Be careful of headlines, they appeal to our sense of the obvious and the familiar, they entrench rather than challenge established stereotypes and memes. What one doesn’t read about every day is usually more interesting than what’s in the headlines. And in the current round of global unease, what’s not being said – what we’ve failed to admit about our Western selves and our local allies – is central to the problems at hand.
Both Iraq and Ukraine, under Western tutelage, failed to create states which welcome diversity. Both Iraq and the Ukraine aggressively marginalised significant communities, with the full knowledge and in some cases support of their Western benefactors. And in both cases, those disenfranchised communities have rallied their cause into wars of aggression.
Reading the Western media one would think it’s clear who the aggressors are in both cases: Islamic State and Russia are “obvious bad actors” who’s behaviour needs to be met with stern action. Russia clearly has no business arming rebels with guns they use irresponsibly to tragic effect, and the Islamic State are clearly “a barbaric, evil force”. If those gross simplifications, reinforced in the Western media, define our debate and discussion on the subject then we are destined pursue some painful paths with little but frustration to show for the effort, and nasty thorns that fester indefinitely. If that sounds familiar it’s because yes, this is the same thing happening all over again. In a prior generation, only a decade ago, anger and frustration at 9/11 crowded out calm deliberation and a focus on the crimes in favour of shock and awe. Today, out of a lack of insight into the root cause of Ukrainian separatism and Islamic State’s attractiveness to a growing number across the Middle East and North Africa, we are about to compound our problems by slugging our way into a fight we should understand before we join.
This is in no way to say that the behaviour of Islamic State or Russia are acceptable in modern society. They are not. But we must take responsibility for our own behaviour first and foremost; time and history are the best judges of the behaviour of others.
In the case of the Ukraine, it’s important to know how miserable it has become for native Russian speakers born and raised in the Ukraine. People who have spent their entire lives as citizens of the Ukraine who happen to speak in Russian at home, at work, in church and at social events have found themselves discriminated against by official decree from Kiev. Friends of mine with family in Odessa tell me that there have been systematic attempts to undermine and disenfranchise Russian speaking in the Ukraine. “You may not speak in your home language in this school”. “This market can only be conducted in Ukrainian, not Russian”. It’s important to appreciate that being a Russian speaker in Ukraine doesn’t necessarily mean one is not perfectly happy to be a Ukranian. It just means that the Ukraine is a diverse cultural nation and has been throughout our lifetimes. This is a classic story of discrimination. Friends of mine who grew up in parts of Greece tell a similar story about the Macedonian culture being suppressed – schools being forced to punish Macedonian language spoken on the playground.
What we need to recognise is that countries – nations – political structures – which adopt ethnic and cultural purity as a central idea, are dangerous breeding grounds for dissent, revolt and violence. It matters not if the government in question is an ally or a foe. Those lines get drawn and redrawn all the time (witness the dance currently under way to recruit Kurdish and Iranian assistance in dealing with IS, who would have thought!) based on marriages of convenience and hot button issues of the day. Turning a blind eye to thuggery and stupidity on the part of your allies is just as bad as making sure you’re hanging with the cool kids on the playground even if it happens that they are thugs and bullies – stupid and shameful short-sightedness.
In Iraq, the government installed and propped up with US money and materials (and the occasional slap on the back from Britain) took a pointedly sectarian approach to governance. People of particular religious communities were removed from positions of authority, disqualified from leadership, hunted and imprisoned and tortured. The US knew that leading figures in their Iraqi government were behaving in this way, but chose to continue supporting the government which protected these thugs because they were “our people”. That was a terrible mistake, because it is those very communities which have morphed into Islamic State.
The modern nation states we call Iraq and the Ukraine – both with borders drawn in our modern lifetimes – are intrinsically diverse, intrinsically complex, intrinsically multi-cultural parts of the world. We should know that a failure to create governments of that diversity, for that diversity, will result in murderous resentment. And yet, now that the lines for that resentment are drawn, we are quick to choose sides, precisely the wrong position to take.
What makes this so sad is that we know better and demand better for ourselves. The UK and the US are both countries who have diversity as a central tenet of their existence. Freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to a career and to leadership on the basis of competence rather than race or creed are major parts of our own identity. And yet we prop up states who take precisely the opposite approach, and wonder why they fail, again and again. We came to these values through blood and pain, we hold on to these values because we know first hand how miserable and how wasteful life becomes if we let human tribalism tear our communities apart. There are doors to universities in the UK on which have hung the bodies of religious dissidents, and we will never allow that to happen again at home, yet we prop up governments for whom that is the norm.
The Irish Troubles was a war nobody could win. It was resolved through dialogue. South African terrorism in the 80’s was a war nobody could win. It was resolved through dialogue and the establishment of a state for everybody. Time and time again, “terrorism” and “barbarism” are words used to describe fractious movements by secure, distant seats of power, and in most of those cases, allowing that language to dominate our thinking leads to wars that nobody can win.
Russia made a very grave error in arming Russian-speaking Ukranian separatists. But unless the West holds Kiev to account for its governance, unless it demands an open society free of discrimination, the misery there will continue. IS will gain nothing but contempt from its demonstrations of murder – there is no glory in violence on the defenceless and the innocent – but unless the West bends its might to the establishment of societies in Syria and Iraq in which these religious groups are welcome and free to pursue their ambitions, murder will be the only outlet for their frustration. Politicians think they have a new “clean” way to exert force – drones and airstrikes without “boots on the ground”. Believe me, that’s false. Remote control warfare will come home to fester on our streets.