The Middle Eastern century that wasn’t

 
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By Khaled Diab

As the post-Ottoman order crumbles around us, would the Middle East would have been better or worse off had Turkey remained neutral during World War I?

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A recent visit to Istanbul coincided with “Victory Day”, which marks the successful conclusion of the final battle of the Greco-Turkish wars, which Turkey calls its War of Independence.

While we wandered through streets draped with giant red Turkish flags and superhuman-sized portraits of Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk”, the father of the modern Turkish republic, my brain began to ponder a number of what-ifs.

As the century-old post-Ottoman regional order collapses all around us, I began to wonder what would have happened had Turkey not taken its disastrous decision to enter World War I or had emerged victorious from that murderous conflict. Would the Middle East be a better or worse place than it is today, or just different?

In light of how actual history is a complex and messy affair, often hinging on apparently mundane events as well as monumental moments, it is impossible to know how things could have been but it is possible to construct scenarios of how they could have turned out. And given how the current regional (dis)order depends on the events of a century ago, charting alternative realities can help illuminate our contemporary situation.

It is far easier to speculate about what would not have occurred. Had Turkey emerged victorious or not taken up arms, the Ottoman empire would not have been partitioned, and the Sykes-Picot carve up, which has given the Middle East some of its most troubled borders, would not have taken place – at least not then.

In addition, with the exception of the Maghreb and Egypt, French and British influence in the Middle East would have been negligible. However, German hegemony may have occupied a similar position. It is also possible that Mustafa Kemal would not have become Atatürk, as his outsized influence on Turkish history was a product of the existential anarchy triggered by the collapse of the old order.

But could Turkey have avoided war?

Owing to its weakness, the Ottoman empire was not regarded, in the pre-war years, as a useful ally and was shunned by all the major European powers, with the exception of Russia, but the terms offered by the Tsar would have turned Turkey into a Russian protectorate.

When war broke out, the “Three Pashas” effectively ruling the Ottoman empire felt that Turkey was obliged to enter the fray. They did not care on which side Turkey fought and regarded the conflict as an opportunity to “organise its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads”, in the words of Talaat Pasha, the grand vizier.

This strikes me as a strange expectation of war, that it would somehow lead to reform under fire. It seems to me that had Turkey maintained its original position of neutrality, it stood a better chance of achieving these goals. At the very least, it could have avoided the bloodiest excesses executed in the madness and fog of war, such as the Armenian genocide and the mass killings of other minorities, including Assyrians and Greeks.

It is entirely possible, of course, that a neutral Turkey would have been sucked into the black hole anyway – that powerful was its gravitational pull. Or it may have successfully dodged the First World War but been ambushed by the Second.

Neutrality also carried the risk of retribution from powers greedy for Ottoman land, at least that is what some Turkish leaders feared. “If we stayed neutral, whichever side won would surely punish Turkey for not having joined them, and would satisfy their territorial ambitions at our expense,” Talaat Pasha confided in his diary.

But had Turkey successfully sidestepped the conflict and the Ottoman empire survived the war, would this have been good, bad or simply different for the region?

The original “sick man of Europe”, the Ottoman empire was in a state of terminal decline long before the “Great War”. Relatively stagnant economically and scientifically, it was unable to keep pace with its European rivals.

As Ottoman power diminished, despite the Tanzimat and other modernisation drives, the empire became less tolerant and more oppressive and reactionary. This was especially so as it shed territory to foreign conquest, particularly Russia, and confronted the rise of nationalism, first in its European territories and then in its Arab regions.

Even without World War I, the unravelling of the Ottoman empire is likely to have continued. And with the Three Pashas transforming the democratic and liberal Young Turks movement into an absolute and ultranationalist dictatorship, Turkey’s reaction to the emancipation movements among the peoples under its control is likely to have been brutal and harsh – possibly more so than without the distraction of World War I, though the tyrants would not have been able to conceal their crimes behind the thick fog of total war.

There is also the chance that, without the mayhem of World War I, the murderous rule of the Three Pashas – who came to power in a 1913 coup – would have been short-lived and the progressive Young Turks factions, such as the Freedom and Accord party, may have managed to regain power.

Rather than the implosion which occurred following World War I and the power vacuum it created, such a moderate leadership in Istanbul, which preferred jaw-jaw over war-war, could have potentially managed the crumbling of the empire, the possession of which was becoming too costly for the Turks anyway, in a gradual and more enlightened manner.

Such a progressive devolution of power may have helped prevent many of the rivalries and hatreds which have dogged the region for the past century. In addition, it may have helped the region’s diverse populations maintain the advantages of the former Ottoman empire without its warts: a frontierless territory minus the imperial subjugation.

Without World War I, it is possible, but perhaps improbable, that an alternative reality which successfully squares the circle of local self-determination and regional integration would have emerged, either as a loose confederation of nation-states or a union of equal peoples living side by side in enriching diversity.

And transgressing narrow nationalism and factionalism remains, a century on from the Great War, the best hope for saving the Middle East from its current “world war”.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 September 2015.

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The ghost of conflicts past, present and future

 
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By Khaled Diab

With all the wars and conflicts raging in the Middle East, collective trauma carries very serious consequences for the region.

Thursday 3 September 2015

It is well-known that traumatic experiences leave lifelong emotional and psychological scars in their wake. Some scientists even suggest that trauma causes genetic changes in the victim. A contentious new study goes so far as to imply that these genetic mutations can be passed down from one generation to the next, making trauma hereditary.

The researchers focused on 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, finding evidence of the “epigenetic inheritance” of stress. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Rachel Yehuda, who led the study.

While some scientists have applauded the research, others have greeted it with scepticism. “The very idea of transmitting trauma makes little sense,” writes Frank Fureidi, a sociologist and author. “People either directly experience trauma or they don’t.”

Even if genetic change is hereditary, this is largely irrelevant, Fureidi argues, because people are far more than their genes. “Identity formation is a cultural accomplishment,” he observes.

Whether or not severe trauma is genetically transmitted is a fascinating scientific question, but an issue which affects the individuals in question. However, what seems clear is that collective trauma is transmitted culturally and profoundly affects a society’s cultural and social DNA.

Nearly seven decades on, the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over the Jewish and Israeli collective psyche and its trauma is scorched deep into Israel’s national identity – even if its memory is abused by one side for political gain and downplayed by the other due to political pain.

In the early years, the Holocaust was a cause of direct and profound trauma and grief for the survivors of the death camps and those who came into contact with them, but it was also a taboo subject enveloped in silence. As the survivors gradually die out, their place is being taken by the ghost of traumas past, i.e. memory.

This historical trauma is behind what you might call Israel’s power dysmorphia: despite possessing the most powerful army in the region, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker party and the victims.

Meanwhile, Israel’s victims, the Palestinians, have their own historical trauma to contend with, that of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), the Arab defeat in 1948 and the creation of the new state of Israel, not to mention the British and Ottoman imperialism which preceded it. As most Palestinians at the time were farmers, the land assumed romantic proportions. “As the women walked back with the oranges, the sound of their sobs reached us,” wrote the celebrated Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani in his classic 1958 collection of short stories, Land of the Sad Oranges. “Only then did oranges seem to me something dear.”

And as that land has shrunk, and defeat has pursued defeat, and exile begot further exile, the collective trauma has only been magnified with the years, especially in Gaza, where constant and repeated war and isolation have left most of the population shell-shocked and teetering on the edge of psychological collapse.

And like a phantom in the dark recesses, these historical and contemporary traumas are a significant psychological factor in the failure of efforts to resolve the conflict – as they are and have been elsewhere. For instance, a century after the systematic Ottoman mass killings of up to 1.5 million civilians brought the Armenian people close to extinction, the collective trauma is a defining feature of the modern Armenian identity. Moreover, Turko-Armenian relations are still poisoned by Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, what the majority of non-Turkish historians regard as a genocide.

Sadly, in the Middle East, collective trauma is not just historical. The upheavals, wars and conflicts that have spread like wildfire over the past few years do not bode well for the future.

In Syria, like Iraq before it, the civil war has distressed the entire population and created a lost generation of children whose trauma is likely to shape their entire lives. Long-term effects include the potential of violent behaviour, hooliganism, drug abuse, depression and health problems. Severe trauma is also fertile ground for extremism because it answers the basic human need to “make sense of a very nonsensical situation”.

This nonsensical situation has even awakened dormant traumas and grievances and let the genie of Syria’s “hidden sectarianism” out of the bottle. Islamists have the trauma of Hafez al-Assad’s purge of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1982 Hama massacre to fuel their rage.

Alawites, though the bulk of them are poor and are no great fans of the regime, have been manipulated by Bashar al-Assad, who exploits their memories of persecution in Ottoman times and the fact that Islamists consider them “infidels”, to lay down the lives of up to a third of their young men.

Trauma is also haunting Arab countries that are not experiencing civil war, but have gone through revolutions and counterrevolutions and anti-revolutions. This is the case in Egypt. “The shock and awareness of the pervasiveness of death and the cheapness of life… raises massive existential questions that not only throws the personal, but also the previously existing social order, upside down,” explains the University of Amsterdam’s Vivienne Matthies-Boon, who is studying the effects of trauma on 18-35-year-old Egyptian activists of all political stripes.

“Revenge was a big issue for all sides,” she adds ominously. “But trauma-induced revenge also leads to more trauma.”

Matthies-Boon has found that those who were best able to avoid (self-)destructive behaviour where the ones with an artistic outlet or a strong faith system. But, worryingly, Egyptians who have been through such traumatic experiences receive little support and many are, Matthies-Boon discovered, reluctant to talk about their trauma, which is an essential part of coming to terms with it.

What the long-term consequences of millions of traumatised people will be for the region is impossible to gauge. But handled inadequately, it could take generations to overcome and could also create untold intractable situations and conflicts.

We need desperately to find ways not only to treat the millions of individual cases but also to formulate effective approaches to tackle collective trauma, with its memory- and emotion-distorting outcomes.

The future Middle East should remember. But it must build a memory based on fact and reality, to ensure this sorry state doesn’t occur again, not on national, sectarian and factional myths. While forgetting is not a wise game, forgiving past pain for future gain is essential if fruitful coexistence and a modicum of trust between the region’s diverse peoples is ever to be restored.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 27 August 2015.

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