Claimant Tactics in the South China Sea: By the Numbers
By Christopher Yung and Patrick McNulty
About the Authors
Christopher Yung is an independent consultant and Senior Advisor at Asia Taktik, LLC. He was formerly a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. He can be reached at email@example.com. Patrick McNulty, at the time of writing, was a contract researcher at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, National Defense University. He now works at the George Washington University’s Language Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IN 2012 the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University embarked on a year-long effort to examine the tactics of the rival claimants to the South China Sea maritime dispute. NDU collected data on and categorized the types of tactics being employed by the various claimants between 1995 and 2013 through an extensive open source internet search. The data were then entered into a comprehensive data base and the results analyzed to discern patterns of claimant behavior. The results provide important findings as tensions in the South China Sea continue to be acute.
The first noteworthy finding is that China is the most extensive user of the tactics identified by this research. In terms of sheer volume of numbers of actions, China accounted for over 500 actions dating back to 1995. The Philippines registered just over half of that number with just over 300 actions. Vietnam undertook about 150 actions, and Taiwan, about the same, whereas Malaysia took just over fifty and Brunei registered the smallest number of actions with fewer than twenty. China is also the most active user of both military and paramilitary actions to protect its maritime territorial claims. The research found 89 and 59 uses of military and paramilitary actions respectively in support of China’s maritime territorial claims between 1995 and 2013. This comprised 55% of the total incidents of the use of military and paramilitary actions in support of maritime claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines registered 43 and 17 uses of military and paramilitary actions in the same period and Vietnam registered under 15 combined uses of military and paramilitary actions in the same time period. We recorded Malaysia as using military and paramilitary actions 9 times and Brunei 5 times. Taiwan was recorded to have used paramilitary actions 10 times and the military 22 times. In evaluating this data it is important to recall that this is unclassified data. It is likely that many more military and paramilitary actions have taken place and these have not been publicly recorded. The one category of action where China’s actions are exceeded by one of its rivals is in the legal sphere. The Philippines initiated sizeably more legal actions than did China between 1995 and 2013.
One of the persistent topics of hot debate is: what is the origin of the tensions in the South China Sea? The Chinese argue that the U.S. “pivot” to Asia emboldened China’s rivals to act provocatively in the region, thus triggering Chinese actions. U.S. observers have argued that in the 2009 time frame (prior to the “Rebalance to Asia” policy announced in 2011) China started acting aggressively. The data bear out this latter assertion. The Chinese claim that it was responding to greater aggressiveness of its rivals is not borne out by the data . Although the Philippines registered more actions in 2008 than in previous years, the specific actions recorded do not suggest they would prompt China to ramp up military/paramilitary actions in the South China Sea.
When the research team examined both the ADMM+ and the DoC/CoC negotiations it found a wide array of diplomatic activity being employed. China vigorously pursued an approach that we labeled “Coalition Diplomacy” in which it either sought to build coalitions or break up coalitions against it (Vietnam and Philippines seeking to have ASEAN issue a joint statement identifying the South China Sea as a security problem needing resolution). China was eventually successful in preventing the issuing of such a communique.
The smaller states of Malaysia and Brunei actively supported ASEAN statements and positions on the territorial disputes, even though they were reluctant to specifically state these positions themselves. All of the claimants actively pursued “dispute management” diplomacy by agreeing in principle that maritime territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully, but China would not agree to a binding code of conduct.
A number of U.S. policy implications are derived from this research. The broad policy instruments that China seems to have been willing to use to advance China’s claims suggests that the U.S. must be prepared to be equally nuanced in its policy response. At a minimum, a greater inter-agency approach to U.S. management of the South China Sea appears to be in order. Also, given the Chinese use of a wide range of tools to advance China’s claims, the United States and its partners in the region will need to think through the possible repercussions and benefits of using a wide range of policy instruments of their own as sticks as well as carrots; or to put it another way, whether there is something to be gained from horizontal escalation if China’s behavior becomes too aggressive.
“The U.S. can and probably should be even more encouraging to put these territorial disputes before international courts and the U.S. should strongly consider directly aligning its policy stance on management of South China Sea territorial disputes directly with international law.”
Second, and related to this first point, the U.S. may need to think carefully how it might utilize the U.S. Coast Guard as a possible response to Chinese extensive use of maritime law enforcement vessels to advance China’s claims. This policy recommendation is much more complex than it sounds because at present the U.S. Coast Guard enjoys a very good relationship with the Chinese Coast Guard and the former will not want to needlessly sacrifice the good working relationship.
A thirdimplication is that China appears to be willing to take action to bolster its position in the SCS while eroding or directly challenging U.S. credibility in the region. This strongly suggests that the United States needs to pay particularly close attention to its alliance partnerships and emerging relationships with friends in the region. It also strongly suggests that in order to forestall the erosion of U.S. credibility the United States national security establishment should internally engage in thinking through thresholds of Chinese activities, beyond which the U.S. would need to consider a more forceful response.
Fourth,China appears to have one “soft spot”–legal actions. That suggests that the U.S. can and probably should be even more encouraging to put these territorial disputes before international courts and the U.S. should strongly consider directly aligning its policy stance on management of South China Sea territorial disputes directly with international law. The recent State Department paper on its legal analysis of the South China Sea claims is a solid step in this direction.
Finally, since it is apparent that China’s diplomatic efforts are designed to keep the ASEAN states divided and off-balance, it is in American interest to promote the exact opposite. Anything the United States can do to assist the ASEAN countries in increasing the political and diplomatic costs to Chinese intransigence is a good thing.
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.
Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.
The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.
APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.
WP293 | Indonesia’s Defence Diplomacy: Harnessing the Hedging Strategy against Regional Uncertainties
by Iis Gindarsah
Indonesia has been increasingly susceptible to recent geopolitical developments. Along with the rapid pace of regional arms modernisation and unresolved territorial disputes, it begins to ponder the impact of emerging great power rivalry to the country’s strategic interests. However, rather than pursuing a robust military build-up, Indonesian policymakers assert that diplomacy is the country’s first line of defence.
This paper argues that Indonesia’s defence diplomacy serves two agenda of hedging strategy—strategic engagement and military modernisation. This way, Indonesian defence and security officials seek to moderate the impact of geopolitical changes whilst maintaining the country’s defensive ability against regional uncertainties.
Vanguards of the Malaysian forces have arrived Sunday at Saudi air bases to join Riyadh’s military coalition battling Houthi militias in Yemen, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
With the move, the Asian country became the 12th state in the Saudi-led coalition after Senegal announced it would send 2,100 soldiers to Saudi Arabia to join the alliance.
The Saudi Ministry of Defense said the coalition operations center is preparing to merge the Malaysian and Senegalese forces.
The Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi miitias and their allies on March 26 after they seized control of large parts of the country and advanced on the main southern city of Aden, where President Abedrabbu Mansour Hadi had taken refuge, before fleeing to Riyadh.
In foreign policy, every success is just the start of the next crisis. Brent Scowcroft (above with President G.H.W. Bush) has pointed this out often in his four decades at the top of the American national security establishment. When the Soviet Union was conceding defeat in the nuclear arms race, he wondered if Gorbachev would instead “kill us with kindness.” When the Evil Empire was crumbling, he fretted about loose nuclear weapons and ethnic slaughter. When American troops were routing Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, he worried that “Iraq could fall apart,” leaving us to pick up the pieces. Again and again, this taciturn Mormon has been the Woody Allen of American foreign policy.
In “The Strategist,” his informative but inelegant biography of Scowcroft, Bartholomew Sparrow argues that this former national security adviser (to both Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush) and still-reigning wise man (as he nears his 90th birthday) could also be considered “the United States’ leading foreign policy strategist of the last 40 years.” But just as there are writer’s writers, Scowcroft is a foreign policy strategist’s foreign policy strategist, not widely known outside the guild. One of Ronald Reagan’s national security advisers cited him as a model; so did one of Barack Obama’s. “They all wanted to be Scowcroft,” one study says of his successors. Sparrow, a professor at the University of Texas, wants to narrow the gap between guild esteem and public acclaim.
But the qualities that account for this esteem make Scowcroft a tough subject for a biographer: How do you give color to the classic gray man? Journalists have described him as having “the gaunt demeanor of a church elder,” his words “carefully weighted to ensure that they contain not a gram more of information than their author wishes to convey.” Even after hours of interviews, Sparrow’s Scowcroft remains a steely and reticent figure.
As national security adviser, Scowcroft was known for being a trusted “honest broker,” scrupulous about presenting different views and sticking to a fair process for debating and deciding among them. He also brought an unglamorous focus on details, since strategies, he said, “succeed or fail depending on whether they are implemented effectively.” Sparrow tries to discern a strategic vision as he traces his subject’s central role in many of recent history’s main events. What emerges is less a coherent vision than a distinct temperament — one resistant to the temptations of wishful thinking and suspicious of promises of either easy war or easy peace. “We’re humans,” Scowcroft has said. “Given a chance to screw up, we will.” That temperament has surely frustrated more than one commander in chief looking for the simple choice or smooth way forward. But it also may, more than anything, explain Scowcroft’s celebrated record.
When he was coaxing the Cold War to a peaceful end, a foreign policy triumph for which Scowcroft deserves a nontrivial share of credit, he rejected triumphalism in favor of caution. He was always “very worried about all that could go wrong,” one former aide told Sparrow, ordering preparation for all manner of unintended consequence as others gloated. Soaring rhetoric made him wince; Reagan’s thunderously cheered call to “tear down this wall” struck him as a “lousy statement” that only “made it less likely that Gorbachev would tear down the wall.” When it did come down, Scowcroft resolved that there would be “no jumping on the wall.” If ever there was a real mission-accomplished moment, this was it. Yet compare that response to the later Bush administration’s triumphant reaction to the fall of Baghdad.
This caution held true of more controversial turns in Scowcroft’s career as well. In the wake of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Scowcroft was caught by news cameras giving a respectful toast on an unannounced trip to China. He thought it less important to project outrage or serve up punishment than to get the United States-China relationship back on track. What seemed the morally upright stance, Scowcroft argued, would do little more than provoke a backlash by an insecure Communist leadership. “If this meant appearing less than zealous about defending the human rights of Chinese dissidents,” Sparrow writes, “so be it.” But Scowcroft was denounced as “supine” by the just-departed American Ambassador, Winston Lord, “obscene” and “embarrassing” on the floor of Congress.
Scowcroft has called his approach “gardening,” designed to patiently foster long-term change. For vindication of the long view, Sparrow considers an earlier diplomatic effort that met with opprobrium: the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which at first seemed to trade acceptance of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe for token concessions on self-determination and human rights. When the agreement was signed by the Ford administration, some White House aides protested, the president’s approval rating fell and even Ford’s own party blasted him in its 1976 platform for “taking from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day getting it.” Yet to Scowcroft, Helsinki’s token concessions would create a framework for more meaningful change. And ultimately, far from bolstering Soviet power, the accord turned out to be, in the assessment of the historian John Lewis Gaddis, “the basis for legitimizing opposition to Soviet rule.” Eastern-bloc human rights organizations started calling themselves Helsinki groups.
Since Scowcroft long prided himself on a “passion for anonymity,” it was a “shocking gesture,” in Sparrow’s words, when he took to The Wall Street Journal in 2002 to warn, under the headline “Don’t Attack Saddam,” of the dire consequences of an invasion of Iraq. The administration was staffed by protégés and former colleagues, and George W. Bush is the son of one of his best friends. To them, this public counsel was an act of betrayal — prophetic perhaps, but betrayal just the same. All the more so because, a decade earlier, Scowcroft had been a key advocate of using American military power to respond to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Honest broker: Scowcroft with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in 1990
In both cases, despite the apparent tension, Scowcroft had been focused on the same goal: preserving order. When Hussein threatened to upset the existing order, he felt Washington had to respond. And when the Bush administration threatened the existing order, he also responded.
In the final years of the Cold War, Scowcroft’s conservative focus on order may have been sufficient: Progress was on his side. But today, at a time when the international system is changing, for better or worse, the imperatives have become more complicated, less clear-cut. Scowcroft acknowledged later that once the Cold War ended, “we were confused, befuddled. We didn’t know what was going on, and we didn’t think it mattered much.” Or as Sparrow puts it, he does not try to “alter the nature of the game; . . . he plays the game set before him.” It was Scowcroft who helped momentarily push and then retract the widely derided concept of “the new world order.”
At one point in “The Strategist,” Sparrow paraphrases Seneca: “Luck is the result of preparation coupled with opportunity.” Scowcroft would most likely agree. In looking back at his accomplishments, he talks of “guiding and managing forces,” of “not bucking a tide.” Even if the imperatives today are different, Scowcroft’s temperament is still a useful tonic. For if anything makes Scowcroft a “great man,” it is that he does not see great men (or women) as all that significant.
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a member of the secretary of state’s policy-planning staff from 2009 to 2012, is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt fellow at the New America Foundation. He is writing a book about George Marshall.
A version of this review appears in print on March 8, 2015, on page BR24 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: On His Watch
Sinking the Ships: Indonesia’s Foreign Policy under Jokowi (CO15016)
by BA Hamzah*
Despite some adverse comments, President Joko Widodo is not about to drastically change Indonesia’s “free and active foreign policy”. What may change during his tenure is the emphasis, orientation and strategy.
His challenge is how to execute his foreign policy without losing friends. Jokowi should start calling on his ASEAN counterparts to continue the traditional regional diplomacy.
OUTWARDLY PRESIDENT Joko Widodo’s policy of burning and sinking fishing vessels from friendly states for illegal fishing gives the impression that he cares less for regional diplomacy. His policy is a stark contrast to his predecessor President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s policy of “a million friends and zero enemies”. Yudhoyono has assiduously courted many friends over the last decade. In less than one hundred days, his successor, however, seems bent on leaving behind a different legacy.
Indonesian Navy Ship deployed to protect territorial waters
Although the action of burning fishing vessels is essentially a domestic matter, it has foreign policy implications. For states which have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with Indonesia on how to treat wayward fishermen, especially in disputed maritime space (such as with Malaysia), the action has ruffled diplomatic feathers as it breaches international norms and possibly the ethics of modern-day diplomacy.
Coupled with Jokowi’s observations on what appears to be Indonesia’s conditional support for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), for example, it is daunting to speculate what he will do in the next five years. Many critics (including Indonesians) have asked whether the new President is changing course, pursuing a new foreign policy orientation, or simply grabbing headlines for domestic consumption.
Notwithstanding all the nuances, I believe President Jokowi will keep Indonesia on an even keel. He is not about to drastically change Indonesia’s foreign policy. Jokowi is going to retain Indonesia’s independent posture known as the “free and active foreign policy”, which has guided Indonesia for so long. What may change during his tenure, though, is the emphasis, orientation and strategy to achieve the objective while strengthening his political grip domestically. In a way, he may give the impression that he cares less about diplomacy – but is he?
As Head of State, he is answerable to the Parliament on many issues. As such, he has to operate within certain institutional bounds. Under President Jokowi, Indonesia is not likely to dump membership in ASEAN, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), United Nations, World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
On the contrary, Jakarta is likely to strengthen its role in all the multilateral institutions including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the East Asia Summit and the Group of Twenty (G20), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and others. Rubbing shoulders with the world’s leading politicians is an essential part of diplomacy. More importantly, the national interests of Indonesia are better served by supporting their objectives.
Domestic support and diplomatic bridges
Just like his predecessors, Jokowi would not downplay the relevance of geography and geopolitics in the making of foreign policy. In a nation that is fast emerging as a middle power, Jokowi has to take into account demography and domestic politics, including managing rising nationalist sentiments in foreign policy making.
To be one among equals in the region, President Jokowi needs to formulate a pragmatic foreign policy. As he goes about strengthening his credentials at home, he should not burn the proverbial diplomatic bridges.
The seizure of the fishing vessels is Jokowi’s way of telling Indonesians that he is no pushover when it comes to defending the sovereignty and national resources of the state. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, in the long-run, the Indonesian Parliament is not likely to allow President Jokowi a free hand to undermine further Indonesia’s diplomatic credentials. Appealing to nationalist sentiments may have short-term advantages. However, it will not augur well with multilateralism in the global era.
One perennial complaint about Yudhoyono when he was in power was his indecisiveness. President Jokowi wants to be perceived as a decisive person, who does not always dance to the tune of big power politics. He will soon find out whether in an interdependent world, a reclusive nationalist is able to navigate through the rough seas all alone.
In the region, Jokowi will have to tread carefully in ASEAN waters. If he adopts a very aloof policy towards ASEAN, at a time when the organisation needs robust support from all, regional cooperation will take a back seat. Despite recent statements, there is no reason to expect Indonesia to abandon ASEAN, which has contributed positively to the political development of Indonesia since the New Order replaced Sukarno in 1966. To clear the air of uncertainty in the region, Jokowi should start calling on his ASEAN counterparts as traditional diplomacy dictates.
Jokowi’s three-pronged maritime strategy
Since the time of President Suharto, Indonesia has had a moderating influence on ASEAN. For example, when the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 failed to adopt the traditional Joint Communiqué, the Indonesian foreign minister stepped in to save the day. Together with his counterpart from Singapore, they drafted ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea disputes.
To its credit, Indonesia has been instrumental in promoting the ASEAN Political and Security Community (APSC). Jakarta was also instrumental in establishing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976) and Bali Concord II, which provided the foundation for the emerging ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Due to be formalised by the end of this year, the AEC will not be realised without Indonesia.
Over China, President Jokowi walks a tight rope. No one expects Jokowi to shy away from criticising China for its expansive maritime claims that overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna islands. Nevertheless, demography, geopolitics, geography, economics and realpolitik dictate that Indonesia and China remain the best of friends. Moreover, Indonesia is considered the most acceptable party to engage with an assertive China in the South China Sea. For example, Jakarta can push for the conclusion of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It can also help moderate the Sino-US naval rivalry in the region.
President Jokowi’s policy of transforming the Indonesian maritime space is three-pronged. The first prong deals with strengthening internal resilience. The crackdown on illegal fishing is just one aspect of it. Upgrading the capabilities of the navy and air force is the second. The third prong involves the construction of some 24 deep-seaports across the entire archipelago as well as improving other support facilities in the maritime sector.
President Jokowi’s decision to upgrade the navy may exacerbate the ongoing regional naval arms race and make it more complex to manage regional security problems at sea, including the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. Besides Indonesia, Australia, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are also expanding their respective submarine fleets.
The challenge for President Jokowi is how to execute a robust maritime policy without losing friends in the region.
*B. A. Hamzah is a Senior Lecturer with the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. The views are personal. He contributed this specially to RSIS Commentary.
The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.
As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century.
The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants.
Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.
The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence.The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”.
Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.
Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion.
Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion. But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics.
After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.
We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive.
The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.
Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar.
When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
The Myth of Religious Violence
Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe.
The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.
It was these European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create what has been called “the myth of religious violence”. It was said that Protestants and Catholics were so inflamed by the theological passions of the Reformation that they butchered one another in senseless battles that killed 35% of the population of central Europe. Yet while there is no doubt that the participants certainly experienced these wars as a life-and-death religious struggle, this was also a conflict between two sets of state-builders: the princes of Germany and the other kings of Europe were battling against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and his ambition to establish a trans-European hegemony modelled after the Ottoman empire.
If the wars of religion had been solely motivated by sectarian bigotry, we should not expect to have found Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same side, yet in fact they often did so. Thus Catholic France repeatedly fought the Catholic Habsburgs, who were regularly supported by some of the Protestant princes.
In the French wars of religion (1562–98) and the thirty years war, combatants crossed confessional lines so often that it was impossible to talk about solidly “Catholic” or “Protestant” populations. These wars were neither “all about religion” nor “all about politics”. Nor was it a question of the state simply “using” religion for political ends. There was as yet no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes.
People were fighting for different visions of society, but they would not, and could not, have distinguished between religious and temporal factors in these conflicts. Until the 18th century, dissociating the two would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.
These developments required a new understanding of religion. It was provided by Martin Luther, who was the first European to propose the separation of church and state. Medieval Catholicism had been an essentially communal faith; most people experienced the sacred by living in community. But for Luther, the Christian stood alone before his God, relying only upon his Bible.
Luther’s acute sense of human sinfulness led him, in the early 16th century, to advocate the absolute states that would not become a political reality for another hundred years. For Luther, the state’s prime duty was to restrain its wicked subjects by force, “in the same way as a savage wild beast is bound with chains and ropes”. The sovereign, independent state reflected this vision of the independent and sovereign individual. Luther’s view of religion, as an essentially subjective and private quest over which the state had no jurisdiction, would be the foundation of the modern secular ideal.
But Luther’s response to the peasants’ war in Germany in 1525, during the early stages of the wars of religion, suggested that a secularised political theory would not necessarily be a force for peace or democracy. The peasants, who were resisting the centralising policies of the German princes – which deprived them of their traditional rights – were mercilessly slaughtered by the state. Luther believed that they had committed the cardinal sin of mixing religion and politics: suffering was their lot, and they should have turned the other cheek, and accepted the loss of their lives and property.
“A worldly kingdom,” he insisted, “cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.” So, Luther commanded the princes, “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”
Dawn of the liberal state
By the late 17th century, philosophers had devised a more urbane version of the secular ideal. For John Locke it had become self-evident that “the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable.” The separation of religion and politics – “perfectly and infinitely different from each other” – was, for Locke, written into the very nature of things. But the liberal state was a radical innovation, just as revolutionary as the market economy that was developing in the west and would shortly transform the world. Because of the violent passions it aroused, Locke insisted that the segregation of “religion” from government was “above all things necessary” for the creation of a peaceful society.
Hence Locke was adamant that the liberal state could tolerate neither Catholics nor Muslims, condemning their confusion of politics and religion as dangerously perverse. Locke was a major advocate of the theory of natural human rights, originally pioneered by the Renaissance humanists and given definition in the first draft of the American Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and property. But secularisation emerged at a time when Europe was beginning to colonise the New World, and it would come to exert considerable influence on the way the west viewed those it had colonised – much as in our own time, the prevailing secular ideology perceives Muslim societies that seem incapable of separating faith from politics to be irredeemably flawed.
This introduced an inconsistency, since for the Renaissance humanists there could be no question of extending these natural rights to the indigenous inhabitants of the New World. Indeed, these peoples could justly be penalised for failing to conform to European norms. In the 16th century, Alberico Gentili, a professor of civil law at Oxford, argued that land that had not been exploited agriculturally, as it was in Europe, was “empty” and that “the seizure of [such] vacant places” should be “regarded as law of nature”.
Locke agreed that the native peoples had no right to life, liberty or property. The “kings” of America, he decreed, had no legal right of ownership to their territory. He also endorsed a master’s “Absolute, arbitrary, despotical power” over a slave, which included “the power to kill him at any time”. The pioneers of secularism seemed to be falling into the same old habits as their religious predecessors.
Secularism was designed to create a peaceful world order, but the church was so intricately involved in the economic, political and cultural structures of society that the secular order could only be established with a measure of violence. In North America, where there was no entrenched aristocratic government, the disestablishment of the various churches could be accomplished with relative ease. But in France, the church could be dismantled only by an outright assault; far from being experienced as a natural and essentially normative arrangement, the separation of religion and politics could be experienced as traumatic and terrifying.
During the French revolution, one of the first acts of the new national assembly on November 2, 1789, was to confiscate all church property to pay off the national debt: secularisation involved dispossession, humiliation and marginalisation. This segued into outright violence during the September massacres of 1792, when the mob fell upon the jails of Paris and slaughtered between two and three thousand prisoners, many of them priests.
Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors: “The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women … The roads are littered with corpses.”
Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.
To die for one’s country
When Napoleon’s armies invaded Prussia in 1807, the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte similarly urged his countrymen to lay down their lives for the Fatherland – a manifestation of the divine and the repository of the spiritual essence of the Volk. If we define the sacred as that for which we are prepared to die, what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community” of the nation had come to replace God. It is now considered admirable to die for your country, but not for your religion.
As the nation-state came into its own in the 19th century along with the industrial revolution, its citizens had to be bound tightly together and mobilised for industry. Modern communications enabled governments to create and propagate a national ethos, and allowed states to intrude into the lives of their citizens more than had ever been possible. Even if they spoke a different language from their rulers, subjects now belonged to the “nation,” whether they liked it or not.
John Stuart Mill regarded this forcible integration as progress; it was surely better for a Breton, “the half-savage remnant of past times”, to become a French citizen than “sulk on his own rocks”. But in the late 19th century, the British historian Lord Acton feared that the adulation of the national spirit that laid such emphasis on ethnicity, culture and language, would penalise those who did not fit the national norm: “According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilisation in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in a condition of dependence.”
The Enlightenment philosophers had tried to counter the intolerance and bigotry that they associated with “religion” by promoting the equality of all human beings, together with democracy, human rights, and intellectual and political liberty, modern secular versions of ideals which had been promoted in a religious idiom in the past. The structural injustice of the agrarian state, however, had made it impossible to implement these ideals fully. The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities.
More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratised forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of modernity to an elite fell behind.
Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.
Yet this toleration was only skin-deep, and as Lord Acton had predicted, an intolerance of ethnic and cultural minorities would become the achilles heel of the nation-state. Indeed, the ethnic minority would replace the heretic (who had usually been protesting against the social order) as the object of resentment in the new nation-state.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment in the United States, instructed his secretary of war in 1807 that Native Americans were “backward peoples” who must either be “exterminated” or driven “beyond our reach” to the other side of the Mississippi “with the beasts of the forest”. The following year, Napoleon issued the “infamous decrees”, ordering the Jews of France to take French names, privatise their faith, and ensure that at least one in three marriages per family was with a gentile.
Increasingly, as national feeling became a supreme value, Jews would come to be seen as rootless and cosmopolitan. In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of antisemitism in Europe, which undoubtedly drew upon centuries of Christian prejudice, but gave it a scientific rationale, claiming that Jews did not fit the biological and genetic profile of the Volk, and should be eliminated from the body politic as modern medicine cut out a cancer.
When secularisation was implemented in the developing world, it was experienced as a profound disruption – just as it had originally been in Europe. Because it usually came with colonial rule, it was seen as a foreign import and rejected as profoundly unnatural. In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life.
What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.
Very often modernising rulers have embodied secularism at its very worst and have made it unpalatable to their subjects. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic of Turkey in 1918, is often admired in the west as an enlightened Muslim leader, but for many in the Middle East he epitomised the cruelty of secular nationalism.
He hated Islam, describing it as a “putrefied corpse”, and suppressed it in Turkey by outlawing the Sufi orders and seizing their properties, closing down the madrasas and appropriating their income. He also abolished the beloved institution of the caliphate, which had long been a dead-letter politically but which symbolised a link with the Prophet. For groups such as al-Qaida and Isis, reversing this decision has become a paramount goal.
Ataturk also continued the policy of ethnic cleansing that had been initiated by the last Ottoman sultans; in an attempt to control the rising commercial classes, they systematically deported the Armenian and Greek-speaking Christians, who comprised 90% of the bourgeoisie. The Young Turks, who seized power in 1909, espoused the antireligious positivism associated with August Comte and were also determined to create a purely Turkic state.
During the first world war, approximately one million Armenians were slaughtered in the first genocide of the 20th century: men and youths were killed where they stood, while women, children and the elderly were driven into the desert where they were raped, shot, starved, poisoned, suffocated or burned to death.
Clearly inspired by the new scientific racism, Mehmet Resid, known as the “execution governor”, regarded the Armenians as “dangerous microbes” in “the bosom of the Fatherland”. Ataturk completed this racial purge. For centuries Muslims and Christians had lived together on both sides of the Aegean; Ataturk partitioned the region, deporting Greek Christians living in what is now Turkey to Greece, while Turkish-speaking Muslims in Greece were sent the other way.
The Fundamentalist Reaction
Secularising rulers such as Ataturk often wanted their countries to look modern, that is, European. In Iran in 1928, Reza Shah Pahlavi issued the laws of uniformity of dress: his soldiers tore off women’s veils with bayonets and ripped them to pieces in the street. In 1935, the police were ordered to open fire on a crowd who had staged a peaceful demonstration against the dress laws in one of the holiest shrines of Iran, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Policies like this made veiling, which has no Qur’anic endorsement, an emblem of Islamic authenticity in many parts of the Muslim world.
Following the example of the French, Egyptian rulers secularised by disempowering and impoverishing the clergy. Modernisation had begun in the Ottoman period under the governor Muhammad Ali, who starved the Islamic clergy financially, taking away their tax-exempt status, confiscating the religiously endowed properties that were their principal source of income, and systematically robbing them of any shred of power. When the reforming army officer Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power in 1952, he changed tack and turned the clergy into state officials.
For centuries, they had acted as a protective bulwark between the people and the systemic violence of the state. Now Egyptians came to despise them as government lackeys. This policy would ultimately backfire, because it deprived the general population of learned guidance that was aware of the complexity of the Islamic tradition. Self-appointed freelancers, whose knowledge of Islam was limited, would step into the breach, often to disastrous effect.
If some Muslims today fight shy of secularism, it is not because they have been brainwashed by their faith but because they have often experienced efforts at secularisation in a particularly virulent form. Many regard the west’s devotion to the separation of religion and politics as incompatible with admired western ideals such as democracy and freedom. In 1992, a military coup in Algeria ousted a president who had promised democratic reforms, and imprisoned the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which seemed certain to gain a majority in the forthcoming elections.
Had the democratic process been thwarted in such an unconstitutional manner in Iran or Pakistan, there would have been worldwide outrage. But because an Islamic government had been blocked by the coup, there was jubilation in some quarters of the western press – as if this undemocratic action had instead made Algeria safe for democracy. In rather the same way, there was an almost audible sigh of relief in the west when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt last year. But there has been less attention to the violence of the secular military dictatorship that has replaced it, which has exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak regime.
After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms.
Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs.
There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain. •
• Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is published today by Bodley Head.