Home / In Depth / Gertrude Bell & The Birth of Modern Iraq

Gertrude Bell & The Birth of Modern Iraq

THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – By Dr. Geoffrey Cook –Your correspondent is revisiting and expanding upon an article originally published a few years back by the Muslim Observer (U.SA.), and was datelined Berkeley (Calif.) at its publication.  Since, with the raise of the Islamic (pseudo-)”State” of Iraq and the Levant (a.k.a. ISIL), the question of a possible division of Iraq along more “organic” boundaries has arisen once again.  As your author mentioned in his last post to the Times, the most serious proposal on the table at the moment was penned by (U.S.) Vice-President Joe Biden, but has not been accepted as American foreign policy.  It would divide the Mesopotamians into three nation-states.

As your correspondent posted in his previous posting, many of the boundaries that were carved out of the (former) Ottoman Empire were quite arbitrary and put disparate populations within a sectarian, linguistic and ethnic Hodge-Podge.

It has been remarked that the United States had been making the same errors in recomposing modern Iraq in the “Baby” Bush years as the British did during the 1920s.

This report is based upon the comments of the anthropologist, William Breeman, during the height of the U.S. involvement within the precincts of the ancient Babylonian bounds.  He was speaking at the University of California in that aforementioned city on the eastern shores of the San Francisco Bay mega-metropolis.   His academic expertise is modern Iraq which has suddenly become quite valuable.  As he began his presentation, for this (North American) part of the world this “…might be at a changing point…but I am not holding my breath.”  (The recent incursions have metaphorically released his breath.)

Curiously, one of the most influential people in shaping the modern Middle East from the old Ottoman Empire after the First World War was the Englishwoman Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) — especially the Iraqi nation.  Your writer inserts the cliché that to understand the present it is a necessity to understand the past, and, especially, to have a better grasp of where we might be going.  Gertrude Bell is an important bridge to the past and the mistakes of then and now and particularly during the U.S involvement over the last decade — as well as to what is futilely being done for a better future.

Bell had a deep love, as T.E. Lawrence, for the Arabs and their language.  Because of her impressive linguistic skills and cultural knowledge she found herself in the British World War I intelligence apparatus and later as a political agent — no mean feat for a woman during the European Imperial period.  Although she faced prejudices as a female, she was the administrator most responsible for drawing up the Colonial boundaries out of the former Ottoman state – which became the independent entities of today.  She was chosen for the job because of her deep knowledge of the ethnic divisions within West Asia which, also, in the light of the intervening history has shown itself to be an Orientalist pitfall of miscalculations.  Baghdad, throughout her tenure, became the de facto “capital” for the management of the British Empire in the Middle East.  (Curiously, during the 1920s, Bell made the probing and prophetic exclamation that “There is nothing to be done but to educate the Americans!”)

Bleeman pointed out the obvious; “The past lives with us today.”  As during the recent Bush- occupation, the Chalabi family, who were recently paramount collaborators with the U.S. Neo-Cons, also, had a strong association with the Baghdad government under the British.  The British found it difficult “supervising” the Shias in their time as the Americans in this Post-Modern era.

Breeman perceives an Iraqi Shia continuity to their history of struggle against (alien) change — especially which was brought in by the Europeans and more recently the Americans.  The latter occupation showed the Shiites another ominous possible sign of cultural breakdown for them during the past decade and one half.  Now, the people’s future is less secure.  Although the U.S. had proclaimed it would do – and now has — withdrawn from its self-proclaimed authority over the Tigris and Euphrates.  Yet the rejection of a proposed treaty by the Malaki government that would have left a token American force in the sparsely populated hinterlands has made it impossible for the Americans to gallop to the rescue of the Iraqi people from DAASH.  This decision to exclude the U.S. from any protective role is the logical evolution from the Baghdadi nation’s mistrust of the European Imperial powers.  Even Today, this has meant the United States could not intervene on the ground in timely and decisive way even if their domestic political will was there to do so.

Back to Two Rivers of ninety years ago, Gertrude cried out that “The extremists are striving for independence without the Mandate [authorization that the old League of Nations gave Colonial territories

to rule stateless territories such as Iraq]…” Yet the Europeans felt that they were doing a favor to the Muslims, as Bell wrote: “The English have united Islam!  The choice rests with the people!”

Gertrude Bell and the British Embassy were deeply involved in the creation and subsequent politics of the Iraqi state.  The Kurdish and other minority provinces were built as buffer regions against the Turks

and other bordering nationalities.

“The Iraqis see the Americans as a continuation of the British;” i.e., the (recent) illegitimate occupying force.  This explains the current Mesopotamian revolt, for the same occurred during the British Imperium

causing high Iraqi, U.K. (United Kingdom) and BIA (British Indian Army) casualties.  The ethnic groupings there now, also, feel Washington wishes a straight-forward Colonial domination whereas the indigenous citizens of the region, of course, desire self-agency.

Actually, Bell failed to fully understand the Shiites.  Today the United States is frightened that a majority Shiite government would demand an Islamic State.

(The differences between the Shia and Sunni Islamic States — e.g., the most dramatic Taliban Afghanistan and contemporaneous Iran – should be delineated by Western scholars, for policy-makers in the non-Islamic world are largely ignorant of those crucial differences.)

The late Bush regime depicted the Shia as wild men!  Although, at the same time, they were seen as the basis for future stability, the Shiites were rightfully angered and madden at the recent creeping occupation. The States, then, considered them to be the natural ally of their co-religionist Iranian “cousins” across the border, which, strangely, could now become a plus for the former’s struggle for containment of the heirs of al-Qaida.  Still, in the 2000s the then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney asserted that “the Shiites must be prohibited from the fasces.”  Here in America there “…is a myth of a Shiite monolith..,” for in the Middle East, the United States is ignorant of the situation on the ground.

Essentially, Shiite-ism transcends borders.  The basis of the Shia is one of consensus to the precepts of their interpretation of Islam.

Today familial connections are strong amongst religious and political elites in both Iraq and Iran.  For the District of Columbia, during the second Bush family’s interregnum this fact merely “muddies the waters” of understanding. .

Breeman wrongly contends Iran “…based their revolution from the Shah on Islamic doctrine that is anathema for the rest of the Shiite world.”

Although, “A Shiite government may not be unworkable for the United States of America” with which to live, for there is an acceptance of the division between Mosque and State even though it is a given that a Shiite-dominated Iraq would naturally have good relations with contemporary Iran (as, fortunately, has been shown to be true in this present danger.)  Interestingly, Sistani — a descendant and / or relative of several other religious leaders in the current and past period – is the most respected Ayatollah in the Shiite world.  Thus, Iran would look more toward Iraq than the other way around.  (Breeman’s prediction is demonstrated in this present emergency.)

Although Gertrude Bell was a remarkable woman influencing not only Iraq but the rest of the Middle East as well — both positively and negatively, “The United States must make sure that we do not make the same mistakes as the British.”   Your critic is afraid we are doing even a worse job of it, though!

Hopefully, the more enlightened Obama Administration will see the only way out of the present conundrum with the specter of a (fundamentalist) ISIS dominating the Middle East is rapprochement with Iran and the rest of the Shiite world despite the objection of Saud Arabia, Israel and the UAE (United Arab Emirates).


Dr. Geoffrey Cook, Ph.D – Non-Resident Scholar  at Beirut Center for Middle East Studies – London. He is an historian, writer and artist. His primary academic interest is the British period in India. He has an advanced degree in South Asian studies, and was a student of the late George F. Dales at Berkeley, who introduced him to the ancient Indus. He also studied with art historians Joanna Williams and Guitty Azarpay; this section began as a paper for Prof. Azarpay at the University of California, Berkeley. Cook’s academic publications have appeared in From Sumer to Meluhha,Indo-British Review, International Journal of Indian Studies, International Journal of Hindu Studies, Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin et al. He also has published several books of creative writing and translations.




Check Also

‘Station Eleven’: Mackenzie Davis Showing the Theatrical Way to a Vaccine Free Future – PART II

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD The Person is the Politics Well, that’s enough of that. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *