There are many things that pollute our media experiences: events or persons who continually intrude upon the text and images we use to inform, educate and entertain ourselves. Although I do not watch televised talent shows, I have become aware that a dog has again won one of these. Kim Kardashian’s bottom seems virtually impossible to avoid and seems deserving of its own representation in the world of show-business. At least one man has chosen to assume the body shape of a woman through the use of hormones and cosmetic surgery. For this he has apparently been the subject of secular beatification.
There are more sinister forms of visual pollution. Our screens have of late been regularly visited by the images of young men, clad in dark clothing from head to foot, brandishing swords towards the camera in a threatening fashion. For the curious or just plain ghoulish, the accompanying videos have apparently depicted them eagerly committing atrocities against people whose only crime has been either to disagree on forms of worship or just to merely exist. Isis has made maximum use of the internet to publicise itself, daring governments in the West to come after it, while influencing those of weak morals to emulate its barbaric activities.
The rise of Isis seems unstoppable and appears to stem from the Arab Spring, where the populations of those countries in North Africa and the Middle East suddenly decided that their governments needed replacing and, realising that the ballot-box was not available or viable, took to the streets in what appeared to be a re-run of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. There the similarity ended. The reaction of most of the governments affected by the uprisings was close to, but not as effective as, the Chinese response twenty-six years ago this month. Revolution turned into civil war as the weak institutions that had been repressing populations for decades were shown to be unable to survive transitions and challenges from demonstrators or armed groups of militants.
It was naive in the extreme to assume that the Arab countries would follow the pattern of Eastern Europe and have dissident academics and jurists waiting on tap to assume the role of leadership as well as populations ready to accept multi-party politics, any more than it was reasonable to expect the fall of Saddam Hussein would allow Iraq to be rebuilt in the same way as the Federal Republic of Germany emerged from the ashes of another vicious dictatorship that was conquered by an international coalition. History tells us a different story.
Revolutions take decades to work their way out through the populations affected by them. They involve a collapse of civil society and its institutions. Determining what should replace them is a non-trivial exercise, especially if there is disagreement over how a country should be rebuilt.
Civil war has been an inevitable consequence of revolutions throughout history. The revolutions of the Arab Spring have only been running for slightly over four years. That is simply not long enough. It may take decades before these unfortunate countries finally know peace.
The parliamentary uprising against Charles I’s personal rule in England led to at least three civil wars. It started in 1642 and was only partially resolved by the Restoration in 1660. Perhaps it was only the Act of Settlement following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that resolved the issue, and then only in England. There was Stuart revanchism in Scotland following the ascendancy of the Hanoverians that was only crushed in 1745. So that took one century.
The American Revolution of 1775 led to a civil war between patriots and loyalists as well. It could only truly be described as a ‘war of independence’ once that was achieved in 1783, eight years later. It was, however, only the involvement of other great powers in the war that brought Britain to the conference table.
The French Revolution was the most destabilising event of the late 18th century and foreign military intervention triggered a series of wars across Europe that were not fully resolved until 1815. That was twenty-six years later. France had to work its way through two empires and four republics and the current Fifth French Republic is not even the one that has enjoyed the greatest longevity to date.
The Russian revolution of 1917 led to a civil war of astonishing viciousness, the victorious side being the one capable of inflicting the greatest amount of violence against the civilian population, which it continued to do for decades thereafter. The predatory nature of the revolutionary state abated in part forty years later, but given the illegal seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and the policy of persecution of their subjects, a case could be made that the end of the consequences of the revolution played out seventy-five years after the cruiser Aurora signalled the start in St Petersburg.
The German Revolution of 1918 destabilised the country, causing civil strife and weak government, leading to the rise of another vicious dictatorship that militarised the population and brought misery to Europe. The revolution was not finally resolved until 1990, some seventy-two years later when it could be said that a single German government ruling with the consent of the whole population was finally in charge. Germany was under military occupation of one kind or another for 50 years, during which time Europe was at peace.
The fall of Yugoslavia into its ethnic components shows what happens when internecine strife gets out of control. Suffering that people believed abolished for all time after 1945 in Europe emerged once again, despite intervention by Nato and Russia. The Balkans, described as the ‘powder-keg of Europe’ still has large areas where international agencies provide and guarantee civil society in the absence of governments enjoying the consent of the whole populace. This has been the case for at least twenty years.
Next year will mark the centenary of the Dublin uprising. The strife and conflict that followed in Ireland and spilled over to Great Britain is still in the process of being resolved. The violence is now at a mercifully low level, but this has involved important concessions on all sides of the conflict and the most critical aspect, a strong desire among all the interested parties for peace.
And this is what is missing in the territories where Isis is operating. There is no desire for peace amongst the belligerents anywhere in the region, only victory. The prospect is blood, toil, tears and sweat in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. We are only four years into a series of revolutions and civil wars across the Middle East, and that is far too short a time to determine how they will play out or indeed conclude. There may be fighting across the region for at least one decade, possibly two.
Since that vast majority of the fighting in the Middle East is being undertaken by people native to the area, the West should not be held responsible for the conflicts breaking out. Ensuring the fall of Gadaffi in Libya was in part a terrible revenge for his international crimes, but had the genuine aim of stopping him from using his army against unarmed civilians. The current fighting is a consequence of the collapse of government, something that was happening before the West was involved. Western intervention saved lives in Libya.
There remains a confusion of support as powers that are friends of the West support forces that are hostile to the West, and vice-versa. The West is providing support in the form of shadowy special forces, training and arming of friendly troops and air-strikes.
So the pollution of media by Isis’s black-clad fundamentalists or their successors will persist for longer than the fundament of a reality television performer or indeed the consequences of elective surgery on another performer who is step-father to the fundament. The Middle East will be wracked by civil strife until its populations can agree on how they want to be governed and not before.
The West is involved, but has not gone in with boots on the ground due to an absence of political will. This time around, fighting or revolutions in the Middle East are not causing an oil crisis as they did twice in the 1970s. Despite the clear evidence of atrocities, humanitarian considerations are not enough to make Western voters, even those from the left, clamour for their politicians to take action. Ebola does not wear bomb vests.
Where will it all end? It is impossible to say for certain except to say that history tells us that the unfortunate people of the region are in for a long haul and a large body-count. The Lebanese civil war lasted fifteen years, despite external military interventions, and that country is balkanised by militias and remains to a degree a vassal state of an Iran-Syria axis.
The lamps are going out all over the Middle East and we may not see them lit again in our lifetimes. But this time it appears to be largely up to the populations of the Middle East to resolve their own affairs. A game-changer could be if an Isis-dominated Syria attacked Israel for dogmatic reasons. Our times would then become most interesting indeed and not in a good way.