Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Today, Twain’s comment can be seen in how the echoes of Europe’s past are reverberating through the Middle East’s present. While those involved in the region’s current bout of extended political tumult and armed chaos are distinctly indigenous in origin, the issues and themes are familiar to any student of Western history.
Perhaps the best place to start in understanding the similarities between the Middle East today and the West of yesteryear is to understand that the contemporary West did not spring forth, like Athena from the head of Zeus, whole and complete in its current form. It was, rather, a long, bloody process where progress came slowly and setbacks were many and frequent. Wars, revolutions and authoritarian government were the norm for centuries.
The event from which the birth pangs of the modern West can be first identified is the French Revolution, the mother of all political revolutions, that overthrew the feudal order in France and was only put down, at much cost in European blood and treasure, after a long series of wars that wracked the continent for a quarter of a century. Between the outbreak of revolution in June of 1789 to the final defeat and exile of Napoleon in 1815, millions had died, entire countries were swept away, and ruling classes across Europe shaken to their core.
While Europe had been consumed by war before, the wars that were spawned by the Revolution threatened the existing political order in Europe as it had not in the past because it challenged the fundamental legitimacy of the continent’s primary governing institutions – monarchy, aristocracy and theology – in favor of a new system that emphasized, to quote the French, liberté, égalité, fraternité. Even Europe’s wars of religion, which had similarly catastrophic results nearly 300 years earlier, did not accomplish that.
The next major birth contraction came in 1848 when revolution once again convulsed across Europe. This time, however, revolution was an international phenomenon as it was taken up by many European peoples in a number of states in Western and Central Europe at nearly the same time. Conservative monarchies once again fell like dominoes, but this time they were felled by their own people rather than the conquering troops of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. As before, the forces of reaction put down this “Springtime of the Nations” by force – but the days in which monarchy, aristocracy and church could rule absolutely were plainly numbered.
Indeed, the next hundred years of European history can be seen as a long coming-to-terms with the political and social forces first unleashed by the French in 1789. Capitalism enriched and empowered middle classes, which demanded and slowly received political representation, while scientific advance and secular toleration continually pushed back against entrenched clerical power. Even aristocracy was slowly tamed – undermined from above by the power of newly-empowered capitalists, and from below by rising middle and working classes demanding and receiving change. By 1914, European society was freer, richer, more liberal and more secular than it had ever been before. Even Germany had a working parliament where the major opposition party was the rather progressive Social-Democratic Party.
Role of nationalism in transforming Europe
Before today’s post-Modern Europe could be born, however, one last demon had to be slain – nationalism. Conservatives in every European country had used the threat of foreign corruption and conquest to stave off change, and many progressive reforms like expanding the voting franchise, the institution of national social insurance or the provision primary education for all were actually enacted by farsighted conservatives – like Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli and Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck — in order to purchase the loyalty of rising classes to what were inherently conservative national orders. In the name of state and nation, then, liberal reforms were often enacted by conservative rulers hoping to maintain their own power and position as well as that of the country they ruled.
Once nationalism was adopted as a legitimizing force, however, conservative and liberal alike could be outflanked by ultra-nationalist politicians willing to stake out more aggressive, populist positions on issues of cultural purity and national aggrandizement. Afraid of losing the protective mantle of patriotism, European politicians – especially in Germany – were pulled further and further to the nationalist right. Eventually the cynical politicians like Bismarck and Disraeli, who had resorted to nationalism as a ploy, were replaced by true believers who could not be reasoned with. It was these leaders who led the continent to war in 1914 and 1939 – nearly destroying European civilization in the process.
When the dust settled, Europe had to be rebuilt from the bottom up by occupying superpowers to the East and West. Nationalism was excised and the last vestiges of monarchy and aristocracy neutered fully or eliminated altogether. Religion waned peacefully or was stamped out forcefully, and while East and West differed over economics, industrial modernity was seen as the goal on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Europe, in other words, had transitioned through blood and fire to become what it is today – a continent where nationalism is tamed, states are democratic, secularism paramount, a supranational organization governs much of European life, and economic modernity firmly entrenched. Utopia at last, then – but had at a terrible price.
The states and peoples of the Middle East are in turn at last coming to the terms with the same issues and social forces that ripped apart Europe for two centuries. In Arab state after state, a coalition of liberal idealists, educated young people, desperate workers and hungry peasants have risen up against autocratic regimes and demanded change much as their European brethren did throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once again, those threatened by the extension of liberal rights and freedoms are falling back upon ethnic and religious nationalism to justify both the use of force in putting down these rebellions and their own continued, absolutist rule.
A major difference between the Middle East and Europe, however, is that whereas liberalism was ultimately indigenous to European civilization, it is widely seen in the Middle East as a foreign import. This in turn brings up memories and resentment of European colonialism and, before that, Christian Crusaders – making it easy for the region’s conservatives to question the patriotism and loyalty of Arab liberals. Cultural reactionaries do this everywhere, of course, but the legacy and humiliation of Western imperialism is both so recent and ongoing that it is difficult to look past the “foreignness” of liberalism to see the universal nature of its axioms.
Another major difference is that Europe’s geopolitical order was dominated by no single state but, rather, was supported by imperfect balance-of-power maneuvering by Europe’s many great powers. The Middle East, in contrast, has since the end of World War I been dominated by an outside imperial power. As noted, this makes the adoption of liberalism in the region much more problematic, but on the other hand domination of the region by an outside power has prevented the outbreak of cataclysmic wars that can kill tens of millions of people, as happened in Europe. The Iran-Iraq War was a major exception to this pattern, but for the most part the region’s wars have been short and relatively limited in their ability to destroy property and lives. That the Middle East has largely avoided the horrors of entire countries filled with bombed-out cities is a blessing that should not be besmirched, even if it is a foreign-imposed one.
Finally, the last major difference which differentiates Europe’s battle over liberalism from the Middle East’s is the differing positions that nation, state, and faith have enjoyed in these respective conflicts. In Europe, sectarian differences over faith were resolved relatively early and before liberalism emerged as a contending political philosophy. Catholic and Protestant fought each in the 1500s and 1600s and then more or less agreed to disagree and to set aside differences in faith as a meaningful axis of interstate political conflict ever since. In Europe, liberalism emerged much later and at the same time nationalism did, ultimately contending with conservative nationalism for pride of place at the apex of European politics.
In the Middle East, however, ethnic nationalism of the European variety has been much less potent as an organized political force than it was in Europe. The citizens of Arab states, though different from one another, nonetheless share much more in the way of common culture and language than Europeans did, and nationalism in the Arab Middle East has as a consequence often expressed itself as a pan-Arab phenomenon that easily crossed state borders. Very similar, it might be added, to the type of nationalism expressed by Germans and Italians prior to the unification of their respective cultural heartlands into sovereign nation-states in the mid-19th century.
Religious differences versus national differences in the Middle East
Instead, in the Middle East it is not so much national differences that currently differentiate states as much as religious differences. This is most easily seen in the ongoing conflict between the region’s Sunni and Shi’a peoples, who view each other with the same animosity and mistrust that the French and Germans did for much of the twentieth century. This difference in strength between faith and nation has also manifested itself in how the most anti-liberal reactionaries have expressed themselves in both societies.
It should be remembered, for instance, that in Europe, where nation not faith was the stronger form of tribal loyalty and organization, liberalism was most ardently opposed by conservative nationalists who became more extreme over time as society slipped out of their control. This extremism eventually metastasized and mutated into fascism of the type that took over Italy and Germany in 1922 and 1933. While the term “Islamo-fascism” has mostly become a generalized anti-Muslim slur used by ignorant Westerners, the totalitarian tribalism that was European fascism does look remarkably similar to the radicalized Islamism that took over Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 1996.
The difference, of course, is the type of tribalism these extremist anti-liberalisms organize around. In Europe the ethnic nation was stronger, so the final opponent to the triumph of European liberalism on the Right was radical, ultra-nationalism – e.g. fascism as traditionally understood. In the Arab Middle East, nation is a weaker organizing force and so radicalized, fundamentalist religion has become the remaining opponent of liberalism in the Arab world on the political Right.
As Twain said, history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. The actors on the stage may come and go by different names, colors, and creeds – but the narrative, like all melodramas, remains the same. On the one hand you have those adhering to and promoting tribal creeds and group identity. On the other, you have those articulating a political vision of individuals liberated from the constraints of collective ties, tribal loyalties and suffocating tradition. The struggles look the same because, at heart, they are. Both sides, in Europe of yesterday and the Middle East today, have sharply different answers to the question of “how shall we then live?” Europe answered the question after much blood, sweat, toil and tears. Let us hope the peoples of the Middle East come to their answer more quickly, and with as little suffering as possible.
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