Monday, November 06, 2006

Colonialist Misconceptions

The Great Powers’ carve-up of the Middle East in 1914-1922 is a sorry tale of misconceptions that range from poor intelligence up to cross-cultural ignorance, wonderfully told in David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (I’m indebted to Michael Kleeman for giving me this book.) I’m particularly interested in the cultural biases since they show the power of hidden mental models at work.

In summer of 1914, Britain was looking for a way to undermine the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan was the Caliph of Islam, and the British were worried that he would use this position to sow discontent among the many Moslems in India, including the disproportionately large Moslem part of the Indian Army.

They decided to offer the Caliphate to Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, because they believed that whoever controlled the person of the Caliph, Muhammad’s successor, controlled Islam. (They stumbled into the notion of Arab nationalism as a front for British power, but that’s a different part of Fromkin’s story.) Hussein was plausible candidate, the British thought, because he was the guardian of the Moslem Holy Places.

Hussein read Britain’s approach as an offer to make him the ruler of a vast kingdom, which is what the caliphate signifies. The British were surprised when he replied to their overtures by asking for details of the additional kingdoms he would gain. The core British misconception was that the split between temporal and spiritual authority that pitted the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor in medieval Europe was alien to Islam.

Fromkin summarizes the story thus: “The British intended to support the candidacy of Hussein for the position of “Pope” of Islam – as position that (unbeknown to them) did not exist; while (unbeknown to them too) the language they used encouraged him to attempt to become ruler of the entire Arab world – though in fact [Ronald Storrs, a leading British bureaucrat] believed that it was a mistake for Hussein to aim at extending his rule at all.”

The relationship between church and state is different in every culture, and is a consequence of its history. However, it is so deeply embedded in cultural consciousness that it goes without saying. More importantly, it goes without thinking. The assumption is revealed – if one is lucky; too often it remains a hidden source of misunderstanding – when someone of another culture behaves in an unexpected way.

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