100 years on from Sykes-Picot, ideology not borders splits the Middle East

European empires did not create the Iraqi civil war or ISIS

The Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed by Al Qaeda in 2006. It has since re-opened. 

It is now a century since Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot infamously drew the Middle Eastern borders in the sand, with its historical relevance still serving as a powerful narrative in Arab discourse today.

ISIS has famously utilised the Sykes-Picot agreement in their propaganda videos, gloating that they have achieved what other Islamist and Pan-Arabist movements failed to do: break down post-World War I imperialist borders.

In their place, they created an Islamic ‘utopia’ that does not bow to constructed borders but to a ‘shared’ Islamic faith. Sykes-Picot, much like the crusades, strikes a resounding chord in the hearts and minds of the Arab people – a reminder of colonialism and divisions.

However, questions arise as to what really has driven a wedge between the Arab people. Do the borders that were drawn a century ago, and are continually being compromised by civil wars, still really have a relevance in shaping intra-Arab relations?

In short, Sykes and Picot drew the borders with the intention of dividing the Arab people, but it is the Arab regimes who have firewalled these borders and created further divisions based upon religious sect, tribe and in some cases gender/sexuality.

A new Islamist surge is beginning to tear the fabric of Arab unity apart further than Sykes and Picot ever did. In calling for an Islamic utopia, they have cracked new divisions in the region by spearheading a religious-political system of governance that places one interpretation of the Islamic faith, and its adherents, as superior to others.

Correlating with the growing popularity of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s population has seen it go from mocking the demands of mandatory Hijab (headscarf) for women to now accepting social pressure for forcing women into wearing it.

These movements that call for ultra-religious politics have not only split Arab countries apart, but also created internal divisions among its own people.

The Iraq war was disastrous foreign policy, born out of false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and tactical blunders that included disbanding entire institutions such as the army. However, the real chaos and bloodshed can largely be blamed on the Islamist ideologies that had created such hostility.

The Iraqi people were ravaged by the growing sectarianism which ultimately led to a civil war between the Shia and Sunni populations. Such divisions were regularly created and exploited by jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and now ISIS.

This mirrors the role of Sykes and Picot, in that foreign actors can create a spark, but it is the politico-religious climate that provides the oxygen for the flames of Arab fragmentation.

Sunni Islamism had provided the opportunity for organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to choke the country, and the ultra-religious Shia denomination of Maliki’s regime (and use of sectarian ‘death squads’) ensured internal divisions etch the landscape of the country.

Sykes and Picot’s borders, as well as the borders drawn in subsequent agreements, did not create the civil war, nor did it lead to the rise of ISIS. It was the rise and prominence of such divisive ideologies which place superiority on tribal/religious affiliations that continues to fragment Iraq and the Middle East.

To lay blame for the current divisions within the Middle-East solely on agreements such as Sykes-Picot, however colonialist they were, would be to absolve sectarian and tribal groups of the crimes they have and continue to commit.

Islamism is wholly different to the Islamic faith, in that the former aims to create an ultra-religious system of governance that favours one Islamic interpretation and its adherents above others.

The Middle East has experienced the Islamist ideology for as long as Sykes-Picot, and must work to intellectually bankrupt the ideology of any relevance towards Arab/Islamic unity.

A democratic and secular culture would truly be the antidote to increasing divisions in the Middle East, as well as help the region be a greater part of an interconnected globalised world.

Unfortunately, today the words of the great Iraqi sociologist Ali Al-Wardi still ring true: ‘If the Arabs had the choice between two states, secular and religious, they would vote for the religious and flee to the secular.’

Haydar Zaki is outreach officer at Quilliam

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