The long struggle between East and West


“It seems unlikely that the long struggle between East and West is going to end very soon. The battle lines drawn during the Persian Wars more than 23 centuries ago are still very much where they were then,” Anthony Pagden writes at the close of his book “Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West,” which has been published in Greek by Alexandria (translation by Eleni Asteriou).

Pagden, a professor of political science and history at the University of California, analyzes the roots of this conflict and its evolution to the present day: Attacks by Islamic extremists in major European cities have affected people's everyday lives. In this interview with Kathimerini, which took place before the recent attacks in Brussels, Pagden tackles several questions regarding the key issues of our time.

Do you think that what we are seeing today is part of the continuing struggle between East and West as you describe it in your book?

In general terms, yes. As I said at the end of the book (which was, of course, written before Daesh came on the scene), even if the states of the “West” preserve very little historical awareness of the ancient conflict between them and what is now the Muslim world, the jihadists most certainly do. It is they who vilify “Western” values and who attempt rewrite the past in their own image.

This was witnessed by Daesh’s attempt to erase, if only symbolically, the Iraqi-Syrian border in the belief that it represented a division – the famous, or infamous, “Sykes-Picot line” – agreed on by Britain and France in 1916. And of course in more broad terms the attempt to recreate the Abbasid Caliphate and the repeated claim that the world is divided into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War” is nothing if not a fierce assertion of the ancient Christian/Muslim divide.

Only for Daesh, the Western powers are “heathens” and thus worse even than the Christians or the Jews, who, as “Peoples of the Book,” are entitled to some degree of respect under Islamic law.

To make this even more explicit, in a recent communique titled “How to Survive in the West: A Mujahid Guide,” Daesh twice promised the future jihadist “victory in the final conquest of the capital of Europe, Rome.” Not even the members of Daesh believe that Rome is literally the “capital of Europe” but for them it remains, as it did for generations of Ottoman Sultans, the capital of Christianity and hence the symbolic center of the “West.”

Do you have any “predictions” about how this will all end?

Not really. The Arab world is still predominantly premodern in social and gender relations, politics, industrial and economic development and so on. Tunisia is something of an exception, and so – although neither is Arab – are Turkey and Iran. The so-called “Arab Spring” – which became the “Arab Winter” without there ever being an “Arab Summer” – seemed to be an answer in that the youth, which seemed to be calling for some kind of modernization (if not the kind of “democracy” the US imagined). But all they got was either reaffirmed religious dogmatism or civil war or both.

So the simple answer would be: The struggle will only end when the Middle East becomes modern, and that means creating fully secular states, and above all fully secular systems of law, which grant to each individual extensive rights to conduct their private lives as they chose.

In which areas do you recognize the responsibilities of the West for the situation in Middle East and the Arab world generally?

Clearly the situation created after WWI must bear a great deal of responsibility for the inability of the Muslim states of the Middle East to build anything like viable modern nation-states. The carving up of the Ottoman Empire into kingdoms with no regard to the divisions – many of them murderous – between the ethnic and religious groups which lived in them has made the transition from empire to nation virtually impossible.

In 1919 most of the Allies believed that the new states they were proposing to create would follow the path of Greece out of the Ottoman Empire in 1832 or that of Italy out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1871. But both of these had a strong awareness of an independent history, religious and ethic coherence and were far more evolved as states than, for example, the three administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire which were cobbled together to make up somewhere called “Iraq.”

Then, of course, there was the absolute idiocy of the Bush administration in dismantling Saddam Hussein’s army, and the failure of the US administration in Iraq to give much time, or money to “state-building” after the war.

It could also be said that the failure of the West to come up with anything that looks like a political solution for the current situations in Iraqi Syria, or Libya must be part of the blame.

Talking about “democracy” in a region where the word has almost no meaning is not a viable solution. But, having said that, there is a tendency to claim that the Middle East is mired in civil war [due] to a persistent attempt to impose “Western values” upon the region. The irony is that in this story the Arabs have been entirely deprived of any agency of their own: They have become merely the passive instruments of the Western ideologies and the technologies ultimately generated by the universalism of the European Enlightenment. It is what the French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut recently called “the ethnocentrism of the bad conscience of the West.”

The Western colonial powers cannot be made to shoulder all the blame.

What are your thoughts on the November attacks in Paris*?

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, but most of them are French-born. (Most, it must be stressed, are also law-abiding, peaceful citizens.) Almost all the attacks – that against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, the failed attack on the Paris-Amsterdam train in August (although this may not have any Islamic connections), and the more recent most destructive one in Paris – have been carried out by disaffected French petty criminals. Most of these have been radicalized in French jails (which are in urgent need of reform), all were disaffected and unemployed; all of which makes closing the borders and the talk of the far-right of this as a problem created by Schengen and by the influx of refugees into Europe from the Syria dangerous and absurd.

Of course Daesh has made use of the Syrian refugee crisis as a means of entering Europe; but they really do not need to do so. Nor does closing the borders between European states help. There are already quite enough homegrown terrorists in place.

The far-right and the so-called “Euroskeptics” (often but not always the same people) have used this as a means of persuading the uninformed that somehow the European Union must bear some of the responsibility. “Dismantle the EU,” the message of the French National Front, the UK Independence Party and others reads, “and the problems of the Middle East will remain in the Middle East.” But that too is absurd.

Daesh's declared objective is to manipulate the discontent among the Muslim populations in Europe – which it sees as the “soft underbelly” of the West – by repeated attacks of terror. This, they hope, will lead to a European civil war that will eventually allow them to establish the Caliphate in Europe itself and “conquer Rome.” This scenario and the reasoning behind it is clearly demented. But Francois Hollande's solemn declaration (from Versailles, the place where the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was held, and where the present map of the Middle East was created) that the attacks were “acts of war” and that they were committed by “a jihadist army which we will fight because France is the country of liberty,” had, as the eminent French Islamic scholar Gilles Kepel pointed out the bizarre effect of endorsing Daesh's vision of itself.

Not even the attacks on French soil by the Algerian FNLA in the 1960s were declared to be “acts of war.” Daesh should be treated as what it is, a terrorist criminal organization, the Sicilian Mafia or the IRA, not the Third Reich.

Does Europe underestimate the role of religion?

I do not think so. For one thing, I do not believe that religion really has a role at least within the West, as so many claim to believe. (Even in the US there is evidence that beyond the madder beliefs in angels, demons and the like, religion – as an organized system of belief – is on the decline.) What has been on the rise recently – and then only in the Middle East and parts of Asia – is what is widely called “fundamentalism.” All religions suffer from it. But Islam, which is the creed of a desert warrior society, is particularly prone. Yet most Islamic fundamentalists, like most Christian ones, are wholly ignorant of the theology of the faith they supposedly follow. They know the rules and the rituals; and it is the rules and rituals which they crave.

Religion, precisely because it provides rules that supposedly come from an omnipotent being, cannot be questioned, offers a semblance of order in a chaotic world. But we in the West have long since abandoned the idea that religion can give any shape to anything other than our private lives. It may well continue to do that for many for some time to come. But as a social, moral or political force, it is no more.

As the historian Maurice Gauchet said in Le Monde, in the wake of the Paris attacks, “the escape from religion as a form of social organization was the truly original move of modernity.” I really do not think that that is ever going to change.

What do you think about the future of European Union?

I am great believer in a common European identify and a common European future and I have great hopes for the future of the Union. (I am currently writing a book on the subject.) The problem is that so many of the citizens of the Union have excessively high expectations of it. The Union is a new kind of political form, much as the nation-state was in the 19th century. It is is clearly not a nation. But neither is it a state – a “mega-state” a many of its enemies argue. It is not even a federation like the United Sates.

Like the nations which it will certainly one day replace, it will take a long time to evolve. Yet everyone from the left to the right expects it to have worked perfectly from the start. But it cannot. It is therefore all too easy to blame the present economic crisis on misguided European policies, when the real problems are national or international ones.

Furthermore, we live in a global world and the players in that world, if they are to be successful, must be necessarily large. No single European state, not even Germany, has the economic power to go it alone against the US and China or even – sometime perhaps in the future if it does not destroy itself first – Russia. We Europeans all need each other politically, economically and culturally.

To put it more fancifully, perhaps the nation-state has proven to be but a short interlude in a very long history which began in ancient Greece not with Athenian democracy but with the empire, although it was very short-lived, of Alexander the Great. The future of Europe then must be the kind of confederation Alexander envisaged his empire to be, not as the empires of the immediate past have been – systems of domination and exploitation – but communities of cooperation and some day of multicultural harmony. In that sense the EU is indeed the direct heir of Alexander.

If you were in the position to, how would you advise today's European leaders?

That confronted with Daesh and a newly aggressive Russia, a serious attempt should be made to revive the European Defense Community of 1950.

No European state can confront the menace of these two alone. It is absurd that France and Britain are now carrying out separate military operations in Syria, for instance. We seem to have learned very little from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. NATO can only do so much, and that depends very largely on the will – and the firepower – of the US. We are still overly dependent upon the US and the US must  pursue and preserve its own military interests, and inevitably these are not always those of the EU.

The EU was created out of war to prevent future wars among Europeans, and in that respect it has been spectacularly successful. But war will never vanish. There can never be a “perpetual peace” among all the peoples of the world. So, like any nation and like any empire, Europe needs to be armed and ready.

I would also suggest that something more positive and more energetic be done about Turkey beyond offering [President Reccep Tayyip] Erdogan money to help with the refugee crisis. The political situation is hardly ideal (but then neither is it in Serbia or Romania). Turkey, even under its present regime, has hardly ever wavered in its desire to become a member of the Union. We need the Turks and the EU should make more use of the powers of leverage it undoubtedly possesses to improve the political situation within the country. A European Turkey may well be the first real step toward modernizing the rest of the Middle East.

* This interview was conducted before the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22.