Friday, June 12, 2009

The answer, Mr. Huntington, is blowin' in the wind

"I've had all I can stands and I can't stands no more"-- Popeye the Sailor-man.

Two articles caught my eye this morning-- the WaPo coverage of the anti-Taliban sentiment and fighting in Pakistan, by Griff Witte, and an op-ed in the NYT regarding the current elections in Iran.

The articles highlight two separate events that till recently, as recently as six months ago, no one saw coming.

No one in their right mind, not even the most sanctimonious or the most optimistic supporter of Islamic Democracy would have put money on Pakistanis rallying to fight and lose their lives in an effort to quell the efforts of the Taliban to "fundamentalize" outlier regions of their country.

Of course, the WaPo article highlights the fact that the Pakistanis in question are from low-income families and regions: is it because these people have more to lose if the Taliban do expand, and consequentially more to gain if the Taliban doesn't? Maybe. Which means that their current action, however lauded by the American government, is rooted more in desperation rather than any higher sense of right and wrong. In fact, Witte's article sheds light on the self-doubt that abounds within households in places like Patalian, where people are questioning who is the real enemy, this time around:
"We used to know who the enemy was, and where he is coming from," said Zulfikar Sajad, his eyes vacant and sad as he sat in a mud-brick hut on a desolate plain. "Now, we don't know from which direction the bullets will come."
The Op-Ed piece in the Times is a positive piece: Camelia Entekhabifard is a respected journalist and spokesperson, and has written from the NYT before (this piece particularly stood out-- I loved the mushroom analogy). Her Op-Ed speaks of the new hope on Iranian streets, where students and women have formed protest marches and lines, wearing green in support of Mousavi, the reformist candidate that an apparent majority in Iran is hoping will change the way the country is perceived globally.

(Photo credits: MAJID/Getty Images, for Preeti Aroon's article in FP)

Entekhabifard writes,

So what makes today’s activists different? First of all, a large swath of this “third wave” of voters includes young people who do not remember the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and its related traumas. The ordeals that we suffered immediately after the 1979 revolution are just history to them. Today’s voters probably never had to lie to schoolteachers trying to ferret out damaging information about their families. Iranians may be far from free, but they do not endure the fear we experienced daily.

I used to consider myself among the most outspoken critics in Iran. But I would have never dared to stage a loud protest against a sitting president, as Iranian students did in 2007... Now, Iranians form a 12-mile human chain in support of Mr. Moussavi, and women are seeking one million signatures for a petition for gender quality. Thanks to YouTube, Facebook and blogs, it’s easier for young people to organize, express their grievances and learn personal information about top officials.
This is all very interesting, because it provides additional basis for an argument that counters Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. It shows that even within a tightly knit culture, where complex intermingled structures of society and religion provide the general populace with a code of behavior and cognition, it is possible for new ideas to take root and cause a sea-change in how people react to one another. Not every old traditional fear or belief holds true forever. Not every tie binds just because it did for one's father and his father before him.

In short, the events referred to in these two articles give an elegant bird right in the face of every conservative and every nay-sayer who claim you can't teach an old culture or community new tricks.


But hold up, son. Before you start poppin' them bottles, realize that it is impossible for any movement to be wholly self-sustained. Yes, the people of Patalian, the Swat Valley and nearby regions are fighting and dying for what they believe is a worthy cause. Yes, en masse, people are agreeing that there is more than one interpretation to the role of Islam in a country's political future. But what happens when the last body hits the floor? What happens when aid runs out, or if the Taliban cut a deal or threaten some big-shot in Islamabad?

And what happens if Mousavi doesn't win the Iran elections, or does win and ends up being strong-armed into a hardline stance? What happens if the government in Iran takes over all forms of communication, and controls the use of Youtube, Facebook and blogs?

Citizen groups, bloggers, individuals and media need to let people in Pakistan know that they are supported for their bravery in attempting to choose a better political fate for themselves. The efforts of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent need support. And we're the ones to give it to them.

According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF),
"A lack of funds is threatening the humanitarian aid effort in north-west Pakistan.

Save the Children reports that the organisation has received £2.6 million of the £6.6 million needed to assist 168,000 children and 112,000 adults in the region who have become victims of fighting in the Swat valley.

Carolyn Miller, chief executive of humanitarian charity Merlin, commented: "The only reason we haven't faced a massive humanitarian meltdown is the generosity of families and communities of modest means who've looked after the vast majority of those who've fled the fighting. The world's richest nations need to dig much deeper into their pockets to help.""

While this is true, it's not just the world's richest nations; it's the lot of us, and our "families and communities of modest means".

Multiple causes do act as a sort of check and balance on any human attempt at world peace, I suppose. Perhaps peace and development are meant to be elusive and eternally unattainable, like the perfect copper wire, or a responsible, accountable system of governance in India. Perhaps it is the holy grail of the modern age, only meant to be quested after by a rag-tag bunch of don quioxtes with different agendas.

Multiple causes mean that perhaps those who are passionate about a peaceful, thriving civic society in Sri Lanka may not be as passionate about the same in Pakistan. Or Colombia. Or Somalia. Or Nepal. Perhaps multiple causes mean that those who are passionate about open source software or free internet radio are not as concerned about containing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Perhaps those working for LGBT rights are not as concerned with autism, or primary education, or female nutrition in the developing world.

If Huntington was right, and conflicts do result from a number of causes, such as "... discrimination against people from a different civilization... different values and culture... particularly when one civilization attempts to impose its values on people of a different civilization" (2002*), then one way of sending his thesis--with all due respect-- ass over tea-kettle into oblivion, is to spread awareness about these different civilizations, till we learn from each others' conflicts and methods of disaster management, and in the process learn that our values and culture are not that different at all.

Thankfully, this has already begun: apart from the web tools named by Entekhabifard, sites like, New Ideas for Government, Peace X Peace, Social Edge and others have begun breaking down perceived and assumed differences between groups and social causes.

I only hope that this trend continues, and that Ol' Sammy, wherever he is, loses any bet he might have hedged on the world dividing into zones of civilizations reminiscent of pre- Silk Route days.


*Huntington, Samuel P. (2002) [1997]. "Chapter 9: The Global Politics of Civilizations". The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (The Free Press ed.). London: Simon $ Schuster. pp. p 207f


Scherezade said...

Any country is, after all, only living as well as its most decimated, discriminated against, population. Facitionalism in activism is most obvious when you interact with UN bodies, oddly enough. They are almost territorial about their causes, to the point of demeaning others. I don't quite understand why should it be AIDS v/s Human Trafficking instead of and.

The Wizard of Odd said...

True. In the end unfortunately, it comes down to funding: organizations, whether small non profits, govt. agencies or UN bodies all need to fight over whatever scraps they are thrown.
Factionalism is the collateral damage, so to speak.
What bothers me the most is everyone's talking about the restructuring of banks, big production syndicates and small businesses: no one has talked about non profits, or the changes they might have to make to survive better and meet their goals & objectives.
Traumatic, this survival of the fittest thing.

Scherezade said...

Funnily enough, for large functioning bodies - UN mostly, the funding is quite huge. It's a murky world - AIDs, drugs and charity. At least what I have seen of it. The Bono model of African aid, for instance, is so utterly flawed that it's almost incurring damage than curing anything in that continent.
I think there is a massive spread of pop charity that's eclipsing issues of real signficance.
I agree that we need to work with grassroots agencies, smaller birds in the forest, to make any kind of an impact on the core problems (whatever they may be - LGBT, women's rights, drugs et al).
In S.Africa, I'd met a Dutch gentleman (ex philosophy professor, acceptable levels of eccentricity) who was dedicated to vocation training for AIDs afflicted teens. He has been doing this for a decade or more, perhaps. He's probably had more impact on their lives than most glossy "care programs" or Gwyenth Paltrow's face painted "I am an African" campaign. Had his house robbed, car stolen twice but he is at it.
Those are the people who can actually make a difference. They need to be empowered.

The Wizard of Odd said...

Sorry it took so long coming back to this-- You are spot on re: pop charity. Part of me wishes that the phrase would actually enter daily parlance, but most healthy discussion on the issue of focused charity gets derailed either by politically correct suit-wearing marketing folk or by hard-line cynics who decry grass-root campaigns out of equal parts envy and fear. Smaller birds in the forest-- beautiful way of putting it. Thankfully, there are a few organizations offering support to these smaller organizations-- for instance, is one of them. Perhaps every thought or movement requires wave after wave of evolved thought and action, and though painfully slow, maybe this is what it takes to mobilize support for multiple, small, focused endeavors with visible and measurable outcomes.