The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Islam

THE Islamic world is in the grip of a revolutionary, anticolonial fever that is rapidly undermining the interest and the prestige of the Western powers in the Middle and Near East and in North Africa. To give some idea of the state of revolutionary ferment, it is necessary to cite only one fact. In the past two and a half years, no fewer than ten prominent personalities have been assassinated in the Near East, the most important of whom was King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan. In many cases the victims were suspected ol being too friendly towards one or another of the Western powers.

This atmosphere of intrigue, conspiracy, and assassination has existed in more or less acute form ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, which created a vacuum of power in the Near East just as it did in the Balkans. To fill it, Lawrence of Arabia dreamed of founding an Arab empire composted of seven associated principalities, but his dreams were shattered by the fanatical individualism and provincial jealousies of the Arab princes who sprang up out of the desert after the tide of Turkish power had receded.

To this day it has been the constant aim of the British Foreign Office to further the cause of Arab union: to this day all eflorts in this direction have failed. Each Arab state has jealously guarded its frontiers and maintained a vigilant watch against any imperialistic or ambitious designs on the part of its Arab neighbors. A kind of automatic mechanism, reminiscent of the European balance of power, has tended to league together the weaker states whenever they have thought themselves menaced by a stronger Arab power. Similarly, whenever a non-Arabic country has begun to assume too much influence over any Arab state, that slate has instinctively tended to favor the chief rival of the intruder.

French and British rivalry

The two principal foreign rivals for influence and power in the Near East have for a long time been France and Britain. Where the influence and authority of Britain have been great, as in Egypt, there has existed a strong pro-French sentiment by way of resistance and protestation. Similarly, when Syria and Lebanon were French protectorates between the two wars, the British were very popular there. It was, in fact, due to the rivalry between France and Britain that these two states achieved their independence at the end of the last war.

In the course of the war Britain overran them and took them from Vichy France. But few Frenchmen, however anti-Vichy, were willing to see the British step into their shoes. Britain was unable, therefore, to establish a protectorate over them, as she would have liked to do, because that would have alienated France completely. All she was able to do was to prevent the French from coming back by giving these states their independence, an arrangement which the French government was reluctantly forced to accept at the end of the war because it was too weak to reassert its authority in the Near East at the time.

Since that time the Foreign Office has tried to accomplish its design in a more circuitous manner by cautiously encouraging Abdullah in his aims of creating a “Greater Syria,”in which, of course, Great Britain would continue to exercise as much influence as she had in Trans-Jordan.

The assassination of King Abdullah temporarily put an end to all these hopes. But temporarily only. The Foreign Office seems likely to pursue the same aim that it has consistently followed for over thirty years—the creation of a “Greater Syria" where it can maintain a firm position of military power and the consolidation of the Arab League to reduce interstate friction to a minimum in the Near East. There is already talk of the possibility of Feisal II of Iraq (Abdullah’s great-nephew) assuming the role in the Near East of his great-uncle, inasmuch as neither of Abdullah’s two sons has the stature to take his father’s place. On September 6, Abdullah’s elder son became King Talal and the British clung to the hope that he would follow his father’s policy of maintaining friendly relations with them.

The British will certainly not have an easy time making up for the loss of Abdullah, even if they transfer their favor to the ruler of Iraq. The creation of an Arab Legion by a man like Glubb Pasha was possible twently-five years ago at a time when the British Army enjoyed honor ami fame among the Arabs for having driven the Turkish armies back into Anatolia.

But today the souvenirs of Turkish rule are fading away, and the presence of British officers, businessmen, and engineers, who have not come as liberators but as colonizers and organizers, clouds out all memories of the past and draws attention to the present.

Whether or not the Foreign Office will succeed in re-establishing Great Britain’s position in the Near East, which Abdullah’s death has gravely undermined, remains to be seen. But its fundamental aim will be to maintain the supremacy of British diplomatic influence in the Near East, To do so, it will continue to urge close coöperation with the United States, while pursuing an independent policy at the same time, and it will pour cold water on any French attempt to have a say in Near Eastern affairs.

French resentment

Today, as in the past, the French resent these efforts intended to make the Near East a private diplomatic reserve for Great Britain. To some extent this resentment is the expression of irritation and jealousy caused by the past triumphs of a more successful rival at the expense of France.

There have always been some Frenchmen ready to put the blame for any French reverse in the Near East on British intrigue, just as there have always been some Englishmen who have had the same attitude towards the French.

Last year, for example, when two Air France planes crashed into the sea on two consecutive days when coming down to land on the airfield at Bahrein, it was rumored some time after in Paris that this was the work of British Intelligence agents working at the airfield, who had deliberately given false altitude information to the incoming planes in order to lure them to disaster. Their object, it was claimed, was to shatter the prestige of Air France and thus to remove French air-line competition from this area.

Whether or not this rumor had any foundation in fact (the official investigator’s report on these accidents was never made public, strange to sav), it was symptomatic ol a readiness to believe the worst of the British which is common to a lot of F renchmen.

Arab tnationalis backfires

But quite a pari from the inveterate Anglophobes, there are some Frenchmen who have more serious reasons for opposing British policy in the Near East. Rightly or wrongly they think that the Foreign Office has been maintaining Britain’s influence and prestige in the Near East by encouraging Arab nationalism. In this way England, they feel, has tried lo pose as the Arabs’ firmest friend. She lias supported tin1 Arab League from the beginning, and even in the ease of Israel has shown herself remarkably pro-Arab.

Now, however, this encouragement of nationalist sentiments has gotten out of hand and is backfiring. It has grown into a fanatical spirit bordering on xenophobia and more and more directed against Great Britain herself. In Iran, as in Egypt and elsewhere in the Near East, the British are now reaping what they have sown.

But the instance of this policy which most alarms the French is that which touches the interests of France most closely. It is the case of Libya, which the British are trying to turn into an ostensibly independent state, with the real intention, many Frenchmen are convinced, of implanting British “advisers" there and of making it a British protectorate in disguise.

Whether or not these suspicions are justified is another question. But even if they are not, the French are not happy to see an independent Arab state take form next door to the French prov inces of Algeria and Tunisia. Such a situation will inevitably encourage the Arab inhabitants of these provinces to demand their own independence and the end of French supremacy throughout North Africa.

Algerisi anti Morocco

For the past year the increase in nationalist agitation in Algeria and Morocco has been a source of anxiety to those Frenchmen who are immediately concerned with these questions. The French colonies in North Africa are a case by themselves, and the problem there cannot be solved by the application of solutions which have worked out successfully in other countries.

When the spirit of insurgent nationalism reached a fever pitch in Indonesia and in India, the European colonizers chose either to stay on under the new indigenous regimes or to pack up their bags and leave. It meant great hardships for quite a few, but the number of European inhabitants was so small that those who chose to remain were an insignificant minority dissolved in a great ocean of natives.

In North Africa, on the other hand, there are over a million French inhabitants, who have constructed great cities, built up important industries, and transplanted their own civilization onto African soil. This civ ilization they wish to preserve at all costs, but they feel they cannot do so if all control in the administrative field is suddenly handed over to the Arabs, who have little comprehension of what it takes to keep the complex apparatus of modern technological civilization going.

The French inhabitants of North Africa regard the Arabs — just as do the Italians — as religious fanatics, still living in the Middle Ages, who are doomed to go on vegetating as they have done for hundreds ol years unless taught how to live otherwise by European colonists. And the French are persuaded that it will be some time before they can raise the Arabs to the level where t hey can sensibly shoulder the responsibilities of administering a modern society.

Find a ruler fo trust

The British, who have never colonized the Near East or the North African coast in any strength, have been confronted with fundamentally different problems.

They have never been concerned in these areas with the problems of educating relatively backward peoples to the point of being able to participate actively in a modern society. Their only concern has been to find trustworthy unlive rulers whom they could subsidize and upon whom they could rely to safeguard their interests and investments in these lands.

That is why the Foreign Office, for example, feels no qualms about giving Libya its independence now under a tribal chieftain whom it has assiduously prepared for the role and who can be expected to favor the interests of Great Britain for some time to come.

The need for coöperation

But times have changed, and what happens today in Teheran re-echoes all the way to Casablanca. There is no longer any insulation between the various Arab states. What the British may decide to be the best course in one area may have adverse repercussions in neighboring or even distant Islamic lands. That is why the French want so much to have a voice in the formulation of Near Eastern policy and why any suggestion that this area be a privileged AngloSaxon diplomatic preserve immediately alarms them.

The Iranian oil crisis alone suffices to show to what an extent even a rudimentary commercial coöperai ion in the Near East has been lacking. Had the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company been paying the same royalties as the other oil companies in the Near East, the Persians could never have complained that they were being exploited. For different oil companies to offer different terms of payment to different Arab governments is bound sooner or later to arouse explosive jealousies and resentments which end up by damaging the interests of Europeans and Americans as well.

The same need for coöperai ion among the interested Atlantic powers exists in diplomatic as much as in purely commercial spheres in the Near East. But to keep France out of the diplomatic discussions that concern this explosive area, on the pretext that the French are not immediately involved here, will certainly cause more harm than good m the long run. The Islamic world has become too volcanic an area for the Atlantic powers to be able to maintain any longer a doctrine ol diplomatic laissez-faire in this region.

The Kemelin’s stake

Moscow cannot lie blind to the fact that the Islamic world is t.odav in a state of explosive fermentation. But if there should be an explosion ii is the countries of the West, not Russia, which would suffer from it. Soviet Russia contains some 30 million Moslems, but they are kept well in hand and do not present much of a problem to Moscow.

Last summer it was admitted in a radio program broadcast from Baku in the Russian Caucasus that one word from I he religious leader Ayatollah Kachani would be enough to rally the Mohammedans of the U.S.S.R. to the Moslem cause. Ayatollah Kachani is the spiritual head of the Shiite Moslems, one of the two great religious factions of the Mohammedan church, and he is one of the most influential men in the Islamic world.

His cause is nothing less than the formation of a religious league uniting the 450 million Moslems who at present inhabit the earth; a league which he claims will be a “third force,” neither capitalist nor communist.

But the practical, hard-boiled men of the Politburo are probably not much impressed by the military threat that such a league would present, even if it could be formed. For they know very well that today an effective army can only be created on the firm foundation of heavy industry, and none of the countries of lslam has any industry to speak of at present. It is probable, therefore, that Ayatollah Kachani is not much of a headache to Stalin and his associates.

He is a very much greater threat to the British (he is a Persian end rabidly anti-British) and also, though less directly, to the French and the Americans. The formation of a Moslem League with the avowed aim of remaining independent of both the Communist bloc and the West would certainly prejudice the strategic strength of the Western powers in the Middle East.

It would make difficult. if not impossible, the further extraction of oil from this area by Western oil companies and the maintenance there of those air bases which the U.S. Air Force today needs for any possible strategic bombardment of Russia. That is no doubt why Radio Baku was permitted to mention the name of Ayatollah Kachani.