Battle of the Pyramids by French Orientalist painter Antoine-Jean Gros
As never-ending wars and resilient dictatorships plague the Middle East, coupled with the destabilizing aftershocks of European colonialism, refugees are fleeing the region by the thousands, seeking shelter and opportunity behind the walls of the European fortress. In response, nationalist parties across France, most prominently Le Front national, have pushed back on their entry into European society, casting refugees as agents of decline and destruction. This wave of fear has surged and swelled, manifesting through widespread misinformation, escalating levels of hate crimes, and outright political exclusion, culminating in the increasing prominence of the far-right in French media and politics.
Anti-Arab Sentiment in the Classical Era
While it appears that this startling new trend is a modern anomaly—a reaction to the newest wave of migrations from the Middle East—it is far older, embedded in the foundation of the Western psyche. Far before the forced creation of refugee camps, and the misinformed rancor of European nationalists, the West feared the mysterious masses living in the East, and used its cultural power to demonize what it did not understand. In Homer’s Odyssey, published at the very beginning of Classical Antiquity, a line is drawn in the sand between the goodness of the Greeks in the West, and the jealous aggression of the Trojans in the East. As politicians tend to echo each other in the modern world, writers in the ancient world picked up that thread of fear, and ran with it.
Heavily influenced by the Homeric poems, Aeschylus released the play The Persians in 472 BC, characterizing the East as ‘other,’ a land beyond the reaches of civilization, dominated by excess and luxury. In 405 BC, only sixty-seven years later, Euripides, following Aeschylus, released The Bacchae, a play in which the East is described as menacing, and a threat to Western security. These two plays, now recognized as among the most culturally significant pieces of art surviving from Classical Antiquity, helped create a broad construct of Eastern otherness, taking shape along the borders of the Western mind, that would be filled in by scholars, statesmen, tourists, military leaders, and politicians, even after ancient Greece had fallen to the Romans.
Fear Snakes its Way Into the Crusades
Between the abyss of eras, as old empires gave way to new, the thread of fear, that ancient artistic anxiety towards the East, wrote its way out from beneath the wreckage of Rome, and beat its way into the nascent heart of medieval Europe, snaking ever closer to the modern political mind. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, as Arabia coalesced into a single polity, the burgeoning military and imperialistic power of Islam grew significantly, and by the 14th century, Islam stretched as far as China. In consequence, that latent European fear of unknown lands beyond the horizon, teeming with the armies of faceless men, lifted itself from its slumber upon the legs of past scholarship, and revealed itself again to the absorbent minds of the Medieval World.
As Islam ascended, seizing territory from Syria to Sicily, Muslim armies were described by the Europeans as barbarians, and a thousand other reductive phrases, evidently borrowing from the rhetoric of classical Greece. Erchempert, a prominent Italian monk, even referred to the Turks as an aggressive “swarm of bees,” hellbent on devastating the continent. Post-classical Europe feared what it did not know, and as a result, continued to fill in the militant construction of the East that the ancient world had fabricated, while overlooking the barbaric crimes of the West that were not only recorded, but well known. Caesar himself bragged about the murder and enslavement of the Gallic people, yet historians from Tacitus to Gibbon described the Roman imperial armies as liberators in the annals of European scholarship, who freed helpless and disorganized Gauls “from internal discord.” Conveniently, Gibbon left out the Celtic holocaust while demonizing the armies of the East.
‘Ottoman Peril’ After the Sack of Constantinople
In 1453, the Ottomans put an end to the Byzantine Empire, destroying the only remaining remnants of Rome, elevating the Ottoman Empire to the zenith of Mediterranean power. In the subsequent decades, as the empire creeped into Macedonia and Bulgaria, arriving at the gates of Vienna, Europe’s dehumanizing attacks on the latest threat to Christendom intensified. Bishop Fabri of Vienna described the Turks as the most cruel and audacious villains under the heavens, and claimed that they “pluck unripe fruit from the wombs of mothers.” Martin Luther, the primary catalyst of the Protest Reformation and one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity, called the Turks “agents of the Devil who, along with the Antichrist located in the heart of the Catholic Church, would usher in the last days and the Apocalypse.
Again, a deeply complex empire of the Middle East—an amalgamation of Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and Greeks—was collectivized and reduced to a simplistic and threatening monolith. This misguided vitriol guided the pens and the paintbrushes of European Renaissance artists, who quickly filled in the monolith with the same reductive definitions that their peers and forebears had recycled. And then Liotard exoticized non-Muslim women in Turkish dress; and Rembrandt painted the Persian ‘type’—both indirectly defining the European identity not in terms of its intrinsic Europeanness, but simply in contrast to Eastern otherness.
Europeans not only feared the East, but saw themselves, then, in cultural opposition to the monolith, even though they still did not truly know the object of their fear. It was still a land beyond the horizon, guarded by indiscernible armies, sleeping patiently beneath the folds of obscurity, exactly as it had been to the Greeks. It was almost inevitable, as orientalist paintings and mystical lore were disseminated across Europe, around which the European identity coalesced, that the West would preemptively attack that exotic obscurity, for the scholarship of the previous centuries had birthed it, necessitated it, even prophesied it.
Napoleon and the Prophecy of Conquest
In 1798, after a lifetime of immersing himself in Western myths of Eastern otherness, a French general invaded the ‘Orient’ that Europe had created, marking the first major European interaction with the East since the Crusades, and fulfilling the prophecy of conquest. Napoleon had been raised by the classics, inspired by renaissance painting, and wrapped in the grand and racist tapestry of ancient history. His desires to secure glory for the French empire and free the Egyptian people from ‘internal discord,’ while posited as justifications for a pathway to India, were direct products of his education. His military campaign effectively weaponized the indoctrination, institutionalized the aggressive perception of otherness, and sealed it into the very heart of French foreign affairs.
How Does That Legacy Manifest Today?
Today, that legacy of fear lives on in the French psyche. It lives on in the rising murmurings of pseudo-populists, most deafeningly in the misguided arguments of Marine le Pen; but more importantly it lives on within all of us, for the relationship between the Middle East and the West reveals not just a story of conquest, but a collection of impulses that have been manipulated to redefine human history. Because of the legacy we inherit and the compulsions it reveals, we must be wary of the sources we read and the voices we listen to, shaping our perception of the Middle East and its people. If we let this lesson slip into the annals of history, unheeded, as so many generations have, fear and racism will continue to haunt the West, bent on fulfilling the ever-persistent prophecy of disunity.