From Myanmar to Charlottesville

It has been a bad year. It feels like something particularly noxious has been unleashed. Bigotry and hatred fuel violence across the world – spilling out from foreign section right onto the front page. Even democracy’s safeguards appear to offer limited resistance to a wave of nationalism and ethnic and religious divisiveness that – while not new – seem to have grown particularly vivid in the brave new world of social media and fake news.

Ethno-nationalism and religious intolerance – two sides of the same coin – have a long and savage history. When communism collapsed in Yugoslavia at the end of the last century, long simmering ethnic and religious tensions soon erupted into civil war, giving us the massacre of Srebrenica and arguably the birth of jihadism – as the world sent a clear message to Bosnian muslims that they were on their own. Simultaneously, the Hutus of Rwanda were systematically slaughtering their Tutsi neighbours in a genocide that the international community shamefully chose to largely ignore.

‘Never again’ said the world and then watched as it happened over and over.

Fear and loathing of ‘the other’ is as much a driver of conflict today as it has always been. We see it in the civil war in South Sudan, where tribal and ethnic divisions have torn apart the world’s youngest country and created a famine in one of the most fertile corners of Africa. The turmoil in Syria and Iraq, and the mass migration it triggered, has had repercussions far beyond that region. And in Myanmar we are witnessing the brutal ethnic cleansing of a small, victimized muslim minority by a military egged on by a fascistic movement of Buddhist nationalists. Meanwhile Aung San Suu Kyi fails to condemn it as her reputation for advancing the causes of peace and nonviolence implodes.

But these conflicts are not the source of our instability and alarm. Those wars are happening in places where, frankly, North Americans expect that kind of thing to happen. No, what is disturbing about 2017 is that those same forces of ethno-nationalism have swung sharply into focus right here on our own doorstep.

After years of dog-whistles from politicians appeasing their angry (mostly white) base, the darker corners of the internet finally took heed this summer and spewed forth a gaggle of racists and nazi wannabes onto the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Three people died to the chants of ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’. That the President of the United States considered many of the marchers to be ‘very fine people’ means we are in danger of the prejudice and bigotry that led to Srebrenica, Rwanda and Myanmar becoming normalized in the biggest superpower on earth. And one thing we should be clear about – the end-game for ethno-nationalism is always violent conflict.

September 21st was the UN’s International Day of Peace. The internet was awash with peace signs and rainbows and Ghandi quotes. It was nice that people googled those thing but the rise of violent nationalism will require something a little more concrete if it is to be reversed. Perhaps a more fitting way to celebrate peace would be to commit to actively working towards it. To log off and engage in real life. If there is a protest in support of tolerance and inclusion, join it. If you have a vote, use it. If you have money, donate it. In Europe and North America we call white supremacists spouting half-truths and conspiracy theories ‘populists’. We have a serious problem. We will all need to get off the couch if we hope to fix it.