Shifting Sands: A Reflection

By Philip Davies (PEF Chairman)

On that day I decided to visit an exhibition at the National Civil War Centre in Newark (UK): Shifting Sands: Lawrence of Arabia and the Great Arab Revolt, I awoke to news of another Islamist attack in London. It was hard not to keep pondering the possible connections between these two.

The main reason for my visit to Newark was the association between Lawrence and the PEF, which had lent some items for the exhibition, including a copy of the original edition of The Wilderness of Zin, from the title page of which Lawrence wished his name as co-author to be withheld, (his written instruction is documented in another exhibit).

It’s an exhibition I would strongly recommend to anyone, especially those not too familiar with the central place of the Arab and Muslim world in the Great War itself, about which so much has been said and written recently. As Peter Frankopan interprets it in his wonderful history of the world as seen from central Asia, The Silk Roads, this conflict, though triggered in Serbia, had roots in the struggle of the ‘Great Powers’ over Asia, with the encroachment of Russia on the borders of India and the ambitions of Germany to penetrate beyond the Middle East, not to mention protection of the Suez Canal. The covetousness of these Western powers (Russia, Britain, France, Germany) for the lands of the weakening Ottoman empire and the need to secure sources of oil to fuel their economies during the war and after, led to the configuration of the political geography of the Middle East that is now witnessing terrible upheavals (aided by further Western intervention). As the exhibition also reminds us, the mission of the PEF—including Lawrence himself—was used by the British War Office as an disguise for military intelligence-gathering in the years before the outbreak of the Great War.

The exhibition makes clear, too, the British government’s duplicitous—if, in the circumstances, minimally defensible—exploitation of both Jews and the Arabs for the purpose of gaining their benevolence and cooperation in the war. Promises were made on the one hand to support Jewish settlement in Palestine, while on the other the Emir Hussein was to be installed as ruler of an independent Arab kingdom in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The first promise was kept; the other, on the basis of which Lawrence was able to secure the ‘Arab revolt’, was betrayed, and, as the exhibition explains, its breach left him deeply ashamed of both his government and of his own role in the deception.

Whether or not the contemporary British visitor also feels a sense of shame at such behaviour, the experience prompts an awareness that the jihad of which Lawrence was so proudly a part, and the Arab kingdom of which its participants dreamed, have both awoken again in grisly forms. Such terrorist attacks, and the creation of an ‘Islamic State’, are grisly perversions of what Lawrence and Hussein dreamed of. Arguably, the State of Israel is not what Balfour would have wished, either: it exists in the midst of hostility and enmity rather than in the peace and security for Jews that it was surely supposed to offer. The exhibition reproduces Balfour’s famous ‘letter’ in which he alludes to the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, but also remarks that Zionism was of ‘far profounder import than the prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land’.

Current reflections on the Great War often remark that the reallocation of power within Europe after the fall of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires (and the dissolution of the British) is still not quite accomplished. This is even truer of the Middle East, where long-established tribal identities were sliced through by lines on the ground, separating territories carved out among European victors. The exhibition shows Lawrence’s own proposed map of a post-war Middle East, which, unlike what became the reality, attempted to take account of the identities that mattered to its inhabitants.

That Western intervention in the Middle East will end as the Crusades did is unlikely. But between the nationalist jihad once vital to Britain’s seizure of Ottoman spoils and the fundamentalist jihad now waged against the it and other Western nations (along with countless Muslims, it must be added) runs the same stream. I left this impressive exhibition realizing how great is the need for an impartial, scholarly but sympathetic dedication to the history and culture of a land which has for centuries been the focus of the West’s Christendom, yet which our governments, past and present, have treated with such disdain.

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