I have been reading A. N. Wilson’s book After the Victorians, a survey of British social and political life in the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike some other British historians, Wilson is aware of the fact that at this point in time his country had an empire. His book thus moves between developments at home and at abroad. One chapter or section may focus on debates in the House of Commons; a later chapter or section, on imperial policies in Asia and Africa.
Early in the book, I came across an account of the invasion of Tibet in 1904 by troops of the British Indian Army. The man who led the charge, the maverick adventurer Francis Younghusband, later wrote to his superiors that ‘I hope His Majesty’s Government will never lose sight of the central fact that British interest in Lhasa is positive, legitimate and inevitable, and that Russian interest is factitious, ulterior, and pursued with unfriendly designs’.
It is in the nature of nationalist ideologues to claim that their nation is always right, and infallible. We may have no doubt that, on their part, the Russians believed that the British interest in Tibet was spurious and even mala fide, whereas they had a legitimate right to nose about in that country. (In fact, both nations had imperialist designs, seeking under the pretext of national security to assume control, directly or indirectly, over the people and resources of Tibet.)
A little later in the book, Wilson speaks of the rise of Zionism. We learn that Chaim Weizmann, on his first visit to Palestine in 1907, dismissed the Arab residents as ‘primitive people’ and said the Jewish immigrants would be ‘bearers of the torch and the preparers of civilization’. Once more, one sees the nationalist ideologue’s unshakeable faith in the rightness of his cause. The Zionists wished to colonize Palestine, a land they had ancient ties to, but where they had not lived for centuries (or perhaps millenia). But were they to create a state of their own, they had, somehow, to deal with the inconvenient fact that Palestine was already populated by another people, the Palestinian Arabs. So they claimed that part of their Divine Mission to the Promised Land was to uplift the savage. The Arabs, in other words, ought actually to be grateful to those who would dispossess them of their land and homes, since in exchange they would get Civilization.
Reading further into the book, I moved, with A. N. Wilson, to the year 1920. The British, messing around in the Middle East, had taken control of what is now Iraq. The natives protested against the occupation, whereupon the War Secretary in London, a certain Winston Churchill, ordered punitive air raids on Arab villages (the use of poison gas was also considered). The protests intensified, with the rebels blowing up bridges in the Basra area to impede the movement of British troops. Watching the conflict escalate was a young American diplomat, WH Gallacher. In a dispatch he sent back to the United States, Gallacher wrote:
‘In my opinion the trouble all started from the bullheadedness of the British, first in persisting in the belief that the trouble was mainly religious whereas it is entirely political, and secondly in persisting in the belief that they can scare the Arab into submission. The average Englishman seems hurt and surprised, he can hardly believe that others do not like him, so he puts Arabian antipathy down to religion’.
It is said that all historians write with one eye to the present. When he plucked this quote from his sources, I do not know whether Wilson had one eye on the conflict in Iraq today. The parallels are striking indeed. The contenders in the American Presidential race may differ on when and how to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but they are agreed on one thing¬—that the fault for the mess lies with the Iraqis. Senator Obama thinks that the Iraqis must ‘step up to the plate’ and take responsibility. Senator McCain thinks that the Americans can scare the Iraqis into submission. Meanwhile, the pundits in the Beltway insist that the trouble is entirely religious, whereas in fact it is mostly political, namely, that neither Shia nor Sunni want to be ruled by foreigners in uniform.
As for the average American, he canot believe that other countries and cultures may actually not like him. So he puts down their antipathy to envy. The Arab is jealous of the United States, which is not merely the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, but also the noblest and best. We may think that the motives for the invasion of Iraq were strategic and commercial, that is to say, the security of Israel and the control of oil. However, the average American is convinced that the ‘Boys’ went in to help the Iraqis, to make them less like themselves and more like the average American. If some Iraqis still persist in resisting this make-over, it must be because of their backward and irrational beliefs. Who, in their right mind, would ever suspect or oppose the noblest nation on earth?
Published in The Hindu, 12/10/2008