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The demonstrable failure of the European-imposed states to enter the hearts of the region’s people should shock only those who pretend that the Levantine states were organic exercises in self-determination. In reality, prior to the European imposition of multi-ethnic states on the region, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon were mere geographic designations — akin to sub-Saharan Africa, Appalachia, the Caucasus, or Amazonia — not identities that people embraced.

Furthermore, even before the collapse of those states provided clear evidence that the statist view had never taken hold, the breadth and intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict should have flagged the underlying problem. In the normal course of state-to-state relations, Israel’s longstanding pariah status makes little sense. Why have none of its Arab neighbours ever seen Israel as a viable ally? In particular, how is it possible that Saudi Arabia and Israel have both been reliable American allies for decades, have never found themselves with conflicting strategic interests, have no territorial claims against each other, boast complementary areas of economic specialisation, but have never been able to find grounds for collaboration (a situation that may finally be changing)? The one-word answer, as everyone knows, is “Palestine”. Universal recognition, however, hardly makes that answer less odd. What is it about the plight of the Palestinians that moves the Saudis to reject such an obviously useful strategic ally — even when their clear national interests scream for such an ally? The question is unanswerable within a statist framework. It makes sense only from an imperial perspective.

Unlike the imposed state system, Middle Eastern imperialism has deep indigenous roots and broad current appeal. Though most Arab movements of the 20th century styled themselves anti-imperial, the only empires they opposed were globe-spanning and Western. There were and are, however, many other types of empires. For most of 2,700 years, from the Assyrians to the Ottomans, imperial rule was the norm in the Levant. Many in the region act in ways that demonstrate a desire to return to that norm: the goal of all Sunni and Shia Islamist groups — a caliphate unifying all Muslim lands — is explicitly imperial. The pan-Arab call for the unification of all Arabic speakers into a single “superstate” is equally imperial. Both sets of movements have been widely popular and influential.

Hannah Arendt showed that all “pan” movements are forms of supremacist imperialism, seeking the unification of all lands “belonging” to a particular ethnicity beneath the rule of that ethnic group. Minorities living within that territory, or state lines drawn “illegitimately” within that territory, represent attacks by “inferior” races pretending to be the equals of the legitimate rulers.

In that broader sense then, the demographics and governance of the Middle East long followed a comfortable imperial pattern. Numerous ethnic and faith groups coexisted within a multi-ethnic empire. The group to which the Emperor belonged claimed supremacy. All other groups existed at the Emperor’s sufferance — sometimes as victims of brutal oppression, sometimes as second-class citizens, but never as equals. Through much of this lengthy history, these second-class groups enjoyed significant autonomy. They developed cultures, traditions, and bodies of law that defined them as distinct nations living (often uneasily) beneath the imperial umbrella.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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