By Ross Douthat, New York Times, October 15, 2011
THE Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing its roots to St. Mark the apostle and the first century A.D. Coptic Christians have survived persecutions and conquests, the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam. They have been governed from Constantinople and Ctesiphon, Baghdad and London. They have outlasted the Byzantines, the Umayyads and the Ottomans, Napoleon Bonaparte and the British Empire.
But they may not survive the Arab Spring.
Apart from Hosni Mubarak and his intimates, no group has suffered more from Egypt’s revolution than the country’s eight million Copts. Last week two dozen people were killed in clashes between the Coptic Christians and the Egyptian Army, a grim milestone in a year in which the Coptic community has faced escalating terrorist and mob violence. A recent Vatican estimate suggests that 100,000 Copts may have fled the country since Mubarak’s fall. If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood consolidates political power, that figure could grow exponentially.
This is a familiar story in the Middle East, where any sort of popular sovereignty has tended to unleash the furies and drive minorities into exile. From Lebanon to North Africa, the Arab world’s Christian enclaves have been shrinking steadily since decolonization. More than half of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
More important, though, this is a familiar story for the modern world as a whole — a case of what National Review’s John Derbyshire calls “modernity versus diversity.” For all the bright talk about multicultural mosaics, the age of globalization has also been an age of unprecedented religious and racial sorting — sometimes by choice, more often at gunpoint. Indeed, the causes of democracy and international peace have often been intimately tied to ethnic cleansing: both have gained ground not in spite of mass migrations and mass murders, but because of them.
This is a point worth keeping in mind when reading the Big Idea book of the moment, Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Pinker marshals an impressive amount of data to demonstrate that human civilization has become steadily less violent, that the years since 1945 have been particularly pacific, and that contemporary Europe has achieved an unprecedented level of tranquility.
What Pinker sometimes glosses over, though, is the price that’s been paid for these advances. With the partial exception of immigrant societies like the United States, mass democracy seems to depend on ethno-religious solidarity in a way that older forms of government did not. The most successful modern nation-states have often gained stability at the expense of diversity, driving out or even murdering their minorities on the road to peaceful coexistence with their neighbors.
Europe’s era of unexpected harmony, in particular, may have been made possible by the decades of expulsions and genocide that preceded it. As Jerry Z. Muller pointed out in a 2008 essay for Foreign Affairs, the horrors of the two world wars effectively rationalized the continent’s borders, replacing the old multi-ethnic empires with homogeneous nation-states, and eliminating — often all too literally — minority populations and polyglot regions. A decade of civil war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia completed the process. “Whereas in 1900 there were many states in Europe without a single overwhelmingly dominant nationality,” Muller wrote, “by 2007 there were only two, and one of those, Belgium, was close to breaking up.”
Along the same lines, the developing world’s worst outbreaks of ethno-religious violence — in post-Saddam Iraq, or the Indian subcontinent after the demise of the British Raj — are often associated with transitions from dictatorships or monarchies to some sort of popular rule. And from Kashmir to the West Bank, Kurdistan to Congo, the globe’s enduring trouble spots are usually places where ethno-religious communities and political borders can’t be made to line up.
This suggests that if a European-style age of democratic peace awaits the Middle East and Africa, it lies on the far side of ethnic and religious re-sortings that may take generations to work out.
Whether we root for this process to take its course depends on how we weigh the hope of a better future against the peoples who are likely to suffer, flee and disappear along the way. Europe’s long peace is an extraordinary achievement — but was it worth the wars and genocides and forced migrations that made it possible? A democratic Middle East would be a remarkable triumph for humanity — but is it worth decades of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing?
I don’t know the answer. But maybe we should ask the Copts.
If state boundaries must conform to ethno-religious communities, in the 'brave new world,' then ethnic cleansing has, is and will continue to trump diversity. If such a model of new statehood constitues one of the main building blocks of the global society of the twenty-second century, then we will leave our great grand-children a kind of lie. We will have constructed, not only academically pure silos, and racially pure blocks in racially diverse cities, and racially homogenized states where children grow up in a ghetto of single language, single religion (if any) single culture and single race schools, hospitals, churches, universities and corporations, either unaware of or seriously devoid of contact with people of other backgrounds, languages, histories and cultures.
In short, we will have left a wasteland far more life-defying than Eliot's room where the 'women come and go talking of Michaelangelo'...We will have left a world in which ethnic cleansing is normalized to prevent something far less heinous...some conflict, some turbulence, some debate and compromise and some human interraction.
We are moving so quickly in a direction that can be described as "pain repressant" not only for those in palliative care units facing their own mortality, where such interventions are necessary, but everywhere.
Our capacity to tolerate differences, diversity, people with whom we disagree, and even people whom we genuinely dislike is shrinking, as the Douthat piece illustrates.
While in Canada we celebrate our differences, borne as this nation is, of different races, languages and religions (English, French and Native), and we continue to "welcome" people from particularly the Pacific Rim, from China, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and others, we nevertheless see little interraction between those different ethnic groups, with the possible exception of a few more "mixed race" couples walking together on college campuses.
That is one small pin-light, in an otherwise dark tunnel of separation, exclusion, alienation and racial and religious purity.
If the migration of hundreds of thousands of 'minorities' from potential extinction through military, political or pseudo-legal measures, characterizes the next wave of nation-building, then we will have reduced or even eliminated potential access to significant learning opportunities that bring a new awareness of different world views, and while we may have made it possible for some women to climb the economic ladder, in some localized spots on the globe, we may have missed the forest for the leaves on the trees. It new nation states cannot and will not accept diversity among their peoples, then what hope is there for the acceptance of an even wider range of diversity in international relations?
While headlines cry out for collaborative and co-operative actions among all leaders, on the economy, on the environment, on the elimination of poverty, disease, and on the development of access to education and employment with dignity, we read stories like Douthat's that remind us of our lesser and less admirable qualities to exclude, to alienate and to even drive out those with whom we do not agree.
There is so much work to do on this file, and it affects all the other files, including the current global economic crisis, and yet, even our academic traditions militate against cross-border, integrated studies, as the current crisis in economics demonstrates. If ever there were an academic "field of study" that needed and resisted integration with several other academic disciplines, it is economics.
And just like racial, ethnic and cultural purity in nations precluding full development of their people, academic disciplines too require the fertilizer of differences in order to grow their own "best." And academic leadership, far from demonstrating an openness to differences, too often excludes those whose willingness to conform is less than acceptable.
Cultural, religious, ethnic homogeneity must not become another form of efficiency, especially in the evolution of nation states facing new governments after their dictators have been driven out, or have fallen out of public favour. It is to the idol of efficiency that the corporate world genuflects, because they believe, wrongly of course, that efficiency brings the biggest bang for the smallest buck, in all enterprises. Through that world view, human differences are merely another bucket of sand in the gears of efficient generation of profit, dividends and thereby "success"....
I recall being asked by an entrepreneur a few years back to make a proposal for a new newspaper, covering local politics in a city of some 50,000. After the presentation of some 90-plus minutes, he politely thanked me, and expressed an observation that seems appropriate for this space.
"City government is a lot more complicated than I ever thought; before tonight, I believed that city hall could and should be operated as a business, generating the most efficient and thereby the most effective use of tax dollars; but now I can see that it not only does not but cannot work that way and still function given all the variables that it faces!"
And the subject of ethnic homogeneity was not even mentioned in the presentation, or in the de-brief.