The Kaiser’s Jihad
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, one of Britain’s war aims was to secure the Suez canal and its access to the oilfields of Mesopotamia. The British had a long history of cultivating contacts among the natives in the populations they ruled, and of fielding men who became immersed in the local culture. During the war they benefited from this policy, since they already had a number of experienced Arabic speakers in place in the Arab world, the most notable among them being T. E. Lawrence.
The Kaiser also had his eye on the same strategic area, and, at the opening of the war encouraged his Turkish allies to raise a jihad against the British and French. The Turkish sultan, Enver Pasha, followed the German advice, and the Turks rallied to the call, fighting successfully with ferocious Islamic zeal against the British and Australians in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.
But the Ottoman Empire consisted of more than just Turkey, and the Arab provinces were not the sultan’s to command. Despite all their pre-war espionage and intrigue, the Germans miscalculated the behavior of the Arabs. Donald M. McKale writes:
During the war, while the conflict between Constantinople and the sharif intensified, Berlin eagerly pushed the Turks to allow German contact with Husayn and even direct involvement in Hijaz, the region bordering the Red Sea in Arabia which he ruled. German objectives were confused and their policies toward the sharif were incoherent. At times Germany solicited the sharif’s support, but in other instances it sought to use Hijaz to pursue its imperial interests in Africa.
Part of Berlin’s difficulty resulted from its failure to understand the sharif, his tense relations with the Turks over his rule in Hijaz, and his political goals. In June 1916, Husayn revolted against the Ottoman government after it refused to guarantee him a hereditary, autonomous amirate (territory under the jurisdiction of an Islamic prince) in Hijaz. The sharif wished to secure his position not only against Turkish interference but also against such rival Arab chieftains as Ibn Saud in northeastern Arabia. The Germans, like the Turks and the British, believed Husayn had greater ambitions. They thought that he sought to acquire the caliphate from the Ottoman sultan and to break completely from Turkish political and religious suzerainty.
Lawrence’s invaluable contribution was to see the strategic possibilities inherent in Arab nationalism. His understanding of the Arab character allowed him live amongst the Arabs and influence their decisions. An Ottoman assault on the Suez canal failed, at least in part, because the Arabs would not come to the Turks’ support. In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, the British were able to persuade the Arab tribes to revolt against their Turkish masters. Later in the war Lawrence and his Arab allies retook Baghdad, entered Jerusalem, and eventually pushed the Turks out of the Hijaz. The Germans were never able to threaten British access to the oilfields.
But the Law of Unintended Consequences had the last laugh. The Germans raised a jihad; the British raised an Arab revolt to counter it. In later years, as the Arab states became ungovernable from a colonial standpoint, they also became sinkholes of despotism under their local rulers, creating a fertile seedbed for the Great Jihad which has emerged to confront all of us in the West. Awakening the slumbering monster of Arab nationalism led inexorably to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Gamel Abdul Nasser, Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, and Osama bin Laden.