Yes, the states created after World War I persist because their borders approximate the fault-lines that crisscross the Arab and Muslim worlds—fault-lines that are religious, sectarian, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural. Colonial borders are artificial (which political borders are not?), but they are not arbitrary. Middle Eastern realities lurk behind them. In a valuable essay published a decade ago, Iliya Harik repudiated the notion that today's Arab states are "new":
Fifteen of the contemporary Arab states are the product of indigenous and regional forces mostly unrelated to European colonialism and in most cases predate it. . . . [These] old states have within themselves the sources of their own legitimacy.1
The better historians and social scientists from the Middle East have reached similar verdicts over the last two decades; Karsh is thus in good company.
What Karsh has omitted is how the Western powers floated various pan-Arab and pan-Islamic schemes that they thought would serve their own interests. In particular, Britain and America, the dominant powers in the Middle East in the twentieth century, have been repeat offenders.
. Pan-Arabism received direct endorsement from a long line of British diplomats and pundits. In 1931, the historian Arnold Toynbee accused Britain and France of dividing the "Arab domain" by "artificial and arbitrary frontiers," in a partition "imposed on [the Arabs] against their will."2
Another enthusiast of pan-Arabism was Sir Walter ("Smartie") Smart, Oriental counselor at the British Embassy in Cairo, who in 1931 denounced "the splitting up into numerous unpractical states of lands ethnically, linguistically, economically one."3
Freya Stark, who organized British propaganda in Cairo and Baghdad during World War II, wrote upon the outbreak the war:
For years I have been unable to see why our government should not take every public opportunity to give a blessing to the pan-Arab cry. What are they frightened of?4
These would-be experts finally persuaded their government that the Arab masses really did want pan-Arabism, and that Britain should be seen to support it. Thus did backing for pan-Arabism become British policy during World War II. In 1941, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden called it "natural and right that the cultural and economic ties between the Arab countries and the political ties, too, should be strengthened."5
The British cabinet approved his recommendation for "public support of the idea of Arab federation."6
The Chatham House Cairo Group, a think squad established to propose post-war options for British policy, rebuked those who treated Iraq and Egypt, for example, "as individual nation-states whose connection with their Arabic-speaking neighbors was sentimental rather than actual." To do so was "not to take the Arabs seriously," at a time when "there is a great and growing desire for unity" in the "Arabic-speaking core."7
In 1945, when the Arab League was born (through British midwifery), Sir Edward Spears, a much-esteemed expert on Arab matters, rose in the House of Commons to make this declaration:
The movement towards Arab unity is like a great natural force, the flow of a river to the sea. It can be slowed down, diverted or impeded, but in course of time it will reach its objective.8
Needless to say, the river turned out to be a desert wadi, subject (as in 1948 and 1956) to destructive flash floods—and no more. The rushing waters of pan-Arab sentiment sustained no lasting Arab union, but they sufficed to destroy Britain's position in the Middle East, especially after the Arab League fell into the hands of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eden's good deed did not go unpunished.
. American policy has promoted a brand of pan-Islam more than pan-Arabism. The original idea at the outbreak of the cold war was to leverage Islam against international communism; Saudi Arabia provided the lever. In this pursuit, the United States endorsed the most extravagant Saudi claims to Islamic primacy.
William Eddy, first American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, set the tone in his description of the 1945 meeting between President Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud on the Great Bitter Lake:
The guardian of the holy places of Islam, and the nearest we have to a successor to the caliphs, the defender of the Muslim faith and of the holy cities of three hundred million people, cemented a friendship with the head of a great Western and Christian nation. The meeting marks the high point of Muslim alliance with the West.9
In 1956, President Eisenhower asked the State Department whether King Saud (Ibn Saud's successor) could be made into a pillar of a wider American influence. Eisenhower noted that:
The Saudi Arabians are considered to be the most deeply religious of all the Arab groups. Consequently, the king could be built up, possibly, as a spiritual leader. Once this were accomplished, we might begin to urge his right to political leadership.10
The profligate Saud disappointed the Americans, but his successor, King Faisal, soon emerged as just that pan-Islamic "spiritual leader" the United States wanted on its side. Saudi Arabia's pan-Islamic juggernaut of the 1960s and 1970s set the stage for the joint Saudi-American promotion of the most successful pan-Islamic venture of modern times: the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The United States pumped arms and money across Afghan frontiers into radical pan-Islamic groups. Future historians may reckon this to have been a brilliant idea, and a strong case can be made that it was, for it materially contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, however, Americans, Saudis, and other peaceable peoples have to cope with the post-jihad backwash of the Taliban, "Afghan Arabs," Usama bin Ladin, and terrorism from the Philippines to New York City.
Karsh is absolutely right: "pan-" ideas in the Middle East have been a source of chronic instability and conflict. What a pity they have so often enjoyed the encouragement of Britain and the United States. Is it too much to hope that these latter have learned from past mistakes?
Martin Kramer is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.
Iliya Harik, "The Origins of the Arab State System," The Arab State
, ed. Giacomo Luciani (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 4.
Arnold Toynbee, "The Present Situation in Palestine," International Affairs
, Jan. 1931, pp. 40-41.
Quoted by Elie Kedourie, In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 260. It is worth noting that Smart's brother-in-law was George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening
(London: H. Hamilton, 1938) and zealous promoter of pan-Arabism.
Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion's Paw: Autobiography, 1939-1946
(London: Murray, 1961), p. 83.
Mansion House speech, May 29, 1941, Parliamentary Papers
, Great Britain, 1941, Misc. no. 2, Cmd. 6289.
Quoted in Yehoshua Porath, In Search of Arab Unity, 1930-1945
(London: Cass, 1986), p. 249.
Quoted in Elie Kedourie, "The Chatham House Version," Chatham House Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies
(London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), p. 393.
Quoted in Kedourie, "Pan-Arabism and British Policy," Chatham House Version
, p. 227.
William A. Eddy, FDR Meets Ibn Saud
(New York: American Friends of the Middle East, 1954).
Eisenhower Papers (Ann Whitman File), Diary Series, Box 5, White House Diary entry, Mar. 28, 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library.