Whose colonialism? The contested memory of the Sykes-Picot Agreement

By Meghan Tinsley, Boston University

*This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” workshop, February 6, 2015. 

In memory of Daryl Carr.

The violent emergence of Daesh[1] in Middle Eastern geopolitics has brought unprecedented attention to the Sykes-Picot Agreement.[2] Yet since June 2014, this notorious Anglo-French agreement has proven open to interpretation, as competing actors have referenced early 20th-century history in support of particular national configurations. The exploitation of Sykes-Picot by various stakeholders – nationalist and pan-Arabist, religious and secular, Middle Eastern and European – demonstrates the importance of memory in establishing the legitimacy of national borders. A content analysis of Daesh propaganda videos, 11 Middle Eastern newspapers, and eight British and French newspapers illuminates the place that each nationalist narrative affords to the past.

Nations and Nationalism

Nationalism is understood here as a modern ideal that originated in Western Europe, gained international credibility as an intellectual concept in the 20th century, and is now widely associated with the fundamental right of groups to pursue self-determination through statehood.[3] The nationalism of every society is constructed discursively, by actors with competing interests and unevenly distributed power.[4] Further, nationalism takes on numerous meanings, and holds varying degrees of legitimacy, as it is imposed, or interpreted, in regions beyond Western Europe. Thus, a major goal of nationalists is to unify their fragmented constituencies politically and/or culturally.[5] To that end, memory plays a powerful role.

Memory and the Usable Past

The relationship of a political actor to the past is shaped by the actor’s goals in the present.[6] To that end, governments, advocates, and dissidents identify a “usable past” as the basis for a particular set of knowledge, beliefs, sympathies, and judgments.[7] A particular event may be remembered, forgotten, or reinterpreted in order to grant legitimacy to a new actor. In each case, the usable past either appeals to or undermines the collective memory.[8] The contested character of memory – and, by extension, of nationalism – within and across societies is evident with regard to the Sykes-Picot Agreement.


On June 29, 2014, Daesh released a 15-minute English-language propaganda video, “The End of Sykes-Picot.” Along with its Arabic-language counterpart, “Kaser al-Hudud” (The Breaking of the Borders), the video depicts bulldozers destroying the earthen wall between Iraq and Syria, symbolically creating a single country. Enjoying unprecedented international media attention, Daesh chose this action as the focal point of its propaganda campaign. The videos were supplemented with a photo campaign called “Smashing the Sykes-Picot Border” and the Twitter hashtag #SykesPicotOver. By this point, Daesh was active in both Iraq and Syria and had captured Mosul and Tikrit, yet its most widely disseminated propaganda campaign to date chose to highlight the destruction of the border. In “Kaser al-Hudud” one militant provides an explanation:

Alhamdulillah. Today we are happy to participate in destroying the borders placed by the tawaghit [oppressors] to prevent the Muslims from traveling in their lands. The tawaghit broke up the Islamic Khilafah and made it into countries like Syria and Iraq, ruled by man-made laws. Alhamdulillah, Allah blessed the mujahidin with destruction of these borders… Alhamdulillah, today we begin the final stage after the Ummah was divided… Their plot was to divide and conquer. That is what they had done with us.

For Daesh, the Sykes-Picot Agreement represents the fragmentation of the Middle East, which further represents the division of the global Muslim community and the imposition of the secular nation-state. By extension, the destruction of the border represents the reunification of the Muslim world under the rule of God. Sykes-Picot stands in for the ensemble of early twentieth-century decisions regarding the national borders of the Middle East, just as its signatories stand in for all Westerners who have intervened in the Middle East historically.

As the voice-over proclaims in “Kaser al-Hudud:”

The ember of jihad was lit, the Crusade campaign was broken, and the Islamic State was established despite the villainous. America left in humiliation, dragging behind it tails of failure, while broken and defeated. It left the map for the Islamic State to redraw the world in accordance with the methodology of the prophetic Khilafah.

Here, the Sykes-Picot border is equated with European Christian Crusades and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The significance of the Sykes-Picot Agreement is thus symbolic as well as geopolitical for Daesh: It provides a tangible line that stands in for centuries of abstract affronts.

Middle Eastern Media[9]
The Syrian government historically has condemned the Sykes-Picot Agreement and supported the inclusion of Lebanon within Syria. However, since the rise of Daesh, Syrian President Bashar al Assad – along with former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki and current Prime Minister Haider al Abadi – has been silent regarding the agreement. Yet popular print media across the Middle East has actively participated in the conversation surrounding “The End of Sykes-Picot.”

The media’s perspectives are multifaceted; however, some common threads are identifiable. Mainstream newspapers reject the Daesh narrative that advocates destroying national borders (even if they acknowledge that Daesh is succeeding) and typically argue for maintaining the existing borders. Yet given that the sources include government mouthpieces, supporters of pan-Arabism, and one Israeli newspaper, justifications for this stance are unsurprisingly eclectic. Journalists offer one of three general perspectives: First, some argue that the Sykes-Picot borders have gained legitimacy since 1916 through the consent and lived experiences of the local population and through the sanctions of international organizations.[10] Second, and conversely, some argue that Sykes-Picot is no longer relevant because the local population is indifferent to the origins of the borders.[11] Third, some claim that the alternative to the existing borders is not self-determination, but another set of artificial borders and authoritarian leaders.[12] These findings are in line with William F.S. Miles’s assessment of the resilience of the Sykes-Picot order.[13] An important exception is Ekurd Daily, an Iraqi Kurdish newspaper that depicts the Kurds as the primary victims of the Sykes-Picot borders and calls on international actors to actively support the redrawing of national borders. Running through these diverse perspectives is a general pragmatism: While the Sykes-Picot Agreement is condemned as a colonial intrusion into Middle Eastern politics (a stance consistent with pan-Arabist sympathies), much more important to the papers’ assessments is its impact on the contemporary population.

British and French Media[14]

Like their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande have been silent regarding Daesh’s use of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (both have vocally attacked Daesh itself) and have exhibited little interest in actively reshaping the borders of the Middle East.[15] The mainstream print media in each country, however, has addressed this issue in depth. In their representations of Sykes-Picot, the mainstream press is strikingly critical of the British and French role. Typically, when Sykes-Picot is introduced in an article, it is followed by a brief parenthetical explanation of the agreement’s date, actors, and the fact that it “divided the Middle East.” Commentary on the agreement and its legacies virtually never calls for the maintenance of the status quo; rather, it acknowledges the artificial character of the current borders[16] and it most often accepts that their erasure is inevitable.[17] Where the authors call for a different successor to the Sykes-Picot borders, they advocate smaller, ethnic-specific polities.[18] No article in the eight papers surveyed attempts to defend the Sykes-Picot borders or the governments that forged them. In contrast to the Middle Eastern papers, which take a pragmatic standpoint, the British and French papers are more likely to make abstract claims about the legacies of the agreement – a stance that reflects the two countries’ present, more removed position with regard to the Middle East rather than their role in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Remembering the Usable Past: Implications for Nation-Building

For Daesh, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is a crucial component of the usable past. The memory of Sykes-Picot, which stands in for the memory of humiliation generally, shapes Daesh’s “national” narrative – even as it purports to reject the “idol of nationalism,” it mirrors the nationalist practice of disseminating a particular set of beliefs, moral judgments, and lessons from history. In “The End of Sykes-Picot,” a member of Daesh proclaims, “We are not here to fight for the earth, or for the imaginary border of Sykes and Picot. We’re not here fighting to replace an Arab taghut with a Western taghut. Rather, our jihad is loftier and higher. We’re fighting to make the word of Allah the highest.”

Popular discourse throughout the Middle East attempts to undermine Daesh’s national narrative in the interest of existing states’ legitimacy. Thus, for most of the media outlets surveyed, Sykes-Picot is not usable; rather, these voices diminish its role in establishing and maintaining the status quo. Taking a pragmatic stance, some media outlets do not claim to theorize the nation-state; however, by emphasizing international legitimacy and contemporary lived experience rather than the usable past, they simply privilege different (but equally important) components of nationalism.

The British and French popular discourse, while concurring with Daesh that the Sykes-Picot borders are artificial, breaks from the militant group by upholding the conventional definition of the nation-state. Because Middle Eastern states are not unified by culture, ethnicity, or consent, the argument goes, they are not nation-states and thus are not legitimate. Consequently, their seemingly radical rejection of the existing borders is actually an affirmation of the Western model of nationhood and a call for its application to the Middle East – a far cry from the khilafah (caliphate) that Daesh has proclaimed.

Meghan Tinsley is a Phd candidate in sociology at Boston University. Her dissertation concerns representations of Muslims in British and French World War I commemorations.


[1] Given the plethora of names ascribed to the militant group in question — among them Islamic State, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), I refer to the group throughout this paper as Daesh, the term most widely used in the Arabic- and French-language press.

[2] Officially termed the Asia Minor Agreement, but colloquially called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, this formed a general understanding (rather than a treaty with fixed terms) of British and French interests in the Middle East, which were concretized in the San Remo Agreement of 1920. Consequently, this paper uses the terms “agreement” and “understanding” rather than “treaty” to refer to Sykes-Picot.

[3] Calhoun, C. 1993. “Nationalism and Ethnicity.” Annual Review of Sociology 19:211-239 and Tilly, C. 1990. Coercion, Capital and European States AD 990-1990. Oxford: Blackwell.

[4] Zubrzycki, G. 2010. “National Culture, National Identity, and the Culture(s) of the Nation.” Pp. 514-525 in Sociology of Culture: A Handbook, edited by L. Grindstaff, J.R. Hall and M. Lo. New York: Routledge.

[5] Hayes, C.J.H. 1960. Nationalism: A Religion. New York: Macmillan, Kedourie, E. 1960. Nationalism. New York: Praeger, and Weber, E. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

[6] Filler, L. 1947. “America and Its ‘Usable Past’.” The Antioch Review 7(3):336-344.

[7] Moeller, R.G. 2001. War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press and Warner, W.L. 1975[1959]. “The Past Made Present and Perfect.” Pp. 156-225 in The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans. Greenwhich, CT: Greenwood Press.

[8] Kertzer, D. 1989. Ritual, Politics, and Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, Mamdani, M. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press and Rich, P.B. “British Imperial Decline and the Forging of English Patriotic Memory, c1918-1968.” 1988. History of European Ideas 9(6):659-680.

[9] Data is drawn from an online search for the term “Sykes-Picot” between June 2014 and January 2015 in the following papers: Daily Star (Lebanon), Ekurd Daily (Iraq), Gulf News (UAE), Iraqi News (Iraq), Jerusalem Post (Israel), Jordan Times (Jordan), Al Monitor (pan-Middle East), Saudi Gazette (Saudi Arabia), Syria Times (Syria), Syrian Arab News Agency (Syria), and Your Middle East (pan-Middle East).

[10] Ketz, S. 2014. “Despite Jihadist Drive, Mideast Colonial Borders Seem Intact” Daily Star 27 June and Fateh, T. 2014. “Syria’s Steadfastness Foiled Designs Perpetrated against the Region” Syria Times 7 December.

[11] Khoury, R.G. 2014. “Local Sentiments, As Always, Will Shape the Middle East” Jordan Times 18 July.

[12] Kleib, S. 2014. “Lines of the Game: Sykes-Picot is Dead” Al Ahkbar 14 January.

[13] Miles, W.F.S. 2014. “The Islamic State Won’t Find It Easy to Wipe Away Post-colonial Borders”. The Monkey Cage 10 September.

[14] Data is drawn from an online search for the term “Sykes-Picot” between June 2014 and January 2015 in the following papers: The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times of London (UK); and Le Figaro, Libération, Le Monde, and Le Parisien (France).

[15] Gause, F.G. III. 2014. “Is This the End of Sykes-Picot?” The Monkey Cage 20 May. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/05/20/is-this-the-end-of-sykes-picot/

[16] Smith, H.L., 2014 “Where the Wrong Beard Can Mean Death.” The Times 15 July and Jaulmes, A. “Les frontières coloniales éffacées par la poussée des djihadistes.” Le Figaro 15 June.

[17] Oborne, P. 2014. “A Powerful and Merciless Force Has Emerged on the World Stage” The Daily Telegraph 12 June.

[18] 2014. “Quel avenir pour les Kurdes?” Le Figaro 19 October

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