By: Vali Nasr
The baggage of colonialism
The current crisis in the Middle East is very important, largely because it goes to the heart of distribution of power, or more rightly the security architecture, of the region. Boundaries that were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Versailles are now open to contestation. The internal political architecture that was borne out of the colonial experience with a particular distribution of powers between minorities and majorities and also between authoritarian regimes and their subjects is also being contested.
So, today, foundations of the region’s political structure are in a flux. This is much more than a dispute between two countries or a simple political uprising and demand for democracy. This is really a fundamental reorganization of power in the region in a manner that we actually don’t know where the dust will settle.
Nowadays, when you hear the Arabs complain about Iranian meddling in the region, what they’re essentially saying is that the balance of power between Arabs and Iranians has been lost. What the Arabs are really worried about is that the balance of power in this region is shifting to Turks and Iranians, away from the Arabs.
Since 1920 or since the end of the World War I, the Middle Eastern states of Iraq and Syria have encapsulated a particular balance of power that the colonial establishment favoured. Namely, colonial rule worked by empowering the minority as an ally to rule over the majority, the same divide-and-conquer strategy that was used in India where the British army was overwhelmingly Sikh and Punjabi and Baloch, and they were dispatched to large, Muslim Hindu regions to establish order. So the French military in Syria was heavily Alawite, and the British establishment in Iraq was heavily Sunni.
So when they left, they left behind states in which the minority is privileged and rules over the majority. You cannot talk about democracy or weakening of authoritarianism without opening up the question of balance of power. But in the Middle East, this is not happening through some kind of an orderly transition like it happened in South Africa when the whites made a pact with the blacks and handed over power.
You don’t have a Nelson Mandela. No, like, the Balkans, you actually have a United States that actually is willing to stay in large numbers until it brings about a constitutional change. So we’re seeing these paroxysms of violence because the minority is unwilling to give up power, and the majority demands power and also wants to settle scores over the years that it has been ruled over. Now, it so happens that the main differentiator of identity is actually sectarian even though both sides are Muslim.
Both sides claim that they want to live happily together, but there is a very clear perception that Saddam’s regime in Iraq and those who came before it were predominantly Sunni, favoured the Sunnis, and the Shias were not treated as equal citizens.
So the states that were borne out of colonialism inherited the same bureaucratic structures and the same particularly military structures and ended up in the same sort of mould. And that’s not actually unique about the Middle East. We see it across Africa and even in South Asia and other places where you had colonial rule as well.
But what we’re essentially seeing in the Middle East is really the opening up of the departing pact of colonialism right after World War I. And in the Middle East, it’s happening particularly violently.