Op-Ed

HRC holds Special Session on Iraq / ISIL
The United Nations Human Rights Council Special Session on Iraq and the atrocities committed by ISIS

Violence is not the Answer:

ISIS could learn from Scotland.

By Probir Kumar Sarkar.

Scotland’s secessionist bid was defeated by a slim 5 percent over the required threshold for a ‘No’ vote. A majority of Scots rejected the idea of Scotland’s independence, allowing 10 Downing Street to sigh in relief. Prime Minister David Cameron, who might otherwise have had to face a motion of no confidence in the British Parliament, can now sleep relatively peacefully. A majority ‘Yes’ in the Scottish referendum would have had huge ramifications for the United Kingdom that can now be avoided—but the hard struggle for a ‘No’ win was nonetheless significant. As early polls showed climbing popularity for independence, London made pledges to counter the promises of the Scottish separatists. The Scottish Parliament has been assured of more power over taxes, spending, and welfare decisions. The specifics will be discussed in the British House of Commons in the coming weeks.

Even though it failed, the movement for Scottish independence is of enormous significance for Europe in particular and global stability in general. The most interesting result is the stark contrast Scotland has drawn between its own referendum and other bottom-up political and ideological movements in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East. The whole process in Scotland challenges us to ask why some nations are able to conduct democracy with peace and restraint but others cannot.

Though having shared a monarch with England since 1603, Scotland remained an independent country at the beginning of the 18th century, under constant pressure from the posturing of both England and France. For centuries, Scots had been no friends of the English, but in 1709, one century after the union of the crowns, they merged themselves into one nation with the union of the parliaments, a marriage of convenience assented to by both the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the English in London, to create the union of Great Britain. England had been worried about Scotland’s role in the European geopolitical situation while financially strapped Scotland was cautious of exploitation but sought the economic advantages available from England, which was then a well-oiled machine of the world’s industrial revolution. This sense of being economically exploited by London lasted, and even today, as Scotland’s per capita GDP is higher than England’s, still spurs the Scottish psyche. The discontent was exacerbated by the last elections, when Scotland voted massively for the Labour Party, but the Conservatives instead took the helm in Westminster.

All over the world, Scotland’s secession attempt became an impetus for other independence movements. European countries facing their own separatist camps openly opposed Scottish separation. The Prime Minster of Spain, facing cries for independence from Catalonia and the Basque Country, opposed the Scottish bid by warning that an independent Scotland should not expect automatic membership in the E.U. Globally, it renewed the aspirations of separatists once again, from Quebec to Chechnya, from Tibet to Kurdistan, from Kashmir to Xinjiang.

A few years ago, it was the fervor of the Arab Spring that spread across the world and may well have inspired some in Scotland to push for self-government. The Arab Spring, however, which seemingly fought against injustice, turned violent in many countries as radical forces faced oppressive regimes.

The referendum in Scotland was instead an intense battle of a political nature. The debate between the vocal minority and the silent majority drew voters to the polls in greater numbers than any voting event in living memory of the British Isles. Even though he lost, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond called it ‘a victory for democracy’.

Yet despite the referendum’s clear contrast to Northern Ireland’s decades-long war for independence in the last century, it went virtually unnoticed that the Scottish campaign proceeded without open hostility. Neither the grassroots campaigners in Glasgow nor representatives of Her Majesty the Queen in London were forced to resort to violence. Aside from a brief flare-up in the center of Glasgow after the results were in, there were no clashes in the streets between proponents of the two sides. It is welcome news for all democratically-minded people on earth and an example of what polity of the 21st century should aspire to.

Genocide, oppression, persecution, and the mass murder of political opponents and minorities defined Europe during the 1st and 2nd World Wars, when the continent was destabilized and stricken by political competition. But Europe has emerged from its past mistakes, denouncing its darkest chapter, and taken to heart the lessons its history provides on how to live peacefully. It is now unthinkable that Germany and France should go to war or that a government within the E.U. would systematically murder its own citizens. The continent has shunned the path of violence, reconciled political differences, renounced inhuman practices, opposed crimes against humanity, and punished war criminals in order to purge its former errors.

The Middle East, however, is still spotted with politically-, racially-, and ideologically-motivated violence. This demands that we ask a frank yet ambitious question: why? There is no simple answer, but a comparison to Europe’s past is illuminating. The Middle East has had a similarly violent past; its national histories are stained in blood. But rather than denounce the perpetrators of this violence, many Islamic countries esteem these war criminals as national heroes. Political murders, genocides against minorities, forced conversions, and other ruthless crimes against humanity committed by their leaders of the past are seldom, if ever, condemned. Politicians are rarely scrutinized, and no leader has ever called out their political predecessors’ acts as crimes. These nations seemingly infected with recurrent violence have never investigated or studied their national tragedies to uncover the truth or purge their political systems. This violence is perpetuated by those teachers who espouse ignorance rather than studying the past and those leaders who fail to prioritize equality, justice, and the rule of law.

Continental Europe can be equally held to task for its barbaric past. Wars, ethnic cleansing, religious murders, and usurpation of minorities’ land were once the order of the day in Europe too. Nor is it completely secure from them: it is less than twenty years since the Balkans were engaged in a brutal civil war reminiscent of the worst days of the past, and the rise of proto-fascist parties in many states remains concerning. But in general European countries have been refining their system toward an egalitarian society, slowly but gradually over time. Political leaders, warlords, kings, and queens have had to sacrifice their properties, powers, territories, and even lives in the name of accountability, freedom, and the wellbeing of their citizens.

In the Arab world, however, the Emirates, Sultanates, and Kingdoms have never made themselves transparent to their citizens. Even those theoretically democratically-elected presidents and prime ministers operate under only the illusion of accountability. The oil-driven, political manipulation of the West in cooperation with the criminal leaders of the Middle East is as equally to blame as the leaders themselves. The progress made by student protests and ‘intellectual springs’ has done little to purge their nations’ corrupt legal and political institutions. As a result, many countries still run under ‘jungle rule’, lacking the transparency in their political and economic systems that is necessary for a modern society based on justice and equality.

The recent rise of the Islamic State, ISIS, is a direct consequence of the idolization of a violent past, and it has further inspired many other forces who would seek their own dominions—like Boko Haram, who wish to create an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria. These medieval-like caliphates are not the by-product of geopolitical constraints but are shaped mainly by rivalries of religious and political institutions. Injustice and inequality under the guise of religion darken reality for their citizens. Radical Islam seizes the imagination of economically disadvantaged youth who barely know what politics or religion are.

The century since the 1st World War has seen atrocities unleashed on Assyrians, Armenians, and Yezidi-Kurds, and today, the same tactics are being deployed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The perpetrators always ensure there is popular participation in their crimes, and subsequently the political leaders of new states fail to condemn the crimes against humanity of their past.

If a violent history is praised rather than criticized by those who survived, it will repeat itself. Religion and injustice are not the same thing, but those who live under injustice will know and spread only injustice. Scotland’s referendum has shown that violence need not be a part of political movements. Europe’s accomplishments in the 21st century are a lesson that the cycle can be broken. Until those in Islam who are responsible for atrocities are held accountable and their actions condemned, radical Islam and its regions will remain a global threat.

Mr. Sarkar is a senior international journalist who studied U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Cambridge. He is the Executive Editor of The Global Intelligence.

To read more articles from the Autumn 2014 issue, subscribe to our eReader edition.

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