When Arabs ask me, as they sometimes do, why I take an interest in their society and their culture, I am at a loss to give a definitive answer. Nostalgia has a part in it, because as a small boy I spent some time in Morocco, in Tangier, and the throng of the Petit Socco, the bazaar and the almost painful blue of the sky have stayed with me. I kicked a football about with others my age. Their heads were shaven except for a long tuft in the middle of the scalp, to enable Allah to lift them up to him if he was so inclined. As far as I know, that is no longer done to little boys even in the Caliphate. Also unforgettable was the witch-doctor, the fqih, who used to sit cross-legged at the entrance of the house, showing the soles of her feet dyed orange with henna and muttering her blessings and curses. After a lapse of twenty-five years, I went back, and there was Muhammad Driss, still the gardener just as I remembered him. Recognising me, he wept, and I wept.
I was nineteen and doing my military service when Gamal Abdul Nasser sprang the surprise of nationalising the Suez Canal. I had to explain to my platoon why we had been given the order to prepare to invade Egypt, keeping to myself my thoughts that we shouldn’t be doing this. This was one of the most mismanaged episodes in the history of the British army. The regiment in fact stayed at home, and the time had come for me to go up to Oxford. Pretty well everyone in the university believed that the wrongs of the world were mostly the fault of the British. By now that is received opinion. Nobody turns a hair when a book like Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, published in 2007, portrays that empire as a criminal enterprise set up for murder and looting, taking it for granted that there’s nothing more to be said. Yet if no power keeps the peace, there won’t be any.
When I began to travel in the Middle East and report on it, I was in time to catch the tail end of the settled order put in place there by the British and French. I had had the good fortune to get to know Elie Kedourie, born in Baghdad, a professor at the London School of Economics, and a rare combination of scholarship and humanity. His advice to anyone in contact with Middle East realities was Never take your eyes off the corpses. In the light of the militarised barbarism that has overtaken the whole region, the former imperfections seem trivial. Family life was possible; the old were respected and politeness was customary. To a certain extent, the imperial intention of converting former Ottoman provinces into Arab nation-states had been realised. The state was an entity that could be established; it was a matter of endorsing the ruler, either a monarch or a president, and giving him the means, that is to say the arms and the subsidies, to be getting on with it.
It took me far longer than it should have done to understand how completely the codes of shame and honour govern behaviour and morals. From the ruler at the top down to the humblest at the bottom, every individual in this culture must make sure to behave in accepted ways that bring dignity and honour, while avoiding whatever is considered shameful. What might look like rudeness or unprofessionalism of some kind is virtually certain to have a hidden explanation to do with apportioning shame and honour. This is why things in the Arab world are so often not what they seem to be, and why actions that have been harmful in the past are repeated as though no lesson had been learnt. Attacks on Israel, to give an outstanding example, leave that country each time stronger and more determined to defend itself. The army museum in Cairo presents the 1973 war as a triumph although it finished with Israeli tanks poised to enter Cairo.
What looks irrational is driven by the imperative need to reject shame. Failure has to be presented as success, defeat as victory. To concede anything from a position of strength is seen as a defeat, and that is shameful. To concede nothing from a position of strength is seen as victory and that is honourable. To concede anything from a position of weakness is surrendering, and that is shameful. To concede nothing from a position of weakness is to fight for survival, and that is honourable. Majorities therefore have to dominate and minorities have to survive. The culture makes it hard to achieve compromise, a basic component of nationhood.
The Cold War sometimes overheated in the Middle East, but beneath it, in a way that became visible only much later, it helped to maintain a process of state formation. Turkey and Iran were states whose historic identities flourished as American allies if not protectorates. Israel and Egypt both strengthened their identity by managing to switch relationships with the superpowers at opportune moments.
The imperial powers in charge of the Arab provinces of the defunct Ottoman empire imagined that the introduction of institutions that had given themselves nationhood would do the same for Arabs. Nationalism, they hoped fervently, would unify Arabs; but it did so unexpectedly. Unscrupulous adventurers, military officers for the most part, had no trouble exploiting nationalist mass-movements to oppose the West and to lever themselves into power. No one that I can detect had thought out how to bring together under one identity people very willing and able to fight to the death in defence of their various ethnicities, tribes and religious sects.
Islam does offer the alternative of an inclusive identity. In the geo-political ideal that dates back to early days, the faithful see themselves as a single community, the House of Islam, united under the rule of a single Caliph. The countries of unbelievers are known as the House of War, to be fought until the whole world is Muslim. And this too is not quite what it seems. Far from having a unified identity, irreconcilable differences divide the House of Islam between the Sunni majority and the Shi’ite minority.
It was extremely unlikely, to pitch it no higher, that Ruhollah Khomeini, an elderly Shi’ite ayatollah, should have been among the select few who redirect the course of history. A genuine and forbidding counter-revolutionary, he had no apparent appeal and no human qualities either. On the basis of Shi’ite doctrine of his own devising, he became Supreme Leader. In reality a totalitarian dictator wearing a turban and black robes, he set about recasting the country in his own obscurantist image. Thousands were executed, and millions fled into exile. Khomeini seems to have visualised some sort of international jihad in which the entire Muslim community would confront the House of War and bring about the end of days, as prophesied in holy Shi’ite texts. The whole ruling clique of ayatollahs and mullahs have instilled the population of Iran with their belief that unbelievers stand in their path and obstruct the fulfilment of Islam. Why unbelievers would do anything so wanton is not explained. However, crowds a million strong are mobilised in Tehran to call for the death of the United States and Israel, in their terms the Great Satan and the Little Satan.
This clash with Western civilisation has the further effect of placing Sunnis in a predicament. A small number of Sunnis like Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda showed themselves fellow travellers, willing at least to emulate the Shi’ite model of violence, if not to duplicate it. The kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the Gulf sheikhs and the Turkish president have expressed the traditional suspicion that the Shi’ites are up to no good, merely making another bid for power. Invading Iran, Saddam Hussein chose the option of armed hostility.
The so-called Arab Spring appeared at first to be a mass protest against unjust rule, a mob uprising that people anywhere on the globe might have staged. Presidents who had been in office for decades fled or were arrested and in one case lynched. Thousands were killed in riots and on barricades. Populations fell back on their various ethnic and sectarian identities. In Syria, President Bashar Assad led his fellow Alawites—a little more than one in ten of the Syrian population—into a classic no-holds-barred minority fight for survival. Losers must expect to be massacred. Almost half a million people have been killed, and some ten or eleven million have fled for safety elsewhere in the country or abroad. The Islamic State seized parts of Syria and Iraq, and its self-described Caliph claims in the name of Sunnis to be laying the foundations of the true House of Islam.
Once upon a time, the imperial powers would have intervened decisively in order to safeguard territorial Syria and Iraq. The current administration in the United States now and again declares its political aims but does little or nothing to implement them. Assad’s destruction of Aleppo, his gassing of his one-time citizens and the barbarities of the Islamic State to human beings and to monuments such as the Hellenistic city of Palmyra follow from President Obama’s decision to leave the various Muslim forces free to do their worst to each other.
The experiment that started a hundred years ago to build recognisably Western-style nation-states in the Middle East has come to a dead-end. For several decades, Turkey appeared to be succeeding, but under its present regime it is reverting to exclusive Sunni identity. How the newly Islamist Turkey will come to terms with Iran and its exclusive Shia identity is impossible to predict. It is the case, I believe, that Turkey has no Shia mosques and Iran no Sunni mosques. In past centuries, the Ottoman empire and the Persian Savafid empire fought one another to a ru`inous standstill. Had they united as a Muslim bloc, they would almost certainly have captured Vienna in the siege of 1683, and gone on to conquer the rest of Europe.
As things are, Turks and Iranians are not contributing to present civilisation anything like what they contributed in the past. In the post-1945 world, Arabs have been free to build societies in accordance with their numbers, their creativity and their hopes. Instead they have thrown away such prospects in self-perpetuating and interminable wars and civil wars. Never take your eyes off the corpses is the sole comment outsiders can make about these people who are failing to do justice to themselves, destroying, not creating, in a continuous human tragedy. In what amounts to a vote of no confidence, large and growing numbers of Muslims, and terrified Christians too, prefer to run the risks of emigrating rather than face the danger of death in their countries of origin.
Israel is the one exception in the region. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and it has enabled them to create a First World nation-state, a centre of excellence in the sciences and the arts. Its democratic institutions incorporate a variety of ethnicities, religious faiths and sects. To give just one example of its inclusiveness, the judge who condemned a previous President of Israel to prison for sexual misdemeanour is an Arab. Traditionally, Muslims have been accustomed to see Jews as second-class people, by nature shameful, and it is intolerable for them and their honour that a Jewish liberation movement should succeed in their midst. Ranging from boycotts and sanctions to outright war, attempts to attack Israel are so many triumphs of ignorance and irrationality, incitements to pile up more corpses, and altogether a standing insult to civilisation.
David Pryce-Jones’s most recent book is the memoir Fault Lines. This article was his contribution to the Quadrant symposium “The Future of Civilisation” held in Sydney on September 18