Current events (the Israeli-Hezbollah War and the barely averted London airliner bombing plot) are reinforcing the view that the struggle of militant Islam against "the West", buttressed by a fundamentalist ideology under which militants claim the right to kill civilians as well as soldiers, is not going to go away anytime soon. This struggle is going to define at least the next two decades and maybe the next fifty years, so it's time to do a little homework: Storm from the East: The Stuggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West (Modern Library, 2006). The author, Milton Viorst, is a journalist (the dust jacket calls him a "journalist and scholar") who has covered the Middle East since the 1960s. I'll write a paragraph or two drawn directly from material in each chapter (my section headings are the chapter titles). If you like it, check the New Books shelf at your local library for a copy or buy it at Amazon.
The term for the Islamic religious and civil community is umma, the realm within which shari'a, Islamic law, controls and is supposed to structure daily life. The world is divided up into dar-al-Islam (the domain of peace) and dar-el-harb (a domain of war and struggle against folks like you and me). In the great initial tidal wave of Islamic conquest, armies swept across North Africa and up the Iberian peninsula, as well as north to Constantinople. The umma stretched far indeed! [And there's nothing like victory on the battlefield to affirm one's religious beliefs and sense of cosmic entitlement.] Then those darned Chrsitians got in the way.
The barriers to Islam's growth into Europe were Rome in the west and Byzantium in the east, both deeply Christian. It was natural for Muslims to conclude that Christianity itself was the essence of dar-al-harb, the domain of war. (p. 13.)
Islam held its territorial conquests for close to a millennium. In the interim, the Ottoman Turks succeeded to political hegemony in dar-al-Islam, but Arabs weren't really hostile to the now ascendant Turks (who were Islamic) but instead aimed their frustration at Christians from Europe, who made several military expeditions to reconquer (from Islamic Arab conquest) selected sections of "the Holy Land," which were held for a period, then lost again. [There's a trade angle to that whole episode, too.] "Even after the Crusades, it was the infidel Christians whom the Arabs continued to regard as irredeemable enemies" (p. 17). Events of the 19th century confirmed that view, as Napoleon first conquered Egypt, then in succeeding decades the British and French took control of Algeria, Aden, Tunisia, Sudan, sheikdoms surrounding the Persian Gulf, then Morocco, and finally Libya (by the Italians). To Arabs, the 19th century looked like just another chapter in the Crusades.
The Arab Revolt changed everything: the Turks allied with the Germans in WWI, so the (Christian) British successfully recruited the (Islamic) Arabs under Hussein Ibn Ali to revolt and fight against (Islamic) Turks. You can sense some religious tension there, can't you? For a picturesque presentation of this pivotal episode, go watch Lawrence of Arabia if you can sit through three hours of a pre-Star Wars epic (you know, all story, no special effects). Notice how the whole Christian/Islamic angle is simply ignored in the movie. Only now, looking back, does that seem like a glaring omission.
While one is tempted to describe the arrangement as a pragmatic alliance between the British and the Arabs, that would not be correct. To the British, to whom a globe was just a handy way of displaying the British Empire for easy viewing, their arrangement with the Arabs was not an alliance. The Arabs weren't allies, they were just tools, means to an end. While supposedly allied with the Arabs, the British secretly negotiated and signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the French, a secret treaty to carve up the Middle East between themselves after the war. So much for "open covenants, openly arrived at." The post-war arrangements previewed in Sykes-Picot were essentially what came to pass after WWI, although structured as "mandates" under the aegis of the League of Nations. The Arabs felt betrayed: they were on the winning side, after all, but were treated like they were on the losing side. The Arab Revolt had ignited Arab nationalism. When post-war events left it unfulfilled, the Arabs, no longer separated from the West by the mediating presence of the Turks, were brought into direct conflict with the European powers who now exercised hegemony in the Middle East.
In the years between the world wars, the Middle East was just a seething mass of discontent, with the British maintaining control of Egypt, Palestine, and modern Iraq, and the French modern Lebanon and Syria. Arab nationalism struggled to gain leverage against the French and British colonial arrangements. To add to the instability, in 1917 the British had formally thown their support behind Palestine as a national homeland for Jews (see the Balfour Declaration). As more and more Jews relocated to Palestine, accelerated by the rise of the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s, Jews and Arabs skirmished in Palestine, with the unlucky British caught in the middle attempting to maintain civil order and colonial hegemony. The British Peel Commission studied the mess and, in 1937, recommended partition. This upset both Jews and Arabs, as neither of them were willing to settle for half a pie, although the Arabs were, on the whole, even less willing than the Jews. WWII delayed (for a time) the day of reckoning in Palestine.
Meanwhile, the Turks under Kemal Ataturk had dislodged the British, abolished the office of sultan and the Islamic caliphate, and established a secular state in Turkey. But most Arabs couldn't pull that off until after WWII. The only successes for the Arabs in terms of more-or-less independent rule were the Transjordan, which the British set up as Jordan with a kingship (sounds quaint, doesn't it?) given to Abdullah of the Hashemite family, and Arabia proper, where the Saud family had, by 1925, displaced the Hashemites.
Here is the author's reflection on the 20th-century Arab experience up to WWII:
Some critics regard the Arab Revolt as a dismal failure. Some Arabs still deny that Hussein had a right to abandon Ottomans and Islam for an alliance with the Christian West. But whatever its failings, the revolt was a heroic undertaking, and thanks to the alliance with the Christian West, the Arabs broke with centuries of international invisibility. Without the Arab Revolt, the Arabs, in the years that ensued, would have lived their collective life on a lesser, more mundane plane. (p. 80-81.)
Part 2 will cover WWII to the present.