World War I: How the West Fomented Ethnic Conflict to Destroy the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire: Demise of a Major Power

DW (2017)

Film Review

This documentary demonstrates how people of multiple religions and ethnicities were able to coexist peaceably for over four centuries in the Ottoman empire. This flies in the face of western propaganda about the inevitably of genocidal violence when various religions and ethnicities share the same geographic space.

According to the filmmakers, the long peaceful coexistence of multiple religious and ethnic groups (the main ones being Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Sunni, Shia and Sufi Muslims) relates mainly to the Ottoman creation of semi-autonomous regional “millets.” These were under the administrative control of local religious leaders.

The democratic ideals that arose from the 1789 French Revolution would pose the first major challenge to this stability, in triggering a whole series of rebellions. In 1821, Greek rebels would launch a full scale war of independence. Russia, France and Britain, keen on expanding their empires into the Balkans and Middle East, supported the rebellion. Greece would ultimately win independence in 1829.

Over the coming decades, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empire fomented similar rebellions by ethnic Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians. In 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire – under the pretext of protecting its Christian subjects – which ended with the 1878 Congress of Berlin. The latter divided up the Balkans and placed the minority Armenians in the Anatolia peninsula under the protection of the European powers. Russia was granted control of Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro and the Austro-Hungarian empire control of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This peace agreement, which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Balkan Muslims, signaled the dawn of the modern age of refugees.

For me the most intriguing part of the film concerned the intelligence role of archeologist Thomas Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), who was actually a British secret agent sent to mobilize the Arabs in the Arabian peninsula to revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Lawrence, on behalf of Britain, promised Arab fighters their own Arabian kingdom in return for their military support – a promise Britain conveniently broke in 1920.*

This documentary leaves absolutely no question that the real agenda in World War I was 1) disrupting the growing German-Ottoman alliance and 2) for the European powers who initiated the war to divide up the Ottoman empire. Following the 1918 armistice and 1920 Treaty of Sevres, Britain would win colonial control of Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq and Kuwait) and Palestine and the French control of Syria and the newly created Christian enclave of Lebanon.

After Britain gained colonial control over Palestine in 1920, they immediately revved up ethnic tensions by requiring Jerusalem residents to reside in distinct religious zones an


*The Ottoman Empire’s possessions in the Arabian Peninsula became the Kingdom of Hejaz, which was annexed by the Sultanate of Nejd (today Saudi Arabia), and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. The Empire’s possessions on the western shores of the Persian Gulf were variously annexed by Saudi Arabia (Alahsa and Qatif), or remained British protectorates (Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar) and became the Arab States of the Persian Gulf. requiring passports for travel between zones.

 

 

 

 

 

The Historical Roots of Patriarchy

Patriarchy, Civilization, Militarism and Democracy

Gwynne Dyer (1994)

 

This documentary traces the development of patriarchy around 5,000 years ago, which Dyer links to the consolidation of agricultural villages into empires. Simultaneously in Mesopotamia, Central and South America and China, hierarchical political systems formed under a single male dictator who controlled their subjects via absolute terror.

This transition from autonomous villages into heavily militarized states was always accompanied by strict control of women’s behavior. Dyer maintains the ultimate goal of controlling women was to increase the birth rate and produce more male subjects for the rulers’ armies. In Mesopotamia, the formation of new religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) glorifying a single male god was the crowning achievement of patriarchy.

According to Dyer, Egypt was the last ancient empire to fully adopt patriarchy. Owing to natural barriers (the Sinai desert and the Mediterranean) that protected it from foreign invasion, it was the last ancient empire to militarize and adopt strict laws restricting women’s freedom.

The 40 minute film is divided into four parts. Parts 2-4 start automatically when the prior part concludes.

 

World War I through Arab Eyes

Essential history I should have learned in high school but didn’t. I must have been absent that day. This documentary gives me a new understanding of how European colonial powers totally wrecked the Arab world – a process that continues to the current day.

World War I through Arab Eyes

Al Jazeera (2014)

Film Review

This is a three part documentary in which Tunisian journalist Malke Triki interviews European, Turkish and Arab journalists and surviving families about the role of Arab forces – on both sides – in World War I.

Part 1 concerns the forcible conscription of Muslim troops by both the Ottoman Empire and the Allies. Two-thirds of the soldiers who defeated England, Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli weren’t Turkish, but Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Iraqi and Palestinian. As these countries were still part of the Ottoman Empire, they were subject to a mandatory draft.

I was unaware that England and France, who had occupied large swathes of North Africa since the end of the 19th century, also forcibly conscripted Muslim troops. England forced more than 1.2 million Egyptians to fight for the Allied cause, while France forcibly drafted 100,000 Algerians, 80,000 Tunisians and 45,000 Moroccans.

The French were widely accused of using these colonial forces as cannon fodder to protect French soldiers.

Many colonial troops rebelled against being compelled to kill fellow Muslims. This, as well as their abominable treatment by Europeans, was the spark that inflamed the North African independence movements that arose after World War I.

Part 2 tells the story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century and the Ottoman-German relationship which led to their Treaty of Alliance in August 1914.

In 1830 the Ottoman Empire stretched from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) to the Red Sea and encompassed most of North Africa and the Balkans. It was under continual attack by European colonial powers. In the late 1800s, the British military seized Egypt and the French military Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In 1912, Italy seized Libya. In the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, the Empire lost its European territories.

This episode also describes the Ottoman leadership’s brutal suppression of Arab nationalism in the Middle East, particularly in Syria/Lebanon. In 1915, one third of the Lebanese population died of starvation and another third were permanently displaced when their villages were decimated.

It also provides important background on the Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottoman leadership in 1915-17.

Part 3 covers the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France and the way the two imperial powers carved up the former Ottoman Empire between them, regardless of promises made to nationalist movements across the Arab world.

Despite the Egyptian Revolution and the Iraq Uprising, Arab subservience to Ottoman rule was replaced by a series of mandates across the region in which Britain and France seized control of the areas they prized most – to satisfy their own ambitions, interests and ultimately to gain access to region’s valuable oil resources.

World War I gave birth to the Turkish nationalist movement, which led to the founding of the modern Turkish state; and to Zionism, aided greatly by the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Collapse: Revisiting the Adam and Eve Myth

short history of progress

A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright (2004 Caroll and Graf)

Book Review

The theme of A Short History of Progress is social collapse. In it, Canadian historical archeologist Ronald Wright summarizes humankind’s biological and cultural evolution, as well as tracing the role of ecological destruction in the collapse of the some of the most significant civilizations (Sumer, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Easter Island and the Mayan civilization). Exhaustively researched, the book advances the theory that many of colossal blunders made by modern leaders are very old mistakes made by earlier civilizations. Wright starts with the mystery of the agricultural revolution that occurred around 10,000 BC, when Homo sapiens ceased to rely on hunting and berry-picking and began growing their own food. Twelve thousand years ago, the global population was still small enough that there was more than ample wild food to feed them. Yet for some reason, a half dozen human settlements in widely separated regions simultaneously domesticated plants and animals. Why?

The Importance of Stable Climate

Citing extensive geological and archeological evidence, Wright suggests plant and animal domestication may have been triggered by unprecedented climate stability. Prior to 10,000 BC, the earth’s climate was wildly unstable, with ice ages developing and abating over periods as short as a decade or so. These sudden periodic changes in climate forced our hunter gatherer ancestors to continually migrate in search of food. The climate stabilization that occurred following the last ice age (around 10,000 BC) enabled them to settle in larger groups, save seeds to cultivate crops that took months to harvest, and engage in trade for other basic necessities.

Wright goes on to describe a number of diverse civilizations that arose and collapsed between 4,000 and 1,000 BC – and their unfortunate tendency towards mindless habitat destruction and runaway population growth, consumption, and technological development. In each case, an identical social transformation takes place as resources become increasingly scarce. As prehistoric peoples find it harder and harder to feed themselves, inevitably a privileged elite emerges to confiscate communal lands and enslave their inhabitants. They then install a despotic tyrant who hastens ecological collapse by wasting scare resources on a spree of militarization and temple or pyramid building. This process is almost always accompanied by wholesale murder, torture, and unproductive wars.

Wright relates this typical pattern of ecological destruction and collapse to a series of “progress traps,” in which specific human inventions turn out to have extremely negative unintended consequences. Instead of fixing the underlying problem they’re meant to solve, the inventions create an even worse environmental mess. It’s a pattern so common in prehistory that it’s become enshrined in the Adam and Eve and similar creation myths. All describe how the quest for knowledge ended humankind’s access to freely available and abundant food and forced them to produce their own.

Our Ancestors Wipe Out the Neanderthals and Mammoths

According to Wright, the first of these “progress traps” was the invention of weapons (for hunting) by early Homo sapiens. Wright blames this early invention of weapons for the first (archeologically) recorded instance of genocide – namely the wiping out of Homo Neanderthalis (Neanderthal man) by Cro-Magnon man between 40,000 and 30,000 BC. This was followed by other important mass extinctions as Homo sapiens spread out across the globe between 30,000 and 15,000 BC. The most recent archeological evidence suggests the mammoth, camel and horse became extinct in North America during this period because of perfected hunting techniques that allowed human beings to carry out mass slaughters (involving as many as 1,000 mammoths or 100,000 horses simultaneously).

Some archeologists attribute the end of hunting as a predominate food source (in numerous regions simultaneously) and the rise of plant-based diets to the decline in game animals stemming from this indiscriminate slaughter. The birth of agriculture, in turn leads to widespread deforestation and soil erosion in all the ancient civilizations, accompanied by soil salinization from over-irrigation. According to Wright, the entire cycle takes around a thousand years, which happens to be the average lifespan of most historic civilizations.

Turning Iraq Into a Desert

The first civilization to collapse in this way was Sumer (in southern Iraq), which flourished between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. The Sumerians invented irrigation, the city, the corporation (in the form of priestly bureaucracies), writing (for trade purposes), hereditary kings and slavery. By 2,500 BC, soil salinization (from irrigation) had caused a massive drop-off in crop yields. Instead of implementing environmental reforms, the ruling elite tried to intensify production by confiscating communal lands, introducing slavery and human sacrifice and engaging in chronic warfare.

From Sumer the cradle of civilization moved north to Mesopotamia (Babylon), in the region of northern Iraq and Syria, and humankind created one of the first man made deserts out of a region lush in date palms and other native vegetation.

Around 1,000 BC, similar civilizations also appeared in India, China, Mexico, Peru and parts of Europe. The Greeks (around 600 BC) were the first with any conscious awareness that they were destroying their own habitat. Plato writes a vivid description of the dangers of erosion and runoff from deforestation. The Athenian leader Solon tried to halt increasing ecological devastation by outlawing debt serfdom, food exports, and farming on steep slopes. Pisistratus offered grants to farmers to plant olive trees for soil reclamation.

Wright makes a good case for similar environmental destruction, rather than barbarian invasion, causing Rome to collapse. By the time of Augustus, Italian land had become so degraded that Rome was forced to import most of their food from North Africa, Gaul, and other colonies.

The Role of the New World

The most interesting section of the book concerns the role the New World played in rescuing the environmentally decimated European civilization. According to Wright, it was mainly New World gold and silver that capitalized the industrial revolution. However he also stresses the importance of the New World foods that were added to the European diet at a point where the population had outstripped their food supply. Maize (sweet corn) and potatoes are twice as productive (in terms of calories per acre) as wheat and barley, the traditional European staples. He also makes the point – ominously – that, despite all our apparent technological progress, humankind hasn’t introduced one new food since the Stone Age. In fact, Homo sapiens hasn’t evolved culturally or intellectually since our ancestors failed to confront resource scarcity in a way conducive to their survival.

If anything, given mass extinctions, potentially catastrophic climate change, and a growing scarcity of energy, water and fertile soil, we seem to be repeating the old maladaptive pattern. As examples, Wright cites the idiotic war on terrorism, which has ironic parallels with the chronic warfare the Sumerians launched 4,000 years ago. He also cites the rise of the New Right and the folly of trying to address resource scarcity by consolidating wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite.