Tony Blair said yesterday that the battles of the coming century may no longer be centred around 'extreme political ideology' but 'questions of cultural or religious difference'. He's almost right.
In a curious coincidence, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are due to give evidence at The Hague this week over their roles in the atrocities committed during the bloody fall of Yugoslavia. The Srebrenica massacre in 1995, their most infamous legacy, being just one particularly gruesome example of the savage, merciless killing that took place. This is the region that gifted us the English for 'ethnic cleansing' after all.
The Yugoslav wars provide the perfect illustration of the bedfellows that Mr. Blair has overlooked, perhaps because he doesn't want to know, or perhaps (and this is much less likely) because he doesn't know. Religious violence and political violence have gone hand in hand for as long as there have been records. To a despotic regime or demagogical dictator, the subversion and/or creation of religion is an almost essential tool for establishing control. Dictatorships deliberately blur the lines between politics and religion to fuel servitude and unquestioning loyalty. They have done it since day dot.
The devastation of the Yugoslav wars wasn't caused by the merits of the different faiths involved. The religious inclinations of the people were amplified, teased and mutated by their leaders in order to furnish them with a greater disdain for their enemies. It's a useful tool for a tyrant. Hatred and suspicion for the Muslims of Bosnia was purposefully perpetuated by divisive figures in Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia.
And why? Because it had an ultimately political end; to carve up the land for themselves.
Even the powerful political ideologies of the 20th century have been wired to exploit the religiosity of human nature. Communism, for example, creates false idols through its leaders, stamps on dissent and relies on the credulity of the masses. I don't think either that we could call North Korea secular. The religious inclination has been surrogated by a cultish political ideology which is identical in everything but name.
The authority of the Japanese Emperor during The Second World War was reinforced by the notion that he was descended from a sun goddess. German National Socialism is driven by blood myths concerning Aryan superiority. It's easy to see how political goals are sustained by the appropriation of religious elements.
Even now, Al Qaeda make politics and religion inseparable too. The proliferation of this extreme, strict brand of Islam is targeted at a reinstatement of the caliphate. They want a revival of the Islamic empire. They want control. There is almost always a political end when an organization tries to rouse religious unrest.
Blair says that future battles will be fought over religious questions, and this may well be true, ostensibly. The point he has missed is that this would be nothing new. Tyrants have always debased religious tendencies to serve their own ends; we know this much by now. We shouldn't then, be surprised when they continue to do so.