The beginning and the end of today’s Middle East

Sunday 15/05/2016

The month of May brought the anniversaries of two events that ushered in and helped define the current history of the Middle East. The first is the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the secret deal between Britain and France dividing their spheres of influence in the Middle East after World War I. The second is the fifth anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The alleged demise of Sykes- Picot has been the grist for speculation by pundits and analysts since the Islamic State (ISIS) declared it dead as a by-product of its caliphate. The remaking of the Arab world on the ashes of the great powers solution to governing the remains of the Ottoman empire, itself the last caliphate, is the first step, according to ISIS, of re-establishing the global Islamic empire.

It is more than a dotted line that connects Sykes-Picot with bin Laden, the first general emir of al-Qaeda, as his extremist message was defined in large part to be a death sentence on Western influence in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Although there are numerous comparisons that delineate differences between the two, ISIS and al-Qaeda have been the catalysts for challenging the Sykes-Picot order that remains in place in most regimes in the region, however tenuously.

Sykes-Picot concerned itself with the remnants of the Ottoman empire in the eastern Mediterranean, today’s cauldron of instability, inhumanity and conflict in the region. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Israel, as well as Turkey and Iran, cannot avoid the implications of jihad waged against the West. And while the arbitrary borders of these countries remain intact for now, cross-border violence is a constant reminder of the fragile nature of countries built on concepts not rooted in the region.

Under Sykes-Picot, authoritarian regimes replaced colonial administrations, which had established order based on selective support for existing and emerging elites benefiting from the distributive largesse of the Western powers. One critical by-product of that regime, in many ways echoing the Ottoman millet system based on Quranic concepts of dhimma, was the co-existence of minorities — large and small — within the countries of the region. This fluctuating sense of tolerance, and some would claim exploitation, has been erased by ISIS and al-Qaeda, which both promote sectarian violence as part of their creeds.

Although based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda brutally brought the message of its latest version of Middle East history to the West through attacks in the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States. The acts on 9/11 led the United States into a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in pursuit of bin Laden, and the rest is, until the rise of ISIS, the latest instalment in the rewriting of the region’s history.

Among the casualties of this latest shift in the history of the Middle East is the treatment of Christian, Muslim and other minorities that has led to revulsion even among Sunni adherents of al-Qaeda and ISIS who previously counted the persecuted as neighbours and compatriots. Despite the stability and even orderliness that has been bestowed upon those villages and towns that have accepted ISIS’s governance, daily life has an Orwellian shadow hanging in the air that reduces life to a series of strictures. Compliance is an obligation, not a choice.

The other casualty of the rise and fall of Sykes-Picot and perhaps more dominant is the inability to equitably resolve the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. Even bin Laden realised the potency of this cause, adding it to the bucket list of al-Qaeda causes. Palestine is also featured on ISIS’s list of the West’s offences against the Arab and Muslim worlds. Sykes-Picot once again is at the root of the strained geography of the Middle East.

What remains is that whether it is al-Qaeda, ISIS or any other manifestations of extremism in the Middle East, the missing counterpoint across the region is the lack of a sense of inclusive citizenship that stands against hate. Regime legitimacy based on acquired or bequeathed power rather than the actual consent of the people is as outdated as Sykes- Picot. The yet-to-be-achieved goal of the Arab uprisings is that leaders of these countries should give their people dignity and respect that is worth fighting for.