ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And now we continue our examination of the troubled history of the Middle East and the West. Today: World War I and its aftermath. The war transformed the Middle East in ways not seen for centuries. The Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Arab lands for 500 years disappeared, with Britain and France taking the place of the Turks. The modern boundaries of the Middle East emerged from the war, as did modern Arab nationalist movements and embryonic Islamic movements. Here's Mike Shuster.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
Istanbul, today a city steeped in history--a museum of a city--filled with relics of past glory, the Ottoman Empire and its sultans, once the greatest power in the Mediterranean, one of the great powers of the world. In 1914 the much diminished Ottomans entered World War I on the German side against Britain and France. It was a decision that sealed the empire's end and the fate of the modern Middle East, says historian Edhem Eldem of Bogazici University in Istanbul.
Professor EDHEM ELDEM (Bogazici University): The British and the French had a very clear vision of what they would do with what remained of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. It was part of a master plan from almost the beginning. They basically wanted to finish this eastern question and carve off whatever remained of the Ottoman Empire.
SHUSTER: In the century before, Britain and France had seized the more remote Arab lands held by the Ottomans--Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. With the onset of the war, the French and the British sent armies and agents into the Middle East to foment revolts in the Arabian peninsula, to seize Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Secretly, French and British diplomats worked over maps of the Middle East and in 1916 came to an agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of British and French influence, says Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East history at Columbia University.
Professor RASHID KHALIDI (Middle East History, Columbia University): Sykes-Picot and that division of spheres of influence between Britain and France in the Arab world is rightly seen as the point at which Europe, as it were, divided up the Middle East and created the modern state system in many parts of the Middle East.
SHUSTER: It was a tough slog, though, for the Allied armies in the Middle East. The Turkish army fought hard. In 1916, tens of thousands of British and colonial Indian troops were killed, wounded or captured near Al Kut in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Although the British would have some success organizing tribal resistance in Arabia, the famous story of Lawrence of Arabia, Rashid Khalidi says for much of the war, Arab sympathies and support lay with the Ottomans.
Prof. KHALIDI: Many, many people continued to believe that the Ottoman Empire served as a bulwark against European imperialism and were loathe to let go, however many differences they may have had with the people who ruled the empire, of a system in which they had been involved for over 400 years.
SHUSTER: But the Allies, especially the British, were too strong and by 1918 when the war ended British armies had occupied Baghdad, Damascus and Jerusalem. In Palestine, the British empire had declared itself in favor of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people, a decision that would have profound and violent consequences down to the present day. British military successes surpassed even the promises to the French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. There were plenty of arguments at the peace conference in 1919 in Paris over how to divide up the Middle East. Eventually, the Allies came to a new agreement. They set up the League of Nations and created the mandate system of colonial control. Syria and Lebanon went to the French; Palestine to the British. The British also took the three Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and created modern-day Iraq, notes Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle East history at New York University.
Professor ZACHARY LOCKMAN (New York University): Everyone understood at the time that this was a thinly disguised, new form of colonialism. The British and French, even though they were charged under this mandate system, with leading these countries towards eventual self-rule, towards eventual independence, the British and French had no thought of going anywhere anytime soon and fully intended to remain in control of these territories for the indefinite future.
SHUSTER: The Arabs had other ideas. Almost immediately after the war, resistance movements emerged to challenge European dominance, says Lockman.
Prof. LOCKMAN: There was growing resentment that Europeans had come in, imposed their control, refused to abide by the wishes of the local population for self-rule, for self-determination, and this culminated in nationalist activity of all sorts and in many cases and in many periods in an open revolt.
SHUSTER: Revolt came first against British control in Egypt in 1919; then in Iraq in 1920. Resistance was political, but in almost an exact precursor of events today in Iraq, it also took the form of an armed insurgency in the Sunni-dominated center of Iraq and in the Shia south. Sixty thousand British forces in Iraq were too few to deal effectively with the guerrilla war on the ground so the British turned to bombing from the air. Thousands of Iraqis died. The problem of Mesopotamia, as it was known in London, brought much criticism, including these words written by T.E. Lawrence in 1920 in The Times, which anticipate the US predicament in Iraq today.
Unidentified Man: `The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap into which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by steady withholding of information. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It's a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.'
SHUSTER: Similar resistance emerged in Syria against the French, here in the old city of Damascus and across the country. Syrian historian Suheil Zakkar says it represented the early expressions of Arab nationalism, the first effort to gain independence from Syria's French colonizers.
Mr. SUHEIL ZAKKAR (Syrian Historian): They tried actually to understand what is going on, and they promised many promises to give their country its freedom and tried to divide people in Syria, but they failed on the whole, and the result was more movement towards the freedom and independence.
SHUSTER: Arab resistance to French control in Syria also took a violent turn in 1925. The French, too, resorted to bombing the insurgents into submission, including in some of the old neighborhoods in Damascus itself. On a recent summer day, local journalist George Baghdadi wandered through one of the neighborhoods that faced French air assault in that year.
Mr. GEORGE BAGHDADI (Journalist): The old city was the main target of the French at that time when they bombarded old Damascus, and this neighborhood was called Syrie Hamuda(ph), but after the French attacked this area in 1925, then because of the huge fires of that time, so they call it al-Harika(ph), which means `fire.'
Mr. ABU SHAKIR: (Foreign language spoken)
SHUSTER: In a coffee shop in old Damascus, Abu Shakir, a storyteller, reads nightly from the sagas of early Arab heroes. The theme is always Arab strength and the struggles with old enemies to defend Arab territory. In modern-day Syria the subtext is almost always Arab nationalism, which was born in the Middle East in these years.
That was not the only idea to emerge that motivated Arab resistance in the 1920s and the 1930s. These were the years that saw the birth of Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which would, years later, have a profound influence on contemporary events in the Middle East and provide some of the ideological foundation for extremist Islamic groups, including al-Qaeda. Historian Zachary Lockman.
Prof. LOCKMAN: You have Islamist groups emerging in a place like Egypt already in the 1920s and insisting that Egypt be fully free to be fully itself--must also be Muslim, trying to find ways to be both modern and Muslim in ways that were different from those of the secularist nationalist leaderships.
SHUSTER: Britain granted nominal independence to Egypt in 1922 and to Iraq in 1932. But neither state would shake off British influence until after the Second World War. Syria became independent in 1946. All these emerging Arab states then would face a new challenge from the West with the United States taking the place of Europe as the primary outside player in Middle Eastern politics. Mike Shuster, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Historic photos, maps of Europe's takeover of the Middle East and a time line of the series are all at npr.org.
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