European Perspectives on Middle East Affairs


European Perspectives on Middle East Affairs

The European engagement in Near Eastern affairs is neither a recent development nor limited to political and economic domain. The Christian faith that largely shapes the European mind and landscape traces its heritage to the ancient Near East.

Written By: Murad Wilfried Hofmann

Policy Perspectives , Volume7 , Number 1, Special Issue 2010


[The European engagement in Near Eastern affairs is neither a recent development nor limited to political and economic domain. The Christian faith that largely shapes the European mind and landscape traces its heritage to the ancient Near East. This explains the mobilization of European kings and subjects towards asserting their ‘right’ to sway the Holy Land of Palestine during the Crusades in Medieval Ages. Although the European-Near Eastern relationship expanded from religiously motivated wars to socio-political interaction of the two peoples in Middle Ages. Different segments of European societies benefited from rich Islamic literature, philosophy, scientific developments and inventions. Reaching the modern age, the European involvement in this region was mostly imperial and political that laid down the basis of their current commitments in Iraq, Iran, and, most importantly, Israel-Palestine conflict. – Ed.]

The Weight of History 

There is much history to European-Near Eastern affairs. After all, the Christian faith, shaping the European mind and landscape so much, originally was a Near-Eastern phenomenon. Christianity was no more than a sect imported from the Eastern Mediterranean region – together with Platonism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Judaism, and Neo-Platonism. In fact, some specific Christian traits like belief in Trinity, the institution of Papacy, Holy Mass, and the dating of Christmas all have their roots in Near-Eastern religions, e.g their concept of a divine triad (Osiris/ Isis/ Horus or Jupiter / Mars / Quirinus), their title of pontifex maximus (for what today is the Pope), and their annual Saturnalia celebrations at what today is called Christmas time. In short, Christianity definitely took root, and eventually triumphed, in a Near Eastern religious climate.


This is not to say that Europeans are widely conscious of this fact. However, more so in the Protestant churches than in the Catholic one, European Christians are constantly reminded that the founder of their religion was born a Near-Eastern Jew, and that most of their Holy Script, the Bible, was addressed to the Banu Israil. The Biblical books of Genesis and the Psalms continue to be cited in Christian worship. True, the Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant versions of the Bible differ from each other in content. Nevertheless, the Bible is a strong connection, linking European Christians to the places where Jesus lived and died. Thus, Jerusalem to this day continues to be a point of concern and emotional projection for many faithful Europeans.


In the Middle-ages this feeling was so strong that thousands

of men, and even children, longed for liberation of the Holy Sites in Palestine from Muslim rule, ready to give their lives for this aim. Prompted by Pope Urban II for two centuries (1095 -1291) no less than nine Crusades drew European knights and even kings like Louis IX of France (1248-54, 1270) and Richard I Lionheart of England (1189-92) to the Near East where they even set up Crusader States before being driven out by Salah ad-Din al-Ayubi (undone only by recent colonization, including Israeli reoccupation).


For the Muslims the Crusades were a side-show, happening far from the brilliant contemporary centers of Muslim culture, Baghdad and Cordoba. But for Europe the impact of the Crusades was serious and far-reaching. They not only caused what turned out to be a permanent Huntingtonian fear of Islam but also positive results.


Indeed the influence on European culture of its military encounter with the Orient is incalculable, given its impetus on literature, mathematics, technology, invention and the development of chivalry. Even commercially the profit for both sides was considerable. Venice benefited in particular from trading with the Levante.


It should not be overlooked, though, that from its 6th one the Crusades petered out. Now they turned into peaceful, courteous visits like the one in Egypt, on a Crusader ship, of St Francis of Assisi (1219 – 20) and the 6th ‘Crusade’, under Papal pressure performed by the German Emperor Frederic II (1228-29). The rival cultures interpenetrated as an early case of globalization. Never again would the Occident be as separate as before from Muslim civilization.


Equally strong was the influence on Europe of Muslim culture in Andalusia and Sicily. It may not sound credible but is true that Spain, to this day, has been Muslim longer than Christian, given that Islamic rule in Andalusia last-ed for 736 years (Umayad Emirate 756 -1086; al-Murabitun 1086 -1157; al-Muwahidun 1157-1237; Nasrid rule in  Grenada 1237-1492).


During this time, mainly via Toledo, Europe benefited immensely from Muslim arts and sciences (except theology): in agriculture (almonds, olives, windmills), in arithmetic (replacing the clumsy Roman numerals by Arabic ones), philosophy, and medicine – not to speak of the art of gracious living.


In Europe, Ibn Sina`s (Avicenna’s) Qanun was used as medical text-book up to the 18th century. Ibn Rushd`s (Averroes`) multiple commentaries on Aristotelian philosophy caused a revolution at Paris University, making possible the Scholasticism developed by St Thomas Aquinas.


Near Eastern religion, i.e. Islam, impacted again on Europe in the 18th century, during the Enlightenment best represented by Deist[1] thinkers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Voltaire (1694-1778), Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). They all revolted against the dominance of the Churches—Catholic or Protestant—typified by an intolerant clergy steeped in ignorance. And they all were favorably impressed by the religion of Islam – its uncompromising tauhid, its rejection of Trinity and Incarnation, its refusal of clergy, sacraments, celibacy at will, and its  Qur`anic rationality.


During the anti-Napoleonic wars Goethe had witnessed Czarist Muslim soldiers pray at Weimar. He studied the Qur`an based on its earliest translation into German by David Friedrich Megerlin as “The Turkish Bible” in 1772. Also, he wrote religious poetry in response to the lyrical Sufi poems of his 14/15th century Persian colleague Hafiz from Shiraz.


In turn, Germany’s best known dramatist Lessing surprised not only his time with his play ‘Nathan the Wise’ in which all Muslims show a positive character, yet also his interest was not to become Muslim but to hold up Islam against the decadent Christianity of his time.


The following European 19th century being atheistic in outlook (Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Friedrich Nietzsche) and colonialist in policy saw the Near East merely as a prey. Sanctioned by the League of Nations, the colonialist powers in the area, i.e. Britain and France, divided the region inorganically among themselves and exploited it economically. European ‘Orientalism’ studied the area from the pedestal of a superior white race that at best dealt with Arabs as children to be taught the ways of the benevolent occupier.


In the process, European politicians, scientists, merchants, soldiers, and missionaries learned a lot about the Near East, but understood very little. In particular, being materialist and agnostic themselves, the Europeans could not possibly grasp the importance of religion in the area and the key social function of Islam. This culminated in the incredible misjudgment that Palestine could be disposed of as a “land without people,” just right for a “people without land.”


The European perspective on Near Eastern affairs changed once more under the impact of the Palestinian resistance against Zionist occupation and the large presence of fugitives from the Near East in Europe. The Europeans found themselves sucked into the area, forced to take sides. This, in most countries, resulted in governments being split from their populations.


While governments in general and the German government in particular, for historical reasons, tend to side with Israel, the European public, appalled by Zionist atrocities, usually sides with the Palestinian underdogs.


In this respect, the European attitude significantly differs from the one in America where unlimited support of Israel is never questioned: right or wrong my brother. This attitude, turning the United States into an unconditional political, military, and economic ally of Israel, is caused and rigorously defended both by the incredibly powerful Jewish lobby plus media presence and fanatical American ‘reborn’ Evangelical ultra-Christians. What they read out of the Bible is absurd: they do believe that the second coming of Christ entirely depends on the previous re-establishment of (un-Christian) Israel in Palestine.


As a consequence, Europeans and Americans also interpreted the September 11 attacks differently. The Americans refused to analyze the event, simply labeling it as ‘evil’. They shouted: “Why do they hate us?” without expecting an answer.


The Europeans, in contrast, while grieving with the Americans over their losses suffered on September 11, immediately understood that America had been targeted for being an active ‘party’ in the Near East, fighting an off-shore war of their own by proxy.


In contrast to the militarized American approach to the Near East, the European one is more political, less influenced by Jewish intervention, and better based on first-hand knowledge of the area.


On the other hand, the presence of Palestinians in Europe is less efficient for their cause than in the United States. There, one can hardly find a college or graduate school without Palestinian professors, active also through the Muslim Students Associations. Just as the dispersal of Jews, following their persecution, has resulted in Jewish academic prowess world-wide, so the persecution of Palestinians by Israel is now resulting in Palestinian academic prowess globally.


On the other hand, Palestinians can take into account, as an asset, the large number of Muslim guest workers and fugitives now living in Europe. They mainly came from Albania, Algeria, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, India, Iran, ´Iraq, Kosovo, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, and Tunisia. True, they all think of their home countries first: each of them laboring under particular problems; but it is also true that ‘all’ of the Muslims in Europe feel deeply affected by what happens in Palestine. In this respect the Muslim Ummah is still a reality. Not only in view of this, the fate of Palestine is far from having been decided.


Current Involvement


Most of the European countries are now members of the European Union. But this has consequences only for their economic relations with Near Eastern countries. In this respect the European Union faces competition in the region from the United States, Russia, and increasingly from China as well. On the other hand, most other foreign policy aspects—political, military, and cultural relations—remain affairs to be conducted on a bilateral basis. In this respect, it is not quite feasible, and correct, to speak of ‘European Perspectives’.


Iraq: Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the establishment of a coalition to wage war against Saddam Hussain’s aggression, there had been a closer military cooperation of the European countries with the US. This cooperation transformed into a coalition in the aftermath of 9/11 incident and American proclamation of war against Taliban. The relationship, however, deteriorated with the US plans of invading Iraq. On this particular issue, two of the most important and influential European States—France and Germany—not only came out of this coalition but also resisted the American invasion vehemently. For quite some time, the European countries that participated in Iraq war along the US and UK, such as Italy, Spain, and some of the new Central and Eastern European States, and those which opposed the war remained divided. However, after Bush’s pronouncement of ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq, the European Union that remained faltering thought better of it and developed a policy of taking benefits from the gains of the fall of Baghdad.


Now that Iraq is recovering from civil war, the European leaders are allured by the opportunities that Iraq presents in human resource development sector, construction, security cooperation and energy. In the early 2009, France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the UK’s business minister Peter Mandelson led trade delegations to Baghdad. The potentials in Iraq for European countries can hardly be overemphasized. The statement from EU’s vice president is a point in that direction as she says:


The European Union has provided more than a billion Euro in assistance to Iraq since 2003. It has gone towards basic services, human development, refugees, good governance, political process and capacity building – all in accordance with Iraqi priorities. [2]


Considering Iraq as a viable natural gas supplier for the Southern Corridor, the EU has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Iraq on ‘Strategic Energy Partnership’ which would provide EU with a framework for reinforcing energy relations with Iraq. The areas of cooperation covered by the memorandum shows the direction of EU’s future role in Iraq: development of energy policy for Iraq; energy action program for EU-Iraq cooperation; updating Iraqi gas development program; assessing the Iraqi hydrocarbon transit and supply network; enhancing safety and reliability of the pipelines; identifying sources and supply routes for gas from Iraq to the European Union; ensuring sustainability of energy policy in Iraq, including the necessary legislative, regulatory and institutional framework; and prepare a plan of action for the development of renewable energy in Iraq. EU is also finalizing ‘Partnership and Cooperation Agreement’ with Iraq that contains specific energy provisions.


On the military front, NATO-run military training mission has been in operation in Iraq since 2003 which not only educates senior Iraqi officers but provides training to the police. Although this operation is not carried out on large scale, it is still significant considering the aversion of some of European countries to Iraq war.


The growing EU engagement in Iraq, particularly in the field of energy policies, security of energy resources, cooperation in development and improvement of oil production, and the developing new routes for Iraqi oil to reach Europe would not only enhance European stakes in Iraq but challenge the interests of other influential big powers, particularly US-UK, Russia and China.


Iran: Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, European countries enjoyed smooth political, diplomatic and economic relations with Iran on bilateral level. Yet the main ingredient in their relationship was oil and gas. In the aftermath of Iranian revolution and Iranian stance of ‘neither East nor West’, the smooth relations turned into political hiccups and energy quibbling. The Iraq’s adventures in Kuwait and coalition of Western countries against Iranian rival removed a few strains and 1990s and early 2000’s saw a little improvement in their relationship. During this time, both sides went into serious dialogues for expanding cooperation in many areas of mutual interest and in 2001, “the European Commission adopted a Communication setting out the perspectives and conditions for developing closer relations with Iran. One objective was to conclude a Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) and negotiations were launched in December 2002. Although trade could pave the way for deeper and closer relations, political distraught and apprehensions stalled the progress again with American pressure on Iran for halting its nuclear program.


Since EU experienced disunity and strained transatlantic relations because of US-UK lead Iraq war, it straightened itself over the Iranian issue to preserve its status of a strong foreign policy actor. Therefore, UK, Germany and France—those who went on divergent path earlier—came up with wider agenda of resolving the issue through negotiations and peaceful means rather than resorting to power as the insane Bush administration was putting on the table. Nevertheless, nuclear Iran could never be acceptable to European countries— neither individually or collectively from EU platform. A more pragmatic and plausible approach was taken and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was given the task to play its role as it should. Rest is a story of negotiations and sanctions and again negotiations, not necessarily in the same order, but important is to note here that the collective approach of European countries on the issue of Iranian nuclear program remained hostage to American pressure and agenda for most of the time.


In the present circumstances while the US again coaxing the security council members and its European allies towards taking harsher stance against Iran, it is going to be difficult for the EU and even the individual countries to develop relations with the revolutionary regime of Iran. One of the reasonable approaches for EU to adopt could be to develop its own proactive agenda, assess the situation wisely, take cautious steps and calculate its own interests, gains and losses in Iran without giving unnecessary heed to the reports from those ‘intelligence agencies’ that produced the evidence of Saddam’s Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) stockpiles. But for that matter, European countries will have to come out of the trance of the US policy goals and provide a genuine and alternate leadership.


Israel-Palestine Conflict: Israelis claim to have a ‘right of return’, permitting their massive settlement in Palestine. (At the same time, they deny such a right to evicted Palestinians.) The problem is that from the European perspective the Law of Nations does not recognize such claims and that for very good reasons: hardly any nation is located today where their forefathers had lived.


If specific populations or ‘peoples’ had such a right the Anglo-Saxons, having come from today’s Denmark, would have to evacuate Britain. The American Irish would be obliged to return to their green island. All of Latin (sic) America would have to be returned to Red Indian tribes. There would have to be a massive exodus from Australia as well. The Germans would be required to move further west so that in their place their Slav neighbors could resettle. There would be turmoil in Spain as well, and France would have to be given back to its original Celtic population. In turn, the Maghrib would be cleansed of its immigrant Arab population in favor of its prehistoric Berber stock.


Clearly then for Europeans, there is no such thing as a ‘right of return’. Certainly not for a people that had left the area, voluntarily or not, after the destruction of its settlements in 70 CE, nearly 2000 years ago. Even more obvious, there is no right to evict the Palestinian Muslims who, under ‘Umar’, had already Islamized their country in 638 CE, i.e., some 1371 years ago.


In fact, conscious of this situation the early Zionists during their first world congress in Basel, in 1897, under the leadership of Theodor Herzl still looked for a national home “not necessarily in Palestine.” This was before their successors cynically claimed that Palestine was a “land without people for people without land;” and before they wanted that land, but not its people.[3]


Supporters of Israel claim as well that the title to at least a part of Palestine had been transferred to them in 1917 by the British through their infamous Balfour Declaration. This had indeed marked Palestine as the place for establishing a Jewish State. This, however, was to be achieved with due regard for the rights of (Muslim and Christian) Palestinians.


Yet this claim to Jewish statehood is entirely fallacious because of a very clear rule of law, national and international: nobody can transfer rights he does not possess. The British did not own Palestine. They had been given it merely temporarily, in trust, as a League of Nations mandate, to be administered until independence some time in the future. To dispose of Palestine in favor of Zionists, on 14 May 1948, thus was beyond British powers, i.e. ultra vires, and therefore null and void.


Britain is not Europe but located in Europe. Therefore as a European I feel ashamed for how Britain, constantly wavering from 1923 to 1948, unfailingly bungled its trustee job in Palestine.


For Europeans there is even more reason to be ashamed of the developments now following in Palestine: all tolerated, if not helped, by Europe in deference to its protective superpower, the United States, by now the true home of Zionism. The decisive stages of that tragic process are well known:


  • From June 6 -10, 1967: Israel militarily occupied Gaza, the Eastern part of al-Quds, Transjordania, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights. This way for Palestinians the Nakba, the great catastrophe, began with persistent colonialism, apartheid, racism, and victimization.
  • On November 22, 1967: the United Nations with Security Council Resolution 242 demanded the withdrawal of Israel from all Palestinian territories occupied by then; it also demanded a “just settlement of the refugee problem.” (Res. 242 became the most famous of all U.N. resolutions: for never being implemented.)
  • On September 17, 1978: the Camp David Agreement was concluded (but never implemented), followed by President Anwar Sadat’s appearance in the Knesset on 19 November.
  • In 1987: the first Intifada began. Already by 1989, 600 Palestinians (and 21 Israelis) had been killed.
  • In 1988: the US Secretary of State George Shultz promoted a plan for Palestinian auto-determination. Such a two-State solution with al-Quds internationalized had already been proposed in 1947 by the United Nations.
  • On September 13, 1993: the Oslo Agreements was signed by Yassir Arafat and Jitzchak Rabin (leading to his assassination).
  • The failure of the Oslo Peace Process and Ariel Sharon’s provocative march triggered the second ‘al-Aqsa’ Intifada.
  • On March 28, 2002: for solving the conflict, the Saudi King Abdullah proposed
  1. i.    Israel going back to its pre-1967 borders;
  2. ii.    solving the Palestinian refugee problem according to UN-Resolution 194;
  3. iii.    setting up an independent Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

All this is to be ratified by a multilateral peace treaty between Israel and the Arab world.


Two aspects, of all this, are remarkable: firstly, not even one of these and other initiatives produced results. The opposite is true: while diplomats tried to solve the issue, Israel by continuing its program of illegal settlements quietly destroyed any possibility for a two-state-solution. In fact, Palestine now resembles an agglomeration of Bantustans where the Palestinians can do no more than to police themselves (in the interest of Israel) and administer their poverty.


Israel can afford now to agree to the prospect of a Palestinian State ‘because there won’t be any’. This perverse state of affairs is illustrated by the entry on Israel in the Columbia Encyclopedia where it says: “The population of Israel, overwhelmingly Jewish, has significant minorities of Moslems (ca. 160.000).”[4] Readers may wonder how these got there.


Secondly, equally remarkable is the absence of Europe in the entire process. True, the Arab countries did not do much better in this respect, but better they did. Even during the growing estrangement between America and Europe during the most recent Bush administration Europe failed to act independently in the Near East, proving the dictum that Europe is an economic giant but a political dwarf.


The Road Ahead


Whether what is ahead of us in the Near East is really a road is most uncertain. Ahead of us might be instead a seemingly endless stretch of more turmoil and violence. True, it might be easier for Israel to survive in a permanent war situation than in peace, if only because in that case financial support might dwindle.


At any rate, Israel’s survival will continue to be in jeopardy as long as – misguidedly – it continues to base its security on brutal suppression of its Palestinian component, treated as third-rate citizens in a pseudo-democratic ‘ethnocracy’. In fact, as put by Hanan Ashrawi: “Never before has an occupation army imposed such a total suffocating siege on a captive civil population,” turning Palestinians into “a tortured nation, guilty only of an unwavering commitment to freedom, dignity, and independence.”[5] (pp. 104-97).


For illustration: Amnesty International recorded that an Israeli court had “fined” Israeli soldiers for murdering a Palestinian by making them pay the equivalent of $ 0.03, i.e. 3 cents. This explains why Palestinians can be killed by Israelis, vigilante settler or soldiers, with impunity.


Such a state of affairs, a country with a population half free and half enslaved, will not last. Indeed, if Israel continues on its vicious course it may end like other Crusader States in the region eight hundred years ago.


Europeans watch these events with dismay. This is particularly true of Germans because they understand that the Palestinians, entirely innocent of Nazi crimes, are made to pay for them. After the Holocaust it would have been deemed just and proper to settle Jewish survivors in parts of Germany, rather than in Palestine.


This is understandable but nevertheless absurd. In order to make up for German crimes at Auschwitz and other places, the Federal Republic paid many billions of dollars of aid to Israel—providing modern weapons on top of that—thereby aiding Zionists to suppress, dispossess, or even torture Arabs much as the Nazis had done to Jews .


Clearly, the Holocaust had unique dimensions of evil, like industrialized mass murder in gas chambers and enforced sterilization. Nevertheless it is beyond European comprehension how Israelis can duplicate so much of the horror they, or their parents, had lived through, if at all.[6]


The Nazis had been able to get away with their racism, i.e. racial discrimination of Gypsies and Jews, because most people had looked the other way, mostly, in order to stay out of trouble.[7] Also, most of those who were ready to oppose the Nazi government were sort of lone wolves, very suspicious of being infiltrated by Gestapo agents in disguise.


In the Near Eastern context we can make similar observations:


  1. As far as effective help for the Palestinian cause is concerned the Arab world presents a dismal picture. Khalid Rahman attributes this not only to the infamous Arab lack of unity. He correctly analyzes that the current conflict between al-Fatah and Hamas is due, last not least, to the lingering suspicion that al-Fatah is involved in a conspiracy, in the end serving both Israel and the United States.[8]
  2. The European approach is not dissimilar. Most people in the street sympathize with the Palestinian cause. Sadly, some even feel that Israeli atrocities make Nazi crimes look less unique. At the same time and in government interest, people in Europe see very little of Zionist crimes on their TV screens, unless they follow the English or Arabic programs of Al-Jazeera in Qatar. Unconsciously, Europeans follow the German proverb: “Was ich nicht weiss, macht mich nicht heiss” (What I do not know, does not upset me.), which is to say European popular sentiment for Palestine does not easily translate into action or sacrifice.




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* Dr. Murad Wilfried Hofmann is former German ambassador.

[1] Deist is a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe.

, “Catherine Ashton High Representative / Vice President Statement,” January 19, 2010,

[3] Golda Meir still had the nerve to claim in 1969, “There is no such thing as Palestinians.”

[4] Bridgemwater and Kurtz (edit), Columbia Encyclopedia, (3rd ed), 1053.

[5] Ashrawi, “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances,” 97.

[6] My grandmother, wise woman, commented on this, saying that “evil is bound to engender evil.”  Maybe that is the explanation.

[7] Martyrdom is a rare quality everywhere.

[8] Khalid, “Internal Factors Affecting the Middle East: Trends and Implications,” 5.

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