In a seminal work on the history of political order, Francis Fukuyama begins his majestic sweep by analysing the social behaviours of chimpanzee groups, and how they react when threatened by another troop (Francis Fukuyama: The Origins of Political Order). While thinking that this ‘state of nature’ will reveal the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’, in fact anthropologists have shown that in these primitive groups there is a high degree of order. Yes, there is violence when groups clash, and indeed violence is present within a group when issues of dominance and testosterone come to the surface. But overall, Chimpanzee troops – our evolutionary cousins – are ordered, social and peaceful.
One of the most vital lessons Fukayama learned from the Chimps that he applied to the human world, is that when there is a breakdown of centralised authority – such as in a failed state – people revert to the familiarity and safety of blood ties; teaching us that kinship ties are the basis upon which order is built and maintained.
We very much see this in nations whose village and clan life dominate politics. These forms of order are natural, instinctive and relatively safe.
Violence between kinship groups occur for all the reasons that human history repeats: territorial aggression, authoritarian control, or the enforcement of ideological and/or religious supremacism. It is the former that Colonial governments used to maintain order when they were the dominant authorities of Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, their general ‘divide and rule’ policies – the pitting of 1 tribe/clan against another – served the colonialists in keeping them at the top of the political and economic pecking order, but with devastating consequences for generations in, for example, Rwanda, Congo, and South Africa.
But it is the latter form of political order and control – religious supremacism – that has badly infected the Middle East. The violence spawned by tribal clashes mixed with theological supremacism is devouring the human host that gives life to the disease. Sharing the characteristics of a virulent virus eating away at social order and human life itself, so Jihadism gleefully destroys the right to life of anyone who is not infected with it’s racist ideology.
The history of the development of political and social order is all about containing the potential for outbreaks of these ‘Ebola’-like consuming infections . We managed, brilliantly as it turned out, to contain the actual Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014. Yet we have been struggling with the viral Jihadist strain for nigh on 20 years. And it continues to morph, adapt and surprise us with new strengths. A virus can morph into many different forms. So too Jihadism. And like the Ebola virus, Jihadism utterly disdains the life of its host.
What, if any, lessons from the African outbreak can be brought to bear on the Middle Eastern epidemic?
The World Health Organisation issued a lengthy report on the four biggest lessons from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, with some uncanny parallels for the jihadist strain.
“Countries with weak health systems and few basic public health infrastructures in place cannot withstand sudden shocks, whether these come from a changing climate or a runaway virus… fair and inclusive health systems are a bedrock of social stability, resilience and economic health. Failure to invest in these fundamental infrastructures leaves countries with no backbone to stand up under the weight of the shocks that this century is delivering with unprecedented frequency.” (WHO: One Year into the Ebola Epidemic 2015; Chapter 14).
Much like Ebola thrives in states with fragile health systems, so too al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Harem, and Al-Shabbab all thrive in weak or failed states.
The US invasion of Iraq and its subsequent disintegration into sectarian tribal enclaves was the incubus in which ISIS thrived. The vacuum left after the Soviet (and then US) withdrawals from Afghanistan in the early 1990’s left a civil war rage between ethnic tribes, with the result of a failed state incubating first the Taliban and then al-Qaeda. And Somalia bred Al-Shabaab; Nigeria bred Boko Harem. God knows what Libya is breeding, but we do know that something terrible is festering there.
We have been aware for some time that failed states breed viruses. And the simple solution that America must be the world’s policeman and state-builder to contain the virus is no answer. Been there. Done that. Buggered that up.
So what is to be done? Part 2 in this series will examine other Ebola lessons and solutions.