From opportunism to nihilism

13 maart 2024 | Hans van de Breevaart

Our view of the Middle East says something about who we are. So John Laughland, Director of FVD International, argued during the course he held for the Renaissance Institute on 11 February 2024. 

We not only tend to project our own ideas onto that part of the world, the traditions that originated in the Middle East have to a large extent also defined our world as well. This region is indeed the cradle of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And all of them played a defining role in the history of European civilization.

The center of the world

During the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was literally seen as the center of the world. On world maps at the time, the city is the nexus between the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. For Jews, it had been the most important religious center for centuries. For Christians, it was the city where the Messiah had performed his miracles, died on the cross and rose again from the dead. Moreover, he would also return there again to establish God's kingdom on earth. And for the Muslim prophet too, Jerusalem was the place where he had ascended to heaven to receive divine revelations first-hand.

The Middle East was also indirectly significant. According to the renowned historian Henri Pirenne, the second Roman Empire led by Charlemagne took shape under the immediate threat of powerful Islam at its external borders. The Crusades not only caused death and destruction, but also ensured that knowledge of the classics present in the Middle East was spread across Europe. The Renaissance would have been unthinkable without the massive arrival of scholars who sought refuge on our own continent after the fall of Constantinople at the end of the Middle Ages.

But, conversely, there was much interference in the Middle East itself because of the sentiments this continent evoked among the various European peoples. The aforementioned crusades were initially aimed at liberating the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, from Islamic domination. The later alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire not only aimed to ensure its own security, but also that of Christians in Jerusalem. The Crimean war was waged to prevent Russia from expanding her influence in the Holy Land.

The opportunism of Balfour

Even the famous Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 were the result of a struggle for hegemony, Laughland argued. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French and British agreed to divide the Middle East. Palestine was to come under international administration with the exception of Haifa, which, as a port for oil transit, was too vital to British interests. 

But because Palestine could serve as a base to maintain control over the Suez Canal, which was so important for trade with the Far East, the British offered a Jewish homeland in Palestine partly to stake their own claim to rule the province and partly to split Zionism away from supporting Germany. We forget that at that time, Zionism was essentially a German phenomenon: the World Zionist Organisation was based in Berlin and run by largely patriotic German Jews.

The Balfour Declaration and the creation of the British mandate in Palestine prompted Zionists to buy land on a large scale. This soon led to conflict with the Arabs living there. The Balfour Declaration had expressly provided for respect for the indigenous rights of the local population, but the Zionists clearly had other plans. The conflict soon turned violent. At first, the British sided with the Zionists – the first governor of mandate Palestine was Jewish – but with tensions increasing, the British tried to stem Jewish immigration, even after the rise of Hitler. This, of course, only increased tensions with the Zionists.

Toying with Palestine

Under threat of war with Germany, the British decided to change course. They believed they needed the Arabs in their struggle for hegemony over oil resources in the Middle East. To try to calm the Palestinian Arabs in order to maintain control over the province, they banned Jews from buying more land and tried to keep them from migrating to Palestine. They emphatically promised their Arab allies that there would never be a Jewish state.

The Zionists were furious. A hard core of militant groups, commanded by some of the later leaders of the Jewish state like Menachem Begin and Yitzak Shamir, carried out terror attacks on British headquarters in Palestine and assassinated senior British government officials.

Eventually the British threw in the towel and handed the issue over to the United Nations. With the UK abstaining, the UN General Assembly voted to declare the state of Israel in1948 and divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab territory. The Arab states around felt betrayed and chose to attack. The young Jewish state was attacked from all sides, but struck back and managed to conquer territory in the process. Since then, every time the Arabs attacked, it has managed to expand its territory. All under the watchful eye of Americans and Europeans.

NATO's nihilism

The question at the moment is what fate awaits Gaza. There are regular calls from radicals in the Israeli government to exterminate the population living there. The Western powers claim to be against this, but the question remains what their own plans are for the future of the region.

According to Laughland, although NATO countries usually make frantic attempts to have their politics legitimized by lofty ideals, their military action is characterized by nihilism. The reasoning after the Second World War was that the Jews deserved a safe home after the Holocaust. After the attack on the Twin Towers, the US and Europe also needed to be safeguarded from attacks. For this reason, Afghanistan and Iraq were attacked successively. By introducing those countries to true democracy, went the official reasoning, the region would automatically turn into an oasis of peace and democracy while giving Americans and Europeans access to the abundant natural resources there.

However, military intervention by the US and other NATO countries, including the Netherlands, has usually ended in catastrophe for local populations in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, resulting in the Taliban being back in control. The war in Iraq may have meant the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties later, the country is still occupied by the Americans. The same applies to Syria. With support from the Russians, President Assad may have mastered the situation. Yet NATO continues to stoke fire, with disastrous consequences for the lives of ordinary civilians. And then there is Libya. Although Moammar Gaddafi's regime was toppled and he himself was murdered, the country is also still embroiled in a lingering tribal struggle. And even after hundreds of thousands of deaths, there is no prospect of stability and prosperity being returned.

Violence without serving any purpose

Overthrowing existing regimes by force with no prospect of a better alternative seems to be NATO's policy over and over again. On 18 January, Joe Biden was asked whether he expected his bombing of the Houthis in Yemen to stop them from attacking ships passing through the Red Sea. A reporter asked, “Are the air strikes in Yemen working?” and Biden replied “Well, when you say ‘working’, are they stopping the Houthis? No. Will they continue? Yes.”

That is nihilism in its most pure form, Laughland says: Violence for the sake of violence, without serving any purpose. Dmitry Medvedev similarly alleges that in 2011 he asked Barack Obama what would happen to Libya if Gaddafi was overthrown. Obama replied, “I don’t know. We don’t think that far ahead.”

Laughland also sees the violence Israel uses in its fight against Hamas in this light. That the latter were guilty of a barbaric massacre on 7 October 2023 is beyond dispute. That Israel has the right to arm and defend itself against this violence may be clear. But the numbers of civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip right now are disproportionate – even when taking into account that militants are using civilians as human shields and using hospitals and schools as bases for operations.

In doing so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to care only about power. How else to explain that Hamas was able to carry out the barbaric massacres? He also does not act against the rhetoric of some religious leaders in his cabinet who call for the total destruction of Gaza. He is too dependent on their support to stay in power to effectively act against it. 

Since Hamas is also the party that represents some form of statehood, it remains to be seen whether its destruction will contribute to a stable future for Gaza. The level of violence Israel uses is planting the seeds for new hatreds. It is highly questionable whether this will bring the future where Jews and Arabs can live together in peace even one step closer. Supposedly this would be the goal of Israeli politics today. Clearly, Laughland is far from convinced of this.

Plea for realism, against nihilism

It is for this reason that Laughland argues for a realistic approach to the Middle East. Any country's politics is driven by opportunism – with however much idealism it tries to legitimize that same politics. But opportunism is very different from nihilism. Opportunism serves certain interests, but nihilism is purely destructive and necessarily leads to chaos and ever more destruction. And this nihilism should be seriously objected to from a moral point of view if we are to have any claim to anything like humanity. 


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