Archive for July, 2012

The Price of Progress

July 22, 2012

Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya seem to belie the Arab Spring narrative. The news stories we all saw and read hinted that these revolts would lead to democracy, freedom and justice. The uprising of the millions of brave men and women across the Arab world was merely the latest in a global wave of democratisation, its precedent being the Eastern European uprisings that helped bring down the Iron Curtain.

And yet, subsequent events in these countries appear to border on a parody of liberal values. Egyptian parliamentary elections in September delivered a majority for fundamentalist Islamists. In the latest presidential election, the Egyptian choice was limited to yet another Islamist and, almost laughably, Mubarak’s former Prime Minister. Many fear that the latter candidate, Mr Shafiq, represents a counter revolution by the powerful bedrock of Mubarak’s former regime, the Egyptian Military.

Ben Ali’s Tunisia was one of the most secular and socially liberal Arab societies. Since Ali was ousted, Tunisia has witnessed the election of moderate Islamist party, Ennahda and increasing activism from Tunisian Salafis, who follow a puritanical version of Islam. Last Tuesday, thousands of Salafis reportedly rampaged through the capital Tunis ‘hurling rocks and petrol bombs at police stations’ in protest against an art exhibition deemed insulting to Islam. They’ve also attacked alcohol vendors and the offices of secular parties.

In Libya, the post – Gaddafi government has ensured that sharia is the principle source of legislation in the new constitution, as well as making it illegal to ‘glorify’ Gaddafi or ‘offend’ Islam. There has allegedly been lynchings of Black Libyans accused of being mercenaries for Gaddafi. The country as a whole is said to be on the verge of civil war as armed tribal militias regularly clash.

If one thing appears to be evident, it is that events aren’t following the script. There have been several responses to this. One is to say the region was not ready for democratic change. Indeed Western policymakers traditionally used this self serving justification to maintain their support for secular despots like Mubarak; left to themselves, it was argued, the Arabs would only vote for theocracies. Another is a kind of despair that the uprisings were futile. In Egypt, this is one reason why the turnout was so low in the presidential elections.

However, from a historical perspective, the difficulties since the uprisings are unsurprising. The way these events were reported reflect a widespread idea that secularism, modernity and democracy go hand in hand in one smooth transition. This view is not historical. The ease with which democratic practices became entrenched in many Eastern European countries is historically unique. Even in that region, this process is not ubiquitous, as the case of Ukraine shows. As for the rest of the Western world, secularism, modernisation and democratisation were uneven, messy and bloody processes. The French are currently on their fifth Republic, and they got there via Jacobin revolutionary terror and Napoleon’s absolutism. It took a civil war for the United States to unify and end slavery. The former axis powers, Germany and Japan became pluralist democracies only in the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, many European countries industrialised and modernised under dictatorships. As for secularism, most Western nation states were built on a rigid sense of identity, excluding the ‘other’. The source of this fixed identity was religion: Protestantism in England, Catholicism in France, Calvinism in the United States and so forth.

It is important to bear this historical perspective in mind when interpreting events following the Arab Spring. This doesn’t mean denying the very real difficulties these countries have faced. On the contrary these difficulties are in line with history: democratisation and liberalisation are long term tough processes, not overnight smooth ones. It took Turkey, the region’s best democratic model, decades to put its powerful army out of politics and even now, their influence remains great. So the intractability of the army in Egypt is to be expected. If it took fervent religiosity to cement national identity in Europe, then it is unsurprising if the same occurs in the Arab world and if Islamists do well in the ballot box. This naturally raises concerns about secularism in the region. But it also reflects the fact that the Arab Spring set in motion a process of change that includes suffering and difficult trade – offs. That, in the end, may be the price of progress.


The problem with the MAD doctrine

July 22, 2012

It is not immediately obvious why nuclear proliferation is a bad thing. After all, if the United States and the Soviet Union did not face the possibility of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the Cold War may well have turned very hot. Nuclear weapons spared us the countless deaths of a third World War. As prominent American journalist Fareed Zakaria explains: ‘Great powers went to war with brutal regularity for hundreds of years. Then came nuclear weapons, and there has not been a war between great powers since 1945 – the longest period of peace between great powers in history.’

Even the one time use of nuclear weapons in World War 2 can be seen as – in a very qualified sense of course – desirable, in so far as President Truman’s decision resulted in fewer deaths then had the United States invaded Japan. In Asia, Pakistan and India used to have periodic military skirmishes. They haven’t since both went nuclear. Following this quite reasonable line of thought, Zakaria argues that a nuclear Iran is not as threatening to international security as many have assumed. He points out that Iran’s clerical leaders value staying in power and wouldn’t irrationally launch a nuclear missile. The US could ‘live’ with a nuclear Iran as it did with the Soviet Union.

Now Zakaria may be right that the particularthreat from Iran has been exaggerated; but he ignores the cataclysmic downside risk of a nuclear world, in general. Yes nuclear weapons reduce to almost nil the possibility of conflict but the outcome of any war that does occur is potentially apocalyptic. This risk is inescapable. Deterrence is only effective if you think the other party are prepared to use their weapons. Nuclear states then get naturally caught up in a form of high stakes brinksmanship with their rivals: they have to pretend they’re always willing to press that red button. And as the Cuban missile crisis showed, there is always a chance – however small – that this brinkmanship can push us all off the edge. So yes nuclear proliferation is a very effective peace strategy but also a very risky one.

The argument made here is very similar to that made about exotic financial securities by Nassim Taleb in his highly renowned book, the Black Swan. Before the financial crisis, financial securitisation appeared to reduce the risk of financial losses greatly. Yet inherent in the adoption of these instruments was the small possibility of huge financial loss. It is not for nothing that the great American investor Warren Buffet has referred to financial derivates as ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

The argument in favour of nuclear deterrence only makes sense in a world where we have successfully rode our luck. It would not if the West had experienced even a small scale nuclear war in the twentieth century. (Arguably neither would I be able to write, or you read, this article if there had been a large scale nuclear war) It’s time to try less risky modes of securing world peace. This means that the long – term goal for the Middle East, as in all other regions, should be nuclear disarmament or non proliferation. The caveat of course is that this should eventually apply to all states in the region: Iran, India, Pakistan and Israel included.


Why Secularists should be wary of disestablishment

July 22, 2012

The activists at the National Secular Society (NSS) may well have cheered when hearing of the Anglican Church’s recent warning that legalising gay marriage may lead to its eventual disestablishment. After all, the NSS supports marriage equality and sees the strict separation of church and state as one of its primary goals. Furthermore, others have started to call for disestablishment, frustrated by the Church’s bizarre objections to the gay marriage bill. These include former the editor of The Times Simon Jenkins and Observer columnist Nick Cohen.  The logic here is perfectly valid: the church’s objections to gay marriage constitutes religious interference in politics, especially given that no one is proposing to force them to recognise gay marriage. They are claiming an unjustified monopoly on the right to define what marriage is. Secularist principles dictate that we should kick the church out of politics. Religion belongs in the private sphere, not something to be imposed upon others.

This debate however is often simplified. There are good reasons for a secularist to be wary of disestablishment. The secularist case against disestablishment is made – somewhat unwittingly – by free market fundamentalist and Tory MP Douglas Carswell. He actually supports disestablishment but his reasons are instructive. Like all libertarians, Carswell idealises American society; comparing the Church of England to a 1970s nationalised monopoly, he argues that disestablishment amounts to Thatcherite privatisation. This would make our religious ‘market’ as ‘efficient’ as the United States, where the churches are much better at ‘winning customers’ because they ‘compete for their congregations’. Carswell, like the NSS, idealise the American constitution with its strict separation of church and state. Yet, while the American constitution may be strictly secular, its politics are anything but. We may be frustrated at the church’s anachronistic attitude towards women priests, but at least they believe in evolution. Lord Carey’s comment that gay marriage would be ‘cultural abomination’ is absurd but at least, unlike the late American preacher Jerry Fallwell, he doesn’t believe terrorist attacks are God’s vengeance on a society that allows ‘abortionists, feminists and Gays’. If the American example represents a cowboy free market in religious ‘services’, then perhaps the Church of England is a very welcome form of state regulation.

There is a wider issue here and that is the basis on which groups like the NSS support a strict separation of church and state. The NSS cite their support for disestablishment on the ‘massive and continuing reduction’ in belief. The notion is that faith will ultimately become a small minority interest or even disappear.  The problem with this secularisation theory is that it’s only really prevalent here in Europe. So it’s far from obvious that religion is going to disappear in the modern age. Furthermore, even in Britain, and this is according to a poll commissioned by the Dawkins foundation, 54% of British people still profess Christianity. If we take a different approach to the NSS and assume religion is not going to disappear and become completely irrelevant anytime soon, even in a country as secular as ours, then the pertinent question becomes what sort of religion the state should be encouraging.

In considering this new question, two key points become relevant. Firstly, institutionalised religion with an official orthodoxy can be a moderating factor on faith. It is not a coincidence that fundamentalism is rife in parts of the Muslim world and the United States where there is no overarching religious institution, such as the Anglican Church, and anyone can become a preacher or imam. In the absence of an official orthodoxy, the tendency is to towards literalist fundamentalist readings of scripture.  If we disestablish the church and throw it open to competition, religion in Britain may lose this overarching institutional buffer from fundamentalism. It’s worth noting that while France’s constitution is robustly secular, 51% of its population are Catholic. In this regard, the French state effectively free rides on the institutionalisation provided by the Vatican.

Secondly, in a magisterial study of religion and state in over 175 countries, Jonathon Fox found that state religious monopolies actually reduce religious participation. This could be because states that monopolise religion then incorporate religious symbols and dialogue in their activities – on state occasions for example. In other words, when religion is embedded in the state and in public life, people have less of a need to look for it in their private life. The implication here for disestablishment is clear.

There is no better summary of this article then the following graph, showing the relationship between a country’s wealth and its religiosity. As secularists would predict, religiosity falls as wealth gets higher. The only exception to this rule is the US, which is to the author’s knowledge, the only state with a strictly secular constitution that isn’t majority catholic. Religion is completely free from the state and any other source of institutionalisation or regulation. And paradoxically, the outcome is precisely what groups like the NSS are trying to avoid.