January 13, 2007

Religion of conquest...

From a Financial Times article, Youth and War, a Deadly Duo, By Christopher Caldwell (Thanks to Orrin)

.....But the killings also defy political common sense. Ariel Sharon's wall cuts terrorists off from Israeli targets and what happens? The violence - previously justified with the cause of a Palestinian homeland - continues as if nothing had changed, merely finding its outlet in a new set of targets. This makes it appear that Palestinian violence has never really been about a "cause" at all. The violence is, in a strange way, about itself.

Gunnar Heinsohn, a social scientist and genocide researcher at the University of Bremen, has an explanation for why this might be so. Since its publication in 2003, his eccentric and eye-opening
Sons and World Power (not available in English) has become something of a cult book. In Mr Heinsohn's view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent. The "causes" in the name of which that violence is committed can be immaterial. There are 67 countries in the world with such "youth bulges" now and 60 of them are undergoing some kind of civil war or mass killing.

Between 1988 and 2002, 900m sons were born to mothers in the developing world and a careful demographer could almost predict the trouble spots. In the decade leading up to 1993, on the eve of the Taliban takeover, the population of Afghanistan grew from 14m to 22m. By the end of this generation, Afghanistan will have as many people under 20 as France and Germany combined. Iraq had 5m people in 1950 but has 25m now, in spite of a quarter-century of wars. Since 1967, the population of the West Bank and Gaza has grown from 450,000 to 3.3m, 47 per cent of which is under 15.

If Mr Heinsohn is right, then Palestinian violence of recent months and years is not explained by Israeli occupation (which, after all, existed 30 years ago) or poverty (the most violent parts of the Muslim world are not the poorest) or humiliation. It is just violence.

Mr Heinsohn's point is not that the West is "outnumbered". Nor is it that a Malthusian battle for scarce resources is under way. In El Salvador, for instance, the explosion of political killing in the 1970s and 1980s was preceded by a 27 per cent rise in per capita income. The problem, rather, is that in a youth-bulge society there are not enough positions to provide all these young men with prestige and standing.

...If you follow this argument to its logical end point, then the religion of Islam, the focus of so much contemporary strategic discussion, is a great red herring...

I suspect that's right. If you read history with an eye to demographics, you know that this has happened before. There was a period where you could have argued that Anglicanism was a religion of violence and conquest, sending ruthless young men out to all corners of the globe to conquer countries and impose Christianity and English values on them. I'll bet it sure looked that way to Indians in the time of Clive. [I hasten to interject here that I think this was a good thing, which has obviously benefitted those places greatly. And that the spread of Islam is bad, and will be harmful to those places that adopt it.]

(This has turned into a historical digression. Read on if you are interested...)

If you read authors like Patrick O'Brian, you will have encountered the toast (which I believe is historical) "Here's to a bloody war. Many to go and few to come!" It's not as insane as it sounds if you realize that a surplus of young middle and upper-class young men were enlisting as midshipmen and lieutenants, and might be stuck in those very humble spots permanently unless combat or Yellow Fever cleared some spaces on the ladder of promotion. And promotion or plunder would perhaps open up their only chance at marriage and prosperity. (There was another traditional saying, in the British Army: Lieutenants may not marry, captains should not marry, majors may marry, Colonels must marry.) And it is not really surprising that parents would beg for one of those very dangerous midshipman's berths for their sons, if you realize that often they faced an intolerable dilemma in providing jobs for a large clutch of children, who might otherwise slip down into working-class poverty....

And the same function, of absorbing surplus males, can be seen in the civilian staffing of the British Empire. In the old days most of the fellows at Oxford and Cambridge colleges were young men hoping for livings as clergymen. And until they got one they could not marry. There were never enough livings to go around, and small parish in India would seem very attractive, despite the high possibility of death by disease. It was the same for young men joining the imperial civil service, or taking posts managing distant plantations.

I suspect that the end of the British Empire in the mid 20th Century had as much to do with Britons being no longer willing to fight for it, as it did to the various liberation movements. And even without the movements it might have ended just because more and more positions would have had to be filled by "natives." The developed world today is very strange compared to anywhere in the past, because we have lots of white-collar positions available, often more than can be filled. And shortages of good blue-collar jobs!

Posted by John Weidner at January 13, 2007 8:34 AM
Weblog by John Weidner