Picking Sides

In an effort to understand what is happening in the Middle East, I recalled the introduction to Part III of this excellent book: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

The Second World War was never merely a conflict over territory. It was also a war of race and ethnicity. Some of the defining events of the war had nothing to do with winning and maintaining physical ground, but with imposing one’s own ethnic stamp on ground already held.

The problem for those pursuing this racial war was that it was not always easy to define a person’s race or ethnicity, particularly in eastern Europe where different communities were often inextricably intermingled. Jews who happened to have blond hair and blue eyes could slip through the net because they did not fit the Nazis’ preconceived racial stereotype. Gypsies could and did disguise themselves as members of other ethnic groups just by changing their clothes and their behaviour –as did Slovaks in Hungary, Bosniaks in Serbia, Romanians in Ukraine, and so on. The most common way of identifying one’s ethnic friends or enemies –the language they spoke –was not always an accurate guide either. Those who had grown up in mixed communities spoke several languages, and could switch between one and the next depending on whom they were speaking to –a skill that would save many lives during the darkest days of the war and its aftermath. In an effort to categorize the population of Europe, the Nazis insisted on issuing everyone with identity cards, coloured according to ethnicity. They created vast bureaucracies to classify entire populations by race.

Those who did not have their ethnicity chosen for them had to make the decision for themselves. This was not always easy. Many people had multiple options, either because they had mixed-race parents or grandparents or because they saw no contradiction in being simultaneously, say, Polish by birth, Lithuanian by nationality and German by ethnicity. When forced to make a choice, their decision was often naively random at best, perhaps inspired by a parent, a spouse, or even a friend. The more calculating chose an identity according to what benefits it might offer. Claiming German ethnicity, for example, could confer exemption from labour round-ups and eligibility for special rations and tax breaks. On the other hand, it could also mean liability for military conscription: the decision sometimes boiled down to whether the Russian front was preferable to a slave-labour camp. The choices that people made regarding their ethnicity would have implications far beyond the end of the war.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European attitudes. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. And, in communities that had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem –indeed, it elevated it to the problem –that needed solving.

In previous years, Arab nationalism was the big thing.  Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan defined themselves firstly by their nationality and only perhaps as a secondary concern did they bring ethnicity or religious affiliation into play (with the exception being they were absolutely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel).  Nasser’s Egypt didn’t promote itself on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but as a regional power allied to the Soviet Union.  Colonel Gaddafi spent years trying to set up and lead some sort of African Union grounded in nationalism and anti-colonialism, not a common religion or ethnicity.  I am told in Syria people were Syrians first and Muslims and Christians second.  Despite his growing a beard and waving the Koran around once he’d been captured, Saddam Hussein ran a largely secular regime based on nationalism and (in theory) socialism via the Ba’ath party, which they shared with Syria.  These countries were based on political doctrines, not on religious or ethnic ones.

That’s not to say that Christians didn’t face discrimination in Egypt, the majority Shia were not oppressed in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds didn’t get gassed by Saddam Hussein.  And one must also look at Saudi Arabia – a nation whose foundations are religious – and the Lebanese Civil War which saw all the different religions and sects fighting one another.  My point is not that one’s religion or ethnicity didn’t matter at all, but that they were considered of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state (or, more accurately, the guy in charge).  Provided you were prepared to pledge your loyalty to the political regime, you stood a good chance of being left alone.  Saddam Hussein didn’t gas the Kurds because he objected to their religious beliefs, he did so because they were not sufficiently loyal and didn’t want to live under his rule.  One must remember that Tariq Aziz, a long-serving minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was Catholic.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian fighting that followed, and then the Arab Spring, all of that has gone out of the window.  The Muslim Brotherhood popped up in Egypt and promptly won an election; jihadists ran rampage in Libya once Gaddafil was removed; ISIS tore through Iraq and Syria, ethnically cleansing any territory they captured as they fought a religious war for control of the Levant.  The two regional superpowers – Saudi Arabi and Iran – are fighting a proxy war in Yemen and fuelling the conflicts elsewhere with money and weapons as each backs their own religious brethren.  No longer are Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans allowed to state they are nationalists first and foremost and want only what’s best for the country: they must pick a side and in a lot of cases fight for that side.  Within a relatively short time ethnicity and religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity across swathes of the Middle East, taking over from nationality.

Perhaps more worrying is the degree to which this might be happening in Turkey.  The Kurds always had a rough time of it, and Armenians would probably have a few rather blunt words to say were any to read this (and justifiably so), but under Ataturk’s secular republic people were Turks first and committed to a Turkish identity and Turkish nationalism – be they Muslim or Christian, conservative, moderate, or secular.  Sure, some of the more conservative Turks might have gotten a bit hot under the collar over pretty girls wandering the beaches at Izmir in pink bikinis, just as the educated, Westernised Turks in Istanbul thought the rural folk in the north and east were ignorant, backward, and best ignored.  Whatever one’s affiliation or religious fervor, everyone was a Turk and the country came first.

The election of Recep Erdoğan has changed all that.  By running on an Islamist platform, he has driven a wedge between the more conservative Muslims and the secularists, non-Muslims, and the rest.  Now it is starting to matter whether you are secular or Islamist, moderate or conservative.  Last evening a friend showed me a photo that had been posted on Turkish social media a few days ago, before yesterday’s bomb in Izmir.  It was of a Turkish woman in her 20s in a headscarf suggesting that the city – which has a reputation as a centre of secularism and having a Westernised population – be attacked because it is full of infidels.  The number of people approving her remarks was well over a hundred.  This would have been unheard of a generation ago, Turks wanting other Turks killed and maimed over religious differences and being prepared to say so in public.

We have already seen what happened in Europe when people who had never wanted labels were forced to wear one and fight each other.  We are currently seeing what happens in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere when choosing a side becomes compulsory.  I really hope that Turkey avoids this fate, but it is heading in that direction.

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12 thoughts on “Picking Sides

  1. I think your history of the Arab countries is a bit approximate. “of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state” doesn’t work if there are no nation states. I think what you’re talking about was an effort, far from complete, to imitate the Europeans by attempting to create nation states. Some of the current terrorists (or “activists” as the Beeb would presumably call them) expect, I imagine, to take over whatever is left of those nascent states, but others say that their aim is to demolish them and resurrect the older model of a panmoslem Caliphate. I doubt whether they could really conquer the Turks, Moors, Iranians etc, but for gangsters who talk of reconquering Iberia, who knows their ambitions?

    Creating a nation state is not necessarily an easy job. There are scholars who think that the Hebrew religion, the one that eventually evolved into Judaism, was invented in the Iron Age to turn a bunch of religious cultists among the Canaanites into a separate people or nation living in the highlands of Palestine (or the Southern Levant, if you prefer). Among their lines of evidence is that there, suddenly, in the Iron Age pig bones vanish from the record. What other cult markers they used, apart from dietary ones, is an interesting question. Apparently adopting monotheism came quite late. Inventing a pseudo-history for themselves played a role but one that you can’t necessarily expect to date by digging.

    Anyway, my point is that making “nations” in places without much of the way of “natural boundaries” – seas and mountain ranges seem to do best – hasn’t proved an easy task over the millennia. In that part of the world Egypt has done best at keeping itself separate, I suppose, using deserts and swamps as its boundaries.

  2. I think your history of the Arab countries is a bit approximate.

    Of course. The point I am making is a bit approximate, too.

    Anyway, my point is that making “nations” in places without much of the way of “natural boundaries” – seas and mountain ranges seem to do best – hasn’t proved an easy task over the millennia.

    Indeed not. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Arab world managed it, sort of, only during the Cold War period when they could rely on funding, expertise, and weaponry as well as what passed for an ideology from a superpower patron.

  3. In many cases, the boundaries between ‘nations’ are quite arbitrary. The Kurds, for example, inhabit a roughly continguous area. However, that area spills into Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. And none of those host nations is inclined to accept the Kurds’ desire for greater autonomy.

  4. The Kurds, for example, inhabit a roughly continguous area. However, that area spills into Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

    Yeah, you can thank us Brits for that. Whoever drew up that map shafted them royally.

  5. I think you need to go back further in time to better understand what is going on around the world and in the Middle East. It was just over 100 years ago that the world was ruled by thirteen empires which despite their failings provided for order, administration and commercial exchange. The Russian, Ottoman, German and Austrian Empires collapsed following World War 1 and by the fifties most of the imperialist empires had ceased to exist. In a space of 100 years the system of empires that had maintained order, settled disputes and facilitated economies for most of recorded history was now gone.

    The Ottoman Empire was particularly enduring and included most of the Arabic countries that you mention and also some of the Eastern European nations mentioned in your quote. Who are we to say that this new Arab matrix of nations is actually better than their previous order of empire that was governed by a Sultan over a caliphate? Erdogan has majority support and he probably fancies his chances as the new Sultan. I think he will play his role well but I don’t think he will prevail.

    The rapid consolidation of long standing well established empires into nation states which are now being eroded to be governed by the UN will further consolidate with a far higher word leadership role being undertaken by Russia and China through the soon to be new formatted UN which is the logical next stage of this evolution. The concern being that when we arrive at this one world government what if at that point in time it changes to become the worst and most authoritarian political system ever seen in our history, where do we go then?

    http://www.economist.com/node/11829711

  6. There is plenty of commentary about the evils of nationalism these days, but compared to the truly terrifying alternative–the sorting of peoples by religious identities in the Islamic world, and by the vast and ever-growing categories of “identity” in the First World–it’s hard for me to get very worked up over nationalism.

  7. What Gene said. We have in the entire world a resurgence of tribalism that is unlikely to end well. The aftermath of the splintering of multiethnic or multiconfessional societies is not pretty. The big advantage of the nation-state is that it provides an overarching allegiance to something that transcends the tribal attachments, but when the nation-state ceases to exist it is usually the atavistic and tribal relationships that step into its place.
    With respect to a world government (and please God we do not go in that direction and provide yet more power to the unaccountable and corrupt bureaucrats of Turtle Bay), it would most likely be worse than at least some (maybe most) of the national governments that exist today. But not to worry. I think that before we get to a world government we would most likely kill each other in tribal warfare.

  8. @Tim N
    “I really hope that Turkey avoids this fate, but it is heading in that direction.”

    imho Turkey has already travelled the direction and reached the destination where religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity.

    Atatürk’s constitution has been shredded, burnt and the ashes buried by Recep “Goat Fornicator” Erdoğan.

  9. The key indicator, to me, was the faux coup attempt. Turkey is heading down a path which might just require my favourite notion – rebuild Constantinople and push back the Islamist.

  10. The rapid consolidation of long standing well established empires into nation states which are now being eroded to be governed by the UN will further consolidate with a far higher word leadership role being undertaken by Russia and China through the soon to be new formatted UN which is the logical next stage of this evolution.

    I think there is a good chance the UN will be reformatted about the time it becomes redundant as America quits, defunds it, and orders them out of Manhattan.

  11. “I think there is a good chance the UN will be reformatted about the time it becomes redundant as America quits, defunds it, and orders them out of Manhattan.”

    I don’t think their new headquarters will be in the West either. They will be the best alternative at the time.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-2FkSlShqo

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