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A UW Lecture Series: The Good, Bad and Catastrophic

January 28, 2013

UWAA 2013 winterlecture

When the US first entered in to Afghanistan and Iraq, many questioned the conflict, especially since its epicenter was a region the common citizen was totally disconnected from. But after over a decade of warring, the “Americans can’t even point to Iraq on a map” joke is hardly applicable. Yet spatial familiarity with the Middle East cannot compensate for a lack of historical contest and I have always felt woe-fully uninformed on that account.

So when the UW Alumni Association announced this winter’s lecture series to be “The Good, Bad & Catastrophic: Lessons from Global and Mideast Crisis,” I knew I had to take advantage.   With the help of Jackson School of International Studies’ expert faculty, the four-part series will trace the geopolitical history of the Middle East and the Western presence there, from the 19th century to the Arab Spring.

Last Tuesday, I attended the series’ second segment—“From Empire to Nations: The Origins of the Modern Middle East.” It turned out I was far from the only one who wanted to mend the Middle Eastern knowledge gap. The event was sold out and Kane’s biggest hall was packed with alumni who shared my sentiments.

“I read about it in the news, but I really don’t know the history,” said a nearby seatmate.

Director of the Jackson School, Dr. Resat Kasaba.

Director of the Jackson School, Dr. Resat Kasaba.

Dr. Resat Kasaba would be the one to fix that. The director of the Jackson School and Ottoman Empire expert was the perfect person to explain how the dissolution of his magnum opus would fragment the Middle East into unsustainable borders and invite Europe’s debilitative meddling. “We’re still living with the consequences,” he said.

The lecture’s running theme was oil and nationalism—the former drew vulture-like foreign interest and the latter tore at the region’s power and cohesiveness internally. Obviously, both remain causes of strife.

Kasaba began at the crack of the 20th century. The Ottoman and Persian empires who tried to keep the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Middle East under singular umbrellas were on the decline, and though embattled in WWI, the West tried its hardest to help them along. Feeding the region’s growing pockets of nationalism, England—wanting to maintain its access to India and Asia—encouraged Arab revolts against its ruling empires in Iraq and the Balkans.

It did so with incompatible promises. The first was to Faisal I, who was promised a kingdom of Arabia, stretching from Yemen to Syria, with Damascus as its capital, if only he helped fight the Ottomans in Iraq. The second was to the Zionists, which promised to carve a Jewish state out of Palestine, in the form of the Balfour Declaration. The third (but far from the last) promise was a clandestine Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France to divide Syria between them after WWI ended.

“So Britain promised greater Mesopotamia to two parties and Palestine to three, while not owning any of them,” Kasaba summed up.

Dr. Resat Kasaba explains Middle Eastern migration patterns in the early 20th century.  [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

Dr. Resat Kasaba explains Middle Eastern migration patterns in the early 20th century. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

The Middle East would soon become aware of the West’s duplicity. Persons petitioning for statehood during the six months of conferences in Versailles—citing Woodrow Wilson’s Principles of Self Determination—would be denied a place at the table. Even after drawing up the Middle Eastern map according to its need, Europe would only let its residents be governed under British and French mandates. The colonial powers would be the ones to decide when the nation in question was for full autonomy.

While Kasaba’s run-down of the Middle East’s struggle for self-actualization was certainly appreciated by the audience, it still felt part of a distant past. But the gasps were audible when the director linked 100-year-old anecdotes to 21st century entities.

Take the world’s first commercial oil production deal. Brokered in 1908 by Muzaffar al-Din Shah of Iran and English businessman William D’Arcy, the Concession became the model for future oil deals for the next 70 years. The conditions were as follows: D’Arcy would have exclusive rights to Iran’s oil production for 60 years. In exchange, the Shah would get an initial lump sum of £20,000, shares of D’Arcy’s company, and only 16% of the profit. Sounds pretty ludicrous right? Almost as much as finding out that D’Arcy’s company was later purchased by the British government and still exists today…as British Petroleum.

More gasp-worthy revelations abounded when Kasaba explained the naissance of various ideologies in the 1950s. He would begin by describing the man and the vision. Hasan Al-Banna believed the Koran was the only document necessary for governing the Middle East, and saw no need for an outside constitution. He advocated for Muslims to live their lives according to the holy text—their adherence would make the world just. His rhetoric would be foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sayyid Qutb argued that the governing of the region belonged to God. After studying abroad in Colorado, Qutb became disillusioned with what he perceived as Western decadence and returned to the Middle East with a call for permanent and forceful severance from the West. He is the intellectual father of al-Qaeda.

But Kasaba insisted that extremist ideologies are not what rule the region today. Instead, it is the enduring consequences of centuries of broken promises that taint today’s negotiations.

“Most people in the Middle East just don’t trust Western governments,” he concluded. “Even before oil became a factor, there was this idea that the West knows best.”

To drive home that point, Kasaba concluded with these three quotes from Western leaders who’ve ventured into the Orient. The first slide was Napoleon in 1798:  “O ye Egyptians, they may say to you that I have not made an expedition hither for any other object than that of abolishing your religion; but this is a pure falsehood and you must not give credit to it, but tell the slanderers that I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of oppressors.” The second was from the Commander of all the Allied forces in Mesopotamia in 1917: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. It is the hope and desire of the British people and nations in alliance with them that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness and renown among the peoples of the earth.”

The last quote was from our own Donald Rumsfeld, a mere ten year ago: “Unlike many armies in the world, you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but liberate. And the Iraqi people know this.”

A quote from Donald Rumsfeld adorns the last slide of Dr. Resat Kasaba's presentation. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

A quote from Donald Rumsfeld adorns the last slide of Dr. Resat Kasaba’s presentation. [Photo by Ilona Idlis.]

The presentation left a lasting impression and I’m very excited for the installments to follow.

You can learn more about this lecture series or register for the remaining two lectures at the UW Alumni Association’s website –  Remaining lectures in the series are:

Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013
From Revolution to Revolution to Revolution: The U.S. in the Turbulent Middle East

Joel S. Migdal, Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies

The United States became an everyday player in the post-World War II Middle East, just as the region was being reshaped by the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab nationalism. Professor Joel Migdal will discuss the United States’ involvement in the Middle East since World War II, and how it’s worked to achieve influence and shape events in that time.


Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013
The Middle East Today roundtable discussion

Dan Chirot, Reşat Kasaba, Joel Migdal, Walid Salem, Nicole Watts, and Elizabeth Angell

Professors Chirot, Kasaba, and Migdal will team up with three panelists to discuss the fallout from the Arab Spring and what the future holds for the tumultuous region. Salem has extensive journalism experience and is currently a graduate student in the UW Political Science Department. Watts is an associate professor at San Francisco State University, where she teaches Mideast politics and social movements. Angell is a Ph.d. Candidate at Columbia University; her work focuses on Istanbul and how the present day connects to the city’s past.


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