History doesn't end

History doesn't end

What does it account for the continuing and unending cycles of blood-spilling in parts of the world?

Are ideas of progress, development, peace and harmony accepted universally or are they mere platitudes, sacred to some but of less relevance to others?

As we witness, ISIS straddling Iraq and Syria with a brutality that puts even Al Qaeda to shame, Boko Haram in Nigeria priding itself in abducting school girls, Al Shabaab in Somalia –Kenya periodically wreaking death and destruction, and nearer home, the two Talibans shaking the foundations of the state in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the question becomes significant. What do analysts who study subjects like war, conflict and political violence say about these groups? Is there a larger pattern behind the negative forces that hit the headlines, any explanations at all to their savagery, or are these ripples in the unravelling of history, inexplicable, and alas, inevitable?

Let us recall a moment, and a theory, that was the apotheosis of optimism. It is 25 years since the publication of an essay that reverberated at that time for the boldness of its thesis and tone. In 1989, in the now famous or infamous essay, ‘The end of history’ Francis Fukuyama, an American conservative thinker prophesised that with the collapse of communism and totalitarianism as exemplified by the Soviet Union, ‘history’ in terms of the Hegelian idea of a thesis and an anti-thesis at struggle was ending. The world was likely to see a universal acceptance of democracy and free market principles. Incidentally, he and his disciples still believe in this view, but the majority of us regard it as naive.

Nevertheless for most of us -- believers in the ideas of progress and possibility of a gradual lessening of conflict -- the events of this century so far does not offer much evidence. Osama Bin Laden may be dead but Al Qaeda has morphed into many forms. Ukraine, represents a revival of cold war antagonisms. Conflicts in the heart of Africa continue to bleed. Violence by marginal groups which sometimes erupt unpredictably destabilise states and regions as we see in Iraq. Nearer home, there is uncertainty and anxiety about Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming months. What accounts for these continuing and unending cycles of blood- spilling in parts of the world? There are different theories in attempts to explain the phenomenon.First, there is the view that beneath such anger, hate and recourse to violence are serious grievances, socio-economic or political.

 We in India are familiar and often sympathetic to this analysis. Demands and grievances based on religious, ethnic or caste factors have led to disturbances and killings but have been addressed and resolved, the most successful example being the Sikh militancy of the eighties. The violent acts perpetrated by the Naxalites or Maoists can also be seen through this prism of disaffection and alienation. So is the case with the Palestinian issue, a specific political problem which has led to acts of terrorism by some factions. But with Al Qaeda or Boko Haram such explanations are insufficient as the nature of the demands or grievances are nebulous and unanswerable.

Attributing instability

A second approach has been to attribute the instability characterising the middle-east and Africa to the lack of institutions for democratic governance or power sharing. Thus, in the case of the failures of the promise of Arab spring in Libya or Egypt, it is pointed out that these countries never had any experience of consensus building, let alone democracy, and that the ‘winner takes all power’ has been the only doctrine known to them. Those excluded from the process and the power can only resort to guns. There is merit in this view, but its utility for operational purposes is marginal. Whether in Egypt, Iraq or Afghanistan, how to build the institutions and induce power-sharing in a turbulent situation?

Third, a different perspective, focuses on the underlying fissures such as the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias (going back to 7th century, but still raging!), or the ethnic and tribal divisions that are deeply rooted in a country like Afghanistan. It is contended that such sectarian, ethnic, tribal or religious divides are so deep-rooted in traditional societies that their historic animosities are yet to be dissipated. A prognosis of gloom and doom, for believers in the ability to transcend such divides in the name of the ‘essential humanity’ in all societies.

Fourth, is a theory related to the above, but with the additional element that the state formation in countries like Syria, Iraq or Jordan has been across such fault-lines of sect or tribe  and that therefore the states so formed are not sustainable. It is contended by these theorists that what we are seeing is the unravelling of such states and that the remaking of the map of the middle-east and the reordering of the nation-states therein is still unfolding. New nations like Kurdistan, Sunni Republic of Iraq or Greater Jordan are foreseen as emerging out of the current divides.

Finally, to move from the geo-strategic and the political, to the psychological or even philosophical realm, there are those who believe that violence, cruelty and hostility are embedded in human nature and killing is as much a part of life as loving and living. How else does one explain the deeds of Boko Haram or nearer home, the LTTE in its hey day against fellow Tamils? How does one see the motivation of nearly a thousand ‘white-western’ jihadists from countries like UK and Australia launching grenades for the ISIS? Surely, they are dedicated to some ideals, but whatever they are, are incomprehensible to us. What moves such men is a mystery to those in the mainstream.

Multiple perspectives. The one inference that one can safely draw from the explanations of the current phenomenon is: ‘history does not end’. At least for the foreseeable future, its trajectory will be without discernible direction. 

(The writer is a former ambassador and currently a visiting professor at Jamia Milia University)