Essay: European Colonialism in the Middle East History

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European Colonialism in the Middle East

History reveals how the European powers carved out their own colonies in the Middle East, partly for the sheer power of ownership and domination, and partly due to Europe's need for the valuable resources that the Middle East could provide. These power grabs have had a profound effect on the lives of the people in those nations. This paper will review and critique two countries in the Middle East that came under the colonial authority of European nations -- Iran and Egypt.

The Literature on Impacts of European Colonial Activity: David Seddon describes colonialism as the "process and later the system" through which the powers in Europe "intervened in, occupied, settled and defined as 'colonies'" (Seddon, 2004). Moreover, some refer to colonialism as a particular kind of "imperialism" because it is basically one country conquering another country, dominating that country and imposing its political and military will over that subdued nation. The process of European colonialism began in the Middle East with the French invasion of what later became Algeria, Seddon explains. The more aggressive colonialization of the Middle East began "in the late 19th Century through the first half of the 20th Century," Seddon writes.

Colonialism combines "military, political and cultural force" and sometimes the colonial power imposes "discriminatory labour and trade relationships," according to a book by Paul Gillen and Devleena Ghosh (Colonialism & Modernity). Those colonized are "compelled to accept the laws and political institutions of their conquerors… their ways of life and patterns of culture are altered, sometimes to the p point where their language and traditions are lost," Gillen explains (p. 45).

In the 19th Century European states had already seized and controlled colonies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere but the Middle East had "never been systematically colonized" with the possible exception of France in Algeria and Egypt. But as the oil industry was developed in the Middle East, due to the impetus of "capitalist investors, large companies and foreign governments," Middle Eastern rules were more and more aware "and disturbed by what appeared to be a new form of indirect imperialism" (Social Studies School Service, 2002). That "imperialism" was actually colonialization and the motive was to make "huge profits" from "guaranteed oil supplies" (Social Studies School Service).

By the close of the 19th Century, England had "successfully colonized much of India," the French (led by Napoleon Bonaparte) colonized Egypt two years before the 19th Century (1798), and France invaded Algeria in 1830 and began its occupation of Tunisia in 1881 (Zayd, et al., 2006). In Egypt, as early as 1798, the citizens began to be affected socially and culturally by their colonizers, Zayd explains. "Muslims became aware of a different lifestyle introduced into their everyday lives… their colonizers looked and dressed differently, behaved and spoke differently," Zayd continues. The colonizers ate "forbidden, illegal food" (haram); they drank wine (forbidden in Muslim societies) and "interacted freely with women who were not their mahram" (brother, father, husband or relative), Zayd points out.

Egypt as a European "Protectorate" / Colony: The upper Nile basin had been of great interest to the British in the 18th Century, since the route to India was far shorter going to Egypt and traveling overland to India as opposed to going all the way around the Cape of Good Hope (southern Africa). Napoleon had pointed out the importance of Egypt to Britain in 1798 when Napoleon arrived in Egypt that year and defeated the Mameluke Army (Egypt's defense force0 at the Battle of the Pyramids (British Empire). After the British defeated the French at the Battle of the Sphinx in 1801, England was under British control until 1805 when new Egyptian leader Muhammed Ali defeated them in 1807. The French put up the cash to build the Suez Canal (which opened in 1869); later the British joined with France to bail out the troubled Egyptian financial coffers and in effect, "this stewardship was little more than a joint form of colonization" (British Empire). Rebellion against the British was launched in 1882 by the Egyptian army, and when the French refused to cooperate in the battle to bombard Alexandria, the British jumped at the chance and ended up "masters of Egypt," the article in the British Empire continues. Having control over the Suez Canal (a quick route to India, which Britain controlled) was a huge tactical and strategic victory for Britain.

In 1922 the protectorate arrangement between Britain and Egypt officially came to an end, although Britain still retained a great deal of power over the canal. Meanwhile, when India achieved its independence from England in 1947, which meant, "…the British rationale for holding on to any power over Egypt and the Suez Canal had been lost," the British Empire Website explains (p. 6). Britain was hanging on to the "Suez Canal by her fingertips," but meantime -- and this answers the question as to the implications for key Islamic institutions -- a "new kind of radicalism had entered Egyptian politics. This was partly Britain's fault" because the creation of Israel brought Muslim radicals together and violence was directed at the British and the ruling Egyptian party (who were pro-British). "Guerilla warfare broke out in the Canal Zone," and in 1951 a state of emergency was declared, the British Empire publication explains. The British military response to that emergency was very controversial.

Meantime, the British supported the U.S. And the U.S. supported Israel, so anger and violence against British holdings increased. Egyptian president Nasser began getting his military needs from the Russians and it was obvious the British power over Egypt was at an end. Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty with Nasser in 1954, basically calling for England to remove its troops and get out of Egypt. The real power that pushed Britain out of Egypt was nationalism; Nasser used the emotional rejection of Britain and it's arrogance to gain the support of his people. Looking at this issue provides an example of how European colonialism impacted the Middle East, and impacts the Muslim people and culture is visible today.

Incidentally, when Britain used military force to keep its slim hold on the Suez Canal, a loud political battle broke out in London, according to a.J. Stockwell, writing in History Today. "Advocates of firm government at home and abroad were morally outraged" that the British didn't use full military force in the matter, and basically gave the canal to Nasser (Stockwell, 2006). It "divided the nation, split political parties, divided families, cut through generations," and more, but it was a good thing for Islamic institutions because Britain's time for power in that country had come and gone by now (Stockwell, 2).

Kuwait -- a Middle Eastern Country Buffeted by Colonialism: The Public Broadcast Service provides a historical outline of Kuwait, which was once part of the Ottoman Empire, then was given "semi-autonomy from Ottoman Turkey in the late 1800s" because there was a fear of direct rule by Turkey," PBS explains. A deal was cut between the Ottoman Empire and Britain in 1899, to allow Kuwait to become a "protectorate of Britain" (PBS). The deal went like this: Britain will provide naval protection for Kuwait and in turn Kuwait allows Britain to have "control of Kuwait's foreign affair," the PBS site points out.

Not unexpectedly, oil entered the picture; in 1937 the U.S.-British Kuwait Oil Company discovered "large oil reserves in the southeastern part of the country," and with the huge influx of money from the sale of oil, Britain ended its "protectorate" in 1961. Kuwait was now independent. But there were remaining tensions with neighbor Iraq; when Kuwait refused to "pardon" the huge debt that Iraq owed Kuwait (money loaned so Iraq could launch the war against Iran), Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing oil from an oil field supposedly owned by Iraq.

The tensions boiled over when Saddam Hussein used that excuse to invade Kuwait. Part of Hussein's justification for this aggression was that "The Iraqi government…still believed that Kuwait was a natural part of Iraq, carved off by British imperialism," the PBS site explains.

The war that Hussein started ended quickly, when the U.S. And allies attacked Hussein's forces and pushed Iraq back into their own territory.

In a 1992 article (Journal of International Affairs) F. Gregory Gause writes that the security situations in certain Middle Eastern states have been quite shaky since the end of the colonial control that European powers held. That is because the European colonialists left behind "states with little or nor history" along with limited governing apparatus and few military capabilities (Gause, 1992, 441).

As an example Gause sites the Iraqi invasion and "annexation" of Kuwait in 1990. Gause claims that the protection provided by the British -- of small sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf, in particular Kuwait -- kept nations free from takeover by other states in the region. Once the colonial power departed, small states like Kuwait were ripe for the picking by bullying neighbors like Saddam Hussein… [END OF PREVIEW]

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