picot Accord, which embodies the orientalist attitudes, shows how the British and French imperial powers invented not only the modern borders of the Middle East, but also many of its social and political problems.
Similarly, the 1917 Balfour Declaration was another example of a policy imposed on the people of the region. It can also be understood as the cause of the Palestine-Israel conflict that characterized the region. Emphasize the idea that the many problems of the regions, along with state building, may be directly linked to the colonial powers of Great Britain and France The declaration called for a “national home for Jewish people” in Palestine and claimed that “nothing should be done that affects the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (The Palestian Return Center, 2017). The British and Zionists, both involved in the creation and implementation of the Declaration, used “orientalist ideologies to justify their claims to the land”. In addition, they used the orientalist narrative that the “Orient” was in need of civilization, claiming that the Palestinians were “primitive and backward and in need of modernization” (Pappé, quoted in the Palestinian Return Center, 2017). The Balfour Declaration confirms that Said’s theories of Orientalism use discourse and make distinctions to legitimize control over the “Orient”. Over time, the Israeli state created a narrative claiming that prior to the Balfour Declaration, the country had no trade or infrastructure and the population was undemocratic and uncivilized. Through this narrative, Israel strengthened its credibility as a state, claiming that the Zionists and Jews who came from Europe made the country “prosperous, democratic, and most importantly, civilized” (The Palestian Return Center, 2017). The sudden creation of today’s State of Israel, supported by orientalist attitudes, led to social and political turmoil in the region that still prevails today. Using the example of the Balfour Declaration and its effects, we can also understand Israel as a British “invention”.
The mandate system that followed the Sykes-Picot Agreement further emphasizes how the Middle East was “invented” by the European powers and can be understood as an “instrument of political control” (Owen, 2004: 9). While the Sykes-Picot Agreement created new, internationally recognized state borders, the mandate system ensured the creation of nation states and contributed to the political and economic shaping of the region. The mandate system aimed to prepare the newly formed states for eventual freedom and independence by ensuring that they “submit to certain internationally sanctioned guidelines” and “establish constitutional governments” (Owen, 2004: 9). Therefore, the path to independence of today’s Middle Eastern states from the British and French also played an important role in shaping these nation states, with Owen arguing that the mandate system had characteristics of an “old-fashioned colony” (Owen, 2004: p.9) . It should be noted that the Middle East’s experience of colonial powers was different from that of British and French colonies in Asia and Africa. Still, as in the colonies, the British and French pushed for political and economic systems that would complement their own interests in the region. For example, the British have implemented constitutional monarchies in their sphere of influence.
The British believed that the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom in Iraq and Transjordan would ensure British support and British influence in the new nation-states. According to the British, a monarch has created an element of stability and continuity and is an important political actor with a certain right of veto and the ability to suppress nationalist uprisings or challenges to the political system under British mandate power (Owen, 20014: 16) . The idea of stability and continuity is true to some extent as Jordan is still a constitutional government today. Likewise, governance in Lebanon can be seen as a legacy of French “colonial rule”. In contrast to the British, the French opted for a republican style of government. In contrast to how the Sykes-Picot overlooked the very diverse region, the French designed the Lebanese government to politically represent all Lebanese religious groups. The president was always Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Through the nation-states that exist today in the Middle East and their existing institutions, which were implemented by the imperial powers, it is shown that the region can be understood as an “invention”.
By using and “teaching” Said’s definition of Orientalism “as the Western style of domination, restructuring, and authority over the Orient”, we can understand the mandate system as a policy or system that is strongly supported by Orientalist attitudes. The European powers viewed the region as incapable of developing independently and as a geopolitical entity to which they were entitled to influence and restructure the region. This in turn was largely justified by the common orientalist conviction that the people of the “Orient” were backward and had to be civilized and modernized, which was only possible with the support of the “Occident”. Under French and British control, the region saw a shift from rule under Islamic rules and the obligation to Istanbul to establish a modern nation-state with centralized administration, a legal system, internationally recognized borders and a flag (Owen, 2004). So one could argue that the Middle Eastern nation-states we see today are an “invention” created by the mandate powers.
However, the argument that the Middle East is just an “invention” of the European powers can be seen as problematic as it reinforces the orientalist attitudes of the “Orient” which is unable to produce its own identity and itself the “Occident” must rely on his knowledge and his power. Orientalism suggests that the “Orient” is mute, supported by Burney, who claims that the Middle East was “created through a hegemonic process that robbed it of its true identity, voice and indigenous culture” (2012: p .26). However, this term can be questioned as the people in the region did not accept and embrace imperial rule. Instead, after the creation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the implementation of the mandate system, we see the emergence of nationalist movements. For example, after the creation of the “national homeland for the Jewish people”, Palestinians and Arabs violently opposed the declaration, and the same struggle for Palestinian sovereignty is widespread to this day. The emergence of pan-Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood aimed to unite the Muslim world for the Palestinian cause and the destruction of Israel. By claiming that the Middle East is just an imperial “invention” we are discrediting the role of nationalist movements in shaping the region’s identity. It can be argued that pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism played a significant role in shaping the identity of the Middle East. These movements demanded a sense of unity, be it religious or cultural, to challenge western influence in the region by “working together in world politics” to defend their interests (Hinnebusch, 2015: p.72). For example, Nasserism and the Suez Crisis of 1956 marked the height of pan-Arabism before its rapid decline after the Six Day War in 1967. Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company represented British interests in the Middle East and, to some extent, the Western capitalist order that they had established in the region. The success of nationalization has shown the Arab world that “increased influence on international politics” and “improvement of living standards and economic opportunities” can be achieved through “cooperation and solidarity between Arabs” (Mellon, 2007: p.4). Hence, it can be argued that transnational nationalist movements played a role in the “invention” of the Middle East and as it is understood today when the movements created a common Muslim and Arab regional identity that transcended the borders invented by the British and French .
While nationalist groups have been able to challenge Western imperialism to some extent, they have not been able to dismantle state borders or the concept of nation states implemented by the British and French (Yamahata, 2018). Instead, it can be argued that the national identities encouraged by such movements accepted and legitimized the nation-state invented by the mandate powers. Similarly, the imposition of a common Arab or Muslim identity across borders has also been recognized and, to some extent, the imposed state borders have been accepted. Therefore, the Middle East remains largely an imperial “invention” as nationalist movements have not been able to successfully deconstruct the institutions and borders imposed on them and are now embedded in the region.
As mentioned earlier, Orientalism is not a thing of the past and is still relevant to today’s Middle East. Orientalist views still serve today as the basis for justifying and justifying Western interventions in the region. For example, orientalist perceptions often portray Islam as “anti-rational and anti-scientific”, incapable of moving forward with social change (Lockman, 2009: 79) and that its leaders are tyrants. She also sees women in the region as oppressed by the patriarchal society and culture of the Middle East. It is these prejudices that prompt and justify Western interventions in the region. For example, the US “war on terror” was justified by the claim that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (Flanders, 2001). The Middle East is constantly being reinvented through Western interference in the region, be it through direct military intervention or through Western neo-colonial Sims. An example of neocolonialsim in the region is the US and its recent guidelines under the Trump administration. For example, recent US-brokered deals, in which four Arab states normalized relations with Israel, reaffirm the Orientalist view that the region relies on Western knowledge and power in its affairs. In addition, the role the US has played in normalizing relations underscores the Orientalist view that the West “authorizes” politics and “teaches” states in the region how to deal with each other, thereby creating disputes and tensions “to be enclosed” (Said, 1978): p.3). For this reason it can be argued that Western hegemony still exists in the region and consequently the Middle East continues to be (re) invented or “restructured”.
In summary, on the basis of the examination of how Orientalism served as the basis for thinking and justifying the structure of the region, it can be argued that “the Orient was created by the West through the tropics of knowledge and power as the ultimate other of the West”. (Burney, 2012: p. 24), which makes the Middle East an “invention”. Orientalism can be defined as the Western style to dominate, restructure and have authority over the “Orient” and offers an “ontological and epistemological distinction” between those of the “Orient” and those of the “Occident” (Said, 1973: pp .2-3). This paper argued that knowledge of Orientalism was the basis of many of the measures implemented in the region. In addition, it has shown how the Middle East became an “invention” created by the orientalist-backed attitudes of the European imperial powers Great Britain and France. Through the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Mandate System, Great Britain and France helped lay the foundations of the nation-states in the region, which remain to this day. The imperial powers also created the term “Middle East” due to their geographic location and proximity to Europe. In addition, this essay examined how the policies of the European powers backed by the Orientalists contributed largely to the social and political turmoil that characterize the region today. The presence of the West in the region from the early 20thth The 19th century helped establish a power hierarchy in the region that was supported by orientalist attitudes and presented the West as superior. This idea of the superiority of the West and the hierarchy of power that it created in international politics enables the Western states to intervene in the region today. This has been demonstrated by events such as the “war on terror” and recent US-brokered deals. Some Arab states are normalizing relations with Israel. Like the 20thth In the 19th century, Western intervention in the region must be sustained by the same orientalist attitudes that civilize and modernize the region, something that can only be achieved through the leadership of Western states. Although nationalist movements have played a significant role in creating the identity of the Middle East region and their respective nation-states, they have yet to eradicate embedded imperial inventions in the Middle East. Thus the Middle East can be recognized as the invention of the European colonial powers and their orientalist attitude.
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Written to: SOAS, University of London
Written for: Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
Date written: December 2020
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