How much blame for the current troubles in the Middle East lies with the decisions made by the West in 1919 – when the Ottoman Empire was carved up arbitrarily into the modern states we know today? Is it true that Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, and Western imperialism? That era seems to be coming to an end with the recent Arab Spring movements. As ethnic and religious loyalties intensify, will new lines be drawn? And will they lead to greater harmony in the region or exacerbated conflict?
These are some of the questions we will be asking in this Intelligence Squared event, which focuses on two of the central players behind the formation of the modern Middle East, Lawrence of Arabia and King Faisal I. Both are subjects of brilliant new biographies. The books’ authors, Scott Anderson and Ali Allawi, will be discussing the intertwining lives of these extraordinary men, and the war, treason, and secret colonial plots that are part of their story.
T. E. Lawrence is one of Britain’s most romantic historical figures. In 1914 he was an archaeologist excavating ruins in the sands of Syria. By 1917 he was battling both the Turks and his own government to bring about the vision he had for the Arab people. A new biography of him, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by the American author Scott Anderson, has sold over 150,000 copies in the US and won the New York Times Notable Book award.
Faisal was a battle-hardened military leader who with the help of Lawrence organised the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He went on to become king of both Iraq and the first independent state of Syria. Faisal I of Iraq is the latest book by Ali Allawi, Iraq’s first post-war civilian Minister of Defence who has been acclaimed for his knowledge and insight into Islamic society.
This discussion, chaired by Edward Lucas, senior editor at The Economist, took a broad look at Arab society past and present through the prism of two of the region’s most extraordinary historical personages.