Why Does History Help Explain Geo-Political Conflicts?

The construction of historical narratives and the pedagogic authority they hold has been vital in cultivating a sense of legitimacy with those engaged in violent practices in a geo-political conflict. In fact, these narratives are part of violence itself. Although media and education systems usually hold a significant grip on the dissemination of the teaching and learning of history, displaced and diasporic families have offered important resistance to otherwise dominant versions of history. History becomes the defining factor of national consciousness and therefore legitimacy for that nation state to dominate, kill, plunder and extract.

I believe it important to note that both the dominant imperialist and colonialist nations dominated the education systems where they ruled. The significance of this cannot be understated. Imperialists and colonisers quite clearly wanted more than land and natural resources; they want hegemony. In Ireland, the Irish language was almost completely eradicated by mandatory English-speaking schools. The attempt to integrate colonised peoples into a British identity was not only about dominance but control. In fact, jailed Irish republicans used Irish to communicate covertly. Knowledge of one’s own national history and culture has long been a weapon of the oppressed.

A drawing depicting men and women captured to be sold as slaves. (Credit: WELLCOME IMAGES via. WIKI)

Similarly, history is weaponised in the study of archaeology in Palestine. The discipline has been used as a tool to legitimate colonisation through a history explicitly based on ethnonationalism. The enmeshing of religious history from thousands of years ago with a modern-day nation state’s claim to land is a perfect example of Benedict Anderson’s argument that nationalism is an “imitation of simultaneity across homogenous, empty time”. This claim, however, is overshadowed by the history of the Palestinians who have been dispossessed of their land and of which they have emotional and practical ties to within living memory. These personal histories will be passed down orally through families and will be the spark for resistance to the colonisation process for generations to come.

History can seem like a dry academic investigation of a static past; however, the stage is set for the morality play of history in the mainstream media often. Britain seems to be obsessed with an overly simplistic version its history. When representations are narrow and limited to mostly excavations of world war two, a rare occasion in which Britain made a positive impact through contributing to the defeat of German fascism, it is easy to see how the identity of ‘Britons’ on the world stage can appear as a trans historic moral force to some. This is important to understand how people in the army understand their role as a historical agent and can believe they are doing their duty to a higher moral power, their civic religion: nationalism. It is for this reason that people can participate in imperialist wars such as the invasion of Iraq and keep a personal sense of morality and justice.

Although a new generation is questioning the authority of these narratives. This nationalism is outdated for a country that is home to people from previous colonies of Britain. Eric Williams argues that “the British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. In fact, the cultural homogeneity that supports history as national morality play is swiftly broken by the curiosity, doubt and challenge of a new generation. The petition to teach the empirical truth of colonialism has garnered massive support and shows that a new generation will attempt at establishing their own history. The question that lingers is: will this be based on a new kind nationalism?

Finlay Purcell

Why Events in the Gulf Still Matter: Implications of Peace Between Israel and the UAE

There’s a joke that goes as follows: ‘…and on the eighth day, God created the Middle East, and said “let there be breaking news”’. In this constant stream of events it can be hard to distinguish between the important and irrelevant – but make no mistake, mutual recognition between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is as important as it gets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a joint statement with Senior US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates peace accords, Jerusalem, 30 August 2020. (Credit: Reuters)

With the exception of Israel, every Middle Eastern country is Muslim. More importantly, with the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, every country is Arab. In the early years of the 20th century, this relationship wasn’t contentious – indeed, the first Iraqi Minister of Finance was Jewish. However, Zionism and the Arab reaction to it, in concert with the destabilising effects of latter-stage colonialism, fuelled a rise in animosity and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 was met by a declaration of war by its Arab neighbours.

The next 25 years saw two more wars and – in the midst of the Cold War – the US formed a strategy to protect what it viewed as an outpost of Western liberalism. American foreign policy united around providing Israel with a qualitative military edge over other Middle Eastern states. Accordingly, Israel won every major Cold War conflict, and territorial gains they made in these wars forced Arab neighbours to coalesce around a new strategy of ‘land for peace’. This saw Israel return the Sinai to Egypt in 1977 in exchange for recognition, and grant limited Palestinian autonomy in exchange for peace with Jordan in 1994. Eight years later, the Arab League declared that its members would collectively recognise the State of Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

At the same time, two key events took place. The 1979 revolution in Iran turned a staunch American and Israeli ally into an anti-Western, anti-Arab power and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a regional power vacuum. The last two decades have seen an Iran-Arab cold war across the region. Saudi Arabia, along with its Arab allies, is currently waging a war of influence against Iran across the Middle East. Yemen, Syria and Lebanon in particular bear the fingerprints of this struggle.

Now, for the coup de grace. In 2015, the US signed a deal with Iran, trading sanctions relief in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear programme. Israel and the Arab World were united in their fear of Iran and animosity towards the deal, which allowed Iran to funnel more money to proxy groups in the region. President Trump upended America’s approach, seeking to unite Israel and the Arab states by opposing Iranian regional influence. This bipolar strategy enabled the US to bring Israel and the UAE closer together and on August 13th, the two nations signed a deal mutually recognising each other’s existence.

So why the UAE, of all Arab states? In one respect, the Emirates are keen to bolster their military position. The US may be more willing to sell technologically-advanced weapons, including the coveted F-35, to seemingly less belligerent Arab powers. Israel is also a regional leader in technology, which the UAE may stand to benefit from.

Yet the UAE also benefits from its demographics. Nearly 60% of its population are South Asian foreign workers, employed in massive construction projects in Dubai; only 11% are Arab Emirati citizens. This corporate state structure makes the Emirati monarchy highly stable in comparison to its Arab neighbours, who are populated by citizenries that are generally hostile towards Israel.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, will likely wait and see if other Gulf States follow the UAE’s lead before making its own peace deal with Israel. The primary objective of all Arab autocracies is domestic stability, and Saudi Arabia’s conservative Muslim population might view public overtures towards Israel as a sell-out by the state’s monarchy. The Arab populations in Africa are generally less conservative but they make up for it with anti-imperialist sentiment, and would be unlikely to recognise Israel whilst the occupation continues.

This brings us to the one Arab entity that will not be making peace in the near future – Palestine. Arab states have largely given up on the Palestinian cause and instead come to fear Palestinian freedom, lest it bring to power a people’s government that undermines their fragile authoritarian legitimacy. Until recently, Palestinians still had one bargaining chip. Previously, the Arab League had almost unanimously withheld recognition of Israel. When it did come, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan, it was in exchange for significant concessions. Now that the UAE has agreed to recognise Israel with no significant conditions, Palestinian leaders will feel as if the rug has been swept out from under their feet. The UAE has given an official seal of approval to the occupation; expect to see it remain for a long time.

Seth Weisz 

Trapped in History: The Plight of Lebanon

The explosion that ripped through Beirut on the evening of the 4th August 2020 is estimated to have had one tenth of the power of an atomic bomb. It immediately left over 300,000 people homeless, and destroyed or damaged more than 70,000 buildings.

By the next morning, the main fire caused by the explosion was mostly extinguished, and a desperate attempt to locate the missing in the ruins of the city was well underway. Scores of people were physically trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Metaphorically, most of the country faces a similar snare, trapped under the rubble of a history of broken government and corruption. 

An aerial view of the port destroyed after the explosions in August. (Credit: Hussein Malla via AP)

The cause of an explosion of such magnitude can be traced back to a history of negligence and corruption. Some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in explosives and fertilisers, had been stored in a warehouse by the port for over six years, and a fire triggered the substance to explode. Only six months earlier, inspectors had warned that the ammonium nitrate could “blow up the whole of Beirut”. Between the ammonium nitrate being seized from a boat heading to Mozambique and the explosion, six letters were sent from the director of customs to a judge warning of the dangers of the substance and asking for instructions on how to handle it. Both Lebanon’s prime minister and president were informed of explosives at the port in July. 

Prime Minister Hassan Diab called the storage of such a substance ‘unacceptable’, and President Michel Aoun has insisted an investigation will take place whilst at the same time rejecting an international inquiry. It is clear that, whoever the blame eventually lands on, the government will not be the culprit. 

The neglect and dismissal of such concerns could be expected in a government with a history of serving its own interests over that of the population. In theory, the political system, a product of colonial rule, represents all religious groups within the government. However, in practice, it causes much divide and delays over decision making, and is well suited to political patronage and money laundering. This system traps those it claims to serve in economic hardship, and only benefits those directly connected with the government. 

Colonial rule contributed to the formation of Lebanon along the lines of various people groups, and its Civil War 1975-1990 gave military warlords a hold on government that has never truly been severed. Once combined with external influence that remains prominent in Lebanon, from Iran and Palestine to Israel and the United States, it is clear the people of Lebanon are trapped in a history that offers them next to no priority or say. 

The Lebanese government is just as aware of these trappings – and can exploit them for their own purpose. The rebirthing of the same corrupt government under a different face has been occurring for years. In February 2005, when the former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, hope for a new political government was quickly dashed. Similarly, in October 2019 when the former prime minister resigned following mass protests over a newly introduced tax on WhatsApp, there were promises within the government of change, that came to nothing. Such occurrences reaffirm that the recent resignation of the cabinet will do nothing to free the country from corruption – the same members of government will stay on in caretaker form and find new roles within a new government they can still control, whilst making promises that change is coming. 

Lebanon is now facing a great humanitarian and economic crisis, with 25% of the country in extreme poverty, and the failed state having defaulted on its loans in March. The government is aware that they can keep a hold of power, and the people are aware they are trapped. Protests are already thinning and the cycle continues.

Maddy Burt