Torn States and Changing Identities
Eyad Abu Shakra /Asharq AlAwsat
Thursday, 18 Sep, 2014
Scotland’s pro-independence camp did not need to form armed groups or practice ritual murders to declare their intention to secede from the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, they pushed forward their secessionist scheme, which would separate the two most populous nations in the United Kingdom for the first time since 1707.
The separatists, according to many, are being driven by emotion, swimming against the current—the European current, at least, where steps of rapprochement and hidden federalism have long canceled the old national boundaries. After all, what is the point of the Scottish people ridding themselves of so-called “English hegemony” over their “national” resources within a kingdom that has shaken off the dust of the traditions of centralism and recognized the regional rights of its member countries, if an independent Scotland is going to coexist with its former partner under the umbrella of the European Union?
In the world of politics, two motives—one positive and another negative—maintain the unity of any political entity. The positive one is related to interests, particularly economic interests, in favor of coexistence. Fear of the adverse economic, political and security repercussions of independence represents the negative motive. The best example of this can be seen in “modern” states, such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Argentina, which were all built by waves of immigrants from different places, religions and sects. Those immigrants found in these countries the safety and tranquility they missed in their homelands. In the same vein, mutual interest maintained the unity of pluralistic entities that accommodated different languages and sometimes different religions and ethnicities, such as in India, Iran, Belgium, Canada and others.
On the other hand, there are a few exceptions, which can be attributed to a deep sense of injustice. This was best expressed by Mahatma Gandhi, who, while defending himself before a British judge who accused him of civil disobedience, said: “I beg you to accept that there is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.” Although there are those today who reject this logic, a good example of it is the dissolution of Czechoslovakia (despite the fact that the Slovaks were the less affluent and less advanced in the equation).
The Scottish people have every right to be proud of their identity and heritage and demand full control of North Sea oil, a resource that is being divided between 65 million Britons, only 5.5 million of which are Scots. Nevertheless, economic and constitutional experts point to several economic, monetary and legislative complications and make clear that sharing North Sea oil—a short-lived resource—is not without complications. This is not to mention other fundamental issues such as currency, the gold standard, and major foreign investments, among others.
In any case, the Scottish experience, regardless of the outcome of the referendum scheduled on Thursday, is not different from other European cases, nor can it be isolated from a growing drift in Europe towards extremism of a nationalist and racist character.
In France, where the latest estimates indicate a worrying surge in the popularity of the racist far right, there are chronic separatist tendencies in Corsica and the Basque Country. This is not to mention the issue of Alsace-Lorrain between France and Germany. In Spain, Basque nationalism takes on greater dimensions, in addition to the growing calls for an independent Catalonia. In Italy, the Lega Nord has been advocating the secession of the rich, industrial North, which it calls the Padania. While it is normal for a fanatical, nationalist organization to exist in pluralistic countries such as Belgium, racial intolerance towards immigrants is increasing even in ethnically and linguistically coherent countries such as Holland, Sweden and Denmark.
England itself, the United Kingdom’s largest member country, is witnessing a surge in the popularity of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) which is seeking an exit from the EU and threatening the once-guaranteed strongholds of the three traditional major parties, particularly the Tories.
Europe is facing a structural shift in terms of the definition of national identity, national and democratic interests, federalism, and the national role and demands of partisan institutions. What was possible in the 19th century when the American Civil War (1861–1865) was fought to deter the southern states from seceding from the United States is no longer an option in today’s Europe. That is, dealing with this secessionist phenomenon through the force of arms is not possible on a continent that played host to two world wars that have significantly altered its geographical map.
The situation is completely different in the Arab world. South Sudan seceded from the Sudan as soon as the circumstances on the ground allowed. Unfortunately, no alternative to the redrawing of the map looms on the horizon in the Arab Mashreq (East)—though this is a process that would no doubt be characterized by bloodshed, mass displacements, and the disruption of the fabrics of the current entities present there.
Today, as an international campaign is being mobilized to eradicate the phenomenon of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), many actors are deliberately refraining from addressing several issues. One of these is the importance of not framing this campaign as if it were a war on “Sunni political Islam.” Indeed, ISIS does not represent Islam but rather poses a major threat to it and the interests of Muslims everywhere. On the other hand, Muslims—and particularly Sunnis—should move beyond rhetoric and discourse to take practical steps to combat ISIS.
That there are mutual sectarian fears within a number of Arab Mashreq countries is understandable. But in situations such as this, a policy of “double standards” in approaching the issues and the political and religious dimensions of the region must be avoided at all costs. The long silence over the Syrian tragedy and the crimes of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has given way to a decisive and swift international reaction when post-Saddam Iraq came under threat. It is wrong to endorse majority-based rule in one place while rejecting it for fear of threats to minorities in another.
Minorities are under threat wherever there is injustice, and they are safe and reassured wherever they can—alongside the majority population—express their demands and ambitions.