A congratulatory card from Major-General Sir John Monash GCMG, KCB, VD., after whom my university is named. Here is an English newspaper clipping (exact date and source unknown) about the award of this medal (with thanks to Sarah Reay, granddaughter of Mary Ellen Butler, Eric’s 2nd cousin, who kept this clipping from 1917).
The Sykes-Picot accord was conceived at a high point in Britain and France’s imperial power. Hammered out in the midst of the first world war in anticipation of an Entente victory (the Russian Empire, France and the United Kingdom) over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), it was concerned with distributing the territorial spoils of Ottoman defeat.
France and Britain, along with most other European powers, had been convinced of the inevitable demise of the Ottoman Empire for decades. The image of the Ottomans as the “sick man of Europe” was one of the defining images of 19th-century diplomacy.
The accord was also a product of France and Britain’s newfound friendship. In their respective bids for global supremacy during the 1881-1914 Scramble for Africa, the two powers had nearly come to war in the Sudan in 1898, in a military standoff that became known as the Fashoda Incident.
Calmer heads in London and Paris saw that accommodation was preferable to open conflict and sought alliance. The 1902 Entente Cordiale provided for precisely the kind of gentlemanly negotiation over respective “spheres of interest” as embodied in Sykes-Picot.
Dividing the spoils
Both powers had existing interests in the region that they wished to protect and expand.
On the French side, the arms of finance capital were heavily invested in Beirut and Mt Lebanon, alongside a battery of francophone religious and cultural institutions. French railway companies also had substantive interests in the Syrian cities of the interior, as well as in the Cilicia region of southern Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor and now the Republic of Turkey).
In an era when empires were still built on maritime power, the French foreign ministry coveted the coastal strip of the Eastern Mediterranean because of the area’s proximity to France’s North African possessions in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Britain, for its part, was determined to have its own coastal access – both to the Mediterranean, through the port of Haifa in Palestine, as well as to the Gulf, through Basra in Iraq. The promise of recently explored oilfields also dictated British interest in Mesopotamia (roughly, modern-day Iraq).
France’s original territorial claim extended across to Mosul in northern Iraq, so as to take in some of these promised oilfields.
At the moment Mark Sykes of the British War Office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut, were negotiating, Commonwealth forces had occupied Basra and the surrounding Shatt Al-Arab region since November 1914. So, the extension of British control northward seemed logical.
Tsarist Russia, the oft-forgotten third signatory to Sykes-Picot, was promised control of Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the territories of eastern Anatolia.
Sykes-Picot should be seen in the context of a series of secret discussions over the postwar political settlement of the Middle East.
On the Entente side, the game of territorial bartering had begun a year earlier, in March-April 1915, as the Gallipoli landing was being planned. The so-called Constantinople Agreement between the three parties rehearsed the divisions that would be formalised in Sykes-Picot.
The Entente powers were not alone in planning for victory. The Ottoman government had itself concluded a secret treaty with Germany upon entering the war in August 1914, dealing with the eventuality of a Central Powers victory.
Ottoman territorial ambitions were far more modest: Istanbul sought the return of three provinces relinquished to the Russians in 1878, along with the territories in the Balkans that had been lost to nationalist secession over the previous decades.
Local leaders were also secretly devising plans for the postwar period. Although the Arab provinces had remained mostly loyal to Istanbul throughout the nationalist turmoil that shook the empire during the 19th century, by the beginning of the 20th there were stirrings for greater autonomy or even secession among certain segments of the Arab military, civilian and religious elite.
Leaders of secret societies in Syria and Iraq, along with the influential Hashemite family of Mecca, which held the position of guardians of the holy cities, had begun in early 1915 to set out a vision of a post-Ottoman Arab state. The Damascus Protocol of May 1915 imagined all of Syria, Iraq and the Gulf – with the exception of the British enclave in Aden – forming an independent Arab state.
In November 1914, the British had began courting the Hashemites in an attempt to orchestrate an Arab revolt against the Ottoman state. In a series of letters exchanged the following year between Sharif Hussein and the high commissioner of Egypt, Henry McMahon, the British appear to give generous – if highly ambiguous – support to the establishment of an Arab state.
Another group with designs on postwar Middle East was the fledgling Zionist movement, which had begun to sponsor Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine, but remained numerically small on the ground and had as yet no formal support from any major power.
The notion that Sykes-Picot was a direct blueprint for the post-Ottoman outline of the political map of the Middle East has a seductive simplicity. But it’s not quite the full story.
The nation states of the Middle East we know today were decided on at the 1920 San Remo conference, and their borders were finalised in piecemeal fashion across the following decade.
The shifting territorial claims reflected a number of changing realities in the four years following Sykes-Picot, such as the success of Turkish nationalist troops in reclaiming most of Cilicia under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman general who led the beleaguered remainder of the empire’s forces to an honourable settlement. He would be dubbed Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, upon assuming presidency of the new Turkish republic.
Another major shift in realpolitik between 1916 and 1920 was Britain’s position on the Palestine question.
Whereas Sykes-Picot had envisaged an international status given to Jerusalem (in expectation of problems between the nascent Zionist movement and the indigenous Palestinian population, as well as to head off inter-imperialist rivalry over access to the Christian Holy City), the 1917 Balfour Declaration effectively turned the tide of British support toward the Zionists.
When the Ottoman state finally lost control of its Middle Eastern territories – symbolised in the fall of Damascus to Australian troops on October 18, 1918 – control was transferred to Britain’s Hashemite allies, seemingly honouring the undertakings articulated in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.
Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal seized the opportunity to fill the political vacuum, gathering around him former Ottoman functionaries sympathetic to the Arab nationalist cause. The brief period of Faisal’s Arab Kingdom in Damascus from late 1918 to early 1920 – despite being characterised by significant discord – contained the real hope that the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East might at last be masters of their own destiny.
France, unsurprisingly, protested at this turn of events and insisted that Britain honour the principles of Sykes-Picot. Britain acceded to France’s request, Faisal found himself outmanoeuvred and, at a final standoff outside Damascus in the Battle of Maysaloun, his experiment in Arab independence was quashed.
Sykes-Picot had delivered the spoils of war to Britain and France, and deferred the dreams of Arab nationalists.
The accord was arguably the last gasp of unrestrained Western imperialism, or at least of the classical imperialism of the 19th century. Twentieth-century imperialism would take less direct, more pernicious forms.
Andrew Ferguson Neil (born 21 May 1949) is a Scottish journalist and broadcaster, who was editor of The Sunday Times for 11 years, and currently presents live political programmes, Sunday Politics and This Week on BBC One and Daily Politics on BBC Two.
Some people have told me in the last couple of days that they couldn’t sleep after the first images started to come in from Paris on Friday night. Others have said that they had unexpected crying fits, or the shakes.
Of all the horrors that have taken place recently in the world, these massacres seem so immediate – because they are immediate: geographically, culturally, politically, spiritually. Paris is our sister city, just a couple of hours away on the train – a place you can go to for lunch, a city that in the last few years has despatched so many talented workers to London that I am the proud mayor of one of the biggest French towns in the world.
And so there is always one question that people want to ask me, even if – for fear of seeming selfish – they leave it unspoken. That question is: Could it happen here? Is London going to be hit by shootings on that scale?
The answer is that even though I think an attack of that particular type is unlikely, and even though we are doing everything in our power to prevent it, I am afraid that it would be impossible – and irresponsible – to rule it out completely.
How could we rule it out? Yes, of course the police and the security services are doing an amazing job – with the resources they have – in monitoring the thousands of potential suspects (perhaps 3,000-4,000), some of them clearly more dangerous than others. They foil all sorts of plots, half-baked or otherwise. They make arrests with great frequency. But it is plainly no use hoping that the problem of Daesh-inspired terrorism is going away.
Just in the last few months we have seen appalling loss of British life on the beach in Tunisia; we have seen a Russian passenger jet blown out of the sky; and now 129 people killed in Paris, in the most vicious and shocking fashion, and many others seriously wounded.
Several people over the weekend have echoed the sentiments of the excellent French ambassador to London, Sylvie-Agnes Bermann, who said that this massacre was qualitatively different from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January. This, she said, was a 9/11 moment. This was an act of war. I agree. And as we deliberate on how to respond, it is essential to be cautious, and to be pragmatic – and yet to use every weapon at our disposal.
First of all we need to catch the bastards before they strike; and I am afraid that I have less and less sympathy with those who oppose the new surveillance powers that the government would like to give the security services.
To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me. It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police. I want these people properly spied on, properly watched – and I bet you do, too.
Second, we need to be able to intercept them at frontiers. I know Molenbeek, the melancholy Brussels suburb that is said to have produced some of the Paris killers. I remember happy hours walking its bemerded and frituur-smelling streets, and alas I am not surprised to find – a generation later – that some of those scampering North African children have grown up to become jihadis.
What are the implications for the security of Europe, if you can load your car with Kalashnikovs in Molenbeek, and drive unimpeded not just to Paris but to any EU capital you please?
The Paris massacres – as the French have implicitly confirmed, by trying to control their own frontiers – have greatly strengthened the hand of David Cameron as he argues for better control at the borders. And yet it is not enough just to spy on them.
It is too late to try to catch them, once they have pupated into proto-terrorists. We must intercept them before the metamorphosis begins. We need to get the antidote down their throats before the poisonous death-cult takes over their minds. That means working ever harder to enlist the vast majority of Muslims who despise Daesh (so I propose to call them, since it is a shame to play their game and use the word Islamic in their title), and who can help most powerfully in differentiating their abominable doctrines from the teachings of the Koran.
It means working with the families, and coming down hard on parents who – all too often, alas – are allowing their kids, of both sexes, to go online and imbibe the jihadi madness: the ranting sermons, the home-made hydrogen peroxide suicide belts, and all the rest of the claptrap.
We need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa. How hard can that be? Their “caliphate” is savage, dysfunctional, and so scary that many British would-be jihadis end up pleading to come home. But there it is – a breeding-ground of terror; and it looks very much as if at least one of the Paris killers actually came from Syria, via Leros. And so we come to the last of our possible responses – the military one. All the generals I have talked to are leery.
They want to understand the mission, and how we propose to achieve it. Would we go in with Putin? Would we effectively be backing Assad? No choice looks attractive; no plan is perfect. But is doing nothing any better? It is more than two years since the government was defeated in its plan to intervene in Syria, and the rhythm of terror would appear to be increasing.
These people avowedly want to destroy us, and in those circumstances no military option can be off the table. This is a fight we will one day inevitably win – because in the end our view of the human spirit is vastly more attractive and realistic than theirs. But we won’t win if we don’t fight back.
“Supporting the right of each of us to express our views, however repugnant or avant garde they may be, should be the same but is apparently not, according to our thought police. It is two-faced but nobody seems to care.
While the Western world was horrified at the murders, for the French people this assault on free speech is no doubt felt in a deeper and more personal way than perhaps we can imagine. The sheer volume of marchers in Paris and elsewhere in France is testament to that. It is a good thing to march, demonstrate and speak up for that in which one believes. Free speech is essential for us to operate functioning effective democracies.
However, if you are really serious about supporting free speech you would also be prepared to demonstrate against extremist Muslim violence and to support government action to bring it to heel. Let’s wait and see. You can’t have it both ways. You cannot be in favour of free speech and resolutely unwilling to defend it. You just look stupid. Oh, and a bit two-faced.” – Amanda Vanstone, The Age, 19 January 2015.
The slaying of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists because of their work is the grossest attack on the value of free speech, and of course the right to life. In the deadly attack on the magazine’s office, the sword has crushed the pen: an unspeakable outrage.
An attack on liberal values
Any attack motivated by the pen upon that pen’s purveyor, whether he or she be a journalist or academic or author or satirist, is an attack on free speech. And journalists are tragically the victims of persecution, including murder, every year. Since 1992, 731 journalists have been murdered worldwide due to their work, not counting the further 373 killed in crossfire or combat, or while on dangerous assignment.
The murders of journalists tend to take place in countries with a weak rule of law. They are virtually unknown in developed liberal countries such as France. Furthermore, most work-related murder of journalists arises because they bravely speak, or attempt to speak, truth to power.
The motivation behind the Charlie Hebdo murders seems different. The cartoonists were killed, presumably, because the murderers believed its portrayals of Muhammad and Islam were blasphemous. They were killed because they refused to abide by the cultural values of the murderers, who lethally enforced their own views on the societal limits of free speech in France. This led to the outpouring of solidarity and defiance mixed with grief in huge gatherings in Paris and other European capitals.
The right to offend
Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier and his colleagues are now martyrs to free speech and satire, and in particular the right to offend. Leaving aside the obvious point that no-one should be killed because of what they have drawn, how does one characterise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Were they cheeky cartoons, wholly within the proper bounds of freedom of speech, or were they the product of “a racist publication”?
There is a human right to free speech, including the right to offend, a right held dear by cartoonists the world over. But there are limits. Of relevance, hate speech is prohibited in international human rights law, including that which is likely to incite hatred on the basis of religion.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were generally more likely to offend members of the targeted group than to generate hatred against that group. For example, its depictions of Muhammad and Islam were more likely to offend and hurt Muslims rather than generate hatred by non-Muslims against them. Such speech, to my mind, falls outside the definition of hate speech.
However, some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons seem clearly racist – though racist speech is not always, legally, hate speech. For example, one particular cartoon portrays the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria as greedy welfare recipients. However, this discussion of that cartoon reminds us of the importance of context, which I lack as a non-French speaker who hasn’t read that edition.
The murders were more likely inspired by the images of Muhammad themselves, rather than any Islamophobic cartoons. The depiction of Muhammad, regardless of negative (or positive) connotations, is considered blasphemous and therefore grossly offensive to many Muslims.
However, there is no human right not to be offended on a religious basis. Blasphemy laws themselves are breaches of the human right to freedom of expression. That is not to say that the gratuitous giving of offence to Muslims, or the people of any religion, is desirable. But “desirability” must not be the measure of permissible free speech. And it is dangerous to hold up any religion as something which must be free from ridicule.
Charlie Hebdo deliberately published cartoons which its staff knew would offend some people deeply. It has done so throughout its history of more than four decades, with its targets including the French political and cultural establishment, and religions of all kinds. Islam was not disproportionately targeted.
Clashes between extremist Islam and freedom of speech have been prominent for more than a quarter of a century. Iran’s supreme Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses.
Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 in Amsterdam over his film about violence against women in Islamic societies, Submission. In 2010, an episode of the cartoon South Park featuring Muhammad was censored, against the wishes of its creators, in response to death threats.
In late 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 cartoons which were critical of Islam, including portrayals of Muhammad. The episode led, in early 2006, to protests and riots, particularly in Islamic countries, and death threats against the cartoonists. In 2010, one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home with an axe.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo republished all 12 Danish cartoons, along with some of its own of a similar ilk. It has since published numerous depictions of Muhammad, as well as cartoons ridiculing Islamist extremism and aspects of Muslim life, such as the niqab. Charbonnier was placed on an al-Qaeda hitlist. Al-Qaeda is suspected of involvement in his assassination.
Death threats against material perceived as religiously offensive are not unique to Islam. In October 2014, an exhibition of Catholic iconography using Barbie and Ken dolls was cancelled in Buenos Aires due to death threats.
Australians may remember the 1997 controversy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a vat of urine, when a Serrano retrospective in Melbourne was cancelled after the work was physically attacked. A Serrano exhibition in Avignon in 2011 closed prematurely after death threats against museum staff.
Protection was supplied to actors in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which attracted charges of anti-Semitism.
Outside the realm of religion, in late 2014, persons unknown – though suspected to be the North Korean government – threatened major acts of terrorism if the film The Interview was released. The movie is a comedy which depicts the violent assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Production company Sony caved in to the threat, before reversing its position and authorising an internet and limited theatre release.
Nevertheless, it seems that threats motivated by the offence felt over forms of expression (for example, a book, movie or cartoon) arise more often and more credibly, and with greater lethal consequences, from extremist Islamists.
Republication of the cartoons
A final consideration is the treatment of the cartoons by the media in the aftermath of the killings. While I have argued that the cartoons should not be banned, a separate question is whether the cartoons should be displayed.
Many major media outlets, such as CNN, have refused to show the cartoons, or have shown them with pixelated images. Others, such as Daily Beast, are showcasing some of the magazine’s controversial covers. Outlets in Europe differed. In Denmark, four papers republished Charlie Hebdo cartoons (interestingly, not Jyllans Posten).
In judging the merits of such an editorial decision, context and motive are crucial. Self-censorship out of fear hands a shocking win to the Charlie Hebdo murderers, but I cannot put myself in the shoes of the editor who is genuinely concerned over the safety of staff. Nor can I criticise self-censorship out of respect for the feelings of Muslims (and others).
The tragic demise of the victims does not mean that one has a duty to offend swathes of people who have nothing to do with the atrocity. And many see the cartoons as racist and will not be morally blackmailed “into solidarity with a racist institution”. Hatred of the murders does not have to translate into love of the cartoons.
For others, it is important to show the public what the fuss is about, just as, for example, Wikipedia displays the Danish cartoons. Finally, some media outlets have published the controversial cartoons to reflect the widespread mood of “Je suis Charlie” – that is, to speak defiance to the perpetrators of this atrocity. It is one way, alongside the wonderful tributes drawn by cartoonists in response, of reinforcing the pen, and proving it can never be truly crushed by the sword.
I grew up in London during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s. I lived in Pittsburgh during the 9/11 attacks when United Flight 93 was forced down not far from the city. I’m currently in Paris where I live part of the year.
Each of these cities is filled with decent, thoughtful, moderate people: people who care about their families, their communities and their country. They may argue vehemently about politics, religion and sport. But what binds them, overwhelmingly, is their commitment to a modern set of values, liberal-democratic values that its proponents collectively define as “modernity and progress”.
These values are not unique to what their adversaries call “the West”. These values were just as evident among those Arabs and Muslims who protested in the squares of Cairo and Tunis. Those who began the war against Assad in Syria. Those who demanded greater rights in the streets of Hong Kong. Those who clamor for recognition on the streets of Moscow.
Unfortunately, in these cases, the protesters were outnumbered and crushed by adversaries who control the military and the police. They were defeated by politicians who can whip up a frenzy among people who fear the future rather than embrace it.
We will always face threats
In each generation, we collectively face a threat from people who value control and conformity rather than freedom of expression. The source and form of these threats take many forms and those that carry them out vary in their goals.
The Cold War sought to impose a statist political system. Jihadists want to impose a medieval one masquerading as a religious one. But they share common features. They seek to divide and conquer, to rule and impose their values. They seek to quell freedom of thought and action.
Sometimes the threat is widespread and realistic. Soviet missiles really did pose an existential threat. Sometimes it is more symbolic. The Paris shooting, like the IRA in London and 9/11 fits in the latter category. The target was well-defined, and carried out barbarically and with efficiency. It was the quintessence of terrorism.
Sadly, we will always face such threats. And they will always hit soft targets.
The really important question is how we respond. The humanity demonstrated by those who held vigils on the streets of many capitals around the world after the Paris killings was deeply touching and symbolically very important. But it is just the start.
What to do?
Shock and sadness will inevitably give way to indignation, anger and a desire for revenge. The scale of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was much smaller than 9/11. But it would be foolish to underestimate the effect of these killings on the French national psyche, a country that was spared the post 9/11 bombings in London and Madrid.
So how will we respond to each other when the shock has subsided? Today, as I write this story, France is preparing for a moment of silence and the streets of Paris are eerily silent. But will France be able to distinguish the real enemy from those we think look like the enemy in the months ahead? After 9/11, Muslims and people who looked like Muslims (which included Sikhs in turbans to the more ignorant) suffered discrimination at the hands of unscrupulous politicians and violence at the hands of thugs looking for someone to blame. Many Europeans, living in the throes of mass unemployment, are prone to the same temptation – to blame someone, anyone, for their individual and collective woes.
As I sat on the train last night after the attack, there were two women sitting near me. One was an older woman who wore a traditional head-dress. She looked down, unwilling to even acknowledge a man sitting opposite her. The other was a young woman with make-up, painted nails, a short skirt and high-heeled boots. They were obviously both Muslims. These were clearly nobodies’ enemy. Neither is my sister-in-law’s partner, a Jew whose family is from North Africa – and who can be mistaken for an Arab Muslim.
France’s National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, has already embarked on a cynical course, denouncing Islam as the enemy. The FN is not alone. Michel Houellebecq, one of France’s most renowned authors, coincidentally published a novel yesterday entitled Submission (in English). Its central plot is that France has become an Islamic state in which civil society capitulates to Sharia law. Prior to the attack, it was the talk of France.
It is tempting to buy into this narrative, one of a clash of civilizations. Europeans from Greece to the UK are ready to do so. But we shouldn’t. Our common cause is with those who embrace common humanitarian values, even though we disagree about so much. Our enemies are those who reject these values. Both our allies and adversaries come in every color and proclaim every religion. It is time to get tough with those who oppose our common values. We’ve been too willing to let others divide us on the basis of color, wealth, religion or politics.
Getting tough doesn’t have to entail fighting more wars, mass imprisonment or the use of torture. The Spanish didn’t discriminate against a whole minority group when it fought ETA – and ultimately ETA faded away.
Real toughness means demonstrating the resolve showed by the English when they faced the IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. It entails the kind of dignity showed by those who held vigil in Paris’ Place de la Republique the night of the attack. It entails showing fortitude by sticking firmly with the values that have served us all well over the course of the last several centuries.
Otherwise, whether we defeat the Jihadists or not, they will have won.
A beautiful song composed in 1943 by Charles Trenet, and sung by him on this recording made in 1946. Strangely, he delayed recording this song because he didn’t think it would be popular, yet it became his greatest hit. Nice images too!