When the Soviet Union disintegrated, most Americans likely had never heard of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
Yet the ethnonationalism of these Asian peoples, boiling to the surface after centuries of tsarist and communist repression, helped tear apart one of the great empires of history.
There swiftly followed the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Yet, if one knew nothing of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires or the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, one would likely have been surprised by the sudden emergence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo on the map of Europe.
What the splintering of the Soviet Union and of a Yugoslavia whose baptismal certificate dated to the Paris peace conference of 1919 revealed was the accuracy of Arthur Schlesinger’s insight in his 1991 Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society:
“Nationalism remains after two centuries the most vital political emotion in the world — far more vital than social ideologies such a communism or fascism or even democracy. … Within nation-states, nationalism takes the form of ethnicity or tribalism.”
Ethnic ties, Schlesinger wrote, might prove more powerful and historically important than the forces of globalism and democratism, which then seemed ascendant. He only neglected to mention religious faith as often a “far more vital” emotion than ideology.
And though the Iraq elections have been hailed as a triumph of democracy, they would seem to prove him right.
Kurds voted for Kurds, Shia for Shia, Sunni for Sunni on a slate led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia who campaigned on a unity ticket.
The election results resemble a national census.
In the struggle between Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to put together a government, both are courting the Kurds, whose near-term goal is Kirkuk, control of which would mean control of 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves. If the Kurds, who have been forcing their way into Kirkuk and pushing Arabs out, can annex the city, they will have the economic base of a Kurdistan nation, the dream of a people whose kinfolk are spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The Kurds are using democratic means for ethnonational ends.
Maliki’s strength is in the Shia south and the capital, Baghdad, that has been slowly cleansed of Sunni.
Among Allawi’s weaknesses is that the Shia majority may not support as Iraq’s prime minister a Shia secularist whose strength comes from a Sunni minority that was the bulwark of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.
Among the Shia are leaders who spent the Iran-Iraq war in exile in Iran, and whose ties to the Iranian Shia seem stronger than any ties to their Sunni countrymen.
Hence, as we indulge in self-congratulation for having brought democracy to Iraq, Iraqis seem to be using the process to advance ethnonational and sectarian ends that are the antithesis of U.S. democracy. We see democracy as an end in itself. Many in that part of the world see it as a means of establishing their ascendancy and hegemony over other religious and ethnic minorities.
In 2005, George W. Bush, then promoting global democracy as the answer to all of mankind’s ills and an essential precondition for any permanent security for the United States, demanded free elections in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. The winners: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas. A perplexed Bush refused to accept the results or recognize and talk to the winners.
Before the invasion, most Americans were probably unaware of the tribal and sectarian divisions in Iraq that may yet produce a new Saddam to keep that country from coming apart in sectarian and civil war.
And how many Americans were aware of the ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, among Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pashtun, before we invaded? A program is underway to bring more Pashtun into the army and police, lest the Pashtun in the south feel invaded and occupied by alien tribes.
Globalization is no longer on the march, but on the defensive. Economic nationalism is rising. Across the Third World, we see an upsurge of ethnonationalism and fundamentalism, especially among the Islamic peoples. From Nigeria to Sudan to Mindanao, Muslims battle Christians, as Christians are persecuted in Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan.
In India and Thailand, Muslims battle Hindu and Buddhists. In the Northern Caucasus, they fight Russians.
Ethnonationalism, that relentless drive of peoples to secede and dwell apart, to establish their own nation-state, where their faith is predominant, their language spoken, their heroes and history revered, and they rule to the exclusion of all others, is rampant.
In China, Tibetans fight assimilation and the mass migration of Han Chinese into what was their country, as do the Uighurs in the west who dream of an East Turkestan breaking away and taking its place among the nations of the world.
In speaking of the rising tribalism abroad, Schlesinger added, “The ethnic upsurge in America, far from being unique, partakes of the global fever.”
Indeed, separatism and secessionism seem to be in the air.