The Arab world is still trying to sort out the unfinished business of the Ottoman Empire

Vali Nasr in the New York Times:

Nasr-contributor-articleInline-v2The Arab world today is the product of maps drawn by the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot in 1916, and sanctified at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. European rule over Arab states that were only nominally independent followed; this left these states struggling with legitimacy ever since. When the Europeans left, they were followed by dictators who talked of nationalism, but failed to convince their own citizens that they were important participants in the nation.

That was because the arbitrary boundaries had left these new Arab states open to perpetual internal clashes based on rivalries among tribes and religious sects. Their leaders spoke the language of modern nationalism, but their states never quite united. So they turned to domination by one tribe or sect over others.

The Ottomans, by contrast, knew how to manage diversity. Their decentralized model embraced a rudimentary pluralism that saw politics as the pursuit of a workable balance between differing tribes and religious communities. More often than they do now, these communities could tolerate and coexist with one another, despite differences.

In the failure of the Arab Spring and the ascendance of Islamist militancy, we are seeing a new explosion of tribal and sectarian differences. This is the real root of the challenge posed by nonstate movements that seek to form shadow governments in ungoverned territories. We have seen them before in Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian territories.

More here.