ISIS, Charlie Hebdo, Moro conflict: Are we at the edge of a religious, cultural war? Part 2 of 2

February 8, 2015 - 1:05 PM
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Islamic State fighters pose with flag. AFP/HANDOUT/IS

(Editor’s note: Cesar Polvorosa Jr. is a business school professor of economics, world geography, and international business management in Canada. He is also a published writer in economics, business, and literature.)

 Successful management and resolution of sources of conflicts enable a society to move forward. But why have these rifts reappeared and widened in recent years? Here are six factors, and a possible way to reverse the slide of civilization into religious and cultural wars. 

1. Lack of inclusive growth and development

Economic growth of the past few decades particularly under the auspices of ieoliberalism had been characterized by greater inequalities that festered in the immigrant communities of Europe, the slums of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and in many other Third World countries including the Philippines.

The more recent, prolonged economic slump especially in Europe exacerbated the ethnic and religious tensions as the economic pie, already unequally divided became even smaller slices for marginalized groups such as immigrants from North Africa.

Assertive nationalism had been on the rise in Europe and other places even before the recent economic crisis.

Ironically, globalization and the EU had been characterized by greater economic integration and interdependence but are also accompanied by political fragmentation.

However, as extremist politics in Europe gains headway such as in restrictive immigration policies, it will likewise eventually threaten free trade and market economies.

The powers-that-be including despots and elites partly based also on religious and ethnic lines controlled the resources of their societies and in many countries curtailed the freedoms of the population and implemented discriminatory practices.

Furthermore, there is rapid population growth associated with underdevelopment in many countries that created a massive pool of angry, jobless, and disillusioned young men – this was the combustible demographic dynamic that fueled the Arab Spring.

2. Divergent worldviews

While there had been commentaries about the possible incompatibilities of say, Islam with Western values, the vast majority of Muslim immigrants living in the West are peaceful citizens and active participants in the progress of their societies while retaining their cultural identities.

Many would argue that Europe is now a post-religious society as many of its inhabitants no longer identify with any religion.

Europeans built grand cathedrals but these are now almost empty which sharpens the contrast with the religious fervor and jam-packed houses of worship not only in say, MENA and Asia, but in their immigrant communities as well in the West.

Thus, to the secular European mindset, nothing is sacred and freedom of expression is everything. This stance is anathema and incomprehensible to many believers though the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo murders is almost universal.

3. Colonial legacy, imperialism, and foreign intervention

The European powers in their conquest of territories divided and fixed the political boundaries among themselves without regard for ethnic and religious territorial concerns and/or favored one subject ethnic group over another.

Combined with the colonial exploitation that impoverished the subject countries, the artificial boundaries and discriminatory practices thus set the stage for internecine warfare and civil wars in the independence period especially true for Africa (e.g. Rwanda) and MENA such as Lebanon and now in Iraq.

The prior centuries of Ottoman rule over much of the Middle East also made it problematic to define some nation states in the region.

America’s wars in the Middle East and the accompanying hubris and ineptitude of the occupation have alienated multitudes of Arabs.

4. New meaning of ‘radical’ and the primacy of free will

The changing times are also reflected in the evolving conventional wisdom of the concept of “radicalization.” Decades ago when one says that angry young men and women became “radicalized” it invariably meant that they have become “communist.” Now, “radicalization” translates to religious fundamentalism, specifically Islamic fundamentalism.

Hundreds of young men going over to fight as “foreign fighters” under the banner of ISIS echoed the 1930s when European Communists formed the “International Brigade” in Spain to defend the Republican forces against the Nationalists of General Franco, who was supported by Mussolini and Hitler.

Be that as it may, people still exercise free will or agency in the face of the oppressive structures or adverse developments in society as influenced by their individual character and personal circumstances.

Thus, we have extraordinary individuals whose response to perceived injustices covered the full spectrum from the bloody revolution of Lenin to the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King.

The same oppressive conditions in the Philippines in the late 19th century produced a reformer such as national hero Jose Rizal but also a revolutionary like Andres Bonifacio.

5. In Asia and Africa, historical rivalries and polarization

In the Islamic world there is the traditional rivalry between the Sunnis and Shias especially in the Middle East particularly in the Gulf region. Deepening rifts marked this new era of conflict, which in recent years, has also increasingly pitted moderates against the radicals.

One has to consider the casualties from ISIS advances in northern Iraq and Syria, the bombings in Pakistan, the abductions and massacres of Boko Haram in Nigeria to get a sense of the significant magnitude of this recent round of violence of moderates against radicals and among different ethnic groups of the same country.

Even among the radicals there is also a contest for leadership. It was usually thought that Al Qaeda already represented the extreme radical organization. Then came the meteoric rise of ISIS with even more extreme methods, overt territorial ambitions, and outright large scale military operations that eclipsed Al Qaeda.

6. In the West, resurgence of radical political parties?

Within the West the jagged fault lines had also been the moderates and mainstream political supporters against the anti-immigrant and anti-foreign lobby of extremist political organizations.

As in previous episodes of protracted economic dislocations such as the 1930s’ Great Depression, growing numbers of people in the wake of the Great Recession of the past few years become disenchanted with the ineffectiveness of mainstream policies to bring jobs and prosperity and are consequently seduced by extremist ideology.

Thus, the stunning electoral victory of the far left party Syriza in Greece on January 25 articulated the anger and disillusion of the Greeks with the severe EU austerity policies.

On the other hand, there is also the emergence in Germany of Pegida, which explicitly opposes what it considers as the “Islamization” of the West and has spread as well to Denmark.

The far right gained substantial ground in France with electoral victories by the anti-immigrant National Front that is similarly mirrored in Austria.

The impending peril is that the triumph of extremist political parties and ideologues would see the adoption of hard-line policies and set up the stage for confrontation with other ethnicities and religions seen as a threat to the Western way of life.

Flashpoints and Philippine updates

There are numerous flashpoints in the world due to nationalist and religious divergences: Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Niger, Yemen, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Kashmir, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the West Philippine Sea.

Note that critical flashpoints include those in the Fertile Crescent – the crossroads of civilizations where various peoples have invaded and settled. The battle lines are being drawn.

The massacre of 44 commandos of the Philippine police Special Action Force (SAF) in Maguindanao last January 25 underscored the fragility of the relations between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao.

Reportedly, the PNP did not coordinate when they executed their special operation that in turn arose from their lack of trust of their MILF counterparts.

The situation remains very fluid though there is official commitment to continue the peace process.

Last year it was reported that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf rebels pledged support to ISIS while rejecting peace talks with the Philippine government. The main Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group signed a peace agreement with President Benigno Aquino III’s government last March and thus highlighted the split within the rebel ranks of moderates vs. radical or extremist wings.

What can be done to prevent the onset of a devastating religious and cultural war? Such a widespread conflict will be prolonged and calamitous for humanity and possibly usher in a new Dark Age.

At the present time, the Allies are heavily invested in an air campaign against ISIS. There had been already tangible results such as the ISIS withdrawal from the strategic town of Kobani in the face of relentless aerial bombing.

However, history suggests especially to the Americans that an air campaign is never enough – from the pounding of German cities in World War 2, the carpet bombing of Hanoi in the Vietnam War, and as recent as the Gulf War a powerful air force helps but does not determine the outcome of the war.

The next decision point will come if the Allies realize that their boots on the ground are necessary when local forces will prove to be insufficient to bring a decisive victory.

Even then, a military solution often does not bring lasting peace especially in the present context. The structural reasons for the widening cleavage in society need to be addressed which is an arduous, long-term task.

The triumphant groups whether the moderates or radicals in the West or in the Islamic world will control the historical and political narrative and the future trajectory of relations among different cultures and religions.

A radical victory will determine that the outcome will be exclusionary policies and repression at the least – which will ultimately lead to war.

On the other hand, a victory for moderates will mean the likely pursuance of peaceful coexistence through dialogue, fruitful interaction, and accommodation.

Dialogue among civilizations and the message of Pope Francis

It may be time to revive the “Dialogue Among Civilizations” initiative of former Iranian President Khatami – which was in response to the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis of Huntington as well as the “Dialogue Among Cultures” undertaking of UNESCO.

Essentially under the auspices of the United Nations, the objective is to conduct dialogue among civilizations to achieve mutual understanding, tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and international cooperation and security through promotion and facilitation of the peaceful resolution of conflicts and/disputes among cultures, countries, and religions.

With such noble and lofty goals, the main difference is that these initiatives need to be undertaken on a much larger scale and a great sense of urgency.

Pope Francis was quoted while on his way to his recent four-day momentous visit to the Philippines that while condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre he also observed that “one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

He explained thus, “that is, there is a limit. Every religion has its dignity.” Already, these comments have drawn a favorable feedback from some religious groups. Perhaps, this is the way forward.

Humanity is at a critical crossroad. Historians of the future may look back at this time of the 21st century as the beginning of the slide of civilization into turmoil due to religious and cultural wars.

However, the descent into madness can still be averted by the timely and concerted actions of governments, organizations, and individuals.

Humanity can yet succeed in bridging the chasm that divides the diverse peoples of the world and bring about reconciliation and harmony. The stakes are enormous as the looming clash on the horizon over culture and religion will be the battle for the heart and soul of civilization.