Western powers must share in the blame for its historic role in the Muslim world, from Napoleon Bonaparte to George W. Bush. But without the Arab world taking its share of responsibility, the chaos will not quiet any time soon.
PARIS — Is the Middle East cursed? Do the wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, the neverending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the rise of international jihadism mean the region is condemned to fanaticism and violence? This is the question asked, after many others, by Middle East contemporary historian Jean Pierre Filiu in his latest book, Les Arabes, leur destin et le nôtre(The Arabs, Their Future And Ours).
His answer is as unavoidable as it is insufficient. We — the West, Europe, France — bear a large share of responsibility for the Middle East's tragic evolution, at least since the end of the 18th century and the French campaign in Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte. We imposed our history onto theirs, betrayed our promises, backed brutal dictatorships and obscurantist regimes. And yes, we're still doing those very same things today.
But to pretend that we are solely responsible, to imply that without us the Arab world would have found balance and happiness, that we Westerners are the curse, is an excessive and dangerous simplification of history. How can the Arab world reform itself, confront its past and therefore its future, if it feels it has no responsibility whatsoever in what is happening there?
A few days ago, philosopher and theologian Tariq Ramadan said during a debate on the Japanese television network NHK that ISIS was the direct, if not exclusive, consequence of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Through a mixture of arrogance and ignorance, the Western powers responsible for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his regime have, according to Ramadan, created the monster we now must face.
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Baron Antoine-Jean Gros depicts Napoleon at the Battle Of The Pyramids
For the most part, I have to agree. But it is also sometimes necessary to resort to what historian Fernand Braudel used to call the "longue durée" (long term) if we are to avoid narrow and emotional interpretations. We're not responsible for everything, unless we consider our rise in power since the Renaissance to itself be a mistake. History didn't begin in 2003. Nor in 1798 with Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt.
Until the 16th century, the Islamic world was the most open, creative, and probably powerful civilization of its time. It could claim to be the worthy successor to the Greco-Roman world in terms of arts and sciences. After all, didn't Islam allow enough freedom of thought and speech to lead many persecuted Jews and dissenting Christians to seek refuge in these lands?
A wrong turn
From there, though, everything changed gradually. When we entered our Renaissance period in Europe, the Islamic world was starting its decline. From the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 to the Ottoman defeat outside of Vienna in 1683, history only confirmed what began as a relative decline and later evolved to become an absolute one.
In 1453, the canons of the Ottoman Empire had a greater range than those of Byzantium. A little over a century later, it was the opposite. Maybe the Islamic world took the wrong turn when it refused, at the very beginning of the 18th century, the introduction of printing — two centuries after Europe.
Shouldn't we therefore ask what the Muslims did to Islam instead? "The past devours the future," economist Thomas Piketty writes in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Applied to the Islamic world, that same formula provides a more nuanced understanding of our relationship with the Middle East. It would be unfair to deny our responsibility over more than two centuries for the culture of imposing and self-destructive humiliation that exists in the Arab-Muslim world. But it would be dangerous to only focus on our own responsibility.
The peoples across the Mediterranean reproach us for seizing control of their history, for intervening so deeply in their lives and taking away their power of self-determination. It makes a lot of sense given the arbitrarily created borders, the despotic regimes we've supported, not to mention the creation of a state, Israel, that, seen from a Middle Eastern perspective, looks like the latest anachronistic demonstration of European colonialism even as the de-colonization process was beginning elsewhere.
And yet, even though we took a risk by waking up a dormant volcano, we did not actually create this volcano. Why has Asia in general better overcome its colonial trauma? How do we explain that South Korea, which a half-century ago was a wrecked and severely wounded country while Egypt was thriving, could have become one of the world's economic miracles, and the land of the Pharaohs wouldn't survive without massive international aid?
There is no such thing as a Middle East curse. To conceive of the Arab world only as a victim, a mindset that leads in turn to such visions as a reconstituted caliphate, is no proof of love. We have "sinned." That much is true. But we aren't the only ones.