1915–2016: The Dark Century of the Middle East
Whether you approach it from a geopolitical standpoint, or a religious one, or one of culture or trade, there is no denying that the Middle East is a potential flashpoint today. The series of events that followed the turn of the millennium has left many scratching their heads, and wondering what must be done. This article does not have the objective to offer a comprehensive answer or a new Leftist perspective, but it does aim to offer a summary of the roots of the contemporary history of the Middle East. Good information is an essential tool for good decision-making, and many who talk about Muslims and Muslim countries today know very little of the real nature of the problem. Recommendations will be provided at the end, but they are, by nature, simplistic and tentative.
Our story begins on the eve of the Great War. As Ottoman rule weakened at the turn of the 20th Century, pan-Arab nationalism was on the rise. Several groups, often abroad, discussed the possibility of a united Arab nation, free from Ottoman rule. When the Great War erupted, the British-funded and armed insurgents, favoring the Arab Revolt against Ottoman hegemony. They were promised a country in return for their help. This unified Arab nation would comprise the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel — in other words, the entirety of the Fertile Crescent save Egypt. The British, however, had also signed a deal with the French that would make it impossible for the Arab nation to come into being: the secret Sykes — Picot agreement. This deal essentially partitioned former Ottoman lands in mandates that were to be assigned to the two imperial powers. The grievances at the heart of the conflict begin here: not only does the West stand in the way of Arab unification, but the borders of the mandates are often arbitrary and artificial. Thus, when al-Istiqlal, the Arab Independence Party, came to life in February 1919, the prospects for the future were already ominous.
The complicated relationship with the colonial mandates and the decision by some within the Arab elites to side with the Reich during World War Two exacerbated the political climate. The establishment of Israel in the area in 1948 further complicated matters. Efforts were made to get these grievances redressed, but they were put down by the Hashemite kings, which ruled Iraq until 1958, and still rule Jordan today. They, of course, had Western backing — Britain and France, and then, increasingly, the USA.
Even then, the formation of the Arab League as a means of opposing Israel and the British occupation of Suez did not take on religious, fundamentalist overtones. This is in accordance with how Islam had operated over the centuries: like any other organized religion, Islam has had moments of violence and repression, but compared to other major religions, it’s been surprisingly mild at times. The Rubaiyat, for example (pre-1000) talks about atheism without stigma. While the Berbers sacked southern Italy brutally (including my hometown of Taranto), the Moors allowed freedom of worship in Spain — a fact attested even by sources in favor of the Reconquista, like Cantar del mio Cid. The Arab League did consider Islam to be a part of the Arab national identity, but no more than conservative parties in the West considered Christianity a national heritage (and still do today).
Terrorism and Islamic violence did not begin until the 1970s. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the USA funded, trained and armed the Mujahideen. This was supposed to be yet another proxy war between superpowers in the milieu of the Cold War, just with better-trained insurgents. And it worked. Perhaps too well: it showed the insurgents that terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, in general, were effective tools for combating superpowers. Pandora’s box was open.
Since then, terrorists have gotten better at what they do, and as the geopolitical situation has deteriorated, they have gained more ground with the populace. Which brings us to the question of radicalization.
Radicalization doesn’t pop out of the ground for no apparent reason. In what is essentially a feedback loop, Western responses to terrorism end up causing so much collateral damage, that the ranks of the Jihadists keep swelling. People radicalize when their homes are burnt to the ground, and they have dead sons and fathers to avenge. We were warned that Islamic fundamentalism and insurgency were latching on to each other. One of the leading figures of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion, General Massoud, told us in 2001.
The Lion of Panjshir spoke, together with other Afghan leaders, to the European Parliament to warn that Pakistan and Al Qaeda were propping up the Taliban takeover of the country and that Bin Laden was a danger to the United States. He was, rather ominously, murdered by Islamic terrorists on 9th September 2001.
In this loop, there is also another element that is internal to the Middle East and promotes international Jihadism: Saudi Arabia, which is essentially an institutionalized ISIS. It is said that ISIS has a father — the US invasion of Iraq — but also that it has a mother, the Saudi religious industrial complex. This inevitably poses problems when it comes to formulating foreign policy: propping up the artificial States of Syria and Iraq and Jordan and so on is vital to American interests, but the alliance with Saudi Arabia is still holding fast, even though politicians are beginning to call it into question. And the legitimate geopolitical goal of propping up these States is also generating ever stiffer resistance from ISIS and the local populace.
The third pillar of ISIS agitation is self-radicalised kids (essentially) from the Western world. It’s well documented that ostracization and alienation give rise to sociopathic behavior. No terrorist organization can survive on the ground without at least a form of connivance. ISIS strikers aren’t just lone-wolves, and they aren’t refugees slipping through our borders: they’re the sons of people like the pied-noirs, North Africans who migrated to France and the Benelux countries during the 1950s and who were never fully integrated, and were often exploited by the government. There is a reason why countries like Italy have experienced a far more tranquil environment: differences in integration meant differences in ISIS recruiting potential. This latches on to other kinds of social alienation: Marxists who celebrated the Charlie Hebdo attacks, drug dealers who gladly sell weapons to terrorists, and so on.
How do you deal with these three pillars?
As far as European Muslims go, we have to promote models of integration that have simply worked better when tested by stormy waters. Italy is one such example, but the model can be refined and improved on an EU-wide level. This becomes even more urgent considering the Muslim corridor that runs across the Balkans, from Albania to Kosovo (the latter is the second most represented nationality among ISIS foreign fighters). This is even more paramount now that Erdogan is rapidly turning Turkey into a reactionary Islamist dictatorship.
Syrian refugees should be welcomed, with the caveat that the mistakes made by France, Sweden et al in the past be avoided. An EU-wide model of integration has to, again, be put in place, to reduce the appeal of extremists on Muslims both in Europe and abroad.
The second pillar, which is foreign intervention, is probably the easiest to fix: stopping the bombing would be the first step. It would require a coordinated effort with Russia, which would be hard for the Kremlin to swallow, given that it could slow down their plans for an Assad restoration, but there is some leeway to make it happen — and a presence on the ground would only be needed to help people who are actively resisting ISIS occupation in Kurdistan. Without the bombing, the enemy becomes suddenly less tangible. As people go home to rebuild and grow and have children, the radicalism of ISIS will lose the appeal and the terrorists will be left to wither on the vine — or forced to become more moderate. Showing some grit and determination with the Saudis would further tighten the grip on ISIS’s throat. This would meet the favor of the Kremlin, as they are rivals for oil exports. The Iran deal is a step in the right direction. While Iran is a dictatorship where human rights are not respected, it is also at the polar opposite of Saudi Arabia when it comes to the Muslim world and the Sunni/Shiite split. The West, collectively, has more than enough influence to balance one against the other.
The third pillar is the toughest: dealing with the artificiality of Arab States is complicated and would require nothing less than U.N. diplomatic intervention. The people of the Fertile Crescent and the Arab peninsula should be given the constitutional tools, and the foreign assistance, to determine the shape and destiny of their own countries. It will be long, messy, imperfect, but it’s an attempt at reconstruction that must be made.
Helping Muslim-populated European nations like Kosovo will also further stabilize another flashpoint for religious conflict.
The toughest fault lines to deal with are Gaza (no surprise here) and Turkey, with Erdogan being an existential threat to the entire foreign policy of the West in the Middle East. But that’s a whole other story, and it might be the subject of another essay.
It is my belief that, with these recommendations, the Left could build a more credible platform to present to voters who are looking for a solution to the Middle Eastern Question.
Tullio Pontecorvo is an aspiring author of science fiction and a freelance journalist. His studies have involved marketing, interpreting, and political science.