The following op-ed first appeared in The a Great Falls Tribune on March 18, 2015.
In his “Messages to the World,” Osama bin Laden identified the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 as the starting point for Islam’s vendetta against the West.
Little remembered in the West, Sèvres is one of the five treaties that concluded the First World War. Of the five, the Treaty of Versailles received the most attention at the time because it dealt with Germany, still, even in defeat, the chief worry of the victors.
The harshness of the Versailles Treaty, the continuing blockade of Germany, and the brutal military occupation of that country paved the way for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who are best understood as a revenge party. Had the Germans been treated in accordance with Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, instead of with contempt and vindictiveness, their newly installed democratic republic would have had a much better chance to withstand the Nazis.
With his peace agenda, Wilson very much had the Arabs in mind. In the fifth point, he promised that the rights of colonial peoples would be strictly observed in the postwar reorganization of the world. Point 12 specifically assured the Arabs of “an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development,” which would have been a historic first for them in modern times.
The president on Jan. 8, 1918, had spoken about the higher aims of America’s war policy. He wanted the war to result in a more democratic and peaceful world. His Fourteen Points included arms reduction, freedom of the seas, equality of trade, open diplomacy, and other liberal ideals — none of which would affect the postwar settlement.
At the Paris Peace Conference, which began in January 1919, Middle East issues figured prominently in the proceedings, but negotiations for that part of the world dragged along until August of the following year.
The Treaty of Sèvres, which bin Laden would identify as a death warrant for Muslims, took the form of a diktat even more severe than the one inflicted on Germany. The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, its territories stripped away by Great Britain, France, and Italy.
The 433 articles of this 154-page-long document read like a portfolio brochure prepared for the new imperialist masters of the Middle East. Article 231 in the Treaty of Sèvres, the number in the Treaty of Versailles announcing Germany’s responsibility for the Great War, assigns the same moral guilt to the Ottoman Empire. The Allies acknowledged that impoverished Turkey could not make cash reparations as Germany was expected to do. In a gesture of solemn magnanimity, they waived reparations in Turkey’s case, taking land, markets, and resources instead. In addition, an Allied Commission would supervise the country’s finances, the term supervision, however, not quite conveying the exact meaning of the economic enslavement that the Allies had in mind for the Turks.
A section of the Sèvres Treaty covered Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine. Syria and Mesopotamia would be recognized provisionally as independent states, “subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The advice and assistance of the two Mandatories, Britain and France, sparked immediate resistance by the inhabitants of those regions, some clearly identifiable repercussions of which are playing out today in Iraq and Syria.
The treaty provision for Palestine gave the Mandatory responsibility for putting into effect the Nov. 2, 1917, Balfour Declaration. Promulgated by the British Government and adopted by the other Allied Powers, the declaration called for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine….” Throughout the Muslim world today resentments abound over the unfulfilled promises in the Balfour Declaration concerning guarantees of non-Jewish rights.
Osama bin Laden’s analysis of the Treaty of Sèvres reflects the historical understanding of those Muslims worldwide who view him as the paramount hero of our time. The authors of The 9/11 Commission Report estimated that about 10 million Muslims so regard him. Instead of shrinking the political base of radical Muslim groups, Western policies and actions have expanded it.
When considering the emergence of radical Islam or any of its actions down to the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015, we need to keep in mind the deep historical background of the post-World War I period. The western world has forgotten it, but the followers of Osama bin Laden see themselves as the avengers of Sèvres.