A “plastic hour,” in Karl Marx’s useful phrase, occurs when the course of events is so confused and confusing that it could go this way or that, which is the case right now as millions of Muslims flee the Middle East to reach somewhere, anywhere, in Europe. One in four or five are genuine refugees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq. The majority are migrants out to better their circumstances. Taken together, their arrival day after day is a standing vote of no confidence in their own countries. This is a collective phenomenon. An undefined new order is struggling to be born out of a civilization that refuses to die.
As a correspondent during the Six-Day War of June 1967 between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I happened to witness just such a collective phenomenon, admittedly on a scale far smaller than today’s. Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank — until that moment under Jordanian rule — were leaving their homes en masse, abandoning the elderly and infirm, their livestock and their possessions, sometimes with dishes still warm on the table of an empty house, in order to cross a rickety wooden bridge into Jordan. Their fears and hopes were unreal. They believed that Moshe Dayan, the general in charge of Israeli military operations, would massacre and disperse them, as strongmen in the Middle East are accustomed to do. I stopped a few families in flight to try to explain that they were bound to be worse off without work or a roof of their own. Dispersing themselves, they were placing control of their lives in unknown hands. Nobody paid attention. The shuttered expression on their faces has stayed with me. Only a few weeks later, Yasser Arafat began the armed campaign that made him the strongman of the Palestinians and put paid to any idea of peace and a return to former homes.
In the recent death-throe years, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, the major Muslim nation-states in the Middle East, have all three alternated between Islamism and secular nationalism. Yet whatever the ideology is supposed to be, coups, rigged elections, control of the media, and institutional injustice of every kind are characteristics common to all at all times. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, profess belief systems that are incompatible, yet they are identical when it comes to rewriting the constitution to suit themselves. The shah of Iran was certainly guilty of abusing civil rights, but the ayatollahs who deposed him have ordered the murder of protesters on a far larger and more arbitrary scale. Putting down the so-called Green Revolution, they were evidently able and willing to commit a massacre. A prisoner accused in an Iranian court of the meaningless charges of “waging war on God” and “corrupting the earth” is facing a death sentence. A prisoner accused in a Saudi court of “violating Islamic values” is likely to be beheaded. Saddam Hussein spoke for every Muslim strongman when he defined law as “two lines above my signature.” In practice, it makes no difference to the victim if the executioner or torturer is wearing a turban or a military peaked cap with braid.
Between approximately 2008 and 2012, upheavals in at least ten Arab and Muslim countries resulted in estimated totals of 34,500 people shot and killed, 60,000 wounded, and 600,000 refugees. Giving birth to nothing, the Arab Spring turned out to be an extension of the lingering deathbed condition, yet another last gasp. In the case of Libya, no strongman has emerged after the lynching of Moammar Qaddafi, and therefore daily life is a Hobbesian free-for-all without even some arbitrary law.
Civil war in Syria and the hapless foreign policy of the great powers gave the anonymous preacher who goes by the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi his opportunity. In a textbook illustration of the way strongmen have always risen in this Muslim civilization, he materialized in the summer of last year at the head of a body of armed men who took the city of Mosul by surprise and established a power base. Black banners identify them as Sunni Muslims supposedly doing battle on religious grounds with Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian sponsors, all defined as Shiites. Conquering and occupying a large area of Syria and Iraq, and proclaiming himself caliph of a revived caliphate (also known as the Islamic State, “Da’esh” in Arabic), Baghdadi exploits religious faith in order to engage in a classic territorial dispute. Imposed ostensibly for the faith, sharia, Muslim law as ordained by the Koran, is merely an instrument of control.
Such a career has no moral aspect. The supreme but unwritten law has it that the sole effective response to opposition is a higher level of brutality. A captured Jordanian pilot was locked into a cage and burned alive in one of numerous public executions. In front of other intimidated spectators, an 82-year-old archaeologist was beheaded in Palmyra, the Greco-Roman ruin that had been his life’s study. Two small boys were gibbeted for eating during the hours of daylight fasting that is a religious obligation during the month of Ramadan. Homosexuals, their hands tied behind their back, are thrown off tall buildings to their death; Yazidis, a defenseless minority with doctrines and rites ultimately derived from Islam, are forced at gunpoint out of their homes, and any captured women sold into sex slavery. Intelligence sources estimate that at least 30,000 young Muslims, male and female, have arrived as volunteers for jihad from about 90 countries; on some days as many as ten suicide bombers coordinate operations to blow themselves up. It works. Commanders and their militias in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and elsewhere already swear allegiance to the caliph. Baghdadi likes to say that he will be capturing New York and Rome, by which he means the complete Christian world. One of his spokesmen goes further: “It’s our dream that there should be a caliphate not only in Syria but in all the world, and we will have it soon, God willing.” And still the United States and its allies are unable to decide whether these are little local disturbances or a genuine collective phenomenon.
Syria and Iraq have ceased to exist within the borders created by the British and French a hundred years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in both countries, and millions more have fled with no prospect of returning. Europe discovered the collective phenomenon of migration when it was too late to do anything much about it. A middle-ranking Austrian bureaucrat in Brussels with the name of Johannes Hahn and the title of Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy announced, “There are 20 million refugees waiting at the doorstep of Europe” — 35 million, according to another estimate. Panicking, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, set about imposing quotas for refugees that EU countries are obliged to accept.
It falls to Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist (and a born Muslim) well known for her courage and integrity, to ask, “Why should Europe be expected to commit suicide and turn into yet another Muslim land where lives and liberties have no value?” Ninety-six percent of Germans questioned for a poll were in favor of immigration, seemingly out of pity for the underdog and guilt at the general refusal to save the victims of Nazism in the years when it was still possible to do so. At first, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said that borders were to stay open and that Germany would accept 800,000 refugees this year. Large numbers of sentimental folk welcomed trains delivering refugees to stations — 20,000 on one particular day in Munich alone. But then officials in the various German Länder, or provinces, responsible for the reception and settlement of refugees protested that the system has collapsed under the weight of immigration. Over a weekend, Mrs. Merkel switched policy and closed the frontiers.
One civilizational crisis provokes another. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, holds that the Ottoman-Turkish occupation of the country centuries ago is the precedent to bear in mind. Hungary remains a Christian country. Highly critical of Germany and the EU, Orban delivers challenges such as: “We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see.” A razor-wire fence along the border between Hungary and Serbia replaces the Iron Curtain of Soviet days. Refugees are allowed only to transit Hungary on their way to Germany or Austria. Politicians and officials constructing what looks like the European Spring treat Orban as an outcast, but public opinion, especially in once-Sovietized Eastern Europe, by and large supports him. And still the refugees and migrants keep coming, and the plastic hour lengthens — just as once the waves of the ocean paid no attention to King Canute’s directives.