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The EU Offers a Model for Unifying the Middle East

Author: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 19, 2014
Financial Times


Not long ago, Europe was a continent that resembled how the Middle East looks today. It was bursting with dictators and stalked by political extremists. Its intolerance of minorities led to the horrors of the Holocaust. Perpetual contests over its national borders triggered two world wars.

This depressing picture is being repeated across the region, from Morocco to Syria to Yemen. The rise of religious sectarianism in Iraq and Syria, like the repression of Islamists in Egypt, produces the magnetic narratives of radicalism that find adherents among Europe's young Muslims. Many see the region as a desperate case.

Yet there is reason to hope Europe's past and present can inform the Middle East's future. Just as a warring continent found peace through unity by creating what became the EU, Arabs, Turks, Kurds and other groups in the region could find relative peace in ever closer union. After all, most of its problems – terrorism, poverty, unemployment, sectarianism, refugee crises, water shortages – require regional answers. No country can solve its problems on its own.

For example, Egypt has low-cost labour but high youth unemployment. Neighbouring Libya has excess capital, huge infrastructure projects and an insatiable demand for workers. Turkey has the expertise to build airports, bridges and roads. These dots need connecting. According to our research, at least $20bn of Gulf money has been pledged to Egypt in recent months but with no long-term plan. The Arab League, the existing regional structure, does not have the credibility, capability or creativity to help these nations pull together.

For more than a millennium, the Middle East was broadly united under different monarchical dynasties. Free movement of people, goods, tribes, ideas and armies was the norm. There was a common religion for most and, compared with other regions of the world, there were fewer languages and more commonalities of culture and history. When Europe's medieval pogroms were unleashed, it was the Mamluks and Ottomans who welcomed Jews. Minorities were protected when the majority had confidence in themselves.

Most in the Middle East no longer feel the dignity of their ancestors. What Plato called thymos is desperately missing: the political desire for recognition and respect as dignified peoples. A Middle Eastern Union could recreate it.

Calls for unity have been made by regional thinkers and leaders for almost a century. Intellectuals of the past such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a 19th-century political activist who is still hugely influential in Arab lands, or Said Nursi, an Ottoman theologian of the same era widely relevant in modern Turkey, sowed the seeds of regionalist thought. In polls, most people in the Middle East call themselves Arab or Muslim before, say, Jordanian or Saudi. Pan-Islamic identity still has more resonance than national identity.

Such calls have been echoed by the Saudi king, the president of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey's prime minister, Jordan's monarch – and also by more threatening voices among Hamas, Egypt's Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Will the west wait until Islamists and radicals are powerful enough to create their own Middle East, one opposed to us? Or will we help our partners in government harness this momentum? This is the moment to create multilateral institutions that could implant pluralism across the region as firmly as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's constitution did in Turkey almost a century ago.

Anyone familiar with Middle Eastern business meetings or negotiations can testify that the presence of Europeans or Americans in a room changes behaviour. There is an impulse to be seen as equals that creates action from stagnation. The EU and the US are unions that understand the challenges of creating political unity. Knowhow and bureaucratic experience should be lent to the many voices in the region who want greater integration.

A crucial element of the radical Islamist narrative against the west is the spectre of a western war against Islam dating back to the Crusades, a conspiracy to keep Muslims divided and weak.

Playing a part in regional integration would firmly refute that incendiary narrative. This cannot be another century of western complacency.

When Arthur Goodhart, the American-born Oxford jurist, argued for the creation of a European Union in the 1940s, he was mocked. Then, few in Britain or the US could see beyond the fog of extremism and war. The Middle East needs a vision that pierces that fog and looks to the future. A complete change of psychology is needed.

The winds of change are blowing across the world's most turbulent quarters. Will the west help or hinder those calls to unity? Will we help others learn the lessons of our past? Or will we continue to pretend that Arabs are not like Europeans or Americans?

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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