A History Lesson


“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” That’s what Henry Ford thought in 1916. Today Dr Michael Axworthy (above) disagrees.

Michael lives in Cornwall and is a senior lecturer at Exeter University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. I did not have to go to the West Country to meet him. He gave a talk this week at the Travellers’ Club at the invitation of personal investment manager, McInroy & Wood.

His subject was Iran and he gave an overview, setting Iran in an historical context and making some tentative comments on what the future holds. It trivialises a detailed and nuanced exposition to pluck out just three points, but I don’t give a tinker’s damn:

First, the Iranian psyche is based in their ancient culture and civilisation going back a thousand years before the birth of Christ. They look askance at western governments attempting to impose their values on them.

Secondly, Iran still bears the scars of the brutal war with Iraq that went on for twice as long as the First World War. Like WWI, there was a stalemate with both sides dug into trenches and chemical weapons used. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million Iranians were killed and many more severely harmed by conventional and chemical weapons. Not only did the West not criticise Iraq’s aggression but often provided arms and finance to Iraq. Today Iran remembers and resents this. Here is a picture from the Iran/Iraq war used by Axworthy that evokes WWI.


Thirdly, Iran has more Shia Muslims than any other country. However, almost 90% of Muslims in the world are Sunnis. Can we blame Iran for feeling encircled in the Middle East and for distrusting the West?

Michael Axworthy and his colleagues think that history has lessons to teach us. It has been posited that the Sunni/Shia conflict is similar to the Thirty Years War: the Catholic/Protestant schism and the struggle to establish European states. This is rather depressing. However, Axworthy does not take this view and wants us to look at the treaties that brought the Thirty Years War to a close – usually grouped together and called the Treaty of Westphalia. A series of seminars over the coming months will explore this theme and its application to politics in the Middle East today.

Politicians’ intervention in the Middle East over the past fifty years has always resulted in unexpected and unwelcome outcomes. Let’s give the historians a chance and see what they can teach us.