Τετάρτη, 29 Αυγούστου 2012

Islam, Asia and the Westphalian Treaty

του Νίκου Μπινιάρη

Asia, the womb of all religions and spiritual heritage of humanity is gestating a new child. Grown-up children as Islam, Hinduism and the Taoist-Confucian China are each almost the one third of Asia’s population. Judaism and Christianity are a minority. However, these two traditions, represented by the state of Israel and Russia, play a crucial role for the future of Asia and the world. These religious-cultural traditions represent a qualitative aspect of the complex and fluid terrain of state relations of that continent which in lieu with the direct or indirect involvement of the West in Asia’s affairs create an explosive landscape with possible dire consequences for all. But, beyond any ongoing power politics among these actors, the focus of our attention should be placed upon the structure of these states and the differences with what we consider the model of international relations, the European nation-state. These differences are foremost, the lack of the political culture of accommodation and compromise among diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups and secondly, the state in itself which is either weak or at the same time suppressive and autocratic. 

Since 1648, the end of the Thirty years War fought between Catholic and Protestant kings and princes, Europe realized and decided that the two factions of Christianity had to cohabitate the regions and its feudal residues and kingdoms. The nation state was forged with the citizens’ allegiance solely upon a single state and not upon a supra religious authority or a sovereign of a different state. Europe went on to forge a new political reality with numerous wars and alliances and a historical transformation through social and institutional revolutions: the parliament as a representative body of the will of the people and pluralistic democracy. This political and institutional basis of the European paradigm-shift from the imperial and feudal sructures formed the model of the strong nation state. Through the next phase of the European transformation, the nation-state expanded all over Asia and destroyed either ancient Empires or tribal political institutions creating new political realities painfully but inexorably in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

An important element of the 1618-48 war was that it was fought solely among European powers. An initial involvement of the Sultan who was invited to fight against the Polish Lithuanian League in 1620 and Russia’s short term engagement played a minimal role in the outcome of the war.

The European social-political evolution was solely an internal affair of what we identify today as the core states of the West. The nation-state which emerged was a basis and a guarantor of citizenship rights, political participation, and the rule of law, as a basis of equitable distribution of justice. Furthermore, the Westphalian model enshrined the concept and practice of national sovereignty and the non-interference of states in others’ internal affairs. The cohesion and solidarity founded upon the spirit of the nation permitted the European state to support economic and imperialistic ventures world wide. Human rights, as a recent evolution of the European social political paradigm is presently the most widely used principle and tool for the social and political transition of non-European societies to more democratic, pluralistic and tolerant political entities. At the same time human rights is an instrument of dissolution of certain states which were constituted from diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups, as Soudan, Ethiopia, and perhaps Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan.


On the other hand, in Asia there was a continuous presence of the past, as a political and social reality which has up to now emulated, but at the same time defied, the European paradigm. As a stark example we can observe that no Westphalian Treaty was ever forged among the Islamic nations. There has never been a political compromise and an understanding among Muslims about the place of Shiites, Sunnis, Alewites and other factions and schisms in their own societies. The cohabitation of these various strands of Islam can be described as benign or explosive at the various stages of Islam’s presence in vast tracks of Asia and Africa.

At this point in history we are witnessing a power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis as well as other factions for a place in Islam’s evolution. At the same time we are following the rise of a wave of democratic movement in the Arab world which is experiencing painful birth pangs without a definitive tomorrow. The recently formed states from Central Asia to the Maghreb, with a Muslim heritage are struggling to define their social, political and economic identity. What is lacking is an authentic political and cultural settlement, an accommodation of their differences in the context of a civil society and a genuine nation state. This is a demand which is not fulfilled and as a matter of fact is jeopardizing not only their peaceful and economically sustainable presence in the world but it also places at risk stability worldwide.

We follow the news of terror attacks not against the West but amongst Shiites and Sunnis. We read the analyses about the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia or the ongoing tug of war between the Sunni government of Turkey and its Alewite citizens.  The states which are defined as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or even Afghanistan, or Pakistan are an agglomeration of tribes, ethnic groups and religious affiliations which are on and off in turmoil or in an outright civil war.

We cannot define these entities as nation-states. We cannot view them only as a forced commonality of either extinct parts of empires or the outcome foreign designs that emanate from imperial interests or even rivalries far away from their own territories. We face a cross-categorization of conceptual tools which are inadequate to analyze the entities we try to examine. The strong nation-state with citizens’ rights and an equitable rule of law, which is what secularism implies, is presently absent from many Muslim “nation-states” in Asia and elsewhere.

The European paradigm as an outcome of the Westphalian Treaty is not a very useful conceptual tool to study and devise practical solutions for the acute problems of so many Asian countries in flux. We have to contend with social entities with a past pre-dating Marxism as a theory of social study. European sociology and political science is not equipped and is too west-centered to understand the demands of these societies and the future of these states.

Asia also contains two giant political entities which do not belong to the Muslim world. China is an empire but for some historical and anthropological reason may be categorized as a strong nation-state strong but not free form ethnic strife as is the case of the Iugurs and the Tibetans. The other is India, a democratic empire. It is a state engulfing a civilization which has spread over the whole of Asia. This uniqueness of India makes it more difficult to place Asia under the Westphalian paradigm. The large minority of Muslims in India, which cohabitate with Hindus in relatively peaceful condition with occasional bursts of clashes for temple sites, or religious expressions, has forged a modus vivendi in a democratic chaos, which walks upon a thin thread of compromise and co-existence and is at risk of breaking at any major incident of terrorism or the impact of deep social grievances.

The Asian experience of a social-political Treaty among factions of religious beliefs and cultural diversity has not yet been achieved. This historical reality is not an academic remark but a serious impediment for understanding and facing the evolution of this part of humanity, which is an important component of our future. Three factors exogenous to this process are determinants of its evolution. The European paradigm is an influence which facilitates and at the same time impedes the autonomous evolution of Asia’s societies towards a new model of political and social reality. This is a basic difference between an autonomous local European evolution and an evolution of Asia under the influence of the European paradigm and globalization.

The first and foremost factor is a direct intervention of the stable nation-states of the West in Asia, which has both positive and negative consequences. The former is the projection of the Western democratic paradigm which encloses human rights, women’s rights and tolerance of the “other’s” cultural or religious distinction. The paramount influence of the West, though, is the fields of science and technology. Japan first and China as well as India have moved towards developing a strong scientific and technological basis. The emulation of this aspect of the West has already dire consequences for western economy and beneficial for the countries with the will to pursue such a course.

The negative consequences of western influence are its direct or indirect involvement in the internal affairs of these states. Central Asia was and still is an arena of conflict, and power politics among Russia, China, and the USA or NATO as a whole. States are shifting for and against great powers aligning and re-aligning themselves so that they can survive or stay intact against the design of other local power centers. Afghanistan is the paramount example of a state of many ethnic groups torn among Russia, America, India and China. Its radical Islamic behavior has placed it on the map as the breeding ground for any form of conflict, be it sectarian, ethnic, or power politics of the big international players. It seems that slowly but inexorably the same is happening in Pakistan. Whatever keeps this country together are its Muslim character and the fear of Hindu domination. Still this country is falling apart due to the NATO intervention in Afghanistan and the sectarian violence which is constantly present. The absence of a Westphalian Treaty is painfully present in Pakistan where intra-Islamic conflict is becoming a central weakness of this state to advance its social and political transformation.

The second factor is the competition of the West and the rising powers of China and India for raw materials. States without a strong internal cohesion, national spirit and defined interests for their people are vulnerable to all kinds of pressure and blackmail from the big players who use them even as pawns for their own interests. This competition is not only on the economic field but for the cohesion of states like Sudan, Congo and even Iraq and the Caucasus region.

A third exogenous factor for these areas is the globalization of the world economy. Globalization creates the conditions for a rapid and uncontrolled economic expansion or contraction, a rising middle class and a great number of destitute mass which is unprotected by strong state institutions and policies. Foreign investment has resulted in miracles and disasters. Culture tradition and local norm of conduct vanish or are distorted rapidly leaving behind a vacuum which is difficult to fill. Economic transformation through globalization of trade and production is forcing a change upon human relations and politics which may lead to disaster due to a chaotic emergence of new elites and old rivalries.

Strong Western nation-states are disrupting all forms of an authentic transformation of Asia’s states, and for this matter, African ones, towards a model of tolerance and much needed internal cohesion. An Asian Westphalian Treaty can be the basis for mutual tolerance and cohabitation of various cultural and religious groups leading to economic development and social justice.  Accordingly, it becomes obvious that, since Asia’s social-historical entities are not left alone to decide their own fate, the continent’s transformation may turn more chaotic and dangerous than expected for peace and security.  Asia’s womb may give birth to a still-born child with the features of an economic- or/and real war Armageddon.

Nicholas A Biniaris 16/12/2011