Archive | September, 2015

Niall Ferguson and “the Islamic world”

28 Sep

Historian Niall Ferguson had a bizarre opinion piece in the Financial Times at the weekend. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about it is that it was a ‘rush job’. Drawing on PRIO data, and Pinker’s arguments on the long decline on violence among humans, it sought to make a number of big statements on trends in war and conflict. Given that the article was written by a historian, it was surprising to see the following extremely a-historical and unreflective claim:

“In 2000, according to my calculations, 35 per cent of the fatalities in armed conflicts were in wars involving Muslims. In 2014 it was 79 per cent.
This is not the clash of civilisations prophesied by Samuel Huntington. Much of today’s conflict is between Muslims. Certainly religion is not the sole cause for increasing conflict, but it is surely more than a coincidence that global warfare is so concentrated in the Islamic world.”

To be fair to Ferguson, he was writing in a newspaper and so he did not have the space to fully develop his arguments and attach justifications to them. Nevertheless, Ferguson’s claims are breathtakingly sweeping. His statements show little understanding of the history of ‘the Islamic world’ (whatever that is). And he’s the historian.

He conflates ‘Muslims’ into a single category which airbrushes the tremendous diversity found within the faith. The ‘Muslim-ness’ of many regimes is subservient to their strategic interests. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, are happy to persecute some Muslims in alliance with western partners. Their raison d’etre as states is the continuation of the ruling autocracies. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly ‘Muslim’ about that. It is simple power politics.

Ferguson also fails to mention to the wars ON Muslims and Muslim-dominated countries perpetrated by the US and its allies over recent decades. Turmoil in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and other countries is a direct result of intervention by western states. As we know, these interventions were poorly thought-through and executed. They destabilised the entire region and have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. These were wars of choice. Bush, Blair, Sarkozy and many other western leaders had opportunities to pursue other routes. They chose not to take them. Their long wars against Muslim-dominated countries have done much to objectify ‘Muslims’ as suspect communities. One gets the sense that Ferguson’s article is in this territory. At one end of the spectrum is the sort of ‘othering’ we see in Ferguson’s article. At the other are the opinions of US Republican Presidential hopeful Ben Carson.

Startlingly, Ferguson omits to mention geo-politics. This is odd given his interest in empire (indeed, his regard for empire). He, of all people, should be aware of the geo-political role played by the wider Middle East. A key reason for wars and authoritarianism in the region rests on oil, the western imperative to defend allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the ‘grand game’ of containing Iran.

Finally, the claim that ‘global warfare is so concentrated in the Islamic world’ is simply rubbish. It rests on the notion that warfare is something that occurs on the battlefield, and fails to take into account the long trains of events and processes that lead to battlefield deaths. A quick look at the arms industry tells us that ‘global warfare’ is located – firmly – in the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (states that often declare themselves to be ‘the international community’). And if we look beyond the arms industry, to the manufacture of narratives that construct and other particular identity groups, then any reasonable analysis would need to include those actors that frame ‘the Islamic world’ (still confused about what that is) as a propagator of war. It is worth asking if Mr Ferguson constitutes part of that industry.


The closure of INCORE

25 Sep

I am really disappointed to hear about the effective closure of INCORE at the University of Ulster and the redundancies of three members of the Politics Department there. INCORE (the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity) was established by the late John Darby – a truly far-sighted and humane scholar who was interested in the comparative lessons between peace processes.
I note that – as with the redundancies at the Department of Politics in Surrey – the managerial “academics” always seem to keep their jobs but the front-line teaching staff lose theirs. Has there ever – in the history of any university – been a case of a Dean losing his/her job due to “re-structuring”?
INCORE gave me my first job (twenty years ago) and was a vehicle for some really great research (on peace processes, social attitudes, reconciliation). It will continue in name but given the number of redundancies not in practice. Investing in education and research – especially in a society like Northern Ireland that lacks effective reconciliation – is a no brainer. Dis-investing in education – which seems to be the University of Ulster strategy – is not only harmful to the University but to the society itself.
There is a wider issue too. Dis-investment in one part of the social sciences is a dis-investment in all of it. We are seeing a new wave of cross-disciplinary research in which there are really fruitful collaborations between different social science disciplines. It is as though we are at quite a pivotal moment in methodology and epistemology whereby increasing numbers of scholars from across the social science disciplines are realising the potential of lending and borrowing from each other. An attack on one part of the social sciences is an attack on all of the social sciences.

Peace Studies: Where are all the men?

22 Sep

It is the start of the academic year and I am delighted to say that we have a bumper crop of MA Peace and Conflict Studies students. I’m looking forward to the debates and the intellectual exchange. One thing that is noticeable about the class is its profile: it is overwhelmingly female. This is neither a new nor a Manchester phenomenon. I have noticed it at other universities, MA programmes and summer schools. The study of peace is a largely a female pursuit. Why?

There is merit to a socialisation argument. This goes much deeper than the common refrain that girls have Barbie Dolls and boys have GI Joe and Action Man. The socialisation and validation of gender specific roles and behaviours is often so embedded in societies that it is rarely questioned. If something is so familiar (like a piece of household furniture, for example), then it can persist for long periods unquestioned. Gender socialisation goes very deeply to the roles and tasks that gain approval among children and students. Deep in the very core of how society is organised, there is a sense that care-giving, empathy and a range of activities and emotions linked with fair-play are somehow ‘female’. Is it too much to speculate that Peace Studies (as opposed to War Studies) is somehow seen as being more appropriate for female students? Clearly gendered divisions are by no means absolute: both men and women study war and peace, and not all men and women fit easily into neat silos. But there is a discernible female preponderance in Peace Studies classes and it is probable that the reasons lie in deep in the organisation of society.

There is no problem per se in having classes dominated by one gender or the other. What matters is that all classrooms are inclusive learning environments. But I taught in a few summer schools where the female preponderance in the classroom did seem to have the effect of silencing the one or two male students who were present. This probably mirrors the situation in programmes (civil engineering perhaps) where there are only a few females.

While the study of peace at MA level is dominated by females, we cannot say that peace studies – as an academic profession – is dominated by females. Certainly there are senior female scholars out there – as journal editors, full professors, heads of department, and prominent theorists, researchers and teachers. The number seems to be growing too. But a rough head count of full professors suggests – to me at any rate – that females still lag behind in the seniority stakes. The key question is whether the current crop of younger female scholars will be able to progress their way up the career ladder or are the structural impediments too great?

The political economy of Europe’s refugee crisis

7 Sep

There has been quite a bit of commentary lately on post-capitalism, or the massive contradictions and unsustainability of predatory casino capitalism. Certainly the evidence of the dysfunctions of capitalism are there for all to see: massive and growing inequality, environmental degradation, the entrenchment of undemocratic regimes, the undercutting of social contracts so that the very purpose of life is reconceptualised into being a consumer, producer, worker, customer and general servant of the market.

Yet we should never underestimate the shape-shifting ability of capitalism. Like the state, another entity whose demise has been erroneously predicted many times, capitalism has been able to adapt to survive. Surely the private sector carried out the ultimate confidence trick in 2008 by having its indebted banks bailed out by public monies? Now, with Europe’s refugee crisis gathering pace, it is possible to see how capitalism will benefit in two quite significant ways.

The first is that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of able and work-hungry migrants will provide more low-cost and quiescent workers for the many sub-optimal and semi-formal jobs that corporations love. These jobs – seasonal delivery drivers, fruit and vegetable pickers, meat packagers – are unglamorous but crucial to how many corporations operate: outsourcing, zero hours contracts, provide your own uniform and insurance, just do the work and shut up. Many of the refugees and migrants who are joining European economies are well educated and trained, yet many are likely to want to keep their heads down until they get settled. They are unlikely to become unionised and to present a list of demands. Many of them – especially those who are undocumented – will operate on the margins of the economy and will simply be engaged in economic survival. They will be an attractive and quiescent pool of cheap labour for corporations. The existence of such a pool will be a very useful weapon in the armoury of corporations should their workforce demand protections to their pay and rights.

The second benefit that the refugee crisis will bring to market-oriented European governments is that it will aid the narrative that public finances are under pressure and that we must expect less from government. Already the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer has been sent out to tour the nation’s media outlets to say that aid budgets need to be rethought, and that monies need to be re-directed to local governments in the UK to help with the refugee issue. Given that this is an era of heavy public spending cuts, it is reasonable to expect that government narratives to justify spending cuts will be tweaked to take account of the costs of the refugee crisis.

The opportunism of markets and market-led governments means that the refugee crisis will actually aid their long-term goals: the further weakening of any notion of workplace benefits beyond pay and the maintenance of a narrative that belts must be further tightened.

Where is the diplomacy?

4 Sep

A curious aspect of the European refugee crisis is the absolute lack of diplomatic urgency in dealing with the core problems: conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. There is some pan-European diplomatic action to manage refugee flows. But where is the diplomatic activity that is attempting to deal with the civil war in Syria, the absence of government in Libya, the rise of IS and the sectarian dysfunctional government in Iraq, and the disaster that is Afghanistan?

Syrian is the calamity of our era: a pernicious regime grimly hangs onto power in an extremely sensitive region of the world. The fall-out is placing immense strain on neighbouring states. The civil war has provided space for fundamentalists to emerge from the shadows and control territory and people. And the international response is…. Pathetic. We have a UN Secretary General who we all have to pause for a second to remember his name. States that have showed no compunction in dispatching troops to the wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq are avoiding getting embroiled in Syria. They are content to bomb IS from afar, to arm various uncontrollable factions to the hilt, and keep strangely silent on the war itself.

I can think of no case where a war has ended as a result of condemnation. Condemning wars and instability in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan will do little other than encourage some actors to redouble their efforts to engage in violence. Bombing from afar simply does not work – and there is lots of testimony from Kurds on the frontline with IS who will attest to this.

What is palpably lacking is diplomatic leadership. The US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and a number of other states are unafraid to give the impression that they are the rulers of the world. Britain and France still reckon it is 1945 and cling onto UN Security Council seats without embarrassment. But where are the diplomatic initiatives? Where are the political leaders (I fear the term ‘leaders’ is actually misplaced) who are going to take the risks and offer negotiated options to IS, the Taliban, Assad and all of the others who seem ‘beyond reason’?

It is too easy to say ‘these people are fundamentalists’ or ‘there is no common ground with these people’. It will take real effort to find such a common ground. It will take risks, bravery, creativity, patience, emotional intelligence. Yet, politicians seem much more comfortable offering material answers: the UK ‘donating’ an enormous anti-migrant fence to France, the US and others dispatching drones and warplanes to the skies above Syria, the Saudis bombing Yemen etc. Actions such as those are relatively easy – and require no bravery at all. They play well to home audiences.

But where is the diplomatic leadership? Part of the problem – as I have argued in this blog before – is that the UN has been systematically undercut by the US, UK, Russia and others. They have left the organisation with limited legitimacy as they have pursued their own unilateral or coalition goals. Part of the problem is also the domestic political scenes of the US, UK, Russia and elsewhere. They reward the ‘action’ of dispatching the military rather than the talking and patience of diplomacy. And part of the problem – I suspect – is that the political leaders in many so-called leading states do not actually understand what is going on in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and other places. The leaders are surrounded by small coteries of advisers – most of whom can read the overnight domestic opinion polling but none of whom have the regional specialism required to understand Syria or Yemen.

So are we supposed to wait until the last man, woman and child in Syria is killed? I suspect we are.