- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

Not all news is bad. The publishing house Ivan R. Dee has just reissued Elie Kedourie’s “The Chatham House Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies” with a new introduction by David Pryce-Jones. Why is this such good news? Because basic truths are worth repeating, and if they are stated in as cogent and lucid prose as Kedourie’s, they deserve renewed attention.

Born in Baghdad into an ancient and prominent Jewish family, which was forced to leave Iraq after World War II, Elie Kedourie (1926-1992) was educated in England, wrote or edited over 20 books and became a fellow of the British Academy.

This work, first published in 1970, deals with British policy or rule in the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire, such as Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. Though the events discussed are far from contemporary, they provide a valuable background for studying the problems we are now faced with in the Middle East, the chapter on Iraq being particularly helpful. The most important essay, however, and the one most relevant to today’s world, is the concluding one from which the book takes its title.

Chatham House was the building that housed the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and in the author’s words it was the only center in the English-speaking world between the two world wars to direct attention, steadily and systematically, to the affairs of the Middle East.

The publications issued by the institute had certain assumptions and attitudes in common which made it possible to speak of a “Chatham House version.” Arnold Toynbee was the director of studies there from 1925 to 1955, and too often his version was Chatham House’s. This view of world history blamed all of the globe’s ills on Western materialism and capitalism.

In his major work, “A Study of History,” Toynbee wrote that Western economic enterprise is an enterprise of plunder. Western civilization is based on and sapped by social injustice. It is “branded with the mark of Cain, namely, economic inequality … In my eyes, the West is a perpetual aggressor.”

Statements like these have a pronounced Marxist flavor, but Toynbee was too romantic to be an out-and-out communist. For example, he was a strong advocate of pan-Arabism, thinking this was the solution to the region’s problems.

Kedourie disagrees, of course, pointing to the strife-filled history of the area, and while he does not lament the demise of the Ottoman Empire, which was brutal, sordid and corrupt, he does lament its replacement by “little officers” who, arriving on a tide of nationalism, were more brutal, more corrupt, and (though hard to imagine) even more inept than their Ottoman predecessors.

Kedourie deplores “the shrill and clamant voice of English radicalism, thrilling with self-accusatory and joyful lamentation,” but does not attempt to explain it. Whatever its cause, clearly Kedourie, as opposed to Chatham House, did not suffer from it. He felt that British rule in the Middle East, if not always intelligent, at least tried to be rational, that justice was a word which had meaning and consistency in a British court, and that maintenance of law and order was a first step towards civilization.

In his introduction, David Pryce-Jones calls the author a realist, and says this is what distinguished him from his opponents in Chatham House. Kedourie did not attempt to prove or disprove a theory. He simply recognized events as they had actually occurred.

Arnold Toynbee’s blindness to reality can best be noted in his comments on the massacre of Assyrian Christians in l933 by the Iraqi army. Of the three parties in the Assyrian tragedy, the Assyrians, the British, and the Iraqi government, he declared that the last was the least to blame; the Assyrians had behaved in a headstrong fashion, and the British had compromised them and then withdrawn.

This is much like saying that when a man is murdered he should have known better than to walk down a dark street alone, and the authorities are to blame for not patrolling the area better. No mention is made, of course, of the murderer who actually did the deed.

In truth, the Iraqi government had been relatively recently installed and, aware of its unpopularity, attempted to gain some popular acclaim among the Muslim majority through this bloodletting. As history shows, it did neither them nor the British much good. Toynbee obviously did not approve of this massacre, but he did approve of British policy in Iraq in general because it recognized the “force of Arab national aspirations.” That these national aspirations might mean the elimination of non-Arabs was not a subject he cared to venture into.

These are old disputes, but the disease that Chatham House suffered from, the “shrill and clamant voice … thrilling with self-accusatory and joyful lamentation” is still alive and well in Great Britain. Worse, it has immigrated to these shores in an even more virulent form, and seems to grow with the years. We see it around us every day.

Nevertheless, as Mr. Pryce-Jones writes, “Kedourie was a great enough man to show that telling the truth about what has happened is also the way to preserve hope for something better one day.” We can be happy that he is back with us.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer.

THE CHATHAM HOUSE VERSION AND OTHER MIDDLE-EASTERN STUDIES

By Elie Kedourie

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