Ideas & Trends; Britain's Imperial Lessons

  • From: "Muslim-News" <editor@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <submit@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 4 Apr 2002 09:34:14 +0100

AS the United States settles the mantle of empire, however uneasily, on
its shoulders, it must constantly deal with the legacy of the West's
last major empire, Britain. 

It has been everywhere America is now going -- not just in the Middle
East, not just in the thick of terrorism and bloodshed, but even in
Central Asia, where the British and czarist Russian empires played the
19th-century Great Game, vying to control access to the rich plains of
British India. Then as now, Afghanistan was the center of that struggle,
offering Britain countless challenges until, in 1878, Lord Frederick
Sleigh Roberts asserted control over Afghanistan. In 1880, he marched
10,000 troops from Kabul to Kandahar to the aid of a beleaguered British
garrison. The battle left 600 Afghans and 35 British dead, a token of
the bloodshed that has steeped the region's wars and convinced outsiders
of the perils of intervening there. The British withdrew in 1881 after
many battles and uprisings, leaving the country in the hands of a native
ruler. He, in 1893, agreed to a division of tribal areas that became
Afghanistan's northeastern border with British India -- and that is now
its troublingly porous border with Pakistan. 

The British role in molding the theater of today's regional conflicts
was by no means just military. With World War I under way, Britain and
France reached a secret deal to carve up the Middle East. And that deal
-- the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 -- was central to the western
division of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920's, a moment that, for
radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden, is mourned as the final passing
of the Muslim Caliphate that dated to the Prophet Muhammad and reviled
as an episode of profound cultural humiliation. 

As for the modern contest of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, its
seeds were sown by imperial British involvement in the Arab world, which
has also shaped many of the borders and conflicts that endure to this
day in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In the so-called Balfour
Declaration of 1917, Britain promised support to the Zionist project,
even as British officials were maneuvering to sponsor Arab independence.

The first sustained Palestinian uprising in what would become Israel was
the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, which included a general strike by
Palestinian workers and waves of guerrilla attacks on Jewish settlements
and buses and British installations. Those attacks radicalized some
Zionist militants, who retaliated with terror attacks on the British --
most notably a bombing aimed at British soldiers and police officers at
the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 that killed 91. 

And, while Washington debates how closely to remain involved in the
post-Taliban Afghanistan, historians are well aware that, from the
Hashemite dynasty of present-day Jordan to the one-time kingdoms of Iraq
and Afghanistan, Britain excelled in molding kings and potentates to its
imperial will. 

Almost invariably, Britain emerged from its imperial campaigns accused
of duplicity. "Perfidious Albion," the name coined by a French poet in
1793, stuck. 

According to "A Peace to End All Peace," David Fromkin's 1989 study of
the creation of the modern Middle East, Britain and its allies smashed
the Ottoman regional order after World War I and "created countries,
nominated rulers, delineated frontiers and introduced a state system of
the sort that exists everywhere else." Their error was in failing "to
ensure that the dynasties, the states and the political system that they
established would permanently endure," Mr. Fromkin wrote -- a
perspective that may help explain the Bush administration's reluctance
to engage in nation building. 

OF course, the Great Game in Central Asia and its successor in the
Middle East were played out before OPEC, nuclear technology and 24-hour
satellite broadcasts. Imagine Sykes and Picot emerging from their secret
talks in the winter of 1915 to face a barrage of cameras and questions:
"So who gets Mesopotamia, Mr. Picot?" 

The Great Game is fought in the same region today, not over access to
India but to prevent Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the oil wealth of
Saudi Arabia from falling into the hands of radical Islamists. 

But there is an enduring strand. At the height of its power, Britain
ruled more than half the world's Muslims, and some historians believe
that it developed a deep-rooted fear that radical Islam could shake the
very roots of its empire from India to the Sudan -- fears strengthened
by the holy wars declared against it from Khartoum to Kabul. In 1881, an
Islamic mystic, Al Mahdi, proclaimed a divine mission to purify Islam
and to destroy governments that defiled it. His forces captured Khartoum
from British defenders in 1885, and he then established a theocratic
state in the Sudan. 

After World War II, Britain's empire began unraveling, just as a new
global order emerged. In the end, Washington inherited the troubled
legacies of the old empires. 

In 1947, Britain lowered its flag for the last time over India and newly
created Pakistan. In 1948, 26 years of British-mandated Palestine made
way for the founding of Israel. 

History does not release its architects as easily as they furl their
banners. These days Tony Blair's Britain is back in some of the arenas
of its former supremacy -- this time as the junior partner. 

Source:  The New York Times

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