The Arab Westphalia

The "Arab" edifice is crumbling. Make way for new nations.

“Blame it on the English” is a popular Lebanese wisecrack; the idiot savant’s elixir and the learned man’s exit line when answers become too few and far between. “When all else fails, blame it on the English!” goes the playful adage. Yet, when placed in a wider Middle Eastern context the phrase loses its flippancy and reveals a remarkably keen grasp of history.

After all, the British—or rather the English in Middle Eastern parlance—did probably get most things wrong about the region, and are perhaps fair game for the blame. The checkered Eastern holdings of the Ottoman Empire, which they inherited alongside the French in 1918, were viewed by the British as a homogenous exclusive preserve of Muslims and Arabs; a “land-bridge” as it were to His Majesty’s crown jewel, India. And so it behooved the British and their colonial cartographers to maintain, or rather to contrive, a single monolithic “Arab world,” in what is to this day an inherently diverse, fractured, and fractious Middle East.

The French on the other hand, partly to spite their British rivals and scuttle their colonial designs—in favor of a loftier Gallic mission civilisatrice—viewed things differently. Pursuing more than the facile “divide and conquer” colonial strategy often attributed to them by classic post-colonialists, the French were avid practitioners of a "minorities policy.” With antecedents in Northern Africa (the Berbers) and the Levant region (Lebanon and the Maronites) the French perceived the Middle East for the ethno-religious and linguistic mosaic that it really was. Robert de Caix, secretary to the French High Commissioner in Beirut, wrote in a November 1920 diplomatic telegram to the Quai d’Orsay that:

The entire Middle East has been so poorly packed together [by the British.] The resulting clutter is all the more legitimate reason for [the French] to try and steer the minds clear of unitary political systems and, instead, advance federalist concepts […] Federalism would be a great relief for much of the notables of these lands, and a boon to the bulk of this region’s populations, who remain, to a very large extent, alien to all kinds of [unitary] political life.1

Indeed, terms and concepts such as the “Arab world” and the “Arab nation” are modern twentieth century innovations owed in no small part to British colonial genius, not to any distinctly “Arab” group loyalty. History—and certainly “Arab” and Muslim history—makes no mention of a united “Arab world” or a cohesive “Arab nation” antecedent to the modern Middle Eastern state system. Even inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, prior to the seventh century Muslim conquest of the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, were never a coherent cohesive lot with a unified corporate identity and a single national language. Instead, pre-Islamic Arabians were at best a menagerie of warring tribes, vying city-states, and rival families and clans using a multiplicity of idioms and languages that bore little resemblance to what later became the language of Quran, and what is today referred to as “Modern Standard Arabic.” Of course there is much truth to the belief that the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had united those fickle and inchoate Arabians into a single nation—or Umma. But the resulting Umma was a Muslim, not an Arab nation, and the regions it came to hold in its grip—from Spain to the Indus—continued to be characterized by large swaths of local, indigenous, non-Muslims, and non-Arab ethnic and cultural communities.

This is the Middle East that the French and British inherited in the early twentieth century; a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups that certainly included Arabs, but which was far from being exclusively Arab. De Caix, and by inference the French Foreign Ministry and the League of Nations Mandatory Authorities that he represented, were acutely aware of this ethnic and cultural mosaic. That was one of the main reasons the French turned their Mandatory possessions into five distinct, ethnically coherent, and largely homogenous non-Arab states: The State of Greater Lebanon, the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, the Alawite Mountain, and the Druze Mountain. Had the British not dismantled these new creations in 1936, in favor of an artificially united Syria (or a unitary Iraq or Jordan for that matter,) arguably sounder and less fractious entities could have emerged and survived into our times; states that might have remained at peace with themselves and their neighbors.

To this day, with the future of a post-Mubarak Middle East still up in the air, in a region still facing more pivotal changes than the prevalent analyses and projections are willing to entertain, a Christian dominated “Mount Lebanon," an Alawite dominated “Mount Ansariyya," and a Druze dominated “Druze Mountain”—as the French had envisioned in 1920—might still make more political, ethnic, and historical sense than the current restive, and still unraveling, Arab nationalist order.