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.