An Imperialist History of Middle Eastern Borders

by Laura Robson, author of States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East

For years now, pundits and politicians alike have been tossing around the idea of drawing new borders in the Middle East as a “solution” to conflict there—first in Iraq following its descent into sectarian violence after the American invasion in 2003, and then in Syria following its own spiral into civil war in 2011. This much-repeated idea was trotted out yet again just this month, when Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column advocating the partition of Syria and the construction of some kind of semi-autonomous Sunni area—protected by an international military presence—as the “least bad solution” for an impossibly difficult problem.

Such proposals for externally enforced ethnic or sectarian partition in the Middle East—presumably involving at least some element of population transfer, given the demographic realities of Syrian population centers—have a long history, and an impeccable imperialist genealogy.

When British and French colonial administrations took over, respectively, Palestine and Iraq and Syria and Lebanon in the early 1920s, they did so in the context of furious challenges to nineteenth-century European imperialism from all directions. Nationalists from India to Ireland to Egypt marched in the streets against colonial rule; on the diplomatic stage, both Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, from their radically disparate political platforms, denounced old-style imperial adventuring (although, of course, neither the American nor the Bolshevik state was interested in relinquishing its own extraterritorial claims).

In the Middle East, the idea of restructuring states around nationality, ethnicity, and sect emerged as a useful way to recast British and French imperial occupation as a kind of internationalist modernization. To that end, the British and French colonial authorities emphasized to both their new subjects and an international public that they were merely “mandatory” authorities, working under the supervision of the new League of Nations to create functional modern nation-states out of the old Ottoman Arab provinces. In conjunction with the League, they came up with a variety of plans for demographic engineering —communally conscious borders, forcible and coerced refugee resettlement, mass population transfers, and support for a European Jewish settler community in Palestine—that were designed to simultaneously offer a rationale for the British and French colonial presence and help control people and territory on the ground.

Ethnic engineering of this kind was useful at the levels of both international diplomacy and practical imperial governance. Even the resistance such plans engendered was valuable to colonial authorities; it served to reinforce the local and international case that external forces were necessary to keep order in such volatile regions, thus extending the life of these colonial occupations and defending the high levels of violence required to maintain them.

The contemporary resurrection of this concept serves the same purposes. It offers a rationale for a long-term American and European military presence in the Middle East under the guise of “protecting”—that is, creating and enforcing—ethnically and communally homogenous nation-states. The appeal of this idea lies in the way it turns failure to success: the more chaos and bloodshed results from such policies, the stronger the case becomes for an ongoing—perhaps permanent—administrative and military presence, internationalist in name but acting primarily in the economic, political, and strategic interests of the occupying powers.

Laura Robson is Associate Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Portland State University. She is the author of Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine and editor of Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives.

Mirage of the Saracen: Christians and Nomads in the Sinai Peninsula in Late Antiquity

by Walter D. Ward

This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.

I first visited the Middle East as an undergraduate in 1998, when I helped excavate the archaeological site of ancient Aila (modern Aqaba), an ancient port on the Red Sea. As a student, I was struck by how little western food was available in Aqaba, other than junk food like potato chips or candy and sodas. There was only one western restaurant in town and that was Pizza Hut, though the Royal Yacht Club served Italian cuisine. By 2002 in the wake of several luxury hotel constructions, a McDonald’s was being planned in the center of town. When I last visited in 2007 while doing research for the dissertation that formed the basis of my book The Mirage of the Saracen, there was a McDonald’s, a Hardees, a fried-chicken place (KFC maybe?), a “Friends” café named after the hit TV show, a Quiznos, several pizza places, and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten. This explosion of western fast food restaurants in Aqaba struck me at the time as a particularly obvious sign of western cultural and economic imperialism.

As I continued working on my dissertation, I began to think about this type of imperialism in the past — I was writing about roughly the same region (Third Palestine – modern southern Jordan, Israel, and the Sinai) and several centuries earlier (fourth-seventh centuries). The entire region had been controlled by the Romans since 106 CE when the Nabataean Kingdom was annexed, so political and military imperialism was out of the picture for my period. As I looked further into the region in late antiquity, I noticed the steady pace of Christianization and increasing agricultural prosperity, especially in the Negev desert. I began to see this as cultural and economic imperialism, but in my dissertation, this is where I left it.

As I began revising for my book, I started to wonder if there was evidence that the Roman authorities or the Christians justified their actions. I began to read the Sinai Martyr Narratives not just as evidence of actual or fictive events, but as unconscious rhetorical justifications for the monastic “conquest” of the Sinai. This helped me frame what I wanted to the book’s main message to be — I argue that those justifications helped create an extremely negative association to the word Saracen, which was later used for Muslims for much of European history and perhaps has an importance today. Thus, my experiences over the past decade and a half in visiting the Middle East came to profoundly shape my research and interpretations of late antiquity, as well as being perhaps relevant for today’s transformations in the Middle East.

Walter D. Ward is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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