Why do trivial matters such as cartoons lead to disproportionately horrific violence? Why did the perpetrators of violence choose to do what they do in the primitive and medieval ways they prefer to do? In the light of the recent terror attacks in France and Austria, I try to find answers in a concept that originated in the 1990s United States.
‘The clash of civilizations’ is a controversial, yet relevant, concept developed by U.S. political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. In 1993, Foreign Affairs magazine published an article written by him of the same name, which later evolved into a full-fledged book in 1996, titled “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”.
The term implies that cultural and religious identities of peoples and nations of the world could potentially turn out to be primary sources of conflict, and future wars would be fought not between countries, but between cultures, or rather civilizations.
Huntington wrote, “The absence of an Islamic core state is a major contributor to the pervasive internal and external conflicts which characterize Islam. Consciousness without cohesion is a source of weakness to Islam and a source of threat to other civilizations. Is this condition likely to be sustained?”
Well, it seems right, taking recent incidents of terror in Europe into account. Many thought the idea would be too far-stretched. But, 9/11 proved Huntington’s critics wrong when the West had the first encounter with a radical form of a distant ideology hailing from the Middle-East on its own soil – Islamism, the political and sometimes military face of Islam, which was brewing up for a decade since the American involvement in the Gulf War of 1990-91.
Irrespective of geographies, most of the defenders of political Islam are vulnerable to radicalism. But, pure spiritual Islam devoid of political considerations can be less vulnerable, as they focus only on their religious lives, without any gratuitous aspiration to spread their faith or to build a caliphate around the world under Islamic law, for that matter.
Multiplicity of identities and civilizational values
The motivating factor behind all the terror crimes was some ‘identity’ of being exceptional as compared to other fellow beings. The religious identities of the perpetrators of terrorism always superseded their collective national consciousness and sanity of mind in favour of some extremely idealistic world where their ideology alone rules.
It is also true that all Islamic believers aren’t radicals. A majority of them want a peaceful life. But, they will have to pay a heavy price if they are unwilling to adapt to the basic tenets of their respective dominant national cultures with tolerant mind-set, and with periodic checks on radical elements from dominating prevailing religious discourse.
The fact that there is no single core Islamic core state to oversee the faith in its entirety, as noted by Huntington, makes the religion open to interpretations, or rather misinterpretations, suiting different purposes for different groups of people.
The way Kemalist-influenced Turkey (presently going through a rewriting phase by Recep Tayyip Erdogan) does it varies from Wahhabi-influenced Saudi Arabia, the same goes with Shia-influenced Iran. Depending on the vulnerabilities in the mental state of different groups of believers, radicalism makes way for itself in a gradual pace.
In this context, French President Emmanuel Macron’s crackdown on radical Islam is noteworthy, as it needs regulation from a responsible secular state like France, and for ensuring the continued existence of that state in its original form. The same goes with Germany or Nordic states that experience an increasing inflow of potential radicals from Islamic societies, in the past one decade in particular.
George Bush-era ‘War on Terror’ and presently Macron’s moves can be seen as the first responses in lines with the idea of a civilizational clash in this century, a conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations.
It also meant a conflict between singular-minded, non-questionable devotion and absolute liberty, a conflict between absolute secularism and theocracy, and a conflict between ultra-liberalism and puritanical religiosity.
Exceptionalism and being ‘the other’
Islam, inherently, talks about every aspect of life of a believer – what one should eat and not, how one should dress and not, how genders by birth define one’s position in family and community, and even how one should perceive non-believers. This translates into an extreme form of exceptionalism in real life for practitioners of that faith.
Another key factor to note is that they maintain this exceptionalism with unwillingness for a closer socio-cultural integration to the larger society with a different civilizational heritage they find themselves in, unlike Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism which also have their own exceptionalist traits.
In some cases, their actions post-radicalization have even resulted in misjudged retaliatory terror strikes in completely unrelated and new locations such as the shootings at a mosque that happened in New Zealand last year.
This cycle continues without a foreseeable end, exacerbated in a digital age where caliphates can even exist merely on the internet with the potential for public safety hazards in any location around the world. And, if that happens in a totally unexpected place like Vienna earlier this month, media attention will be high, and peaceful Islamic believers faces the brunt of ‘othering’ from the societies alien to the Islamic civilization they live in.
When the Islamic and Western civilizations met
The Islamic civilization made contacts with the European or Western civilization for the first time in 8th century CE during the Moorish conquests of Andalusia and the southern parts of Spain. These cultural influences can be seen even today. But, in the 15th century Christian monarchs took back Moorish territories in an eight-century-long period of Reconquista.
Fast-forward to the 20th century, the West becomes involved in nationalist struggles in the Middle-East, home to the Islamic and Jewish civilizations. Thus, the Arab states, 22 in number today, and subsequently the world’s only Jewish state of Israel came into being.
Since the formation of the Jewish state was predominantly a project led by European Jews, it retained a certain amount of similarity with the Western civilization. But, the Arabs retained their exceptionalism with Islam as its core.
For fairly a long period of time now, Europe is predominately divided between Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christianity as in Greece and Russia, and atheists. The latter half of the 20th century, however, began witnessing changes in demographic dynamics of the continent with the spread of globalization. But, radicalism still hadn’t made its way.
In this century, the sources of radicalization in Europe varies between factors such as increasing inflow of refugees from conflict zones from across the Mediterranean in the Middle-East, particularly Syria, and North Africa from the early 2010s, and some of these new immigrants who would later go on turning radical.
The countries such as France had historical ties with the Arab Maghreb countries, particularly Algeria and Tunisia, rooted in its colonial past, which would turn out to be an Achilles’ heel in the national security and integrity of the French Republic in this century.
Meanwhile, there were other non-Arab countries, part of the 57-nation Islamic civilization with their own exceptionalist doctrines like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Rigidity in maintaining an exceptionalist outlook on daily religious practice, including a puritanical form of theism, also acted as a catalyst for a civilizational clash with the West.
An historical example of ‘syncretism’ from India
However, there are good examples of evolution of ‘syncretic’ belief systems as with Sufism elsewhere in India, where I write this essay from, that co-existed with Hinduism for centuries until the British operationalized their ‘divide and rule’ policy for economic exploitation of the Subcontinent.
Sufi-influenced traditions such as Hindustani classical music are global examples for co-existence and peace in the northern parts of India, even with dissimilarities. But, the rise of Hindu nationalism and revivalism from the early 1990s worsened the divide between the Muslims and the Hindus in India, which unfortunately leads to radicalisation on both sides.
Reconciliation of differences in identity is the need of the hour
Increasing polarisations on religio-cultural lines, exasperated by the rise of right-wing populist governments exploiting the fears of native populations across the world makes already-existing fault-lines wide.
Eventually, the Islamic civilization has to come to terms with other civilizations and their respective tenets, particularly with the West, if they wish to co-exist within the geographies of the West characterized by liberal and secular thinking of its native people. The same goes with other civilizations existing in places different from its origin.
A mutual understanding, confidence-building dialogues, and co-existence, with respect for each other’s civilizational values are a must to ensure peace in diverse geographies marked by a multiplicity of identities, cultures, and native nationalities.
And, the steps taken to uproot radicalism have to be covert rather than in an openly proclaimed manner to avoid adding up to the insecurities of the vulnerable, a lesson the French President can derive from the myriad of emotionally strong reactions of the concerned populace from around the world.
Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting
More than one year since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the world remains caught in the middle. Against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, Western and Russian blocs are once again vying for support from nations of the developing world.
Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Sergei Lavrov, Qin Gang, and Anthony Blinken are just some of the names that have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months. All have largely focused on cooperation and trade, yet each has done so with a discourse reflecting a kind of Cold War reboot, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent symptoms.
Each in their own way, armed with their respective propaganda, these superpowers wish for nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Yet, unlike the previous century, those nations cannot so easily be made to choose, nor should they have to. Russia understands this. The West does not.
It’s no secret that Africa has been reluctant to overtly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or to participate in Western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, African and Asian nations have continued to welcome these longstanding partners with open arms – widely condemning the war, but not Russia.
In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser amidst global shortages are seen as a gift from heaven by struggling farmers. Malawi’s minister of agriculture shook hands with the Russian ambassador, describing Russia gratefully as “a true friend”. Russia’s announced plans to send 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to countries across Africa, is certain to spread similar sentiments.
In my country Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major cooperation agreements with Russia in the midst of its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and to enhance military cooperation.
This charm offensive, prominently led by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania just since January, is already nourishing pro-Russian sentiment throughout the continent, and stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib that was President Emmanuel Macron’s recent African adventure.
In his press conference with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President, Felix Tshisekedi, in what was perhaps the most deaf-tone faux pas of his entire trip, President Macron was repeatedly asked to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC – a situation that closely resembles Russia’s covert support for Donbass separatists in recent years. For all intents and purposes, he failed to do so.
Instead, when a French journalist quizzed him on former Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s disparaging mention of an “African-style compromise” in relation to President Tshisekedi election in 2019, Macron proceeded to lecture the Congolese President on freedom of the press – much to the disbelief of those witnessing the scene.
Despite President Macron’s effusive rhetoric about ‘new relationships’ and ‘new starts’, his outburst was yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s longstanding paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent. This is the same attitude whereby decades of European political and military influence on the continent have failed to generate meaningful progress when they did not actively undermine those efforts. Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by the growth in anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Russia, China and others, though far from being without reproach, are merely seizing the presented opportunities.
Just as the share of EU aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot with Europe’s relations in Asia. Its share of Southeast Asian merchandise trade, excluding China, fell by over a third over the last two decades. Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021. Russia is again moving fast to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trading partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers, rather than to the West. When Russia suspended its double taxation treaties with “unfriendly” countries around the world in mid-March, most Southeast Asian countries were exempted from this measure.
Moreover, Russia has over the last decade become the largest arms supplier to the region, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, whilst Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.
One cannot fault these nations for engaging in partnerships and cooperation with international partners, in the interest of addressing their most urgent societal priorities. Nor can one fault African and Asian countries for taking with a pinch of salt a discourse on international values and change, when this supposed change stems not from recognition of current flaws, but from the impositions of emergent global trends.
What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya, as well as their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds, or when the posture of African countries relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe relative to the conflict in the eastern provinces of the DRC?
What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to the seizure of Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion – including lucrative oil and gas assets – based on a questionable arbitration authorised by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution from the Spanish authorities? And who will really benefit, given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-nineteenth agreement between a long-vanished Sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors?
The willingness of European courts to confiscate the resources and assets of a sovereign Asian nation on such flimsy grounds is not lost on observers in Africa and across the developing world.
Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it is evident that relations between the old and new worlds will continue to strain as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs do not evolve. Specifically, change is needed in those attitudes that continue to consider developing nations as oblivious to the many contradictions of rhetoric and practice that characterise the world as we know it – whether in terms of: a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances and ills it purports to address; a discourse on international law and values that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current drives for reforms; or even negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops when economic interests begin.
The Western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking out a genuinely new footing in its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia – challenging its own assumptions and understandings about what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly means. This is not about paying lip-service to ideals struggling to remain convincing, nor is it about entirely conceding these ideals on the altar of economic pragmatism.
Rather this means accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions, and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds. In doing so, the Western world will reassure those of us that continue to believe in the promises of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that these were not merely pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats, but rather an enduring vision for a better world that remains worth fighting for today.
A Muscular U.S. Foreign Policy and Changing Alliances
Imagine a country rich in fossil fuels and another nearby that is Europe’s premier industrial power in dire need of those resources — is that a match made in heaven?
Not according to Joe Biden who quashed it as if it was a match made in hell. Biden was so much against any such rapprochement that to end all prospects of a deal, he ordered the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines. Two out of four lines were severely damaged, about 50 meters of them and Russia chose not to conduct repairs. Instead,it is pumping its gas up through Turkey.
So far, Russia has not responded to this act of war but a leader can not afford to lose face domestically or internationally, and one may not be surprised if an American facility or ship suffers an adverse event in the future.
In the meantime, Russia has become fast friends with China — the latter having its own bone to pick with Biden. China, a growing industrial giant, has almost insatiable energy needs and Russia stands ready to supply them. An informal deal has been agreed upon with a formal signing ceremony on March 20, 2023.
So who won this fracas? Russia gets to export its gas anyway and China, already generating the world’s highest GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis, has guaranteed itself an energy source.
Of course there is Ukraine where Biden (like the US in Vietnam) is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian. Despite a valiant resistance, they are not winning, for Russia continues to solidify its hold on Ukraine’s east, most recently by taking Soledar and capturing parts of the transport hub Bakhmut itself.
And then there is Saudi Arabia: hitherto a staunch U.S. ally, it is now extending a hand of friendship to Iran, which its previous king used to call the snake in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of the vassal-like manner in which the U.S. has treated Germany, its ally with the largest economy in Europe, over its desire to buy cheap gas from Russia. The deal was nixed and observers estimate it cost Germany a couple of points of GDP growth. Such a loss in the U.S. would translate to almost zero growth.
India used to be a neutral country between the great powers. In fact, its first leader after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement. It is now being tugged towards the US.
The latest tug is ICET or the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies. Its purpose is to find ways to engage through “innovation bridges” over the key areas of focus. This coordination between the two countries is to cover industry, academia and government.
On the other hand, India’s arch rival Pakistan used to be in the US orbit for decades. Now it is virtually a Chinese client state even though for a time, particularly during the Afghan war, it was a source of much help for the US.
Such are the vagaries of alignments in a multi-polar world, particularly when under pressure from major powers.
Adoption of the controversial pension reform bill in France
On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the senate adopted the pension reform bill with 193 senators voting for the project and 114 senators voting against it. A few hours later, after many meetings of key figures of the government and the Renaissance party –the governing party – , it was decided that the National Assembly was not going to vote for the bill but rather the government would use the famous 49.3, an article of the 1958 constitution which allows the prime minister to have a bill adopted into law without a vote. The Senate and the National Assembly – through a joint committee – had agreed on a compromise text of the bill the day before the crucial vote in the Parliament. The project was so important to President Macron that he threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if the project did not go through. Some analysts saw this threat as way of inducing members of the National Assembly to adopt the project rather than put into jeopardy their political careers. Politicians like Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, a staunch republican, claims members of the National Assembly had to vote the bill because they should be convinced that it is the best thing to do right now for a sustainable pension system in France.
When President Macron was elected in 2017, he pledged to change the pension system in France for he believed that it was unjust and that it would be difficult to sponsor it in the years to come since more people will be going into retirement. It is believed that those aged 65 will be more than the under 20 come the year 2030. Macron did not carry out the reform in his first term in office after meeting with different resistance like the one of the Gilets Jaunes; he probably feared it may cost him the second term. Once the first term was over, he was most probably determined to carry on simply because he is not scared to lose, his second term being the last one. The pension reform has been heavily contested, with polls in February 2023 suggesting that 65% of the French people are against it.
The reform moves the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The change will be carried out progressively with 3 months added each year to make it two years in total in 2030. To have fully contributed to the retirement insurance one will have worked 43 years. People working in relatively hard industries like the police, firefighters, garbage collection will still be able to retire early. However, those who entered the career late like those who had long studies will have to work until 67 years. Disabled people could still go on retirement at the age of 55 while those who have suffered disability along the way could retire at the age of 60.
With the new bill having become a law, those who will have a complete career (43 years) will not receive less than 85% of minimum wage (i.e. 1200 Euros gross salary). Furthermore, the government believes it will be able to save 17.7 billion Euros by 2030 with the new pension system. According to the government, increasing the retirement age was the fairer way than increasing taxes especially that people are believed to live longer than in the past.
The left parties (La France Insoumise LFI, Les Socialistes, Europe Ecologie-les Verts) have made it difficult for the bill discussion especially in the National Assembly by proposing thousands of amendments to delay the voting process and even derail it. This is probably why the government feared to lose the vote and decided to invoke 49.3. The government doesn’t have the outright majority and has had to rely on the right party (les Républicains LR) to have the reform bill voted in the Senate but some of Renaissance members of the National Assembly were reluctant to vote for the bill and some LR members had said they would abstain, leaving the ruling party with no other choice than to use 49.3. The Prime Minister suggested that “the reform is necessary” and she was taking responsibility by invoking 49.3.
The reform bill was so unpopular that there have been protests for months spearheaded by the Union of workers who mobilized workers across many industries (i.e. energy, transport) and public institutions (e.g. education). Millions of people have been on the street, a reminiscence of 1968, when students spearheaded strikes in which 10 million of people took to the street to make request which resulted, inter alia, in the 35% increase of minimum wage. The objective of protestors against pension reform bill had been to make the government withdraw the entire project because they believe it is unjust to ask people to work two years more, considering that their career is long enough. President Macron seemed not interested to receive the Unions and had no intention to withdraw the project.
As a result of strikes, the city of Paris and some other cities in France have seen the bins fill up along the streets and residents are said to hold their noses as they pass by. For some this is not the image to show to the world for a city that is hosting Olympic games in 2024 let alone for health reasons but for others this is the price to pay for the actions of a government that does not hid the voices of the people. Transport on the road as well as in the air has been heavily disrupted. Those who don’t participate in strikes are generally said to support the actions of the protesters. However, it is unclear if they will keep supporting them if the movement lasts long.
Using 49.3 always comes with the risk that the opposition would present a censure motion, in which the government itself runs the risk of being forced to resign and the text of the bill being rejected if the censure motion is adopted. Before the Prime Minister announced that the government had chosen to use 49.3 to adopt the pension reform bill, she was not allowed to speak for a few minutes. Ivan Rioufol, a journalist at CNews believes that this moment is not just a big moment for the 5th Republic but also a historical moment. For now, the government has triumphed and one of the most contested reforms of French modern politics has become a law– at least if the censure motion does not bring down the government and along with it, the newly-adopted law.
Nonetheless, despite the bill being adopted into law by the Senate and through 49.3, unions have vowed to keep protesting until the law is suspended. In a recent BFMTV poll, 62% French people would want the strikes to continue if the bill passes. Now that it has passed, it is not clear whether the resistance will make the government change anything. Neither is it clear whether the movement itself will be able to resist long since the longer workers strike the more money they lose from the salary. With the inflation and conditions of life that have been hard due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine it will be hard to sustain the strikes. What is clear is that the repercussions of this reform will linger on for many years to come. One anonymous political scientist even claimed that this could open the narrow door to the extreme right to come into power.
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