Pulling back from the brink: Religious and ethnic intolerance threatens to spin out of control
By James M Dorsey
The family of nations is balancing on the edge of an abyss as mushrooming religious and ethnic intolerance becomes the norm.
Western as well as non-Western societies have helped paved the road towards the abyss: the West by abandoning the post-World War Two principle of ‘Never Again’ and the non-Western world by never embracing it and failing to adopt the principle of ‘forgive but don’t forget.’
Exasperating matters is the fact that the United States and Europe look at individual crises rather than a threatening pattern of developments. In doing so, they fail to recognise the structural problems that challenge Western values of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism.
Citing a litany of crises and tensions in Central and Eastern Europe, Balkan scholar Damir Marusic warns that “the whole edifice feels rickety. It feels like the order we have all taken for granted since the end of the Cold War is badly decaying, and has gotten so fragile that it might well shatter soon… We notice individual problems, but we don’t see how it adds up, nor how we got here… We are still, in some strange way, operating as if things are more or less fine—yes, adjustments must be made, but our world is durable and sound.”
Mr. Marusic argues that the rot in the system has been exasperated by the troubled US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. “As the final collapse of the Afghanistan project earlier this year proved, the whole optimistic premise of nation- and order-building upon which the EU project is ultimately premised was also undermined by America’s failures,” Mr. Marusic said.
Geopolitical battles are being fought on the backs of innocent and desperate people. They fuel tensions and threaten stability in Central and Eastern Europe and spark humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and Afghanistan. An ethnic and religious divide characterises the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants ferried by Belarus with Russian support to the Polish border. Ten British soldiers have been dispatched to the border to help Poland with fencing.
The exploitation of deep-seated religious and ethnic hostility drove Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to threaten to withdraw Serb troops from the army of Bosnia Herzegovina and create a separate Serb force. Bosnia Herzegovina was created as a federation at the end of the Bosnian war in the 1990s with Muslim, Serb and Croatian entities that enjoyed autonomy. The federation retained control of the military, top echelons of the judiciary, and tax collection. Mr. Dodik has said that the Bosnian Serb parliament would also, in what would amount to de facto secession, establish a separate Serb judiciary, and tax administration.
The writing is on the wall across the globe from the United States and Europe to Afghanistan and China.
Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have become mainstream. Hindu-Muslims tensions spill across South Asian borders. Sunni Muslims persecute their Shiite brethren in Afghanistan, risking clashes between the Taliban and Iran. The Christian minority in the cradle of Abrahamic faiths has been decimated.
Men like former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Republican Jews in the United States have joined thinly veiled anti-Semitic attacks on liberal philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros rather than insulate their political and ideological differences with the billionaire from assaults laced with undertones of religious prejudice and racism.
Similarly, French presidential contender Eric Zemmour questions the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer whose false conviction for treason sparked bitter controversy in the walk-up to World War One. Mr. Zemmour also rejects the notion that French collaborationist wartime leader Philippe Petain assisted in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps, asserting instead that Mr. Petain had saved Jews.
Finally, China has launched a frontal assault on Turkic ethnic and religious identity in the north-western province of Xinjiang that has gone largely unchallenged in the Muslim world.
At the core of the problem lie not social media that function as megaphones, aggregators and creators of echo chambers and silos rather than instigators but political, religious, ethnic, and cultural leaders who play on base instincts in pursuit of popularity and power.
Lebanon, Iraq and potentially Afghanistan are fallouts of the institutionalisation and instrumentalisation of religious and ethnic prejudice and intolerance at the expense of notions of mutual respect, adherence to human dignity and coexistence.
Sectarian warlords loot the Lebanese and Iraqi states and weaken their institutions. Recent violence in Beirut suggests that protagonists, including former Christian warlords and Shiite allies of Iran, are willing to risk a second round of civil war to secure their vested interests, sending a middle-income country spiralling into widespread poverty.
Long-term, the solution is education systems that stress the importance of humanitarian and moral values as well as religious and ethnic tolerance as the guardrails of governance and politics and ensure that ethnic and religious prejudice and racism are socially taboo attitudes.
The short-term tackling of the problem will have to involve dialogue and negotiation. A recent study showed that John F. Kennedy’s decision to seek an arms control treaty rather than escalate a debilitating and risky arms race after the Soviet Union detonated the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon in 1962 succeeded where accelerated conflict may not have.
Applied to religious and ethnic intolerance, lessons learnt from Mr. Kennedy’s approach require that governments and religious and ethnic groups that pay lip service to interfaith and other forms of dialogue or assert that they promote democratic and humanitarian values are held to account rather than be allowed to rest on their laurels with hollow promises and declarations.
This year’s chairmanship by Indonesia of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies has an opportunity to stress humanitarian and democratic values and promote a framework for dialogue. The chairmanship puts Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society organisation that emphasises those values, on global public display given that it is poised to play a role in the G20’s inter-faith tack.
Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, argued in a New York Times op-ed entitled ‘The Last Time America Broke,’ that the United States, despite deep-seated polarisation that has brought religious and ethnic intolerance to the forefront, had not passed the point of no return. He noted that civil society had repeatedly brought America back from the brink.
“We're not just helplessly hurtling toward inevitable civil war; we can be actors in this story. The first step is acknowledging the dangers inherent in democracy. To move forward, we should look backwards and see that we're struggling not with a collapse but with a relapse,” Mr. Grinspan wrote.
It’s a message that is as true for the rest of the world as it is for the United States.
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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.