Blaming All Middle East Chaos On The West Will Fix Nothing

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.

In Fallujah, Iraq in July
In Fallujah, Iraq in July
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS â€" 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 â€" the West, Europe, France â€" 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.

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 â€" 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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!