Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Many of our policy debates and conflicts both domestic and foreign call on history to validate their positions. At home, crimes from the past like slavery and legal segregation are used to justify present policies ranging from racial set asides to housing regulations long after those institutions have been dismantled. Abroad, our jihadist enemies continually evoke the Crusades, “colonialism,” and “imperialism” as justifications for their violence. Yet the “history” used in such fashion is usually one-sided, simplistic, or downright false. Nor is the reason hard to find: as we read in 1984, “Who controls the past . . . controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Bad history is a powerful instrument for gaining political power.
Nowhere is the abuse of history more rampant than in the Middle East. Since World War II all the problems whose origins lie in dysfunctional tribal and religious beliefs and behaviors have been laid at the feet of “colonialism” and “imperialism.” Western leftists––besotted both by a marxiste hatred of liberal democracy, and by juvenile noble-savage Third-Worldism–– have legitimized this specious pretext, which now for many has become historical fact.
In reality, Europeans never had colonies in the modern Middle East, for the simple reason that the territory was controlled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Hence “colonialism” is irrelevant for that region’s history. The facts of that history teach us that the feckless incompetence of a series of Ottoman sultans, in pursuit of imperialist dreams of recovering their lost Balkan provinces and restoring their hegemony over Egypt, had financially weakened the empire and made it dependent on the European powers who lent them the money. As a result, it became the geopolitical “sick man” that England had to protect against Russian adventurism and Egyptian expansionism.
Historians Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh succinctly state the conclusion of a sober examination of these facts:
Twentieth-Century Middle Eastern history is essentially the culmination of long-standing indigenous trends, passions, and patterns of behavior rather than an externally imposed dictate. Great-power influences, however potent, have played a secondary role, constituting neither the primary force behind the region’s political development nor the main cause of its notorious volatility. Even at the weakest point in their modern history, during the First World War and in its immediate wake, Middle Eastern actors were not hapless victims of predatory imperial powers but active participants in the restructuring of their region.
From the Ottoman decision to join the Central Powers in World War I in order to regain imperial status and recover lost territory, to the Hashemite clan’s inveigling England into giving them most of the Ottoman territories after the war, the prime movers in creating the modern Middle East were the Ottomans, Egyptians, and Arabs, not the “colonial” powers who, as great powers have done since ancient Sumer, attempted to influence events in order to advance their own interests. But that’s not “imperialism” properly understood.
The most egregious example of this Orwellian history, however, is the predicating of Muslim violence against Israel on its status as a neo-imperialist Western stooge violently thrust into the “homeland” of the “Palestinian” people whose ancient lands were stolen by an “illegitimate” nation that continues brutally to “occupy” the territory rightfully belonging to the “Palestinians.”
Everything about this narrative is false. There is no such thing as a “Palestinian” people, an idea that arose only after the Six Day War of 1967. The bulk of the people mistakenly called “Palestinians” are ethnically, religiously, and linguistically indistinguishable from Arab Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria. Numerous comments by Arab leaders before 1967 emphasized this fact. For example, Zouhair Muhsin, a member of the Executive Council of the PLO, said, “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity… Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”
Second, the region in question was never an Arab homeland, and Arabs only began to inhabit it permanently after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637. Since then Muslim Arabs have come as conquerors, occupiers, migrant laborers, and immigrants, but they are no more “indigenous” peoples than Americans are of North America. On the other hand, abundant literary and archaeological evidence confirms the presence of Jews in the area and the status of Jerusalem as a Jewish city since 1300 B.C. This fact explains the Orwellian rewrite of history the Palestinian Arabs are currently engaged in, most despicably by destroying the archeological evidence on the Temple Mount that confirms the Jews’ presence on that site almost 2000 years before Islam even existed.
Third, the claim that Israel is an “illegitimate” state is false. Israel was created as part of the mandatory system put into place after World War I as part of the peace settlement, and confirmed by several international treaties, the League of Nations, and later U.N. Resolution 181. Except for the U.N. resolution, that same process created the new nations of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. If Israel is illegitimate, why aren’t those other nations? Could it be because for traditional Muslims, it is Jews who are illegitimate, not their state? Could that explain why over a million Arabs live in Israel, but any future Palestinian state must be Judenrein?
Finally, the charge of an “illegal occupation” of the “occupied West Bank” is a canard. Those territories, comprising the heartland of the ancient Jewish nations of Judea and Samaria, are disputed, their final disposition awaiting a peace treaty. There are no “borders” thought to define the mythical Palestinian nation. Those lines on the map are armistice lines, created after Israel defeated the armies of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt in 1967. By all rights as the victor, Israel could have incorporated the so-called West Bank into the state of Israel, on the same eternal wages of war that led to the American Southwest being incorporated into the U.S. after the 1846-48 war with Mexico, or of Prussian Germany into Poland after World War II. Indeed, since the territory in question was for thousands of years the homeland of the Jewish people, Israel would have had a better case for restoring Judea and Samaria to Israel. Instead, in the Orwellian history created by Muslims and accepted by the West, the indigenous peoples are considered the “occupiers” of their own lands, and conquerors, invaders, and colonizers considered the disenfranchised victims.
The recent suicide-murders of random Israelis by Palestinians have been analyzed in terms that perpetuate this false history. Our intellectually challenged Secretary of State, John Kerry, referred to this false history when he said at Harvard, “There’s been a massive increase in settlement over the course of the last years and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing,” he said. “Settlements” is nothing more than a mindless mantra, like “cycle of violence” or “checkpoints” or the “sanctity of the al-Aqsa mosque,” for the pusillanimous West, while for Muslims they are the pretexts for practicing their traditional Jew-hatred and sacralized violence.
The history this reporting on the Temple Mount ignores is the great forbearance, and to be sure tactical pragmatism, of the Israelis in leaving the Temple Mount under the management of the Arabs; while a mosque created as a triumphalist boast over conquered Christians and Jews, in a city never mentioned in the Koran, is respected more by the West than its own empty cathedrals. Meanwhile the travails of Muslim immigrants are hyped and agonized over more than the crucifixions, torture, rape, and murder of Christians in the greatest mass persecution of Christians in history.
These are the wages of historical ignorance and the acceptance of a history made up by an adversary who can “thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened,” as Orwell says of the Party in 1984. Our foreign policy has often been predicated on these lies, and the outcome has been predictable when lies are the foundation of policies––the abject failure we are witnessing in the region today.