The scariest thing in the world has nothing to do with Greek debt plans, Italian bond yields or even American pension funds. It is not the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf over the Iranian nuclear program.
The scariest thing in the world is the prospect that the identity wars are spreading from Europe and the Middle East into the rest of Asia and Africa.
The identity wars started in early modern Europe around the time of the Protestant Reformation. After a century of genocidal violence that left most of Germany ruined and depopulated, those wars subsided until the French Revolution set off an even greater and more devastating wave. Closely connected to the industrial revolution and the rise of democracy, nationalism emerged as a dominant political force in 19th century Europe, spreading from northwestern Europe toward the south and east. Over the next 100 years, more than a hundred million people died in wars as multinational empires in Europe and the Middle East ripped themselves apart in paroxysms of war, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
More recent crises — like the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the Kurdish conflict, the Greco-Turkish conflict over Cyprus, the violence in the Caucasus and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — are the last reverberating echoes of this horrendous upheaval, and they are bad enough.
One of the biggest questions in world politics today is whether identity wars (conflicts between groups with different cultural, religious and/or ethnic backgrounds who inhabit the same stretch of land) were a special feature of modern European and Middle Eastern history or whether these conflicts will appear in more of Africa and Asia in the 21st century as development spreads. Are identity wars a fundamental aspect of the modernization process or did they arise out of specific European and Middle Eastern characteristics that don’t apply elsewhere in the world?
If identity wars are endemic to modernizing human societies, we can expect more cruel and bloody convulsions from southern Africa through the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia in the next 50 to 100 years.
Identity wars can be among the most vicious, violent and prolonged conflicts human beings can fight. The Balkan wars in the 199os shocked the world as ethnic cleansing and genocide reappeared in a part of Europe that had been mostly peaceful since World War Two, and where different religious and ethnic groups seemed to coexist reasonably well. World War One and World War Two, both wars of identity driven by a mix of nationalist and ideological politics, were unprecedented in ferocity and scale.
One hoped that Africa and Asia would be spared the scourge of such conflicts in the 21st century, but those hopes are beginning to fray. The signs are mounting that the ethnic, religious and cultural forces that drove the great wave of identity wars of the last 150 years are alive and well in the non-European world.
Out of many possible examples illustrating this growing trend, let’s just take two: Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan. In Nigeria, the escalation of religious and communal violence continued in recent days with well over one hundred people killed in bombings and other attacks. Nigeria shows what can happen when religious and tribal identities reinforce one another and mix with economic conflicts. The nightmare scenario for Africa in the next 50 years would be that ethnic and religious divides undermined the fragile unity of Africa’s many poorly governed multi-ethnic states and that a generation or more of warfare, massacre and ethnic cleansing would re-order the continent into smaller and more ethnically and religiously homogenous countries.
This isn’t an inevitable fate, but it is much more likely than the Africa establishment inside and outside the continent would have us believe. 30 years of war in Sudan, genocidal ethnic struggles in the Great Lakes, the vicious wars of independence in Ethiopia: there is evidence enough that fragile post-colonial identities and state structures cannot always stand. Grandiose cosmopolitan plans for nation building among multi-ethnic and multi-confessional populations haven’t worked in other parts of the world; it is not clear what would make Africa more fertile soil for these experiments. Often, governments in multi-ethnic countries are weak and corrupt precisely because the state must rest on complex and inefficient bargains between elites representing different ethnic and religious communities. One reason that nationalist groups all over Europe and the Middle East demanded states of their own is that the multinational states worked so poorly. The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (the best of the bunch, but still slow, corrupt and incompetent at many things), the Russian Empire: all were overwhelmed by the tasks of governing diverse populations in an age of rapid development and social change.
Today’s leaders in Nigeria, the “Democratic” “Republic” of Congo, and many other African states are every bit as incompetent as any of their European and Ottoman predecessors. For much of Europe (emphatically including the Turks) the voyage to modernity lay through bloody seas. With many ethnic and religious identities in Africa becoming stronger rather than weaker over time, the chances for a Great Restructuring of the post colonial settlement seem to be rising over time.
But this is not just an African problem. Recent reports from the unhappy country of Kyrgyzstan confirm that ethnic hatreds and genocidal violence don’t need the excuse of religious conflict to blight the hopes of emerging countries deep in Central Asia. As Joshua Foust reports in a harrowing Atlantic piece, the persecution of the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan looks more and more like scenes in much of Europe and the Middle East during the dreadful conflicts of the not so different past.
Almost every Uzbek you find in Osh has a heartbreaking story of tragedy: homes burned down, family members beaten to death in the street. The local government response has worsened the injustice. The Uzbeks who didn’t lose everything in the riots and fires now face a predatory local government that threatens them unless they sign over controlling stakes of their businesses to Kyrgyz. I found several restaurants and cafes run by Kyrgyz that had been owned by Uzbeks before the June Events.
In Europe and the Middle East, this sort of thing generally went on until a set of wars and conflicts culminated in either the physical extermination or the forced expulsion of enough people to create homogenous nation states in what remained. The conflicts were often made worse by the presence of ambitious and conniving outside powers who exploited these divisions for reasons of their own. With China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the United States all interested in Central Asia, we must expect more of the same.
Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan are just two of several examples of recent and ongoing ethnic conflict; others include the Sri Lankan civil war that ended brutally in 2009 — as many as 100,000 people may have died. Pakistan, China, India, and various African and Pacific island nations are all struggling with ethnic violence, demands for independence, and conflicts between different groups.
These days, nationalism is trying to reassert itself within the European Union. It is on the boil across the Middle East. Despite many attempts to tamp it down (including the fundamentally racist technique of labeling groups of people who would qualify in Europe as “nations” as “tribes” when they live in Africa), it is on the rise south of the Sahara and beyond the Urals. It lurks in South Asia where communal tensions challenge both India and Pakistan in complex ways. It animates armies of Chinese bloggers and others to push for aggressive policies in the South China Sea — and eggs Vietnam and others to respond.
More than 200 years after the French Revolution unleashed the modern wave of identity wars, the world has developed vastly more powerful weapons and techniques of war. Advancements in warfare technology will only continue.
But we are no closer now than we were 200 years ago to resolving the question of nationalism and the death struggles between peoples that nationalism often entails. And that is the scariest thing in the world.