Martyred But Not Tamed

Martyred But Not Tamed – The Politics of Resistance in the Middle East

Author : Ram Narayan Kumar

Sage Publications (I) Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; Year:2012; Pages:332; Price:Rs.450

Reviewed by Brig. Suresh C. Sharma (retired), freelance writer and adviser to the telecom industry.  E-mail:


The book is based on posthumous papers of the author, an active promoter of human rights who visited the Middle East thrice.  

The Arab States

The author intended the book to be a catalyst in joint Indo-Arab programmes. The military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were doomed and, as such, aggression is unable to control the resulting chaos.  It cannot transform a nation’s political conditions. The leaders in these countries seek to reproach their erstwhile enemies, the Sunni fundamentalists and the Taliban. This resulted in the rise of Shia influence in Lebanon and Iraq.  Earlier, the Shias were underdogs owing to the work of the English officer, T. E. Lawrence (popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia) who had befriended the Sunnis.

USA invades Iraq to restore Kuwait to the Al Sabah family and militarily defang Iraq and protect Israel’s interests.  It gives no support to the Shias who had risen against Saddam Hussein.  The existence of various groups like the Kurds, Baathists and Hizabullah has increased the complexity of the political situation.

The Middle East and its Oil Worth

Admiral Alfred Mahan (US naval officer of the 19th century) had described the Middle East as “a debatable strip” due to its significant role for the British Empire’s security.  Its land, resources, ethnic texture and state borders have been fiercely contested since World War I.  The discovery of oil further increased its importance since oil is vital for industry, transport and military.  Control of oil in Iran led the United Kingdom (UK) to reconsider using oil instead of coal as fuel thereby gaining a tactical advantage.  The Allies also had a clear advantage during World War II due to assured supply of oil.

UK declared support for a national home for the Jews in Palestine to win over the Jewish groups in Germany, Russia and USA.  It also developed close relations with Ibn Saud (founder and first monarch of Saudi Arabia) and the zealots of Wahhabism, while looking for allies against Ottoman Turkey.  The Middle East was carved out between UK and France to ensure supply of oil and safety of the region. After much bloodshed and violence, Palestine was partitioned to create Israel on 14 May 1948. The influence of UK declined after World War II and USA stepped in, both for political influence and oil exploitation.

Ethnic Tensions

Ethnicity created internal tensions.  The Sunnis, though a minority, dominated in Iraq.  The Kurds lost control as they were spread in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Coups in Iran and Iraq put an end to monarchy and led to the nationalisation of the oil companies. USA gave aid to Iraq to fight Iran and to Taliban to rise against Russia. The net result was that Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia bled themselves to exhaustion.

War-Torn Syria

In 2008, the author visits Damascus, capital of Syria. Syria does not possess oil but continues to be politically important. Damascus was once the capital of the Islamic empire under the Umayyad Dynasty, but lost its standing when it was overthrown by the Abbasid Dynasty.  In 1400, Taimurlane, the Turkic conqueror puts the entire population of the city to the sword and the people never recovered from this deadly blow.

Following World War I, France occupied Syria until 1946 when it was recognized as an independent republic. Syria faced a series of coups till 2000 when Bashar al-Assad took over as President.  In the Six-Day War (also known as June War, 1967) fought from June 5 to 10, 1967, Syria lost a major portion of the Golan Heights region to Israel and finally emerged as the firm ally of the Shia militia consolidated under Hizabullah.

Arab Nationalism Demonized

Syria is known for its ethnic and religious tolerance and has given shelter to about two million refugees. Political leaders have been supporters of secularism and social welfare. The Arab nationalism which had grown as a movement against the rule of the Ottoman Turks also rose against the designs of the European powers. The European powers met this movement through deceit, bribery and corruption.  France separated Lebanon from Syria and handed over part of the territory to Turkey. The two Syrian professors with whom the author discussed the subject believe that the opposition to American hegemony would come from the Middle East.

Another Syrian professor, Dr. Jabber rejects the claim of contribution of Jewish immigrants to agriculture. When asked about the reasons for the rout of the Arab armies in 1948, he blames the British for favouring the Zionist militias. Another factor was the political weakness of the Arab states, their duplicity and the petty calculations which crippled their military moves. The Jordanian Army, headed by British officer Glob Pasha, only made token forays. There is no chance for peace between Israel and the Arab states. Syria is more democratic than the other Arab states and wants to survive with dignity.

About 70,000 Palestinians fled from their homes when Israel was established. The UN allotted Safed (with 85% Muslim population) to Israel. The British appeased the Zionists and prevented Arab self-defence preparations. Attacks by the Jews increased after the withdrawal of the British Force in April 1948. The Arab Force was ineffective due to rivalries amongst the leaders. Attack by UK and France on Egypt in 1966 and the disaster of 1967 war resulted in displacement of about 300,000 Arabs.

In 1968, Israel attacked the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) camps in Jordan. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Jordan began to fear activities of the PLO, particularly after the latter’s hijacking of a British aircraft. The Jordan Army attacked PLO camps. USA helped in a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. Hamas (Palestinian Islamist political organization and militant group) was founded in 1987 to conduct raids on Israel.

Lebanon, once a model of harmonious relations between various religious communities, has been torn apart by religious conflicts and civil war, which has claimed about 150,000 and wounded 200,000.  The civil war officially ended in October 1989, but continued to simmer.  In 2006, Israeli Air Force carried out about 1000 strikes as reprisal for abduction of two Israeli soldiers by the Hizabullah.  About 120,000 Palestinians took refuge in Lebanon. The Shias and other neglected communities have risen to change the status quo.

Surprisingly, Dr. Traboulsi blames the Western powers for creating distrust and quarrel amongst the Lebanese population.  Lebanon is supposed to be a democracy but, in fact, denial of rights, oppression and abuse of power continue. Hizabullah will not fight for the Palestinians but will continue to support the Palestinians living in Lebanon.

Israel and its relations with India

Israel’s association with other countries has been briefly recorded. The Arabs cannot stand why the “Germans consider it to be their sacred duty to ensure Israel’s survival.”

Earlier, India did not have diplomatic relations with Israel due to Nehru’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause.  But later, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao accepted diplomatic exchange. India’s policy of not exchanging diplomats was largely due to India being dependent on Arab countries for oil. Indira Gandhi plainly said so to a delegation headed by the Honorary Consul for Israel. USA could be more assertive due to its clout and ability not to depend on oil from Arab countries for domestic use.

Today, Israel is the second largest exporter of arms to India and we should be assertive for our own interests. India needs to be careful in understanding the Arab viewpoint. In one of their meetings the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had passed a resolution for preservation of Islamic character of Kashmir. In 1971, the OIC did not express any sympathy for the people of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and passed a resolution for preserving the integrity of Pakistan. On the contrary, Israel provided arms and weapons to India in 1962, 1965 and 1971. We must look after our own interests.

The book tends to be a one-sided version of pro-Palestinian cause.  Israel also has a right to survive.

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