Monday, September 25, 2006

Cultures of Violence

History, it turns out, does count after all.

In the entire history of the sectarian Northern Ireland conflict, 1968-1999, 1,857 civilians and 1,121 combatants were killed, 2,978 in all. In Iraq in the past two months around 7,000 civians have been killed. Iraq has a popolation around 30 times that of Northern Ireland, but the scale of violence is massively greater.

There are some similarities. There was a long-standing religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. One group (Protestants) ahd long lorded it over the other (Catholics), and now faced a challenge. By the 1960s the religiously-based condemnation of Catholics by local Protestants was much more vociferous than the more commonly political language used by Catholics. This was, however, a recognised sectarian conflict with tit-for-tat killings and communal segregation in housing and education.

The differences with Iraq are more striking. At no stage were Protestant or Catholic churches attacked by the other side. It was common, although not universal, for warnings to be called in before bombings. Why?

In Northern Ireland, although the communal differences were religious, the armed conflict was cast in political terms, between "Loyalists" and "Nationalists." Neither side denied the historic presence of the other side in the region, although both sides consistently used communal "history" to justify their positions. Religious leaders on neither side condoned violence. There were efforts to "win" but no efforts to eliminate the other side.

In Iraq none of this seems to apply. Religion alone is providing the basis of a very narrow politics (what are the views of each group on the economy, global warming, the rise of China?). Each side denies the basic legitimate existence of the other. Most notably the culture of violence is more intense and eliminationist.

We need to think what about the the history of the region leads to this difference.

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