Pride and prejudice now and then


Sorry Jane Austenites, this column’s not about you. A friend of mine lent me a book several months ago, and last week I finally found a bit of time to look it over. It’s about India. Not just about India, about the actual forming of India from 1947 to 1948 and the role that religion played in its formation. Coincidentally, I’m also re-reading another book, which is not only about religion, but about all systems of belief.

One thing I learned from years in marketing, history is about as saleable as a poison pill, my way of saying both books are history lessons—which I also have to admit was not my best subject. But I’m comforted in knowing that the historical figures in the books weren’t that great at studying history either.

So who are these history-challenged historical figures? Well, the first set is no surprise, we all know the three amigos, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—they’re the characters from the book about religion. The Bush religion was and is neo-conservatism and its main pillar of faith was the new creed of democratic capitalism, which led them straight into Iraq directly after 9/11.

The author, John Gray, takes a rather dim view of the Bush gang’s approach to Iraq. He points out that if George had studied Iraqi history, he might not have been so quick to overthrow Saddam, and even more careful about disbanding Saddam’s army so quickly after the invasion. Why?

Because a British woman named Gertrude Bell had already dealt with the same issue in Iraq in 1920. Gertrude was the first woman political officer in the British colonial service, and was appointed ‘Oriental Secretary’ to Sir Percy Cox, where she and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia, yes, that one) were tasked with building the new state of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Admittedly, Gertrude had a few advantages over George Bush. Not only was she brighter (graduating at age 19 with a first-class honours degree in history from Oxford in just two years; George as you know graduated in drinking at Yale’s Skull and Bones club), she was also very well versed in the local culture. She was fluent in Arabic and Persian, translated the works of the poet Hafiz into English and started a personal archeological collection which was later used as the foundation of the Baghdad Archeological Museum—all before she went to work creating modern Iraq. George, you recall, learned about Iraq from the family oil business, when his dad, George Sr., went there to protect the oil the first time around in 1991.

What Gertrude figured out in 1920 and George did not 80 years later was this: Iraq was not a natural country. The region was comprised of Shia Kurds in the north, more Shias in the south with a sprinkling of Sunni Muslims throughout. In short, it was a cultural mess. Gertrude’s solution was to put the minority Sunnis in control—to prevent a Shia-led theocracy. She created a Sunni-led kingdom and backed it up with military clout. According to Gray’s account, “Bell knew the state she had created could never be democratic.” And that was Britain’s way of controlling the oilfields.

It's more than likely that, beyond protecting oil, George W. went to Iraq to protect his family pride—to finish off what dear old dad failed to do. Certainly, pride in U.S.-style democracy seemed to have figured into his tactical mistakes. If Gertrude Bell were advising him, she would have told him that he was better off with Saddam, or at least leaving the Sunni minority in control. Iraq in 2002 was still no more manageable as a democracy than it was in 1920.

The danger then and now for those who seek Iraq’s oil is having to deal with a democratic Shia theocracy, which is exactly what is about to happen. And when it does say goodbye cheap Iraqi oil.

Pride also features large in the other book, ‘Freedom at Midnight’. India then, like Iraq, was a wild mixture of cultures, kingdoms and religions—notably conflicting Hindu and Muslim cultures—which had been successfully brought together and ruled by the English for over 250 years. Under the populist revolution led by ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, the entire sub-continent was about to not only break away from England but break up altogether. In 1947 dashing young royals Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina, in the midst of a troubled marriage, were dispatched to Delhi to wind down the British Empire in India by June, 1948.

Despite his polished playboy appearance, Mountbatten was a flexible pragmatist who was dedicated to creating a single, unified Indian nation. The challenge was to keep the Hindus and Muslims in the same country without killing each other. Gandhi was committed to finding a solution. Mountbatten struggled for a solution, but quickly decided it was impossible, choosing instead to create two states, India and Pakistan. He enlisted the help of the urbane and elegant Jawaharlal Nehru, someone with whom he could identify, to push through his plan, seeing in Nehru India’s first prime minister. Nehru, for his part, became very close to Edwina, some speculate overly close.

Gandhi, on the other hand, was Mountbatten’s polar opposite. Half naked and dressed in baggy wrap of hand-woven cotton, Gandhi’s style and appearance, not to mention his intimacy with lepers and peasants, made Mountbatten uncomfortable. When the Gandhi, leader of the Hindu majority, suggested that Mountbatten give the ruling authority to the minority Muslim faction rather than splitting the country—exactly as Gertrude Bell did in Iraq—Mountbatten dismissed the idea outright as too radical. The rest, as we say, is history.

Pakistan never became a Muslim-only country but remained a Muslim-Hindu mix as is today’s India, and has been an unstable entity since its inception, subject to violence, corruption and military coups. The recent assassination of two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 is not the only example of the ongoing volatility there. Late last year the nine Islamist gunmen who took over a hotel in Mumbai, India were all Pakistanis, triggering another wave of anti-Pakistan sentiment and raising security levels sky-high across India. And it’s not likely to end there.

In retrospect, Gandhi’s idea, like Bell’s, was genius. Mountbatten’s solution, like Bush’s, was simply based on pride and prejudice—and downright ignorance. Gandhi and Bell both knew that you can’t shape a society without actually living with its people. Sage advice for all politicians I think.

But the real lesson to be learned is how profound and long lasting the effects of tinkering with the human social organism can be.


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