Tag Archives: religious conflict

This is not just in theory

TW: ethnic cleansing, islamophobia, genocide

On Monday, I discussed just how much violent rhetoric the Muslims of the world, particularly anglophone ones, are subject to, on an increasingly frequent scale. It’s become commonplace to discuss mass murder, for instance. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a matter of thoughts and statements, as in some places, Muslims are being killed or otherwise systemically endangered because of their religious faith. Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent reporting for the past couple of months on the situation in Burma or Myanmar, specifically approaching the “democratization” of the country from that angle.

In the past couple of days, especially, they’ve covered the dangerous potency of islamophobia in the country, starting with a renewed look at the nativist and islamophobic violence against the Rohingya people, who tend to live in the westernmost province of Myanmar. Much of their recent history is quite depressing – from first colonialist exploitation by the British (who “imported” their labor into British Burma) to modern xenophobic otherness by their compatriots of some half century (if not longer). It’s one of the cases where the separate socio-economic classes laid out by Harm de Blij in The Power of Place seems particularly salient. Unfortunately, following the departure of an imperialist “global” class, the “mobile” Rohingya laborers and “local” Burmese peoples have targeted each other, instead of cooperating to repair the colonial era damage to the country.


(From Human Rights Watch’s online report on the killings, an image of civilian forces that drove out or killed Rohingya in western Myanmar in the summer of 2012.)

Today, however, Al Jazeera provided some excellent analysis of the broader regional implications of this conflict, both for Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka and Muslim-majority ones like Indonesia. In a nutshell, while there are ethnic dimensions to this and nearly every ethnic conflict in neighboring countries, many of those tensions between groups are increasingly talked about as religious. The Rohingya might not be exclusively targeted for being Muslims, but like many people in the area and ultimately around the world, their religious identity makes them only even more acceptable as targets. While the Rohingya have born the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, it is not unique to regions where they live and has led to recent killings of Muslims with other ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, there’s a question of acceptable to whom – and the potential answers to that are distressingly broad. With prior reports showing deliberate government inaction and subsequent efforts to restrict Muslims facing communal violence in Myanmar, it seems wrong to excuse the actions of various official and unofficial political leaders. But beyond them, Al Jazeera seems to be asking whether the international community is culpable as well. Today, their official twitter account explained, “We ask if the EU is [sic] liftting sanctions on Myanmar prematurely“. Sanctions are difficult to justify in any situation, but the fact that a wave of violence against Muslims hasn’t phased narratives in the “Western” media that Myanmar has democratized seems to indicate something about the perception of Muslims in not only that country but ours as well.

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Resources curse, cooperation blesses?

TW: military conflict in Sudan / South Sudan, military conflict in Israel/Palestine

I’ve mentioned before how there’s a long-standing idea within the social sciences that countries with more of certain resources are actually more vulnerable to certain economic and social problems, which is often referred to as the “resource curse“. It’s interesting to keep that idea in mind while watching the political situation along the border of Sudan and South Sudan unfold. Indeed, competition over the various undeveloped oil reserves along their border did initiate what’s essentially a war between the two states. But what’s more, the need to cooperate to allow oil extraction and shipping (and consequently, sales) to occur has been credited with facilitating a ceasefire, as both countries demilitarized the zone around Jau to permit some industrial development.


(A map of the contested areas approximately a year ago, from here. Jau is located northeast of Heglig, marked in red on the map. Over the past year, the border has inched north, as South Sudan has reclaimed many areas with significant support for its government and attractive oil reserves.)

This is particularly interesting to look at in comparison to Israel and Palestine, as the conflict between them shares many similarities with Sudan and South Sudan. Both instances involve a complex conflict between different factions which invoke questions of the areas’ ethnic, religious, and national identities in post-colonial contexts. The most sizable difference – that South Sudan successfully transitioned from resistance movement to separate state while Palestine has yet to – seems likely to be a temporary distinction, as Palestine seems increasingly likely to attain statehood.

But in spite of all those admittedly broad similarities, today, the international press lamented that President Obama, while visiting both Israel and Palestine didn’t draw the Israeli government to the negotiating table or otherwise recast the situation in a way that makes continued settlement and a third intifada less likely. As international interest in forcing a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine has declined, the disincentives against conflict have also diminished, resulting in Israel being led into an even more total state of war. Israel hasn’t had to offer an olive branch in so long, it might have forgotten how.

In light of that, it seems like two pertinent questions should be asked. Firstly, what will happen along the Sudan / South Sudan border when oil production is more established or when extraction has  effectively bled the region dry? The modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests that this basis for peace is innately unsustainable over a long enough term. Ideally, now that some degree of peace has been established, it’s time to work out how to extend that peace.

Secondly, what could provide Israel and Palestine with a common goal with both groups would prioritize over continued conflict? The story in Sudan and South Sudan should give us hope – the circumstances can and eventually will change. Still, it’s worth asking what can be done to hurry that along.

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Why no one is intervening in Syria (yet)

TW: killing of civilians; marginalization of Kurds, Palestinians, and Jews of Ethiopian ancestry; coerced sterilization

Yesterday, Amnesty International posed a question on twitter, or at least seemed to while promoting their most recent report on Syria. Their official account tweeted:

Amnesty International's tweet
(An Amnesty International tweet.)

That’s a fair question to ask, especially since, as the report claims, Syrians themselves are often asking it. It claims that one Syrian woman who the anonymous research spoke with wanted to know, “Why is the world doing nothing while we continue to be bombed to pieces every day, even inside our homes?”

As near as I can tell, one of the most pressing problems with intervening in Syria is that doing so appears likely to ignite a conflict as complicated and multifaceted as the first “World War” was for Europe. And this time, that would be after almost a century of technological refinements in weaponry. On the other hand, the problem with inaction, unfortunately, is that it seems only to reduce the risk of that outcome – not actually actively prevent it.

Map of Syria and its neighbors
(Syria and its neighbors, from here.)

Syria has a geopolitical context – it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as a narrow maritime border that wouldn’t be terribly in the case of an intervening force having to enter Syria without land or air support from any of those five countries. Syria also has close ties with Iran, which is also the neighbor of both Turkey and Iraq. Having listed all those connections, let me explain – that is an incredibly diverse slice of the world covered in a mere seven countries. Along with that comes an incredibly diverse slice of on-going international conflicts that have in the past threatened all of the states governing those seven countries with destruction. In short, Syria is at the heart of a powderkeg.

Just to run down the events that have happened recently in that corner of the world:

-The Israeli and Iranian governments have begun speaking as if they are on the verge of starting a massive international war, which could potentially draw US, Chinese, and European support and proxies into the fray in a massive conflict between the “West” and the strongest “non-Western” nations in the world. Intervention by Iran would be read as an advance against Israel. Intervention by Israel or the US would be read as an advance against Iran. The balance of power necessary to prevent that outbreak of such a conflict in part requires that no one intervene in Syria, if not the freezing of the situation in Syria where it is.

-Within Israel, extremist factions have successfully lobbied for even more extensive segregation between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and the Israeli government has admitted to supporting the coercive sterilization of Jews with Ethiopian ancestry. These adds to the previous months of conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, which has led to threats of another Intifada (active, potentially armed resistance by Palestinians) and highlighted the continuing conflict within Israeli communities over who qualifies as “properly” or “ideally” Israeli or Jewish. As a result, Israel seems particularly politically unstable at the moment and likely to make choices that are unwise in the long term.

-Turkey, which has long been plagued by undemocratic movements, has experienced a bit of panic over whether Islam has a growing political presence. This seems likely to herald both undemocratic restrictions on free religious expression and the growth of militant Islamism. This is pertinent to Syria as some of the opposition to the government is often couched in religious terms and much of the government’s violence is excused (as undemocratic acts in Turkey have been) as a preventative strategy against militant Islamists. Turkey, to some extent, finds itself fighting the same conflict as neighboring Syria, and is likely to have a stake in the outcome. That fact is complicated by the reality that Turkey has the support of NATO and much of the Western world in a way that Syria doesn’t and thus a trump card to play against Syria if the conflict is either willfully introduced into or accidentally threatens to spill over into Turkey. But Turkey also doesn’t want a destabilized Syria to serve as a training grounds and resupply territory for the increasingly intent Kurdish rebels.

In short, there are multiple ways for the conflict in Syria to ignite a broader religious conflict in the Middle East, to alter the ability of marginalized groups in Israel and Palestine to effectively protest their oppression, and to provide a means of militant Turks who want to guarantee the free expression of devout Muslims and Kurds within Turkey to militarily organize. The risks of intervention are not only that it will fail to actually improve the lives of Syrians, but that it will actively reduce the stability of almost every surrounding country.

But the conflict is already spilling into Iraq, with Syrian forces and anti-regime forces fighting in Iraq (and causing Iraqi civilian casualties). The Iraqi state is stuck in an even more reminiscent position of Syria’s government’s – as a Shia government finding itself in perpetual electoral and military conflict with various anti-government Sunnis. Both have at least some ties to Iran (although Syria’s are much stronger), and unlike Turkey, Iraq doesn’t have the means to have international actors demand that the conflict be prevented from spilling over. With all that in mind, the Iraqi government has started treating the Syrian soldiers injured in its territory. The field of conflict is broadening independent on Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Iranian interests in keeping Syria’s conflicts contained if not resolving them.

It’s worrisome to think that a better question for non-Syrians to ask themselves in the place of why they haven’t intervened in Syria is whether they will ultimately decide to intervene there and elsewhere in the future as the conflicts spreads.

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