Book Review: Talmiz Ahmad's Encyclopaedic Study of West Asia and North Africa

In 'West Asia: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games', the author begins his narrative with the 19th century scramble among European powers for dominance in the region.

“Encyclopaedic” is the word I am searching for: Talmiz Ahmad’s magisterial study of West Asia and North Africa from the cusp of the 18th-19th century, when Western imperial encroachment began into the Arab and adjacent lands in Iran and Turkey, right up to the 21st century, is encyclopaedic in the vastness of its ambit and the micro-focus on key historical, political, religious and economic developments in each of the score or more countries comprising the region.

It is a region which ranges from the eastern Mediterranean coast inland to Mesopotamia and Iran, then down both sides of the Gulf littoral to the Strait of Hormuz, and across the ocean to South Sudan and the Horn of Africa, and on north to Egypt and then the vast stretch over North Africa, including the Sahara, and down to Mauretania on the Atlantic seaboard. In a majestic tour de force, the author ties together the different strands of his story into a coherent narrative, made possible by the glue of a common faith, Islam, and the bonding adhesive of a common written language, Arabic (even if the spoken language has many regional nuances). These underscore the essential religio-cultural unity and ethnic integrity of this large part of the globe: the Arab Nation (watan-ul-wahid), easy to conceive, almost impossible to realise. Readers of my generation would recall the cry of the Algerian liberation movement: “L’Algerie est mon pays; l’Arabe est ma langue; l’islam est ma religion (Algeria is my country; Arabic is my language; Islam is my religion).”

Talmiz Ahmad
West Asia: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games
HarperCollins, 2022

Ahmad’s credentials for writing this magnum opus are impressive. He has served in the Indian Foreign Service in Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and held the fort in Baghdad in mid-2004 when some Indians, Egyptians and others were kidnapped and had to be ransomed after delicate negotiations conducted almost entirely by Ahmad on his own (a spectacular achievement not included in this book). Apart from handling the desk in Delhi, he has also served as our ambassador in Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Riyadh, followed by academic assignments post-retirement that keep him au fait with all that matters in what the West calls the “Middle East”, but we regard as WANA: West Asia and North Africa. (From our geography, the Middle East lies somewhere near Seattle!)

Through all these years, while dedicating his professional life to serving India and Indians in the region, Ahmad has kept himself profoundly informed but objectively distanced from the Arab tumult: the “repression” of the Arab people, principally internal but often externally induced, whatever the nature of the state, republican or monarchical; the “resistance” in the Arab street to such tyranny, whether domestic or imposed from without; and the endless travails of cynical Great Power games played with callous disregard of the life, limb and interests of the people (war and vicious sanctions in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen).

He astonishes most readers by going behind the curtain of glittering prosperity in the Gulf particularly and WANA in general to penetrate the deep malaise of “poverty, inequality and injustice” that prevails in the region. But for the care he bestows on citing his extensive sources, it would be almost impossible to believe that 66% of the Arab population, amounting to some 250 million people, is poor (41%) or vulnerable (25%). The inequality is staggering: the top 10% controlling 61% of national wealth; the “pervasive corruption”; and the lack of employment condemning “entire families” to a future of “long-term poverty and exclusion from the national success story”. How did it come to this?

Watch:  ‘Forget Dubai, Most West Asian States Are Weak and Violent’: Talmiz Ahmad

The author begins his narrative with the 19th century scramble among European powers for dominance in the region: France and Britain quarrelling with each other over Egypt (opened to Europe by Napoleon’s invasion in 1798) and the Suez Canal (built by a Frenchman but purchased from the Egyptian Khedive almost overnight by Disraeli’s sleight of hand); Italy slipping into Libya, Somaliland and Abyssinia; France cutting a swathe all the way from Tunisia through Algeria and Morocco to Mauretania; then Bismarkian Germany, straining at the leash, seeking its share of the spoils, leading from the Agadir crisis in 1911 to the First World War. Lenin concluded from this unseemly power-grabbing that “Imperialism is the last stage of capitalism”.

Then came the infamous pair of Sykes and Picot who, during the First World War, cartographically carved West Asia into what were to be the respective shares of France (Lebanon and Syria) and Britain (the rest, including Iraq and the Gulf States). Into this muddle, Balfour, the British foreign secretary, promised the Jewish Agency a “national home” in Palestine but, at the same time, claimed that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” – thus making of Palestine, as one wit put it, “the twice Promised Land”! Meanwhile, George Nathaniel Lord Curzon, in what must rank as one of the most hypocritical remarks of Imperial history, described the British ordained order established in the Trucial states of the Gulf as the “the most unselfish page in history”, to sustain which “the influence of the British government must remain supreme”.

Faced with this rapacious arrival of Western “enlightenment”, the Arabs, struggling to rid themselves of the yoke of half a millennium of Ottoman dominance, wondered how to react. At first, the reaction was similar to that of the Indian elite at virtually the same time: learn from the West! Initially, the Arabs were quite overwhelmed with the ideas and technology that came to them from Europe – a bit like Raja Ram Mohun Roy. In 1826, Rif’a al-Tawhati was sent to France by the Khedive of Egypt with a 44-member team on a five-year mission that resulted in al-Tawhati translating the French Constitution into Arabic. While noting that although it was “the West’s superiority in science and technology” in the last 200 years that was fundamental to their easy domination of Arabia (ironically built on “Islamic scientific achievement”), it was basically the right to “justice and equality” of all citizens, including equality of opportunity, that determined why “their countries had prospered, their knowledge increased, their wealth accumulated”.

Talmiz Ahmad. Photo: The Wire

An equal and opposite reaction sparked the Al-Nahda (‘Renaissance’) that sought to find these same values of liberty, justice and equality, including gender equality, in Islamic tradition. Led by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and his pupil, Muhammad Abduh, this influential school of thought urged “weighing in the scale of reason” what had been handed down as injunctions from the past, using three criteria sanctified by Islamic jurisprudence: maslaha (public interest); shura (consultation); and ijtihad (independent reasoning) to “become part of the modern world while remaining Muslim”: “the original message of Islam”, it was held, “was sufficient to confront Western intrusion”. Islamic fundamentalists of the Wahhabi variety continued, with powerful Saudi backing, to try to cast the new awakening in the most reactionary theological terms. Thus, political evolution in the region remained (and remains) cast in a mould of extremist vs moderate, secular vs theocratic approaches.

Western perfidy continued (and continues) to set the parameters within which Arab politics are played out. First to be betrayed were the Hashemites whose Bedouin troops under Sharif Hussain were instrumental in defeating the Ottoman Turks in the First World War after the Brits accorded their approval in principle to an “Arab Khaliphate” under Sharif Hussain replacing the Ottoman Caliphate; then dividing Arab from Arab by supporting and enforcing the Saudi claim, under Abdulaziz al-Saud, to the throne, while pacifying the Hashimites by handing over the thrones of Iraq and Transjordan to the sons of Sharif Hussain. Meanwhile, Jewish settlement in Palestine continued apace leading to “regular and increasingly bloody communal riots”. The system of League mandates might have made French and British occupation of Asian Arabia legitimate in international law, but colonial exploitation remained just that in Arab eyes.

This resulted in protests, both in the realm of thought and of action. An immediate consequence was the emergence of pan-Arab nationalism against the division of Arab lands by the colonial authorities into five separate regions. From Rashid Rida and the distinguished Christian Arab historian George Antonius, in the 1920s and ’30s, till its final flowering under Sati al-Husri, identified by Ahmad as “the most influential Arab thinker through the 1950s and 1960s”, the yeast of pan-Arab nationalism was added to this intellectual churning. They shaped the region’s national aspirations into a pan-Arab ideology that incorporated under one umbrella all the religious faiths of the Arab world.

Also read: Book Excerpt: The Diverse Forces Shaping West Asia and the Implications for India

Such Arab nationalism, Ahmad stresses, “was entirely secular – the idea that religion could be the basis of Arab nationalism was rejected”. From such thinking arose in 1943 the Ba’ath (Rebirth) party, founded by two impassioned Syrian political activists, Michel Aflaq and Salah al Bitar.

This notion of “Rebirth” resulted in overthrowing in the 1950s a series of Arab monarchies created and sustained by Western intervention: Egypt, Syria, Iraq and, perhaps most dramatically, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by Mosaddeq in 1951 (the CIA overthrew him in turn in 1953). But the seeds had been sown for the successful Iranian revolution against the same Shah, led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978-79. The republicans in Tunisia obtained freedom from French control in 1956, while Libya overthrew its monarchy in 1969.

The focus of Arab nationalism shifted from “Albion perfide” to Israel after the November 1947 UN partition of Palestine. War broke out almost immediately, but the combined Arab armies were no match for the Western-funded and militarily well-equipped and brilliantly led Jewish army. The Arabs were thus unable to forestall “Al Naqba” (The Catastrophe) that overtook them with the proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Since then, however opportunistically Arab states might have changed their stance on relations with Israel, especially after the crushing military defeats of 1967 and 1973, and more recently at the prodding of the United States, for the average Arab the sense of grievance against Israel, especially its total lack of generosity even in victory, has aggravated “the experience of defeat and disaster” by “the torment of tyranny”. The really disturbing outcome for secularists, Arab and global, is that “in the face of the shame of defeat and humiliation and state repression…the answer that appeared most self-evident was Islam” – albeit an Islam “thoroughly reformed, wholly modernised…but still the ancestral faith founded on morality, social justice and public welfare”. Yet, Al Qaeda and ISIS are children of the same disillusion.

India’s role

Where does India fit into this maelstrom? During the Freedom Movement, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress were unambiguous that “Palestine is an Arab country and Arab interest must prevail there…It is the misfortune of the Jews that they have aligned themselves with British imperialism”. Even more forcefully came Gandhiji’s famous dictum, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs as England to the English and France to the French.” Following this stand of principle, India became one of the few non-Arab, non-Muslim countries to vote against the Partition of Palestine, having ourselves only months earlier experienced the horrors of Partition.

As the Arab republics came into their own after the revolutions that spanned the ‘50s, the Delhi-Cairo axis set the course of India’s relationship with the Arab world. India played a key role in defusing the Suez crisis in 1956. Pakistan’s machinations through the Organisation of Islamic Countries to line up the Arabs on their side of the Kashmir dispute on grounds of religion were thwarted, and nonalignment became our shared worldview. We also became perhaps the first state to recognise the State of Palestine. These, not the “appeasement” of Indian Muslim sentiment, was the rationale for our emerging as a principal partner of the Arab awakening.

All that changed in the 1990s with Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao extending full diplomatic recognition to Israel, backstopping Yasser Arafat’s last throw of the dice at Oslo, and initiating a process that has resulted in a policy of “balance” towards rival forces playing out in the region; in other words, replacing principle and idealism with a transactional relationship with all. This has involved strengthening relations with monarchies who have made their peace with Israel; “de-hyphenating” Israel from Palestine but coming down so heavily on the Israeli side that neither the Palestine Authority nor Hamas are taken in; weakening India’s support in the UN and elsewhere for the Palestinian cause; attempting to accommodate Iran without jeopardising relations with Iraq or the US: that is, being all things to all people, none of whom are hoaxed.

In consequence, we are no longer the champion of the Arabs we once were. But “popular resistance remains vibrant”. The spirit of “resistance of the Palestinians – though frequently violated, abused, betrayed and killed in large numbers – has never been stilled” . This spirit is best exemplified in Hanan Ashrawi’s brilliant exposé of Arafat’s compromise with Yitzhak Rabin, in her masterpiece This Side of Peace, a work curiously missing from Ahmad’s otherwise comprehensive and complete bibliography.

Watch: India’s Approach to West Asia: Challenges, Opportunities and Future Prospects

Where do we go from here? Ahmad debunks efforts in some quarters to make India a key regional security provider in the region. He sees attempts by Arab states to “normalise” relations with Israel as revealing “the persistent divide between the rulers concerned and their people”. He also considers it “absurd” to see India’s potential partnerships with Arab nations as a way to the “containment of China”, given China’s excellent relations with each of these nations. But he does foresee a possible role for India, in partnership with like-minded countries, as “peacemakers to lead the process” and outlines the process by which this might be achieved. That is a consummation devoutly to be wished – but, alas, at the moment, a bit of a pie in the sky.

No one with any interest in the West Asian/North African region can afford to not read this work and then, like Oliver Goldsmith’s innocent villagers gawping at their Schoolmaster, “in wonder grew/That how one small head could carry all it knew”!

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former minister for petroleum and natural gas, a former member of the Lok Sabha, and a member of the Congress party