How ethnic conflict could dominate this century
By Damian Thompson, The Telegraph, January 3, 2014
Here is a vision of the future that freaked me out when I read it. The 21st century will witness “the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war”.
Living in the West will feel like travelling through a ghetto in a limousine; don’t dare open that door. “Outside would be a crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents…
“War-making entities will no longer be restricted to a specific territory. Loose and shadowy organisms such as Islamic terrorist organisations suggest why borders will mean little and sedimentary layers of tribalistic identity and control will mean more.”
These quotes are taken from “The Coming Anarchy”, an essay by the foreign affairs analyst Robert D Kaplan, writing in The Atlantic magazine in February 1994. In places it is comically apocalyptic – the world still awaits the invasion of Mad Max-style “skinhead Cossacks”. Also, wonderful progress has been made in controlling infectious disease in Africa. In other respects, however, Kaplan is looking more prescient by the day.
This week, a “white army” of Nuer tribesman – so called because they smear their faces with white ash – is marching on forces loyal to the government of South Sudan, dominated by the Dinka tribe. Nearly 200,000 people have lost their homes; Juba, the capital, is surrounded by freshly dug graves. Sudanese civil wars between the Muslim North and Christian/animist South are nothing new; but this is civil war in the new, non-Muslim state of South Sudan, for which Nuer and Dinka shed so much blood and which has fallen apart in less than a month.
Meanwhile, 130,000 Syrians have perished during a civil war in which tribal and sectarian strands can’t be disentangled. “Sedimentary layers of tribalistic identity”, as Kaplan calls them, are wreaking havoc. And the West – still operating under simplistic notions of nationalism, racism and multiculturalism – can only wring its hands helplessly.
The problem isn’t just that we don’t understand religious/ethnic conflicts: it’s that we don’t know they’re going on. Politicians should be forced to read Fields of Fire: An Atlas of Ethnic Conflict by Stuart Notholt, a business analyst who provides maps and statistical analysis of hundreds of ethnic conflicts.
For example, Indonesia alone has 300 ethnic groups, many of which are being displaced by a government that favours “pure” Javanese over Dayaks, Melanesians and Chinese. “A disaster waiting to happen,” says Notholt. But he adds that Indonesia is far too important to be allowed to become a “failed state” – so Australia, the nearest Western power, could be forced to intervene.
Notholt’s key observation is that these ancient hatreds have been revived by globalisation and new technology. I’ve seen some pretty vicious scores settled on Twitter – but that’s nothing compared to the medieval butchery coordinated and carried out by tribesmen with mobile phones.
Here’s a question for you. How many countries are fighting each other at the beginning of 2014? The answer is none. “Battlefield deaths” have fallen dramatically. But that’s because battles are dying out; massacres, on the other hand, are back with a vengeance. In fact, there’s probably one going on as you read this, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Happy New Year.
We want to thank Mr. Thompson for shining a light on this growing issue, one we believe the world's media have yet to get their arms/heads around effectively. First, foreign affairs is a non-starter for too many living in the west, fixated as both our media and our politicians are, on "economic issues" like the DOW, the NASDEX, the S and P index, and the latest unemployment figures. Second, there are literally so many different ethnicities, linguistic differences and cultural nuances, not to mention "old sores" that have never been settled between the "Hatfields and the McCoys" (to use the Irish cliché for inter-family conflicts) and such disputes are rearing their ugly heads in many corners of this round planet...and as we try to "square" that circle, we meet with dead end measures that seem, primarily, to exacerbate the potential for conflict.
And third, there is a phrase, linked too often to the Israel-Palestine conflict, that slips out of the mouth of too many western citizens that characterizes our/their detachment, disaffection and extreme hopelessness about the potential for reconciliation: "they have been at that fight for centuries"...as if such epithets would do anything either to contribute to the resolution or to engage such spokespersons in its nuanced complexities.
We need people to be educated about the nature of human conflict, about the methods we have used, both successfully and not so much, in order to bring about a more deep and profound concentration of the best brains on this problem that is clearly not only not going away, but is, in fact, growing exponentially.