Although David Carlin begins his article “The Longest War” with a bit of snark, referring to "The current struggle against ISIS and “radical Islamic terrorism” (I hope President Obama will forgive me for uttering that expression),” the remainder of the article is refreshingly snark-free and offers some badly needed historical perspective.
Mr. Carlin asserts that our current engagement in the Middle East “is but the latest phase of a war that’s been going on more than 3,000 years now, a war that has been fought along the world’s greatest geopolitical fault line, the line between Western Asia and Europe.” He then provides a timeline of that war: starting with the Trojan War, Xerxes, Alexander, and Rome’s wars against both Carthage and Israel; moving on to the rise of Islam, the Arab invasions of Europe, the Crusades, and the decline of the Ottoman Empire; and bringing it up to date with Zionism, the two World Wars, the establishment of Israel, post-war Arab nationalism, Cold War rivalries, and (finally) the Gulf Wars and the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Note that, for the first half of this 3000-year timeline, Islam did not exist and Christianity was not yet ascendant; and yet war, conquest and re-conquest, and struggles for power in the Middle East took place. The contests have always been for territory and for sovereignty; religion is just the latest (and, sadly, perhaps the most combustible) excuse given for what is nothing more than age-old brute human conflict.
It is worth excerpting Mr. Carlin’s summary of some of the recent stages in this millennial struggle:
The tide turned [after the 17th century] as the West modernized while the Ottoman Empire increasingly became “the sick man of Europe.” Beginning with Greece in the early 19th century, the European provinces of the Turkish Empire, one after another, won their independence. By the end of World War I, the Muslim-Asian beachhead in Europe had been reduced to Istanbul and its suburbs plus Albania.
As the Ottoman Empire declined and finally collapsed, European nations, especially Britain and France, moved into the vacuum, controlling (either as colonies or under some other guise) the North African and Middle-Eastern countries that had formerly been part of the Turkish Empire.
At the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement began. Jews (who by now were Europeans) migrated to Palestine; their settlements were legitimized by the Balfour Declaration (1917). Eventually these settlements led to the creation of the state of Israel (1948) and to a series of wars with neighboring Arab states.
Following World War II Arab nationalism arose, the glue holding this loosely organized phenomenon together being a universal hatred for Israel. Arabs did not (and do not) look at Israel the way Jews look at it, as the re-establishment of an ancient homeland. They look at it as a Western invasion of their territory.
I have to say, this is a surprisingly dispassionate and fair-minded account, for which David Carlin is to be commended. The account does not excuse ISIS or any other terrorist groups, but it makes clear that the conflict pre-dates our own time and even pre-dates Islam and Christianity.
As Carlin concludes,
If we can believe Homer, this whole tragic series began when the beautiful wife of an important European ruler ran off with a handsome and charming young fellow from Asia – an illicit love affair that touched off centuries of even more illicit hatred.
A long-standing, intractable and bloody feud that began over an adulterous affair: personally, I’d rather view the wars in the Middle East that way than consider them part of either a “clash of civilizations” or a duel to the death between rival monotheisms. Even so, I have no idea how to get the feuding parties to stop; neither does David Carlin and, sadly, neither does anyone else.