In 1989, the American lawyer and historian David Fromkin published A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. It is a very detailed historical study, the first of its kind, on the role of the Middle East in European politics during World War I and immediately afterwards. Even today, more than 25 years later, it remains an essential reading for anyone really trying to understand current developments in the Middle East, including the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the Iranian Nuclear Deal. For the community that is affected most by these developments – the Muslims – revisiting A Peace to End All Peace is even more important.
But it’s unlikely that very many Muslims have read it, for several reasons. Some of them are practical. For example, the book hasn’t yet been translated into Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, or any other native language of millions of Muslims. But probably the more important reason is that the historical narrative presented in this book isn’t necessarily one for Muslims to be proud of. Considering the decadent situation of the Muslim community today, we prefer to look further back in history, to a time when Muslims dominated the known world in just about everything. Learning about Muslims all over the Middle East pathetically standing by as politicians in London and Paris decided their future doesn’t really make us as happy.
Because of this, WWI is rarely a subject of any serious discussion in the Muslim community. In recent years it has started to receive some attention from Muslims, but not because it was a complex historical event that needs to be researched and understood – instead, it is described as some kind of Western conspiracy to destroy the “khilāfah” (i.e. the Ottoman Empire). Those young Muslims who grew up in the West, even if they did pay attention in history class, are generally not even exposed to role of Muslims and the Middle East in the conflict. For them, it was pretty much just about Queen Victoria’s grandsons and trench warfare in France.
But, this ignorance towards WWI might change in years to come. Our focus on history is always determined by the present situation. Fromkin was way ahead of his time – in the 1980s, when he was writing A Peace to End All Peace, the “enemy” that Western audiences had to understand was still the communist USSR, not the Muslim world. It was really only after 9/11 and the start of the so-called “war on terror” that historians turned towards the Muslim world (and the Middle East in particular) to try to explain the present situation as a product of history. An example of this is Sean McMeekin’s The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, published in 2012.
The need to determine the history of the West’s new “problem” continued to be reinforced by events in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring. And then suddenly, the 100th anniversary of WWI came around in 2014, connecting the present to the past for anyone who was paying attention to both. Generally, the Muslim community feels deeply about present-day events. The connection with the past, however, is either completely missing or plagued by ignorance.
When the shift in our attitude does occur (and I’m very hopeful that it will), Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace will be a great resource to start learning from. It’s not a short read – it’s about 650 pages long – but it’s a compelling one. Based mostly on the British archival sources (letters, declarations, etc.) filed from 1914 to1921, it covers every major development in the Middle East from the beginning of WWI until the end of the postwar negotiations. It’s a story that takes the reader from Turkey and Arabia to Sudan and Afghanistan. It’s a story that features Churchill, Lenin, Enver, Kemal, Ibn Saud, Stalin, Sykes, Picot, and many others. It’s a story of machine guns, airplanes and chemical gas, of genocides and revolutions, and of so much more.
I’m not just trying to be poetic here. This is how I, as a student of history, felt after reading A Peace to End All Peace – awed by the sheer complexity of WWI. Growing up, in history class WWI was all about competition between Germany and Britain, an alliance between Russia and France, Sarajevo on June 28, chemical gas, trench warfare, Remembrance Day, etc. In the Muslim community, WWI – on the rare occasion that it was mentioned – was about European aggression against the Ottoman Empire, a helpless “khilāfah”, and some kind of endless clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims. After reading A Peace to End All Peace, I realized that both positions were based on some truth, but neither presented the whole truth. The oversimplifying of WWI by both sides was the reason it was so difficult to learn anything from it.
The complexity and depth that a reader encounters in A Peace to End All Peace needs to be appreciated. It is much more likely to be closer to the reality than the oversimplified ideas that are, unfortunately, more popular. It is also much more likely to help us clearly observe the root cause of the problems that plague the Middle East today, and to help us develop potential solutions for them. The Muslim community around the world is affected most by these problems, so we should also be the most active in trying to understand them and change our situation. Continuing to pretend that WWI didn’t really happen, or continuing to believe that WWI can be understood and corrected simply, is both intellectually dishonest and suggests that our intentions to create a better future for ourselves aren’t really sincere.
Unless we’ve become comfortable with having that attitude – an attitude very far from the example of Prophet Muhammad (salAllāhu alayhi wa sallam) – we need to start digging a bit deeper into the past and drawing a new roadmap for the future. Part of our job has been done by Fromkin in A Peace to End All Peace. The rest is up to us.
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