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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


1 February 2016

On Ascribed Identities, Human Dignity and History

Between security and civic liberties there tends to be an antagonistic relationship. It is not uncommon that in times of emergencies liberties are undervalued in pursuit of security, as became apparent in the recent curfew in Brussels after the Paris attacks. And it is not rare these days to see people, especially of Middle Eastern/North African origin, singled out in the crowds of airports or train stations for random security checks. Illustratively enough, on my last trip from my home in Paris to London on 27 December, at both Gare du Nord and St Pancras Station, the only two people that I noticed being stopped for security checks seemed to be of Middle Eastern/North African origins. They were both let go eventually but with the same bitter smile on their faces.

Gare du Nord, Paris (source: www.photosparis.fr)

Gare du Nord, Paris (source: www.photosparis.fr)


What has worried me since then is that stories of people who have been subject to such treatments reveal that these incidents leave deep psychological and emotional imprints on ‘the excluded’. Also, racial profiling and demarcation of people as potential threats through their ascribed identities (their skin colour, origins, etc.) carry the risk of crossover, of gradually being adopted by a wider public. I fear that discrimination of this kind, which can just as well be taken as a form of transgression of human dignity, and asymmetrical reduction of liberties may persist over time. And worse, their long-term repercussions may produce further security problems.

In a recent op-ed, the Berlin-based Syria expert Esther Meininghaus adeptly points to the silence of the international media against assaults on refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of the Paris attacks. She discusses the gravity of the situation contending that American and European right-wing extremisms are as dangerous for our lives and civic liberties as the Islamic extremism of ISIS. Her arguments are to the point. And one may add that by remaining indifferent to the fates of excluded groups and persons, the situation of the refugees, and, perhaps most importantly, to the broader structural causes of security issues, we might perhaps unwittingly be acting in favour of these symbiotic extremisms.

Transgressing Borders

The structural roots of security threats such as perceived global injustices, socio-economic interests and conflicts as well as the absence of good governance and the rule of law deserve greater attention in security studies. However, due to the highly political nature of these issues, and especially facing the absence of veritable materials and documents for critical examination (the Wikileaks files being perhaps a rare exception) the methods to eradicate these threats are much contested.

This, I believe, makes historicising security doubly important. By consulting case studies and analysing threat/interest demarcations historically, we find the opportunity to scrutinise the role of broader political and socio-economic triggers in galvanising security crises and the subsequent securitisation processes to prevent their recurrence. This allows us to deconstruct the production and appropriation of legalised (European or ‘Western’) hegemonies in politics, economy and finances. It also enables us to reconsider the essentialist languages to which these hegemonies draw (the liberal West and civilisation versus barbarism, the East, and ‘Islamic’ extremism), and point out how these languages, in fact, do not always correspond to historical reality.

Intertwined Histories: Eastern Oil Map

Eastern Oil Map


I personally believe that by employing historicist approaches of this kind we can reflect more systematically on the political, economic and financial ‘riches’ of European borders and their interconnectedness with the rest of the globe. The transgression of these borders by people from North Africa and the Middle East is loudly condemned these days. Perhaps rightly so or perhaps not. My point is that we pay too little attention to the fact that the riches that are now so jealously protected were generated partly through colonial histories, or more specifically, through the penetration into the ‘borders’ of the ancestors of the very people who are not wanted in Europe now. Our histories are in fact more intertwined than one may think. We have joint responsibilities.

Historicising Extremism

At the end of World War II, when the horrors of Nazism in the middle of ‘civilised Europe’ were ended, so were, in large measure, the repercussions of the Treaty of Versailles. As Elisabeth Thomson shrewdly shows in her various academic works, the Treaty of Sèvres (the Middle Eastern version of the Treaty of Versailles) and the paranoia that it has since created in the Middle East has never been fully annulled, however. The rise of undefeated nationalisms of different kinds (most notably Islamic and socialist) and the ascendance of ultra-bureaucratic, militarist or Islamic authoritarian regimes that undermine liberal values partially owe to this legacy. This is to some extent why Middle Eastern liberal democrats felt betrayed by the ‘West’ and have long been unsuccessful in implementing their ideals. It is also why, just like Nazism and far-right extremism in Europe, Islamic extremism needs to be embedded within the histories of liberties, economy and security, and not just concerning the past fifteen years.

Halil Pasha signing the Treaty of Sèvres

Halil Pasha signing the Treaty of Sèvres (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France – gallica.bnf.fr)


Historicising extremism allows us to respond to the structural problems of the region, to offer true solutions to security issues and to see that there has, in fact, been a history of liberalism in the Middle East too – a history where the distinction between ‘the civilised’ and ‘the others’ found in the languages of legalised hegemons is distinctively unravelled. In this history ‘Europeans’, for their own short-term interests, turn their backs on the regional liberals and their ideals more than once. It was evinced only recently by Angela Merkel’s visit to Recep T. Erdogan’s palace in Ankara, an architectural symbol of Middle Eastern authoritarianism today.

This is the diametrical opposite of what needs to be done to confront the structural problems underlying current security issues. Because only through functioning liberal democracies guaranteed by the rule of law and stable economies in the Middle East can these problems be fully addressed. Otherwise, it is nobody’s first choice to leave their homes and take life-threatening journeys to find a new home elsewhere. And only then the emphasis in the relationship between security and liberties can be switched from antagonistic into symbiotic, which would incontestably protect human dignity in the genuinely global sense of the term.


By Ozan Ozavci