What if the Middle East were united?

First World War
The Sykes-Picot Agreement

On May 16, 1916, France, represented by the diplomat François Georges-Picot, and Great Britain, represented by Mark Sykes, reached a secret agreement to reorganize the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire had been broken up. The so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement formed the basis of the geopolitical definition of the region adopted in the Paris suburb agreements of 1919/20. France and Great Britain took on mandates that would last until the late 1940s. The state order of today's Middle East, the erosion of which we are currently experiencing, is a direct consequence of this Western master plan: A conversation with Volker Perthes, Head of the Science and Politics Foundation, about borders and orders in the Middle East over the past hundred years and his new book “ The end of the Middle East as we know it ”.

Her essay, published by Suhrkamp in 2015, is entitled: “The end of the Middle East as we know it”. Which Middle East did we know?

It is correct, the title also contains an epistemological question: What do we actually know, or do we actually know the Middle East, or have we only ever known surface structures and actors who were internationally active, but not the deep structures of society and neither the alternative actors? This is an important question, especially for a research institute like ours, and we have already launched research programs on new social elites in the Arab world.

Does that mean that Middle East policy, at least since the end of the Second World War, has to a certain extent fallen victim to regional fiction, in that it has simply misperceived certain lines of development and forces?

I wouldn't go that far - no, regional decision-makers themselves have defined the region as “Middle East / North Africa”, the Middle East, or the Arab world - some have tried to define it as the Islamic world. So, there have been repeated attempts by our partners in the Middle East to say: "This is a region that has a certain internal connection and you have to respect this connection when you make politics with us." you are right to get involved. Nor is it about us defining the region. That happened more before the Second World War, i.e. after the end of the Ottoman Empire, when the French and British in particular tried to tailor the Middle East according to their ideas.

This leads us directly to what you call it in your essay, “Cipher Sykes Picot”.

First of all, it must be said that the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement was never implemented in this way. At first it was an attempt by two great powers to come to an agreement. Parts of it were implemented in the Paris suburb agreements after the end of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War. I think the biggest mistake at the time was not taking central regional actors into account in the way that international politics would do today. Instead, the ideas of major European powers were in the foreground. Back then, the Americans were the progressive force, so to speak, who at least once sent a commission to the region and questioned the population. Obviously there were enough ideas in the region of what it should look like at the time, but these were generously ignored. That was certainly the historical mistake, and then we had very different experiments in the exercise of mandates, with the result that both the French and the British were forced out of their mandate areas.

The fact that the French were only forced out of Syria in 1946 and a little later the British from the mandate of Palestine - everything happened within limits that were first drawn by these powers ...

Yes, the borders and much of what these states created lasted for a long time, so to speak. In fact, we could even say that the borders that were drawn and the states that were initially formed as territorial units have in any case shown more stability than the European regional system in the same almost 100 years. Here in Europe there have been more border shifts and territorial conquests, even after the Second World War. B. with the war in Yugoslavia. We sometimes underestimate that the system that the colonial powers tailored was comparatively stable, right down to the cultural influences: up until ten or twenty years ago it was easier to speak French than English in Syria and Lebanon. Conversely, in Jordan, Palestine and Iraq it was easier to speak English than French.

In your book you attribute state stability to another circumstance: You say that Egypt and Tunisia are two more stable states and polities because their identities are not challenged to the same extent. The Tunisians have known who they are since Hannibal, the Egyptians even since the pharaohs. Both countries refer to pre-Islamic founding narratives. Conversely, could a specific relationship between the concept of the border and Islam be derived from this?

The interesting thing is that the states that maintain these pre-Islamic identities have no problem at all with identifying themselves as Muslim states, but to a certain extent nationalize their Islam. The majority of the Egyptians are probably convinced that they have always been Muslim and that Egyptian Islam is also the best. There have been similar tendencies in Tunisia, but there the conflict between various political leaderships, which have very deliberately defined themselves as secular, and Islamic groups, which have also been forced into exile at times, is even greater. Ultimately, however, there is this identification as a Tunisian, which makes it possible today for the Ennahda party, as an Islamist party, to work together in a coalition with extremely secular forces.
I believe that only in comparison with other countries does this become a relevant statement: Even if you argue about who should rule Egypt or what direction the state should have, nobody denies that Egypt will remain united. But that is no longer the case in Libya, it is no longer the case in Syria and Iraq, and I am not sure whether this will be the case in Saudi Arabia for a long time to come. If you want a third example from this series, it will be interesting or exciting to see that in Iran, where we even have an Islamic republic, despite a short-term deviation, there is ongoing cultivation of the pre-Islamic culture that the country ultimately has also holds together. Everyone knows that there is great ethnic diversity in Iran, there is considerable ideological conflict, and yet they are all Iranians. They argue about what kind of Iran it should be, but not whether it should be Iran at all.

Does that mean that as soon as a state invokes Islam, does it need a narrative that it can also invoke in order to keep its community and its borders stable?

That would be a good theory, but without further research I have no answer to that. My answer would be less far-reaching: I would say that Islam as a state ideology is just as insufficient as Arab nationalism as a state ideology - just as many have tried that, Nasser and the Baathists and others. It is very difficult to make a social contract between the regime and one's own people when they say the reference is actually something bigger, that is, the Arab nation or the Islamic ummah. Red.]. Then who is a government accountable to? There is simply a mismatch between the state people and the reference community to which the state ideology refers. And it was not much different with Baathism, with Arab nationalism. The reference group is always something much larger, for which one then takes responsibility without, if necessary, asking the subjects from the other states whether they actually want a Baathist leader from Iraq or Syria or an Egyptian president to speak for them all.

Was Arab nationalism ultimately not a very far-reaching auxiliary construction by political actors to replace the denominational and religious realities of the region with a more western nationalism?

There certainly was. The Arab nationalists wanted to overcome divisions or dividing lines [within?] Their own society in the phase of awakening in which nations are trying to find each other. They tried to do this by constructing or historically reconstructing an even larger community - partly also as an invented identity, with recourse to the Arab nation as a community of all Arab-speaking peoples who, however, seldom stood under one rule or as one Have understood the community. I think the main problem was that the rulers represented relatively narrow interests - which is particularly true of the Baathist rule in Syria and Iraq - and that of the Arab nation and of overcoming ethnic and, above all, denominational boundaries within the own states, but under this rhetoric, denominational politics were often made. So supported z. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein ruled mainly on Sunni cadres, who were then ousted from their positions after 2003 in an act of Shiite revenge.

You describe the Islamic State as a “jihadist state education project”. If this is related to the failure of Arab nationalism, does one have to speak of a state-building project without a nation in the case of IS?

It certainly contributes to the fact that it is difficult for us to understand this ruling union. I deliberately go back to Max Weber's term, because it is precisely this term that can be used without the other nation. A ruling association can be very different; A charter of the Hell’s Angels can also be a ruling association and a state or an empire is also a ruling association. Nation is actually not a term for Islamists because they use the term umma instead and deliberately exclude people of different faiths. But of course you can form a state without using the term nation. The IS uses the term of the state and that means that the state here stands for an organization that organizes rule and does most of what other states do, regardless of their ideological orientation: They control, they provide certain services, they recruit Soldiers, they create a certain degree of security and justice - not as we understand them, but they do speak and administer justice according to their standards. These are essential functions of a state. The big difference is that we have a state here that rejects other states and which is therefore very different from the concept of the state that has developed since the 17th century. Other states, at the same level, do not accept them. For them there can really only be the Islamic State.

And also just the Islamic State in the singular?

The Islamic State in the singular, yes. And it certainly depends on how long this so-called Islamic State has existed, whether it will at some point develop a different idea of ​​its relationship with other states. In practice, of course, they accept the existence of states like Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but they do not accept them as legitimate.

At the beginning of your essay, I found it very interesting that you were using Fernand Braudel's concept of the "longue durée", so to speak ...

... maybe even corrupt. So Braudel basically means something else, he goes down to the flora and fauna and the topography and of course I don't.

However, this perspective on the long lines of development makes a certain form of simultaneity visible. B. is about the question of the legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed and at the same time about a rejection of the borders created by the First World War. Can the IS's claim to rule be classified as a strong representative of this longue durée?

I think that would be too much honor for ISIS. If inclusivity, legitimacy, justice do not take place in the here and now, then different longer timelines become important, also as an orientation mark, in case of doubt as a point of identification. Of course, the IS then orientates itself on the rather long durée, not on the Ottoman Empire, but rather on the Abassid Empire. Whether they will ever achieve legitimacy - God forbid, I would say as a secular European - I doubt, because it involves something else. To appeal to a long historical line, to orientate oneself in good Salafist practice on the example of the ancestors, is not enough to establish legitimate rule in the here and now.

When you talk about Sykes-Picot, the Balfour Declaration is not far. Does the end of the Middle East, defined by the Sykes-Picot cipher, represent a threat to Israel?

I think there are different answers. One line seems to be an increasing number of Israelis who say that one should return to organizational forms of the Ottoman Empire, so to speak in a Millet system. Red.], Where each religious community administers itself; Syria is much better organized if there is more than one state there. But that is more about looking outwards, so you don't want to give up your own state, but rather to maintain your own state as a state with borders, following the Westphalian model. If we rule out the possibility of the so-called Islamic State overrunning the entire region, which would of course be an existential threat to Israel and, above all, to the Jews there, there is a great danger that Israel will not be able to break away from the ruled Palestinian territory by drawing a border separate. It would then come into a situation in which it would have to separate according to religion or ethnicity or place of residence within a ruled area. That would be anything but inclusive and it does not correspond to the idea of ​​a Jewish democratic state. That's where I see the real danger. So I think it is important to remember from time to time that the idea of ​​the two-state solution, which the current Israeli government actually says is impractical, was invented in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish-democratic nation-state. I see the danger here that this will be gambled away sleepwalking and that Israel will maneuver itself into a one-state or one-power association reality.

Then there would be the horror scenario of eroded states at the external borders.

Yes, that is also a European mantra, we feel best when we are surrounded by a ring of well-functioning states and not by endangered or even failed ones.

Mr. Perthes, thank you for talking to us!

Volker Perthes, born 1958, is a political scientist and has been director of the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin since 2005. He is one of the most internationally renowned Middle East experts. He did his PhD on State and society in Syria. 1970-1989. Last are from him The riot. The Arab Revolution and its Consequences (2011) and The end of the Middle East as we know it (2015) published.


The Goethe-Institut reflects on the consequences and findings from the era of the First World War from changing perspectives.