I must say that I gaze on events in Syria and Egypt (and elsewhere) with something like dumb incomprehension. Some people say that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But an article by Dan Hannan offers a simpler explanation.
No, there a more local explanation, its roots stretching back a century. A couple of months ago, the London Review of Books carried a penetrating article on the Syrian insurrection by the veteran correspondent Patrick Cockburn entitled ‘Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?‘ The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement was an accord between the British and French governments (with a minor role for their Tsarist Russian ally) on how to dismember the Ottoman Empire against which they were then at war. It is forgotten in the countries that authored it, but keenly remembered in those it created.
Sykes and Picot – representing, respectively, the British and French governments – carved up the eastern part of the Ottoman lands more or less arbitrarily. Ever wondered why the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria are made up of so many straight lines?…
The resulting states were wholly synthetic, lacking ethnic or religious identity…
The Sykes-Picot accord created governments where there were no nations. People were capriciously sundered from their co-religionists, and demographic maps resembled fruit salads (see image above). Lebanon, where no single group constituted a majority, has suffered a series of sectarian wars ever since…
After 1918, these synthetic states could be held together by British or French or other colonial administrations. But after WW2, one by one, all these colonies were granted independence. And if they continued to to be held together, it was very often by ‘strong men’ of one sort or other – e.g. Saddam Hussein, Muamar Gaddafi, etc -. But once these people were overthrown, the rival groups inside the synthetic states started fighting each other. As Hannan puts it:
To put it another way, democracy functions best within units where people feel that they have enough in common with one another to accept government from each other’s hands. Take the demos out of democracy, and you are left with the kratos: the power of a state that must compel what it cannot ask in the name of civil loyalty.
In the absence of nation-states, cross-border affinities magnify, which is why the Syrian conflict risks becoming a regional Sunni-Shia war.
It’s a beautifully simple explanation. And if all these synthetic states seem to have been falling apart at more or less the same time, it’s perhaps because the stresses induced by a global economic downturn simultaneously exacerbated existing strains within them. In good times, Sunni and Shia could just about get along. In bad times, they couldn’t.
But never mind the Middle East. Isn’t the EU another synthetic state into which dozens of different peoples and cultures are being arbitrarily boxed – simply because they happen to lie west of a straight line drawn from the Baltic to the Black Sea? And isn’t that setting up the conditions for something like a European civil war a few decades hence?
After all, this is pretty much what happened with the former Yugoslavia, also created in 1918, with Muslim and Catholic and Orthodox sectarian divisions built into it. Once the strong man that held it together – Marshal Tito – died in 1980, centrifugal forces began to tear it apart, resulting in civil war and the emergence of a number of smaller states.
But never mind even these various synthetic states. What happens in hitherto stable democratic states when people cease to feel that they have enough in common with one another to accept government from each other’s hands? What happens when commonality disappears?
For example, for myself, I no longer feel that I have anything whatsoever in common with the pushy new breed of ‘healthist’ antismoking zealots that has emerged in Western culture in recent decades. They may as well be invading aliens from outer space, as far as I’m concerned. There’s no way that I’m ever going to be able to ‘get along’ with them. I don’t want to have anything to do with them. Because they represent the complete antithesis of everything I am and everything I value – and I do not want to be governed by them.
And aren’t these straws in the wind for an entirely new and unforeseen division in Western culture? One that wasn’t there before, but which is gradually being prised open using junk science and vindictive, discriminatory legislation. And isn’t it a division that is only ever getting deeper and wider? After all, nobody is trying to heal the rift. And in the process, isn’t our Western demos – our shared culture (more or less wherever we may live) – slowly dissolving (or being demolished), and beginning to turn Western democracies into so many splintered new Iraqs and Syrias? We all used to get along pretty well, despite numerous political and religious and regional differences. But now we are becoming divided along lines unseen in any previous division.
For isn’t a sectarian division just something that happens when one bunch of people – a sect – starts to believe something, and another bunch of people doesn’t? Does it really matter whether the division centres upon whether there are three persons in one God (which was a hot topic about 2000 years ago), or whether environmental tobacco smoke is lethal and carbon dioxide is cooking us all (both of which are hot topics right now)? All that really matters is that there is irreconcilable division. What underlies the division is of secondary importance, and future generations will gaze back in dumb incomprehension anyway.