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Empires to Nation-States

Islamic Period

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The Rise of the Nation-State

The large imperial model of government was replaced in the Middle East by the nation-state in a process that was shaped by a mixture of nationalist aspirations at the local level and foreign interference from European powers.

The debates in the Middle East over whether constitutionalism or empire was the most effective form of government were brought to an end by World War I. Much of the Middle East found itself militarily occupied by European powers in 1918: Egypt had been occupied by Britain since 1882; Iran was the location of a proxy war between Russia, Britain and the Ottomans that left numerous troops on the ground; and the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with the losing Axis powers, now found its lands divided and its capital occupied by the Allies. By 1920 most areas outside Egypt and Iran found themselves divided into League of Nations Mandates. A Mandate was a treaty arrangement in which a European power, under the oversight of the League of Nations, took over political control of another territory based on the argument that the people in these Mandate territories were not yet capable of ruling themselves and needed to be taught how to do so by Europeans. As the Ottoman Empire was on the losing side of World War I, most of its lands, particularly those with Arab residents, became Mandates under British or French rule. In fact, the boundaries of the new Mandates reflected longstanding British and French spheres of economic interest in the region, as well as secret agreements, such as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French, for the division of Ottoman provinces following Ottoman defeat.

These Mandates would become the basis of many of today’s modern nation-states in the region. The boundaries of these states were primarily determined through a series of secret treaties signed between the British and the French after World War I began. These treaties (and borders) reflected the strategic interests of France and Britain, which were often opposed to the wishes of local residents. Many in the Middle East had listened with great interest to Woodrow Wilson’s declarations about the rights of all peoples to self-determination, and the imposition of the Mandates was very unpopular, as it denied Arabs those rights. Every Arab territory in the Mandate system struggled against European rule, whether through political means or by force of arms. Not until the 1940s and 1950s would these territories obtain full political independence from Britain and France. Yet even then, the boundaries of the newly independent states were largely those established by the Mandates. Thus, the Mandate system has had an enduring impact on the shape of the modern Middle East.

Also during the Mandate period, immigration of European Jews to what was now the British Mandate of Palestine, something that had begun on a smaller scale in the 1880s under Ottoman rule, greatly expanded. This process accelerated following World War II and the Holocaust, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Many Arabs both inside and outside of the Palestinian Mandate objected to the creation of this new nation-state, and these developments have remained a long-term source of conflict in the region.

Turkey and Iran took different paths into the national era than the Mandate territories. Between 1919 and 1923 Turkish nationalists in the heart of the old Ottoman Empire fought a war to claim Anatolia for the Turks and created their own nation-state, in the form of a republic, free from Western interference. Iran, occupied by British and Russian forces in 1918, underwent a period of political transition in which a young military officer overthrew the old imperial dynasty and appointed himself the new shah. Turkey and Iran emerged from the 1920s as independent nation-states, each drawing on its pre-Islamic heritage for cultural symbols around which they could solidify the nation and new national identity.

In the Arab world, the new states formed in the Mandate period found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. Created by outside powers, they were less able to claim “natural” boundaries for themselves, based on old cultural groupings. Debates were held over whether regional unification was the best idea, either under a pan-Islamic or of pan-Arab ideal. Neither of these ideas would enjoy much practical success in terms of leading to the creation of larger political units that were both effective and enduring. Rather, power was consolidated inside the newly created states, either by an old notable or prominent family who assumed the title of monarch, or under a military officer who rose to power through some combination of coup and connections. In both cases, while Arabs talked about regional unity, they effectively made concrete the boundaries drawn by the Europeans, which still exist.

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