Europe and the Unresolved Eastern Question


by Dominic Madar

The struggle for freedom and liberty is one we must undertake ferociously if we're to rise above the myriad of demons threatening to tear Europe apart. It necessitates the coolest of heads and the warmest of hearts.

Who was genuinely surprised by the explosions in Brussels? It was a tragic Parisian sequel in this increasingly fragmented continent. Since Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi capitalised on disaster in the Levant the threat has felt ominous. The contemporary blame game is in full swing.

However, let's step into the past. It's only through a relentless pursuit of truth from the archives that we can add a few more pieces to the never-ending puzzle. Historical records are vulnerable to slander and bias, blurring and warping the realities we seek – but it's all we have. After all, history is most often written by its victors.

Whilst in Iraq in 2014, a man told me ”Saddam Hussein was the devil. But he was the devil you knew and he controlled the other devils. Now in Iraq there are many devils.”

Once upon a time in Europe that appeared to arrive from the East on horseback: A Turkmen tribe swept all before them on an unstoppable surge to Constantinople and beyond. Reigning from Baghdad to Budapest at its zenith, it was the continent's pre-eminent force. Absolute power was vested in the Sultan – the last true caliph to walk the globe. The Eastern question began in earnest, as European powers sought to destroy the Ottoman Caliphate; the plundering of the New World, Westphalia and the rise of industrial capitalism were key factors in flipping the balance of power.

By the late 19th century, Sultan Addul Hamid II had been emaciated by British foreign policy, regularly resembling a pawn in Benjamin Disraeli's Great Game. Keeping Constantinople from Russian clutches became of paramount importance in Paris and London. Then there was the rise of Germany, threatening the established order and exasperating tensions across the continent – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 set the Great War in motion. The Ottomans were effectively forced to side against the Allies; when they lost, their time was finally up.

For years the Imperial Powers had been circling the Ottoman decay like vultures, forming secretive plans to partition the territory. The Sykes-Picot agreement exposed these ambitions and the British and French governments as callous opportunists. The promised Arab and Kurdish states were jettisoned in favour of a colonial carve up: much of Mesopotamia was split into modern day Iraq and Syria.

Iraq was an in-cohesive mixture of groups, including Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and Yazidis; few felt any allegiance to this supremely artificial state. The British placed their Arab puppet, King Faisal upon the throne in a democratic masquerade. Oil interests and a clear passage to the Raj (British India) were of far greater importance than local prosperity.

After decades of volatility and military coups, the Ba'ath Party eventually gained power. Saddam Hussain, who initially garnered a reputation for progressive policies and boosting living standards,  assumed leadership in 1979. He emerged as a ruthless dictator, notorious for gruesome torture practices and intimidation, and his turbulent relationship with the West.

However, for all of Saddam's faults – and there were many – the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the mother of policy failures. Firstly, the weapons of mass destruction plot (WMDs): A fabrication cooked up in Washington and London in a desperate attempt to legitimise war, followed by some myopic mantra about spreading freedom and democracy. Thirteen years later and the grim reality portrays more of a horror show; nationalism and democracy cannot replace factionalism and authoritarianism so suddenly. A power vacuum of that magnitude was always likely to severely destabilise the region.

Whilst in Iraq in 2014, a man told me ”Saddam Hussein was the devil. But he was the devil you knew and he controlled the other devils. Now in Iraq there are many devils.” His words were chillingly prophetic: A month later ISIS stormed the Northern city of Mosul and nothing has quite been the same since.

Inspired by Wahhabism, a puritanical interpretation of Islam sponsored by the House of Saud, Daesh are out to slaughter the infidels. Their stunning land grab in the Levant facilitated control of banks, oil and people: key resources in maintaining and expanding their self-proclaimed 21st century Caliphate, an utterly ghastly place.

Millions of Iraqis and Syrians have already been killed in the mayhem between this malevolent cult and Bashar al-Assad. Millions more have fled to Europe, seeking refuge from the madmen staining Islam.

Civil collapse is in danger of spreading: Turkey, a porous buffer between Europe and the Middle East has suffered multiple terrorist attacks. It has also absorbed around 3 million Syrian refugees, stretching resources and willpower to the limit. Consequently, much responsibility falls upon the beleaguered nation – hindered by its maniacal autocratic President. 

Yet we must not forget that Britain, France, Russia and the USA have been guilty of perennial interference, rarely, if ever, acting benevolently. Take, for instance: the overthrow of the elected Iranian leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh; indifference towards Israeli settlement expansion; the subjugation of states such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt to Imperial rule, and the selling of arms to almost anyone willing to pay.

Europe’s response, on both a state and a civil level, will be crucial in the coming months and years. Let’s hope we get it right, whatever that may be. Europe as an entity is worth fighting for.

This is not to attribute blame on Europe and the West, but merely to acknowledge the prominent role it has played in shaping the Middle Eastern political landscape. It doesn't excuse the abhorrent minds behind the attacks, the sorry disciples who carry them out, or the dark wing of fanaticism that underpins it. Persuading (brainwashing from this viewpoint) vulnerable and troubled souls to die for jihad is all part of the propaganda war.

It's a battle for ideas as much as anything. In the last century, Europe has been threatened by Fascism and totalitarian Communism. Now it faces radical extremism. Yet today's threat is more complex and will be fought out on a more personal level than traditional state borders. The wave of indoctrinated IS recruits from Europe is deeply troubling, though Islamophobia isn't the answer. We should think long and hard about where to place our trust.

The more I read the harder I find this, though I do passionately believe in liberalism. True liberalism holds all to the same standards and doesn't pass off slavery, torture, honour killings or homophobia as 'cultural differences'. It also recognises people as individuals with a right to life. Freedom of expression, tolerance and democracy are some of Europe's greatest values. Values worth defending. The reason we're so shaken by thirty four deaths in Brussels is that we take our safety for granted; a luxury many on this grim planet cannot rely on.

Beirut, Damascus, Lahore and Benghazi are just a few examples of cities to recently suffer vicious assaults. The media coverage may be minimal in comparison to the Brussels attack, but the deaths and destruction are usually greater. This is a global problem threatening to spark a clash of civilisations - a truly redundant option on a planet so vastly populated, interconnected and saturated with formidable weaponry. Europe's response, on both a state and a civil level, will be crucial in the coming months and years. Let's hope we get it right, whatever that may be. Europe as an entity is worth fighting for.

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