In A Land of Aching Hearts, new this month, Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University Leila Fawaz offers the personal stories of the Middle East’s civilians and soldiers in the First World War. What emerges is a picture of a region completely transformed, with consequences still shaping politics, conflicts, and lives across today’s world. Below, Fawaz relates the rise of the Islamic State to that century-old cataclysm and identifies the troublesome dynamics poised to outlast a strategy that aims to “degrade and destroy” only their most recent manifestation.
The Islamic State aims to create a new Islamic Caliphate and restore Islam to its rightful place in world politics and human history by erasing the borders drawn after the First World War. It seems to be a product of the suspicion, suffering, and unfinished project of reconstruction that yet remains after the war tore the Middle East apart. In Europe, the wounds of World War I have healed. In America, World War I was not a disruptive experience for society so much as a brief first foray into the international politics of the Old World. But in the Middle East, the economic, social, and political wounds were deep and never truly healed. In short, the Great War devastated the Middle East. The Islamic State is an entity whose popular appeal and commitment to unspeakable violence feed on the memories and consequences of those societal war wounds.
Economically, the eastern Mediterranean on the eve of the war was a vibrant area of coastal trade and commerce. Increasing infrastructural development in communication and rail links began to integrate the coastal metropolises of rising wealth like Alexandretta, Beirut, Tripoli, and Latakia to the interior of Greater Syria with its agricultural commodities, especially silk and cotton but also grain, olives, and sesame seeds. Railroad construction in the early twentieth century leapt, connecting the Fertile Crescent to the rest of the Levant and beyond. In 1908, a railway linked the political city of Damascus to the religious hub of Medina. Factories sprouted across the urban landscapes. Crops entered global markets faster and in larger quantities than ever before. On the eve of war, Greater Syria, like much of the globalizing world economy, was growing at a healthy pace and was prospering.
After the war and Allied blockade, the economy was in shatters. Railroads were destroyed. Cities became pockmarked with battle damage. The labor market was disrupted due to population movements, migration, and displacement. The rapid industrializing process of the late nineteenth century slowed to a sputtering crawl. Between 1820 and 1913 average incomes in Greater Syria and the Levant increased by 100%. Between 1914 and 1919, that century-long gain virtually vanished when incomes in some areas were decimated, such as in the administrative district of Beirut where the collapse of the silk trade to Europe brought huge losses. The economic regression was widespread and compounded by the rise in income inequality as wealth concentrated in the hands of profiteers, entrepreneurs, and corrupt officials who took advantage of the war and amassed fortunes while many urban and rural poor eked out their existence or starved.
Socially, the war was equally damaging. The Turkish feminist Halidé Edib, in her travels through the region during the war observed that it had become “a land full of aching hearts” as villages lost almost all their adult males to conscription in the Ottoman Army. And while women saw new opportunities for asserting their independence, they simultaneously faced new threats and barriers: lack of a stable income, lack of safety and security, and disintegrating family structures. Disease, famine, prostitution, and even locusts and the plague ravaged parts of Greater Syria in 1915 and 1916, shredding society into smaller pieces and tearing communities apart. In some parts worst hit by famine, cannibalism was reported – it is telling that such reports spread, however untrue they were. The famine that struck Greater Syria in the spring of 1916 is estimated to have killed half a million people. To put this in perspective, the number of soldiers killed in the Battles of Verdun and Somme in 1916, two of the costliest battles of the war, were about 300,000 each.
Politically, the region suffered the loss of two of its pillars of order: the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, both held by the Ottoman Sultan since the fifteenth century. They did not fall together, and not because of the West alone. The Ottoman Empire officially dissolved in 1923 according to the Treaty of Lausanne, but its fall was not without a hard fight. The armies of the so-called “Sick Man of Europe” fought valiantly in several key battles early in the war, viz., Gallipoli, Sarikamish, and Kut, which was even more impressive given the draining Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. In 1924, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), the hero of Gallipoli and the secularizing Turkish leader, officially dissolved the Caliphate. These two entities were not paragons of good governance prior to their dissolution, but their historical significance is that no centralizing and stabilizing order rose to replace them. Instead, the European powers broke up the Middle East into the territorial spoils of war. The notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 is the most widely named and blamed example of the West’s artificially created borders, but it was only one aspect of a European strategy of dismantlement of the Ottoman system without rebuilding something to supersede it.
The artificiality of the Sykes-Picot borders was less important than the fact that the tripartite trauma of the war had left the region in dire need of a concentrated commitment to postwar reconstruction. The Middle East never received that commitment, internally or externally. Imagine if Europe had not had the Marshall Plan after World War II. Its economies would have sunk into stagnation. Its societies would have frayed into fragments of their former selves. And its states would have limped along, structurally weakened by lack of legitimacy and deficient tax bases. Most of the time in the last century in the Middle East, the intersection of economic ups and downs, autocratic states, and social instability has created environments where the political growth of something like the Islamic State became possible. Western mismanagement and imperial shortsightedness were part of the cause but not all of it as the Great War unleashed national sentiments only to have them defeated by the postwar settlements, turning them into a series of separate agendas used and manipulated by leaders everywhere. The Islamic State is merely the newest manipulator, and probably not the last, to take advantage of this long legacy of an unreconstructed Middle East after World War I.