This 2024 - Let's Win the Battle of Headlines

Iconoclast Elie Kedourie, of wit, clarity and coherence

As others have pointed out, the Western influence did not result in more democratic institutions but rather more effective and efficient security systems. Western European ideas did not take root but totalitarian movements did, particularly among the elite.

Elie Kedourie
Elie Kedourie
Norvell DeAtkine

Elie Kedourie was born in Baghdad  into a wealthy Jewish family, which may explain some of his viewpoints and particularly those of his detractors.

The once large and influential Jewish community was decimated under the Arab governments originally set up by the British. He was a superb political analyst and historian—one of the greatest latter-day Orientalists. His lucid, sharp-edged writing is a lost art. His clarity and coherence are rare these days.

Elie Kedourie

Kedourie saw nationalism as destroying the Ottoman Empire, an empire built on the millet system—a system whereby disparate religious communities maintained their own religious institutions and culture in return for fealty to the Ottoman Sultan. The religious communities all had their economic specialties, and the interdependence worked to a degree no longer seen in the Arab world, now denuded of Jews and most Christians.

This is not to say that non-Muslim communities enjoyed political equality under the Ottomans. They did not. Reading any of Bat Ye’or’s books will dissuade one of that. But as a wealthy Jew or Christian, and relegating yourself to a subordinate place in society and politics, one could lead a generally tranquil life (give or take a pogrom now and then).

iraq ottoman
Ottoman map of the Levant and Iraq.

I find it ironic but not surprising that the elitist liberal elements of Western societies are great admirers of Third World nationalism (e.g., Palestinian or Arab, etc.), but so adamant in disparaging it in their own culture. In my mind, it is part of the inbred but subtle and persistent belief among the Western “intelligentsia” that the Third World’ers are simply not up to the mental and spiritual standards required to get beyond the more primitive constructs of nationalism. We certainly see this among the British colonial nation-builders.

brits in iraq
British troops in Iraq 1941.

I had previously read a couple of Kedourie’s books, Politics in the Middle East, and Nationalism, but only recently did I read his book, The Chatham Hose Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, first published in 1970. Particularly illuminating is his chapter “The Kingdom of Iraq, a Retrospect.” This is a chapter that should have been read  by all our leadership prior to our liberation of Iraq. It would have illuminated the immensity of the task ahead of us and brought into question the nation-building we proceeded to begin in 2003.

While quite rightly the Americans are censured for having plowed ahead with nation building schemes, mostly oblivious the culture of the people, the British with all their experts,  did no better. In fact they, in Kedourie’s opinion, created the morass the Americans were unable to make right decades later. In particular, the “Hearts and Minds” panacea would not have been seen as the answer to the mess that evolved after Saddam, and the subsequent insurgency.

Iraq, formerly three villayets of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.

In doing this, Kedourie details the history of the British wrong-headed choices in Iraq, beginning with the bringing in of King Feisal, an outsider, to be king of Iraq. He was rejected by almost all, including the Shi’a, the Kurds, the Jewish community (keeping in mind that the Jewish population of Baghdad in the period between the wars was more than that of Shi’a, Sunni or Kurds.)

Only a portion of the Sunni population of Mosul tepidly welcomed Feisal. In fact, there was no agitation for an Arab nation and despite the venality of the Ottoman Empire, the minorities preferred it to this new idea called “Arab Nationalism.” As Kedourie states in one passage the corruption of the Ottoman empire allowed members of minorities to buy some equality and tranquility, but with the injection of “nationalism,” a European concept, into the Arab world, the corruption prevailed, but now overlaid with ideological ideas of racial purity and Sunni Islamic triumphalism. It turned Jews, Christians and Kurds into outsiders living in  their own  lands.

Kedourie attacked the British colonial-builders of Iraq as perhaps well-meaning, but arrogant and dreamers attached to the Arab of the desert romanticism. They presumed to know what was best for the Iraqis, forcibly creating an Arab nationalist state that few inhabitants wanted. It should be understood that “Arab Nationalism” generally appeals only to Sunni Arabs even today.

The British condoned and facilitated this development, particularly the British Middle East academic center known as Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. It developed into a funnel for ideas and the worldview of Sir Arnold Toynbee. The Toynbee narrative was that Britain was a declining power unable to maintain her colonial empire, and that nationalist movements in the Third World were inevitable.

The Chatham House narrative, as it came to be known, was an academic portrayal of the Arab world as hapless victims of Western perfidy. This was a view that has persisted to this day, enabling Arab tyrants and dictators (and Western sycophants) to justify the most barbaric of regimes. Kedourie was  contemptuous of academics who sought to influence international affairs with scholarly treatises. As he points out, they did so and British policy following World War II was a sad spectacle of the procession of British departure ceremonies.

Sir Arnold Toynbee

The British in Iraq, rather than being overbearing tyrants, were content to generally govern behind the scenes, using military power only when Feisal was in danger.

Kedourie skewers the personalities of the British colonial period, including Lawrence of Arabia (“hysterical mendacity”) and the icon of feminists, Gertrude Bell (“brittle cleverness and sentimental enthusiasms”) recently being portrayed on film by Nicole Kidman. Kedourie is particularly scornful of Miss Bell’s attachment to King Feisal, whom Kedourie describes as a womanizer, duplicitous and weak. He never achieved any degree of respect from his  people. The British kept him in power by force of arms. Almost all the cast of Iraqi government characters come off badly as opportunists, poseurs, including Nuri Said. Kedourie was not one to waffle  his opinions, having walked away from a Ph.D. at Oxford because he refused to change his thesis conclusions as requested by the renown historian H.A.R. Gibb.

Gertrude Bell, intrepid and adventurous, but right in Iraq?

As Kedourie rightly observes, the British generally followed Lawrence’s dictum: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.” It is a truism, and I have used it many times myself. But it does not fit every situation.

As Kedourie points out, sometimes the “tolerably” of the Arab Iraqi central government was disastrous for its people. The British mostly ignored the Shi’a (mysterious and fanatic was how Miss Bell described them) and used small minorities, such as the Assyrian Christians, as military auxiliaries. After the British forces departed, they were viewed as a fifth column and paid a heavy price for it. In 1941, the British army waited outside Baghdad as continued anti-Jewish rioting and looting took place, apparently loath to interfere in a “domestic affair.” The Assyrians, Jews and other smaller communities were expendable in terms of the British dream of setting in place, a viable Sunni Arab government allied to the British crown.

te lawrence of arabia

As Kedourie insists, nothing was inevitable, the British officials made bad choices exacerbated by an arrogant attitude that they knew best. As the Iraqi Sunni Arab government took hold, it almost immediately began trying to assume a role as a military power, leader of the Arab world and of Arabism—something no one but the Sunni Arabs (25 percent of the population) wanted. German Nazism was emulated as a nation-builder and its military prowess extolled.

Feisel Iraq
King Feisel of Iraq

As others have pointed out, the Western influence did not result in more democratic institutions but rather more effective and efficient security systems. Western European ideas did not take root, but totalitarian movements did, particularly among the elite. After the war, Stalin became much admired, as strong men do in the Arab world. Communism was very powerful following World War II, particularly among the Arab intelligentsia, and despite conventional belief among the academic set, communism and Islamism had many commonalities. That has become apparent in today’s Arab world.

In 1922, Winston Churchill said this about Iraq: “We are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstance to get anything worth having.”

Arab nationalism has mostly died, today. only invoked at soccer matches. Communism and various variants are only popular among some Western millennials living large in expensive universities. In the Arab world, this has been replaced to a large degree by the ideology of Islamism, an ideology most ably promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood, with the same Western intelligentsia, exhibiting the same condescending attitude, advocating what is unacceptable to their life styles as suitable for Arabs. Islamism like communism, and fascism, has the same totalitarian ideology that has always been so attractive to the intelligentsia.

We are slow learners apparently.

Norvell DeAtkine, a retired U.S. Army colonel with nine years’ residence in the Arab world dealing with their militaries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt and has spent about 40 studying the region. He still instructs army personnel assigned to the Middle East.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Israel is at war - Support JNS

JNS is combating the barrage of misinformation with factual reporting. We depend on your support.

Support JNS
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates