Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism, 1945-1962

Steve Muhlberger

 During the first fifteen years or so after the Second World War, almost every Muslim country in the world gained independence from the European powers that had ruled them, directly or indirectly, before the war.

Also,  the pre-independence social and economic structure changed dramatically in the years after the war.  Many people in formerly colonial countries saw the winning of formal independence as just the first step, and a rather small one, once it was over, towards the ultimate goal of liberation of the mass of their people from political and economic subjection.  There was a growth of nationalism, accompanied by political turmoil, which was both internal and external.

This lecture will focus on Arab countries and Iran, but much of what is said about them was also true of other countries.

In most parts of the Muslim world winning independence was a fairly easy process, since the colonial powers had little interest in maintaining direct control against local opposition.

Two big exceptions:  the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in Algeria.  The Dutch lost Indonesia  by 1950.  The French fought, equally futilely in Algeria from  1954  to 1962.

The Algerian war proved not only expensive, but dangerous to France.  The French constitution collapsed in 1958, to be replaced by another one with a stronger president, and towards the end of the war, the French government was almost overthrown in a military coup set up to prevent France from withdrawing from Algeria.

Withdrawal was indeed the only sensible course.

But withdrawal did not mean the end of influence.  Great economic influence (notably but not solely in the oil trade)..

Also, the ruling groups in many of these countries had gained from the economic developments of the first half of the 20th century, and did not want radical change.   Monarchies in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Iran were not keen on political experimentation.   The domination of urban based landlords was general.  Even where there were parliamentary institutions—for example Iran and Egypt—this wealth gave landlords a near-monopoly of power, and they feared socialism or communism.

But the old establishment proved incapable in most countries of holding onto their power.  There was continued population growth—resulting in pressure on rural communities and the landholding regime, and flight to the cities.  Where Europeans had withdrawn or Jews had fled to Israel, holes were left in the most modern parts of the economy.

The dissatisfied included:

This last group was very small

Yet these people  were crucial:  uniquely qualified to criticize the establishment and prescribe how their countries might meet the challenges of the present and the future.

So while many rich and influential Arabs and Iranians tended to be inclined towards maintaining good relations with the Western, anti-Soviet alliance, there were many people who were unhappy enough with the state of affairs in their own countries to be skeptical of or actively hostile to such ties, which were a colonial legacy and which still supported European power in their local economies.

Even among the modernizers, there were only a few who wanted to directly imitate the Soviet Union’s methods; however, impatient modernizers were not happy with British and American attempts to pull their governments into Western-dominated, anti-Soviet alliances.

Western attempts to maintain compliant, conservative governments in power proved to be almost as futile as the French attempt to stay in Algeria.  Outside of lightly inhabited, newly oil-rich countries in Arabia, British and US connections were rejected.

An exception:   the case of Iran, where a very pro-American government was installed.  We will look at this exceptional case first.  This will help us understand why other countries did not follow the Iranian path.

During the interwar period, the government of  Reza Shah (the father of the last Shah) followed a semi-Ataturkist line (minus the open hostility and attacks on religion) of ending capitulations that gave foreigners special privileges, and trying to modernize country, legally, educationally, and economically.  But the lucrative oil concession held by Britain since 1901 hemmed him in (AIOC paid more in income tax on profits to Britain than it paid royalties to Iranian government).

After WWII,  despite Iranian fear of the USSR, there was major tension between Iranian government and Britain over the oil.  Iran squeezed by low international prices for its goods and its general uncompetitive position.  The obvious out was a renegotiation of the oil concession terms, which proved impossible.  Iranian nationalists wanted not just money, but more participation in the technical and marketing side of the business.

Shah Mohammed Reza, the last Shah, was forced to accept a nationalist Prime Minister, Mossadeq, who nationalized the oil industry (1951-).  Result:  a western boycott of Iranian oil (there was an oil glut) and eventually, the overthrow of Mossadeq in a military coup (1953), which led to a royal dictatorship.  The CIA took an important role in the coup, thus storing up trouble for the future.

The exceptional feature of the Iranian case was the  risky strategy followed by the USA and Britain in concert (and the US role was a shocking disappointment to Iranians).  The  motivation was the proximity of Iran to USSR and perceived importance of oil supplies there.  In other parts of the Middle East,  US proved unwilling to bail out the British or the French in the face of Arab nationalism.  Thus in almost every other Middle East country, the traditional establishment fell, sooner or later, to nationalist coups or revolutions:  movements that demanded both a transformation of their own society and an end to excessive foreign influence.

The case of Egypt

There was both a conspicuously unbalanced local political establishment and a strong foreign presence.

Britain still had troops in the country, and by the treaty of 1936 was permitted to maintain them in the Suez Canal Zone.  A dispute, too, over Sudan (the country).

An equal source of dissatisfaction was the domination of a very small ruling class.  The royal family of Egypt and a few thousand others held much of the land.  Although the government and the British were often in conflict, nationalists saw them as manifestations of the same problem.

Popular resentment of the British led directly to the fall of the royal government in 1952.  During long negotiations over security arrangements for the Canal Zone, a secret association of army officers from the middle ranks took the opportunity to overthrow the king, proclaim a republic, expel the royal family, and confiscate their property.  Eventually this movement came to be dominated by Jamal Abd al-Nasir [Gamel Abdul Nasser].

Fairly quickly, an agreement that allowed Sudan independence was reached, as was a treaty in which the British agreed to leave the Canal Zone in exchange for the right to bring troops back if Egypt, Turkey, or another Arab country was attacked.

The nationalist government of Egypt was inspired by the ideal of pan-Arabism.  The creation of Israel seen was the worst effect of that colonial intervention which had split the Arab nation.  The Egyptian nationalists, increasingly dominated by Nasir, both sought to create some kind of Arab nation, and to demonstrate their leadership on the issue of Israel.

Hostility to Israel led to conflict with Britain and the USA (the USA was extending its influence into this area).  Both of these countries were anxious to keep on good terms with Nasir.  The USA, in fact, agreed to bankroll Nasir’s biggest development scheme, the Aswan High Dam, which was meant to secure a bigger and more consistent supply of water for irrigation.

Nasir, however, was completely unwilling to join any active alliance with the USA.   He was a leader in the movement of unaligned nations (with India and Yugoslavia).  To them, the conflict between the Soviet Union and its satellites and the Western alliance was not nearly so important as the struggle of the formerly and still colonized world to attain political independence and economic development.

The western powers were pro-Israeli, and would not sell Nasir all the military technology he wanted.  So in 1955, Nasir came to an arms deal with the Soviet Union (which could pose as an opponent of Western colonialism).  This was by no means an alliance, but it was very alarming to the USA as the first  important intrusion of Soviet influence into the Middle East.

 So in early 1956, in reaction to this arms deal, and under pressure from Britain and pro-Western governments in Turkey and Iraq, the US withdrew its offered financing for the High Dam.

Nasir’s reaction was to nationalize the Suez Canal.  He became a  hero to the Arab world and created a near panic in Britain and France, who saw their oil lifeline threatened.  They plotted with Israel, which was concerned about N’s military buildup.  Israel was to invade the Sinai; Britain and France would seize the Canal under the pretext of protecting it.  Goals:  restoration of European control of the canal, and pre-emptive strike that would weaken Nasir before he could attack Israel.

The  Israeli attack (which was extremely successful) of course alerted the Egyptian military, and it proved impossible for British and French troops to secure the Canal.  In fact, it was seriously damaged in the fighting.  But what really scuttled it was the reaction of the USA, which had been kept in the dark.  It refused to support its allies..  Through the UN, the war was quickly ended, and everyone moved back to square one.

Results of the Suez Crisis:

The Suez Crisis of 1956  was a turning point in Middle East and post-colonial politics.  The fall of more conservative regimes in the face of nationalist challenges would soon follow.

Note the lack of Islamist political theorizing.  A nationalist, more or less secularist thrust:  the unity of the whole people, Muslim or not, against the forces of reaction at home and abroad.  Indeed, some of the most determined opponents of “nationalism” were the established ulama (as in Iran).  At this point in Islamic history, it was not a pure and just Islamic state that beckoned to most people impatient for change.  Rather, their ideal was a socialist, nationalist route that would enable them to take their rightful place in the modern world.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.