Sunni-Shia conflict and rise of ISIS have roots in the First World War
Keith Jeffrey's new book cogently shows how 1916 was the beginning of the end of Western dominance.
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The facts numb the mind. During just eight months in 1916, the midpoint of the First World War, 2.2 million British, French and German troops perished on the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun in France.
As Keith Jeffery writes in 1916: A Global History, Verdun became "a byword for the manifest horrors of industrialised 'total' war." In the battle of the Somme, the British suffered 57,000 casualties (its biggest ever in a single day).
As the war dragged on, Indian soldiers bore much of the brunt. They were mercenaries, recruited in the 'defence' of the British Empire. Jobless in India or in poorly paid work, they were shipped to the frontline trenches to fight a bloody war between rival imperial European powers jockeying for global supremacy.
The Indian soldiers were used as cannon fodder. They were paid well though and the wounded looked after in hospitals. After the war, some married local girls and stayed back in Europe.
But the real story of Jeffrey’s book is the madness that overcame Europe exactly a century ago. 1916 also marked the end of the Ottoman empire which fought the war as an ally of Germany.
In May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot, a British and French diplomat respectively, divided the Arab Ottoman lands into zones of British and French influence.
New names would soon be given to "countries" within these artificially drawn borders: Iraq, Syria, Jordon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and so on. Sectarian sensitivities between Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Alawite, Yazidi and Druze were largely ignored.
It was a bad, longstanding colonial habit. The British had divided Pashtuns across the Durand line between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1893 – a problem that festers till today. They drew the McMohan line between India and China in a treaty with Tibet in 1914 that Beijing still refuses to accept.
The division of the Ottoman lands a century ago sowed the seeds of the Sunni-Shia war that rages today in the Middle East. It also created fertile conditions for the brutal rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Saudi Arabia in 1932 became the only country in the world to be named after a family – the al-Sauds. Abd-al-Aziz was proclaimed king and in 1933, his eldest son, Saud, named crown prince.
In an odd cover story recently, The Economist interviewed 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s current deputy crown prince whom the magazine called King Salman’s “favoured son”.
The Economist is a magazine that thrives on condescension. But with the young Saudi prince it was all tea and sympathy.
Tough questions on the Saudi role in midwifing the Islamic State (ISIS) were delicately avoided. The overall tone was only mildly critical.
Any other country that executes 47 people in one day, forbids women from driving and bars cinema halls would receive harsh editorial treatment from most independent-minded magazines. But not, on this occasion, from The Economist.
The First World War changed the world, including the Middle East, in a way that is fully discernable only now. It ended colonialism within the next one generation, created dozens of new sovereign nations across Asia and Africa, and began the inexorable decline of Western dominance of world affairs.
That process, a hundred years later, is not yet over. But historians will mark the events of 1916, cogently analysed in Keith Jeffery’s new book, as the beginning of the end of the old order.