Nearly twenty years ago, while Eastern Europe was still struggling to establish itself in the world community after shedding the manacles of the Warsaw Pact and the stifling domination of communist political systems and after the countries of the former Yugoslavia had nearly destroyed each other, journalist and Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash wrote:
What have we to learn from this terrible decade in former Yugoslavia?…We have learned that human nature has not changed. That Europe at the end of the twentieth century is quite as capable of barbarism as it was in the Holocaust of mid-century…Our Western political mantras at the end of the twentieth century have been ‘integration,’ ‘multiculturalism,’ or, if we are a little more old-fashioned, ‘the melting pot.’ Former Yugoslavia has been the opposite. It has been like a giant version of a machine called a ‘separator’: a sort of spinning tub which separates out cream and butter…Here it is peoples who were separated out as the giant tub spun furiously round…while blood dripped steadily from a filter at the bottom.
The furiously spinning “separator” is an especially arresting image – and one that can be aptly applied to describe the current inter-religious, inter-ethnic, and inter-national violence spreading outward from Syria today. As blood continues to flow, divisions separating Kurd, Sunni, and Shi’i harden.
As we near the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War in Europe, the issue of ethnic nationalism and the sectarian nature of the wars in Syria and Iraq have taken on a new significance for analysts and commentators. The nationalist forces unleashed by World War I and the administrative institutions set up to control them (the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Paris Peace Accords, the Mandate System) are on the tip of every tongue as journalists seek new ways of explaining the great blood-letting now taking place in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
Drawing on the history of the Middle East to explain current events is a welcome, and unfortunately altogether rare, practice, but one that can also just as easily be abused.
It is quite straightforward (and revelatory for some) to tell the story of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 1920s, the arbitrary partition of its former territories into French- and English-dominated “mandates” under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the rise of nationalism, and the long-awaited and inevitable collapse of the current Arab state system. This is a much more fruitful approach than viewing the conflict through the lens of the Global War on Terror or the Arab Spring, yet must be balanced.
Joshua Landis and Elias Nabki share some interesting thoughts on the topic of the various nationalisms of the Middle East and their ability to explain the current violent militarism in the Levant. Can we adequately explain the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in terms of ethno-nationalism? Though we may draw many parallels between the “great sorting out” of ethnic groups following World War I or Yugoslavia and the current inter-communal violence in Greater Syria, it may also obscure the story as much as it may illuminate an important aspect of it.
As Professor Nabki rightly points out, nationalisms can be defined and redefined within the space of a generation – one need only look at the experience in Lebanon over the past half-century. He also questions how valuable it is to talk about different “ethnicities” among peoples who speak the same language, share the same history, eat the same food, and observe nearly all the same traditions. We may not be talking about ethnicity at all, but about religiously-based rather than ethnically-based nationalism. But then what can we say about a region whose multi-religious inhabitants lived largely in peace for hundreds of years until the fall of the Ottoman Empire?
My feeling is that we are scrambling for a more complicated answer than what is really necessary. Yes, there are many dimensions that can be best explained through religious sectarianism, nationalist tensions, or the legacy of World War I, variously, but the fighting in Syria and Iraq can, in the end, be boiled down to simple politics: who gets what and when, where, and how they get it.