In “The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain”, Arun Kundnani writes, “Racisms are no longer domestically driven but take their impetus from the attempt to legitimise a deeply divided global order. They are the necessary products of an empire in denial.”
Commentators call for immigrants to be schooled in ‘our national story’, which includes hefty chapters on the beneficence of empire. Gordon Brown says, “The days of Britain having to apologise for the British Empire are over. We should celebrate!” Sarkozy urges France to be “proud of its history,” meaning its imperial history.
European empires did sometimes construct railways and drainage systems in the conquered lands. They did build law courts and disseminate a certain kind of cuture. But these questionable achievements must be understood against the larger ugly backdrop. Economies under imperial rule stagnated at best. Huge swathes of Africa were transformed from subsistence agricultural land to cashcrop plantations. When the value of the crop plummetted, or when the crop was grown more cheaply elsewhere, local people were left hungry and unskilled on exhausted soil. Africa has still not recovered from this deliberate underdevelopment. During British misrule, preventable famines killed tens of millions of Indians. Elsewhere in the empire, hundreds of thousands were forced into concentration camps, and torture was institutionalised. There were the genocides of indigenous Australians and Americans, by massacre and land theft as well as by disease. There was the little matter of the transatlantic slave trade.
The ethnic-sectarian tensions and political backwardness of much of the third world have roots in imperial power games. For instance, when the 1857 Indian uprising against the British was put down, the British developed a policy of excluding Muslims from education and economic power. A divide and rule strategy to exacerbate pre-existent Hindu-Muslim tensions was implemented precisely because the revolution had shown a remarkable degree of Indian national unity. And, as usual, traitors were rewarded. The twenty two families that rule what is now Pakistan (staffing the military high command and both major political parties) are the landowning families that ‘acquired’ their land in return for loyalty to the occupiers during the colonial period, especially in 1857.
Whenever there was a sign of a lesser people organising itself along ‘modern’ European lines, the British crushed the potential challenge. An example is Muhammad Ali’s Egypt, with its state education system, rational miltary organisation, and secularising legal code. A more recent instance is the Anglo-American 1953 coup against Mossadeq’s democratic nationalist government in Iran.
I mention all this not because I want to suggest that Westerners are particularly evil, that they are the only ones to have committed crimes of empire and enslavement, or that indigenous peoples would have managed themselves perfectly if left alone. I mention it because Western imperialism continues and, as competition for resources intensifies, is escalating. Our awareness of the crimes of empire is important because the whitewashing of imperial history proceeds in concert with a ramping-up of imperial intervention.
I’ve been refreshing myself on British and French imperial history in the Levant by reading the excellent 1972 book “Syria: Nation of the Modern World” by Tabitha Petran.
Remember that during the 1917 British-instigated Arab Revolt, the prospect of a unified Arab state was dangled before the Arabs, so long as they were required to make trouble for the collapsing Ottomans. But the British and the French had already signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, which carved up the eastern Arabs into British and French zones of influence, and the Balfour Declaration, by which Englishmen awarded Arab Palestine, as if it were a medal or a school cap, to Zionism.
The British also famously created landlocked, resourceless Transjordan in an afternoon, the straight lines of its borders giving new resonance to the double meaning of the English word ‘ruler’. They kept control of Iraq (which they had cut off from Kuwait, but that’s another story) by applying the glories of modern warfare. “I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas,” said British hero Winston Churchill. “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, later famous for the Dresden firestorm, enthused: “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” This, I suppose, is what we should be celebrating with Gordon Brown. The British tried to install kings from the friendly Hashemite family in both places. In Iraq it took the army, and then Ba’athist army officers, to bring down the client regime. In Jordan the royal line stuck, and has been useful to the West ever since.
The French took the ex-Ottoman region of Greater Syria. Tabitha Petran’s book describes how the Maronite statelet on Mount Lebanon was expanded into a larger Lebanese state of reluctant Orthodox Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and Druze, setting the scene for the later civil wars. As described, Palestine-Israel and Jordan had already been peeled away. Now the Syrian cities of Urfa, Aintab and Antioch, and the country’s largest port at Alexandretta, were ceded to the Western-oriented Turkish Republic. Cities lost their hinterlands, their markets and water supplies.
There were further unsuccessful efforts to dismember Syria. The French envisaged an Alawi state in the mountains around Lattakia and a Druze state around Jebel al-Arab in the south. They encouraged separatism in the Jezira and established ‘autonomous’ puppet governments in Aleppo and Damascus.
First the cutting, then the stunting. The Open Door economic policy flooded the country with cheap imports, while Syrian exports were heavily taxed. The consequences included a diminishment of gold reserves by 70%, a depreciation of the currency, mushrooming unemployment and a collapse in traditional skilled manufacturing. Throughout the French occupation, three percent of the state budget was spent on health care and five percent on education. French collective punishments against the unruly natives led to further trouble. For example, the gold fine imposed after an Alawi rebellion in 1921 made the mountain peasants for the first time hire their daughters out as domestic servants to the urban rich, which led to mutual resentments, which in turn intensified sectarianism when an Alawi-dominated army later took over the country’s political life.
Today the debate at the daring fringes of western political discourse is whether or not an empire would be a good idea, oblivious to the fact that there already is one. The United States underpins its control of markets with a military presence in more than 100 countries. In the larger middle east area, hundreds of thousands have died in American wars in the last half decade. These days, it’s called ‘the war against terror’. This is how far the dominant nations have come in their struggle to move beyond imperialism: they have learnt not to call it imperialism. But they used nice words in the past, too. When the French mangled and traumatised Syria’s society and economy, they did so in the name of a League of Nations mandate. Their supposed role was to develop Syria, to prepare its benighted people for independence.
One set of people forcing themselves on another set of people in order to ‘run’ their economy and reorganise their social life is a crime. It leads only to conflict and failure. This is an obvious truth that must not be forgotten.