In Victorian England – in 1876 to be more precise – there were shell-bursts of moral outrage against atrocities allegedly committed by a Muslim power. The Ottoman Empire was governed from the Porte, called the Sublime Porte then, and Istanbul now. The Ottoman Empire was the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, so that outrages alleged against it were outrages alleged against the Caliphate. The Ottoman Empire (or Turkey, or the Caliphate, if you prefer) was experiencing revolts on a number of fronts. It then controlled a lot of territory west of Constantinople, that is, in Europe, that was peopled by Slavs. The resulting religious and ethnic tensions have plagued the world ever since. They were central to events leading to the Great War and they are still generating war crimes and genocide up to the turn of the millennium. By and large, the government of Benjamin Disraeli had sought to stay on terms with Turkey as a check on the capacity of Russia to move so as to block trade routes to India and the Pacific. The exercise was tricky because there was no attractive option – there was no nation in the Balkans that the English could decently associate with.
Then news started to reach England of an uprising against the Turks in what we call Bulgaria, and of the most savage reprisals by the Turks. Some historians say that the Turks were more tolerant of other faiths than the Jews or Christians, but the belief east of Vienna back then was that the Turks treated infidels like dogs. Reports reached England of the massacre of 12,000 Bulgarians by the Turks and of outrages against women.
Some crusading editors whipped up a campaign against the Turks – and Disraeli. Then the pious Christian W E Gladstone unleashed himself. This was at a time when the rivalry of Disraeli and Gladstone was already nation-gripping and when politicians were not tied to slogans or labels – it was not enough back then to intone some curse like ‘genocide’ as would be done now. This was a time when oratory was a bigger spectator sport than football.
Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudits, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams, and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall I hope clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to the memory of those heaps on heaps of dead; to the violated purity alike of matron, maiden, and of child….
The prospect of what we call ‘bashing’ Asian infidels was enough to unhinge the very deliberate Gladstone and send him clean over the top:
There is not a cannibal in the South Sea Islands whose indignation would not arise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done, which has too late been examined, but which remains unavenged: which has left behind all the foul and all the fierce passions that produced it, and which may spring up again in another murderous harvest from the soil, soaked and reeking with blood, and in the air tainted with every imaginable deed of crime and shame….
Would Gladstone or his target audience have got so incandescent if the victims had been Muslims or Jews – did I mention that the victims of these atrocities were Christians?
Disraeli was, as ever, urbane. He said privately that Gladstone’s pious sonorities had a ‘Christian’ aim and were fired in the belief that ‘for ethnological reasons, the Turks as a race should be expelled from Europe.’ Disraeli did, however, permit himself a mild racist jab in saying drily to the Commons that he doubted whether ‘torture had been practised on a great scale among an oriental people who generally terminate their connection with culprits in a more expeditious manner.’ It was, though, a mistake for him to dismiss the claims as ‘coffee-house babble.’ The claims were confirmed, but after a little while, the politicians, the newspapers and their readers found other things to talk about, and a hideous tragedy survives in some history books today only as a footnote on the political styles of Gladstone and Disraeli.
Well, at least they had style then. There is no political style now. The most recent calls to avenge atrocities committed by Muslims have been at best uninspiring. It was, I suppose, inevitable that the West might be called on to help meet the present threat since other interventions by the West are in very large part responsible for the appearance of this threat and the complete want of resistance of Iraq to it. It does look to all the world as if the West is being called on to offer its blood to police a sectarian dispute in another religion, and where the main beneficiaries of the intervention will be Russia, Iran, and Syria. But if it is the case that the West now faces an actual threat coming out Iraq that was not there before 2003, when will we see those responsible for that development brought to answer? Do you remember the purity of the bullshit? About Iraq being a ‘beacon of democracy’? Instead, it is the gateway to Hell. It was, I suppose, only a matter of time before some drone called up not a beacon of democracy but a light on the hill. In the name of God, do they never learn?
We are after all offered only three assurances on this outing. The Americans had to do something. We do not know how it may end, but no one can see a good end. And we do know that it will take a long, long time.
The views of Edith Durham on the Balkans, which she travelled extensively, are better thought of in some places than others, but the following observation made in 1905 does sound just right: ‘When a Muslim kills a Muslim it does not count; when a Christian kills a Muslim, it is a righteous act; when a Christian kills a Christian it is an error of judgment better not talked about; it is only when a Muslim kills a Christian that we arrive at a full-blown atrocity.’