The Western world had for centuries been gradually penetrating most of the areas that had once been part of the Muslim empire, and in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the vacuum left by the long decay and decline of the Ottoman Empire, European powers came to dominate the Middle East.
Among the first Europeans to gain a foothold in the Middle East were the Venetians who, as early as the thirteenth century, had established trading posts in what are now Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, and who controlled much of the shipping between Arab and European ports. Then, in 1497, five years after Ferdinand and Isabella ended Islamic rule in Spain, Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four Portuguese ships around Africa and in 1498 found a new sea route to India from Europe. Dutch, British, and French frigates and merchantmen followed and began establishing trading outposts along the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually undercutting both Venetian shipping and the Mediterranean trade on which the Middle East had thrived for millennia.
The process of European penetration was gradual and complex; but there were, nevertheless, clearly identifiable turning points. In the sixteenth century, for example, the Ottoman Empire voluntarily granted a series of concessions called the “Capitulations” to European powers – concessions which gave the Europeans decided advantages in foreign trade in the empire. Another turning point was the invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte. Hoping to cut Britain’s lines to India and cripple its maritime and economic power, Napoleon crushed the Mamluks (who governed Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty) and briefly occupied the country. By defeating Egypt, then still part of the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon exposed the inner weaknesses, both military and administrative, of the sultans, shattered the myth of Ottoman power, and inaugurated more than 150 years of direct political intervention by the West.
Europe’s worldwide nineteenth-century search for raw materials, markets, military bases, and colonies eventually touched most of what had been the Arab empire. In 1820 Great Britain imposed a pact on Arab tribes on the coast of the Arabian Gulf; in the 1830s France occupied Algeria; in 1839 Britain occupied Aden, at the strategic entrance to the Red Sea; and in 1869 Ferdinand de Lesseps, with the backing of the French emperor, completed what would become, and still is, one of the key shipping arteries of the world, the Suez Canal.
Western culture spread with Western economic and political control. In Lebanon missionaries from several countries founded a network of schools and universities. By introducing modern Western ideas these fostered the growth of Arab nationalism, contributed to the revival of Arabic literature, and provided a powerful impulse toward modernization. In addition to education, contact with the West led to improvements in medical care and the introduction of Western techniques in agriculture, commerce, and industry. For the most part, however, Western domination tended to benefit the nations of Europe at the expense of the Arab world. Although the Suez Canal, for example, has been of immense value to Egypt, the profits for nearly a century went to European shareholders in the company that managed the canal. Western and Western stimulated efforts to modernize parts of the Middle East, moreover, often led Middle Eastern rulers to incur debts which led to European financial control and then to European political domination. It was such a series of steps that ended with France occupying Tunisia in 1881 and Britain taking control of Egypt in 1882. Later, in emulation, Italy in 1911 seized Libya.
Resistance to European penetration took several forms. In the cities, Arab intellectuals debated whether modernization or a return to their roots would be the more effective path to the removal of foreign dominance and, consequently, to independence. Elsewhere, Muslim leaders such as the Mahdi in the Sudan and ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi in Algeria took direct action. These struggles were later romanticized and distorted in a wave of books and films on, for example, Gordon of Khartoum and the French Foreign Legion. Still other intellectuals, such as the Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh and his Syrian disciple Rashid Rida, undertook to reform the Muslim educational system and to restate Islamic values in terms of modern concepts – needs deeply felt by most Muslim thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Western penetration also drew the Middle East into the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire sided with (Germany, and Great Britain, in response, encouraged and supported the Arab Revolt against the Turks. By promising aid – and ultimate independence from the Ottomans – Great Britain encouraged the Arabs to launch a daring guerrilla campaign against Turkish forces, a campaign widely publicized in press coverage of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and in Lawrence’s own writings.
By diverting Turkish strength and blocking the Turkish-German route to the Red Sea and India, the Arab Revolt contributed substantially to the Allied victory, but it did not result in full independence for the Arab lands. Instead, France and Great Britain secretly agreed to partition most of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them and eventually obtained mandates from the League of Nations: Britain over Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan; France over Syria and Lebanon. The mandates were inconsistent with British promises to the Arabs and, furthermore, contrary to the recommendations of President Wilson’s King-Crane Commission, a group sent to the Middle East in 1919 specifically to ascertain the wishes of the Arab peoples.
The mandates, however, were granted, thus extending Western control of the Middle East and also setting the stage for one of the most tragic and intractable conflicts of modern times: the conflict over Palestine which has, since 1948, ignited four wars, sent masses of Palestinian Arabs into exile, contributed to the energy crisis of 1973, and, from 1975 on, fueled the civil war in Lebanon.
The conflict over Palestine actually goes back to 1896, when Theodor Herzl published a pamphlet called Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), in which he advocated British-backed Jewish colonization in Argentina or Palestine – with the hope of eventually creating a sovereign Jewish state. Herzl’s writings and personal advocacy led to the formal development of Zionism, a political movement dedicated to the creation of such a state, and eventually focusing on Palestine. The Zionist claim to Palestine was mainly based on the fact that there had been periods of Hebrew rule in Canaan and the land west of the Jordan River between 1300 B.C. and A.D. 70.
The Arabs considered this claim to be without substance. Palestine, they pointed out, had been part of the Islamic world almost continually for twelve centuries; from 636 to the First World War. In 1917, however, Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, issued the Baltour Declaration, which promised British support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine providing that “nothing shall he done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” – a reference to the Arabs, who then were 92 percent of the population. The declaration was interpreted by key Zionist leaders as support for a sovereign Jewish state, but this interpretation has been disputed. Both Winston Churchill and Lord Balfour himself later said publicly that “a national home” meant a cultural or religious center, a view that America’s King-Crane Commission independently presented. Establishment of a national home did not imply a Jewish state, the commission said.
In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, and during the British mandate, Jewish immigration increased. So, in proportion did sporadic strife between Arabs and Jews. Immigration nevertheless continued and in the 1930s – with the rise of Adolf Hitler – and after World War II, Jewish immigration increased still further. As British efforts to control it generated widespread disapproval in the West and stimulated underground warfare by militant Zionist units against British forces, Britain eventually placed the problem in the hands of the United Nations, which in 1947 voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab States.
Fighting then flared up in Palestine. Six months later, when Britain withdrew and formation of the State of Israel was proclaimed, the Arabs went to war against the newly declared nation. As Jewish forces were victorious – and as stories spread that some 250 Arab civilians had been massacred in a village called Deir Yassin – thousands of Palestinians fled, among the first of today’s 3.4 million refugees and exiles. Eventually the United Nations negotiated a truce, but fighting became endemic and war broke out again in 1956, 1967, and 1973. The 1967 war triggered underground warfare by Palestinian militants, whose attacks were primarily aimed at Israel, but also included strikes in Europe and hijackings on international air routes.
In order to settle the conflict, numerous United Nations Resolutions have been passed calling for peace, the return of the refugees to their homes, Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and the establishment of permanent boundaries. Several Western nations have attempted mediation, a Palestinian spokesman has argued the matter before the General Assembly of the UN, and in 1977 President Sadat of Egypt traveled to Jerusalem and appeared before the Israeli parliament in an unprecedented peace initiative. President Carter of the United States brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel together in the United States and himself traveled to the Middle East in an attempt to persuade at least these two countries to conclude a peace treaty, and in March 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a treaty to which the United States was also a signatory. Although it led to an improvement in Egyptian-Israeli relations which resulted in Israeli evacuation of some occupied Egyptian territory and the opening of the Suez Canal to Israeli ships, however, this separate peace treaty did nothing to bring about withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights of Syria and left untouched the root cause of the entire problem- that is, the status of the Palestinians. The immediate net result of the treaty, in fact, was a general increase in tension in the Middle East which manifested itself in an apparent increase in Israeli intransigence in the occupied territories and the isolation of Egypt from the rest of the Arab world, including those countries on which it has been most heavily dependent for economic and political backing and which were opposed to the separate treaty because it failed to achieve a permanent and comprehensive peace.