Clem Sunter

The religious flag

2014-09-29 13:09

Clem Sunter

Last week I wrote about the devolution flag which, if David Cameron keeps the vow he made before the Scottish referendum, will change the way Britain is governed for the rest of this century. Today I will cover a flag that has changed the world in one way or another since the beginning of mankind.

It is the flag of religion. It may not be the prime cause of war as there are so many other reasons which precipitate wars such as territorial or personal ambition, sectarian hatred, political ideology and pure twist of fate. But religion is a very effective rallying cry to get people to fight for a cause, especially if they feel downtrodden and marginalised. Virtually all religions are about treating your neighbour as well as you would treat yourself. They command you to be tolerant, peaceful and generous of spirit. They outlaw evil acts. Yet, when religions are pursued to the extreme, they become intolerant of other faiths to the point that religious zeal overrides normal concepts of morality. That in turn leads to the possible mistreatment, torture and even killing of fellow human beings.

The signs of confrontation between the major religions

In terms of being a game-changer, the flag comes and goes. Obviously, the Crusades which started nearly a thousand years ago directly qualify as a game-changer, but most wars since then have been fought for mundane reasons with a religious coating. That is until now. I was first exposed to the potency of the religious flag in the late 1980s when a specialist on the Middle East spoke at a scenario workshop in London. He drew attention to the growing confrontation between the major religions of the world, particularly Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He went on to suggest that this could become a recipe for war in the 1990s. It would be a very messy one involving the liberal democratic values espoused by the West on the one hand pitted against the more doctrinaire and authoritarian approach of the East on the other. Because it was more about differences in ideology than territorial ambition and power, the conflict could last well into the 21st Century. ‘An inconclusive struggle’ was the phrase this remarkable man used.

When Chantell Ilbury and I published The Mind of a Fox in June, 2001 we decided to include a letter to George Bush in the book reflecting this thinking. We stated categorically that the biggest threats he faced as US President were a massive terrorist strike on a Western city and a general disintegration of world order. The attack happened three months after publication of the letter, much sooner than we actually thought. We also mentioned that a nuclear jihad should be his worst fear. To quote our text: “From your point of view, nuclear weapons landing up in the wrong hands must be at the top of the agenda. Proliferation means aggravation, and the knowledge of how to construct a nuclear device is now freely available on the internet. So it’s just a matter of time before somebody really nasty gathers the money, the materials and the engineering skills necessary to manufacture it”. Hence, the West’s obsession today with Iran’s nuclear programme.

Ever since 9/11, the religious flag has been at the top of the pole fluttering in the breeze. In the last few weeks, it has dominated world affairs. The UN Security Council with heads of state present from around the world passed a resolution that Isis, or Isil as the Islamic State militant group is called in America, should be degraded and destroyed. As we speak, air strikes are taking place in Syria and Iraq with the ground forces to combat Isis being supplied from the ranks of moderate Iraqis and Kurds. Of course, the word ‘moderate’ has a loaded meaning in a situation like this, signifying people you can trust for the time being in a fluid environment.

Meanwhile, Nigeria, Kenya (owing to its proximity to Somalia) and other African countries are being adversely affected by the religious flag. Furthermore, the fear in the West is that individual acts of violence in their own countries, based on the religious flag, will rise. There have already been several incidents in recent times including the Boston Marathon bombing. Add to this that quite a few of the Isis fighters are citizens of Western countries. They may use their domestic passports to return home and cause harm. How will all this play out?

Thinking like a fox in contrast to Western hedgehogs

As Chantell and I say, the best thing to do once you have identified a life-changing flag is to formulate short and long term scenarios around it and then review your options. Subsequently, the process becomes one of detecting the subsidiary flags related to the range of scenarios and watching them on a continuous basis. It gives you an instantaneous feel for the probability of each scenario panning out and maybe a completely new one emerging as well. It also gives you a grasp of the wisest action to take today (which may well be different to the one yesterday and tomorrow).

If you are interested, please go to our website for further details. Incidentally, in the context of growing global uncertainty, it is now one of the most popular strategy sites on the internet worldwide. We have designed a radar system that works.

So far, judging by what has happened since 9/11, strategists in Western governments and intelligence agencies have dismally failed to implement our type of methodology. They do not look out by playing scenarios, before looking in at the options available. They merely put on the table pre-conceived ideas about the optimum tactics to fulfil a short term goal, invariably chosen to defend their nation’s own interests. They show no flexibility in adapting the tactics, let alone the goal as the game changes. Repetitiveness comes to mind: no learning from previous mistakes. Get the war done and then move out. Look for a short term fix with no long term scenarios in mind. Despite the lack of any long term game plan, they still possess an unshakeable arrogance around their ability to shape and control the future. They’re hedgehogs, not foxes. All bluster, no nuance. Hence, the shock and awe of going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced nothing in return for the efforts made, as a disenchanted public at home increasingly realise.

In the short term, perhaps, the military mission may well be accomplished and victory declared. However, the end game to date, after much loss of life as well as total expenditure of six trillion dollars and counting, is chaos in Iraq and a picture not much better in Afghanistan. You can reasonably conclude that it is the exact opposite of peace, an inclusive democratic model and a vibrant economy, the trio of objectives that the West had in mind. Citizens in the region are materially worse off than they were in 2001. Refugees have multiplied. Unfortunately, the same is true of Libya where the West intervened as well. Indeed, 9/11 seems to be the opening act of a play with no apparent ending and a script which is a law unto itself. Allies become enemies and enemies become friends.

A new approach

One can understand the total repugnance that people feel when they see videos of people being beheaded. One can absolutely sympathise with the desire to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Nevertheless, there is no simple solution in such complex circumstances. War may be necessary, but it can have unintended and tragic consequences for winner and loser alike. It certainly does not win over the hearts and minds of the immediate victims of the war. Any successful strategy involving the religious flag requires the morality of religion to be restored. It has nothing to do with high-tech weaponry of the military kind or battlefield logistics.

A favourable approach in the long term avoids any attempt to diminish the importance of religion. For example, substituting a more materialistic philosophy of life with economic bribes must be shunned. Neither should such an approach fall into the trap of imposing your own belief system about effective government on others with different cultures. The most essential characteristic of winning the game is patience, plenty of patience, and allowing people to come to their own conclusions about how to improve their lives and handle their religious beliefs. I guess treating all people as equal is at the core of handling the religious flag in a way that turns out well.

 In the nearer term, it also means that your tactics must be above reproach. Like in Vietnam, the West is up against a dispersed enemy in Iraq and Syria that melts away into the local population rather than seeking direct confrontation with a superior armed force. If this enemy tactic leads to a major escalation of civilian casualties as a result of the West’s bombing campaign being extended into populated areas, the worst case scenario is likely to materialise: greater animosity towards the would-be rescuers and a retreat into fundamentalism.

On a broader front, all those experts who argue that the world is becoming more of a secular market place, and that belief in the God of your choice is really no longer a major feature of modern life, are being proved utterly wrong by current events. It also proves that those who advance atheism and talk of post-religious societies as the next Utopia are completely out of touch with reality. Billions of the world’s inhabitants think otherwise. They need God and fervently believe in the existence of God. Faith is at the centre of their universe. Outside intervention to resolve their problems needs a thorough knowledge of the religions concerned, not a dismissal that they are no longer relevant. How many advisers to Western governments have this knowledge?

Here, in South Africa, the religious flag as a divisive factor is down at the moment. The reason is that no South African feels marginalised because of his or her religion. We face other challenges of rooting out corruption, upholding law and order, raising education levels and creating an inclusive economy. Yet religion is not far below the surface. So I will end with a blessing: May the tolerance we show for all religious communities, a principle enshrined in our Constitution, continue to be a redeeming feature of our society.

 Send your comments to Clem


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