The Eastern Question and the Sykez-Picot agreement: this is how a geographical/political/cultural area that had been, for centuries, among the most significant actors of the world, was expelled from history and became a ‘non-place’.
“The Eastern Question”: “A series of international relations problems inaugurated with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Eastern Question regarded the European chancelleries from the end of the XVII century, after the Turkish army was defeated in Vienna (in 1683). That is when the Ottoman Empire became the object of desire of the Western powers.” (EnciclopediaTreccani)
“What’s distinctive about the Arab malaise is that it afflicts people who one would imagine would be unaffected by such a crisis, and that it manifest itself more in perceptions and feelings than in statistics” (Samir Kassir).
The way in which the human eye works produces a phenomenon by which the illumination of an object prevents one from seeing what surrounds that object. This is how the moon hides the sky or a car’s lights prevent the driver from seeing what lays beyond the edges of the highway.
The same goes for the news section, which hides history and prevents the audience from understanding facts.
And this is why, before reconstructing the minutes, the days, or the years that led to the Paris bombings (or the Sinai, the Beirut, the Bamako, the Tunis ones) the gaze must be turned back to the centuries that preceded them.
Towards the end of the XVII century, that vast geopolitical area stretching from the Maghreb to Azerbaijan, from the Balkans to Yemen, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, started heading for a crisis. With the opening up of new maritime routes and because of its delay in the technological development compared to Europe, this area declined economically. This facilitated the emerging of centrifugal drives coming from the diverse mosaic of peoples inhabiting it.
This is when the European chancelleries started discussing the “Eastern Question” as a way of carving up the future remains of the area.
The topic is already discussed during the Congress of Vienna, alongside the negotiations on the reinstatement of the monarchic rule after the Napoleonic adventure. The debate around the “Eastern Question” kept the European chancelleries busy throughout the entire XIX century.
Endorsing the claims of the emerging nationalisms, especially in the Balkans, and with the direct colonial occupation of the Maghreb, the Western powers proceeded to the disintegration/annexation of the area throughout the ‘800, only to then decisively dissolve it with the First World War. Europe will witness the emergency of independent nation-states, increasingly integrated in the European space; whereas the Middle East will be subjected to a pure and simple colonial carve up. By that time, the Maghreb had already been occupied.
The facts are known. From the 1916 agreement between the French Francois Georges-Picot and the British Mark Sykes, to the infamous agreement between Abd Al Aziz Saud and Roosevelt on the Quincy cruiser in 1945, the entire central area of the once Ottoman Empire was put under the direct or indirect European rule.
For the European powers, the “Eastern Question” was closed. A geographical/political/cultural area that had been, for centuries, among the most significant actors of the world, was thus expelled from history and became but a functional appendix to the European economy.
It became a “non-place”.
Throughout a sequence of events, such as Russia’s entry among the contending powers and the substantial survival to the decolonization process, the colonial rule dominated the following century. In the meanwhile, the battle over the control of the key-countries for the energetic supplies transformed the area in the hot spot of global conflicts.
A century later, the Arab-Muslim world is the place on earth with the lowest rate of growth both of the Index of Human Development (HDI) and of the GNP (Gross National Product), dominated by the feeling of “not mattering at all”.
Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist and intellectual wrote a precious pamphlet in 2004 before being killed by Jihadists. In his work called “Considérations sur le malheur arabe” he describes this condition of not mattering as the dominant feature of a population who used to have a central role in global economy and a flourishing cultural production, which no longer had power over its own destiny and was living an unsettled relationship with modernity.
That’s when the Arab-Muslim world starts being marked by a series of inter-related ruthless conflicts for hegemony and power, with attempts to independently re-open the “Eastern Question” and to respond to the challenge of modernity.
Already at the end of the ‘800, particularly in the Arab world, a political and cultural wave called Nahda (Rebirth or Awakening) will emerge and pursue modernization while implementing a religious reform. The Nahda isswept away by the establishment of reactionary monarchic régimes under European protection, as well as by the colonial occupation, which it was opposed to.
It became clear that the principles of the Enlightenment weren’t illuminating the Southern shore of the Mediterranean because Europe was projecting its shadow upon it.
On another hand, in 1928 an Egyptian teacher, Hassan Al Banna, laid the foundations of an association for the protection of the Arab workers employed to dig the Suez channel. Al Banna claimed that only with the return to traditional Islam, rather than with modernization, will it be possible to reconstruct the unity and dignity of the Arab populations.
This is how the Muslim Brotherhood was born. The organization supported a national and peaceful path and was devoted to the re-Islamization of the society from below as a long-term strategy. The Brotherhood is today the most popular and strong branch of political Islam. But in this case as well, the promised redemption proved to be unfruitful.
After Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, the Arab socialism of the Baath party, Gadhafi’s Green Book, the process of the so-called decolonization is concluded by the ascension to power of secular dictatorships. Soon enough, these dictatorships end up under the control and protection of the Western powers, through coups d’état or by being absorbed in the Soviet orbit, which prevents them from implementing a genuine economic development.
In the meanwhile, the Saudi monarchy, enforced by the oil revenues and the American protection, fights its own battle for hegemony on the Muslim world by spreading Wahhabism and Kalashnikovs. These resources will be widely employed by all the Jihadi movements, who openly recognize themselves as Wahhabists and who, given their availability to fight, will be extensively employed by the Western countries as well, from Afghanistan on.
This is the background in which the Salafist-Jihadi totalitarianism has been developed, as an ideology and a political project, which grounds its hegemonic challenge in the Arab-Muslim world on a radical – yet very modern – break with the colonial metropolis alongside a break with all the political trends that have preceded it. Daesh is but the last manifestation of a political trend which feeds on the way the “Eastern Question” has been closed: in its totalitarian frenzy, Daesh provides an answer to the “Arab malaise”.
To understand that, it’s enough to have a look at the recruiting videos released by Daesh or read the proclamation of the Caliphate published by Al Baghdadi: “Oh Muslims, today you have a State that restores your dignity, power, your rights and leadership… Soon the time will come when you will walk with your heads high and with dignity.”
It is incomplete to only focus on the conditions of the banlieus. This can explain the capacity of recruitment in Europe, which only represents a partial contribution to the Islamic militancy. Many of those soldiers are treated as cannon fodder. Just like it happens in all the wars, the cannon fodder is recruited among the poor people. Behind the emergence of the Jihadism there’s powerful economic lobbies and extensive commercial and professional groups, rather than the disenfranchised of the peripheries.
Before it emerged in Iraq and Syria, the Salafist Jihadism functioned as a governmental force, under different forms of organization, in Somalia, Afghanistan and Algeria. It holds a strong presence in all the countries with a Muslim majority (from Indonesia to Morocco), and has even touched upon black Africa. The Salafist Jihadism flourishes both where it has been supported by the United States and where it has been fought against.
So Daesh isn’t an American creation, rather a result of history.
The Saudi-Turkish support, rather than the American cynicism, have indeed enforced this movement, but not given birth to it.
Daesh is not, first of all, a terrorist organization, but a political proposal. It is the only political proposal with a long-term vision that appears credible to large Middle Eastern popular masses.
This proposal feeds more on the Sykes-Picot agreement than on the American weapons. It also feeds more on the consequences of the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programmes, than on oiltrading.
And it is precisely because Daesh isn’t an American production, but a result of history, that it won’t be defeated with a war, which, as proved in the past twenty years, will only nourish it.
Maybe Daesh could possibly be deprived of its territory, or its organization could be dismembered, just like it already happened in Iraq in 2006-2008. But it will unavoidably resurface – maybe in new forms – if it won’t be defeated on the ideological battlefield by an alternative political proposal able to effectively address the question of the ‘Arab malaise’. This implies providing a new solution to the “Eastern Question”. One able to allow the Arab-Muslim world to regain its autonomous place in history.
Unfortunately – judging from the way negotiations are carried on around Libya and Syria, or from the increasing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – the “Eastern Question” is once again reopened, after the fall of the global order of the past century, but again as a dispute between the current powers.
Already in Libya the French military intervention was more “anti-Italian” than against Gaddafi. As for Syria, the current war has more to do with the Russian military presence in the Mediterranean, (still) with the oil routes and the strategic control over the Middle East, than with Daesh and Assad. Not to mention the true reasons behind the intervention in Iraq.
The “Arab Springs”, unfolded from Tunisia to Syria, especially in their youth and libertarian component and with their unprecedented alliance between sectors of the Left and of Muslim liberalism, have tried to continue the interrupted project of the Nahda, promoting freedom, social justice and human rights, but also a certain autonomy from the West.
The idleness of the Western governments, who have preferred to use the Arab Springs as an opportunity of regulating their geopolitics, and the reactionary response (both Islamic and secular) has so far suffocated this libertarian endeavor. But the Arab Springs remain a good possibility, maybe the only one, to defeat the Jihadi totalitarism on an historical and ideological level.
Just like the project of democratic confederalism formulated by Ocalan appears to be a precious resource in this sense, since it builds a substantial critique to the imported concept of nation-state, while taking on the failure of nationalism in the Middle East.
It consequently suggests the overcoming of the nation-state paradigm, hypothesizing the form of a decentralized confederal self-government, able to look towards canceling the artificial borders traced by colonialism.
In this sense, this proposal is on the same level as the one of the Caliphate. In addition, it valorizes the feminine subjectivity and introduces the fight against patriarchy at the forefront of the political priorities, thus opposing Daesh on its own ideological field. The proposal of the democratic confederalism has already had some results since it has inspired – with all its imperfections imposed by the concreteness of history –the experience of self-government in Rojava.
Daesh’s war is essentially a battle for power inside the Muslim majority world, and an alternative political proposal can only emerge from within this same world.
But the so-called West can facilitate the emergence of such an alternative political proposal by choosing to support the civil society with determination, but especially by building up the conditions for success in terms of economic development and social justice. This could happen, for example, by reviewing the Euro-Mediterranean commercial agreements, which should be considered a priority also because they could alleviate the forced emigration from the Middle Eastern countries.
Unfortunately the hopes that all this might happen are really limited.
It doesn’t seem as though the actors of the new multipolar order have the intention to consider the Arab-Muslim world anything else than a battlefield, a source of energetic raw materials, a European Reserve army of labor or, at the most, a market for the military industry.
*Click here fot the Italian version. Translated into English by Oana Parvan.