This is not an article on South Sudan, which is just as well because the conflicts there are almost fractal in their complexity. The mini-war last weekend between the forces of President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, which killed more than 270 people and saw tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships used in the capital, Juba, is part of a pattern that embraces the whole country.
The four days of heavy fighting began on Friday, 8 July, with a disagreement between the two men’s large forces of bodyguards outside State House where they were meeting, and rapidly escalated to an all-out clash between all of Kiir’s and Machar’s troops in the capital. Nobody was surprised, because the peace deal last August, which ended a two-year civil war that killed tens of thousands across the country, was never very secure.
After a shaky ceasefire was agreed, President Kiir said: “Making South Sudan glorious will only happen if we see ourselves as South Sudanese first rather than tribal or political groupings,” which is the sort of thing that leaders are obliged to say after a pointless clash like this. It’s true, too, but in South Sudan it is very hard to do.
Last weekend was the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, but celebrations had already been cancelled before the shooting started because the government couldn’t afford them. The country has some oil but virtually no other exports, and was hard-hit by last year’s collapse in the oil price.
The real reason for its poverty, however, is war: the country that is now South Sudan has been at war for 42 of the past 60 years. British colonialists included it in what we now call Sudan for administrative convenience, but the dominant population in the much bigger northern part was Muslim and Arabic-speaking, while the south was mostly Christian and culturally, ethnically and linguistically African.
The fighting began a year before Sudan’s independence in 1956, with the southerners resisting the Sudanese government’s attempts to Islamise and Arabise their part of the new country. That civil war lasted until 1971, and the second (1983-2005) was even longer. By the time South Sudan finally won its independence in 2011, it had long been a fully militarised society.
It didn’t take long after independence before the two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka (led by President Salva Kiir) and the Nuer (led by Vice-President Riek Machar) were at each other’s throats. Those are just two of South Sudan’s sixty ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture and territory – and even within the two big ethnic groups, different sub-groups sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the fighting.
One-fifth of South Sudan’s 12 million people are currently refugees within their country – the lucky ones in United Nations camps, but many hiding in swamps and badlands from local ethnic militias. Kiir and Machar are both brutal, untrustworthy men, and neither is fully in control of his own generals. And the outside organisations that have poured foreign aid and peacekeeping troops into the country are losing patience.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said: “This senseless and inexcusable violence – undertaken by those who yet again are putting self-interest above the well-being of their country and people – puts at risk everything the South Sudanese people have aspired to over the past five years.”
Two Chinese peace-keeping soldiers were killed in the most recent fighting, causing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to abandon his usual diplomatic caution. “Yet again, the leaders of South Sudan have failed their people,” he said. “Rarely has a country’s conduct squandered so much promise so quickly.”
The current ceasefire may not last: seven others were broken during the course of the recent civil war. South Sudan is unlikely to achieve a lasting peace settlement any time soon. But South Sudan is not representative of sub-Saharan Africa. Out of 48 countries south of the Sahara, only Somalia, Burundi, and South Sudan are currently suffering from large-scale internal violence.
A dozen others have experienced similar upheavals at some point in the past fifteen years: sub-Saharan Africa is unique in the extravagant diversity of its population, with two hundred ethnic groups of more than half a million people and only three with over 15 million people. But mostly they manage to co-exist fairly peacefully, and over time broader national identities are being built over the post-colonial wreckage.
The image of a continent ravaged by war is an optical illusion perpetuated by the international media’s fixation with violence. For example, during most of 2014-15 the headline news coming out of Europe, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, was the war in Ukraine – although all of the continent’s other fifty countries were at peace.
South Sudan is desperately unfortunate in its history and its leaders, but it is no more typical of Africa than Ukraine is of Europe.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“US…years”)
The French left does political correctness and moral outrage much better than the American left, so the row over what Algerian novelist and journalist Kamal Daoud recently said about sex in the Arab world has been bigger and louder in France than in the United States. But it is equally stupid in both places.
Kamal Daoud’s day job is writing for a French-language daily in Oran, Algeria’s second-biggest city, but he is a big new name in French literature, having won the prestigious Prix Goncourt last year for his first novel. And being a journalist, he wrote a couple of opinion pieces about the mass sexual assaults on German women by Muslim men (some of them recently arrived refugees) in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart last New Year’s Eve.
One article went to Le Monde in Paris, the other to the New York Times. In both, Daoud deplored the exploitation of the attacks by right-wing parties in Europe, where almost a million Muslim refugees have arrived in the past year and anxieties about a “cultural invasion” are high. But he also wrote about the task facing Europeans who have to integrate these immigrants into their society, and he didn’t pull his punches.
“(The immigrant) comes from a vast, appalling, painful universe – an Arab-Muslim world full of sexual misery, with its sick relationship towards woman, the human body, desire. Merely taking him in is not a cure,” he wrote in Le Monde.
The sexual misery in the Arab world is so great, Daoud continued, “that it has given birth to the porno-Islamism that the Islamist preachers talk about to recruit their true believers: descriptions of a paradise that is close to a whorehouse as a reward for pious men, fantasies of virgins for the suicide-bombers, the sexual harassment of women in public spaces, the puritanism of the veil and the burqa.”
He warned that giving Muslim refugees in Europe “papers and a place in a hostel is not enough. It is not just the physical body that needs asylum. It is also the soul that needs to be persuaded to change.” This task will take a very long time, and Europeans should be aware that.
This is what really enraged the right-thinking opinion leaders of the French left. A “collective” of intellectuals and academics published a counter-article in Le Monde in which they accused Daoud of “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European population.”
His call for Muslim immigrants to be taught Western values was “scandalous, and not only because of the same old claptrap about the West’s mission to civilise and its superior values. (Daoud) is effectively saying that the deviant culture of this mass of Muslims is a danger for Europe.”
It was pure character assassination, but Daoud’s response was mild: “I wrote it driven by shame and anger at what my own people had done, and because I live in this country and this world.”
But the worst betrayal was by Daoud’s close American friend Adam Shatz, who wrote a long and favorable profile of him for the New York Times last year. “It is very hard for me to imagine that you truly believe what you have written,” Shatz wrote in the same paper last month. “This is not the Kamal Daoud that I know.”
Presumably drawing on his vast experience in these matters, Shatz explained to his Muslim Arab friend that sexuality in the Arab-Muslim world is not universally a “misery”, and that the Muslim men who attacked German women on New Year’s Eve were probably “not under the influence of Islam, but of alcohol.” (In fact, they were probably under the influence of both.)
Shatz was particularly upset by Daoud’s suggestion that the attitudes of Muslim immigrants to sex and women were a “sickness” to be “cured”. The same language, Shatz said, had once been applied to Jews. As the old adage says: Heaven protect us from our friends.
Daoud is being punished for speaking the truth – that the sexual attitudes of Muslims recently arrived in Europe often differ drastically from those of the Christian and post-Christian majority – but he would have suffered less abuse if he had put this difference in its proper historical context.
The sexual inequalities, dysfunctions, fantasies and hang-ups that he identifies as a specifically Islamic burden were almost all present in Christian societies too just a few centuries ago. Even today radical Christian sects (and ultra-orthodox Jews) struggle under the same burden.
It is the same because Muslims, Christians and Jews actually belong to the same broad civilization and the same religious tradition – Muhammad, Jesus and Abraham were all born within a long day’s drive of one another – so all they inherited the same brand of patriarchy.
The Christian societies (if you can still call them that) are escaping from it now because they got a couple of centuries’ head start on the Muslims in the process we call “modernization”. It’s not really a fundamental cultural difference at all. It’s just a question of dates, but that means that at the moment the differences are very real – which is all Daoud is really saying.*
On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.
On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.
So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.
This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?
The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.
The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.
From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.
The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.
The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.
More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.
Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.
And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.
George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.
Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad
The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.
The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.
It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)
You know how it is with buses? You wait ages for one, far longer than seems reasonable – and then three arrive all at once. Financial crises are a bit like that too.
The financial crisis everybody in the business has really been waiting for is a “hard landing” of the Chinese economy, now one of the two motors of the global economy. (The other is still the United States.) Everybody thought it was bound to come eventually – well, everybody who was not too heavily invested in the Chinese market – and it now appears to be here, although the Chinese government is still denying it.
The second crisis, less widely anticipated, is a credit crunch that is sabotaging economic growth in almost all the developing countries except India. In many cases their currencies have fallen to historic lows against the dollar, making it harder for them to repay the dollars they borrowed. Moreover, it’s getting harder for them to earn dollars from their exports because commodity prices have collapsed.
And a third crisis is looming in the developed economies of Europe, North America and Japan, which can see another recession looming on the horizon before they have even fully recovered from the effects of the banking crash of 2007-08. And it’s hard to pull out of a new recession when your interest rates are still down near zero because of the last one.
These crises are all arriving at once because they are all connected. When the huge misdeeds and mistakes of American and European banks caused the Great Recession of 2008, China avoided the low growth and high unemployment that hurt Western countries by flooding its economy with cheap credit. But that only postponed the pain, and between 2007 and 2014 total debt in China increased fourfold.
The Chinese government is more terrified of mass unemployment than anything else. It believes, probably correctly, that the Communist regime’s survival depends on delivering continuously rising living standards. So the Chinese economy went on booming for another six years, but the “solution” was fraudulent and now it’s over.
The huge amount of cheap credit sloshing around the Chinese economy mostly went into building unnecessary infrastructure, and above all into housing. That did preserve employment, but property values soared and and a huge “housing bubble” was created. There was nobody to buy all those houses and apartments, and there are now brand-new “ghost towns” all over China, so property values are falling fast.
Since the crash on the Chinese stock markets began last month, the government has done everything it could to stop it. It has dropped interest rates repeatedly, it has devalued the currency, it has ordered state institutions to invest more – and nothing has worked.
Chinese exports have fallen 8 percent in the past year, and even the regime admits that the economy is growing at the lowest rate in three decades. Nobody outside the regime knows for certain, but it may scarcely be growing at all. The “hard landing” is now close to inevitable.
Now for the second crisis. While China’s artificial boom was rolling along, its appetite for commodities of every sort, from iron to soya beans, was insatiable, so commodity prices went up. The other “emerging market economies” grew fast by selling China the commodities it needed, they attracted large amounts of Western investment because of their rapid growth, and they borrowed freely because Western interest rates were at rock-bottom.
The collapse of Chinese demand ends this party too. From Brazil to Turkey to South Africa to Indonesia, exports are falling, the value of the local currencies is tumbling, and foreign investors are fleeing. Capital flight from the 19 largest emerging market economies has reached almost one trillion dollars in the past 13 months, and the outflow is still accelerating.
And the third crisis, in the West? The problems that caused the crash of 2007-08 have not really been addressed, just papered over. What limited growth there has been in Western economies is due almost entirely to absurdly low interest rates and“quantitative easing” (governments printing money).
The average time between recessions in the West is seven to ten years, so one is due around now anyway. The likeliest trigger for that is a collapse of demand in China and in the other emerging economies, which is now practically certain. And when it hits the West, neither of the traditional tools for pulling out of a recession will be available. Interest rates are already near zero, and the money supply has already been expanded massively.
It would be rash to talk about a long-lasting global depression in the style of the 1930s, because a lot has changed since then. But it is certainly safe to say that the global economy is heading into a perfect storm.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The huge…fast”)