Divide And Rule – And No End?

By Fred Dallmayr, Co-Chairman, WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations”

There is an old German proverb saying that “two parties may fight at the third party’s delight.” The delight may sometimes be accidental, as when someone by happenstance stumbles upon two fighting parties. More frequently, however, the delight is deliberately produced or the result of a deliberate strategy. During the time of the Empire, the Romans had an imperial strategy called “divide and rule” (divide et impera). In pursuance of this strategy, Roman governments deliberately instigated conflicts or wars among dependent peoples or tribes, enabling them to watch with some amusement the tribal mayhem.

The Roman formula has persisted throughout the subsequent centuries, and is very much alive today. Of course, Rome is no longer the citadel of the world, but has been replaced by newer, and still more global, hegemonic powers. Under the watchful and by no means disinterested eyes of these powers, local and regional conflicts proliferate in our time. To be sure, local and regional conflicts usually derive from concrete grievances on the ground, grievances sometimes stretching far back in time. However, although festering in a manageable form for decades, local or regional grievances can be instigated and brought to the boiling point by foreign hegemonic intervention, leading to mayhem and utter destruction. In this situation, surely it is legitimate to ask: cui bono? Who benefits or to whose benefit is the conflagration? At this point, the old Roman formula quickly surges to the foreground.

A case in point is the situation in the Ukraine. Tensions between West Ukraine and East Ukraine have been simmering for some time (especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union). But for some two decades these tensions were manageable. Things changed radically after the overthrow of the government in early 2014. Without in any way consulting the country as a whole, the new leaders in Kiev decided unilaterally that they wanted to belong exclusively to the West (and possibly to NATO)—something which could not possibly be accepted by people in East Ukraine. So: cui bono? Why was this done and to whose benefit? As it happens, a non-military solution was readily available and supported by some sage and far-sighted diplomats: a federal arrangement of the country with some autonomy for different regions—something readily doable and by no means on the level of rocket science.

The new leaders in Kiev did not favor this sensible solution but rather chose the military option, unleashing tanks and airplanes on the East. According to credible reports, even Western mercenaries (offshoots of notorious killing squadrons in Iraq) were enlisted for the purpose, producing the predictable response in the East. So, why was this done? Why was the federalist solution rejected in favor of mayhem? Who benefits? Certainly neither Ukrainians nor Russians benefit from the slaughter. So, who stands behind, watching the conflict unfold? The newly elected President of the Ukraine promised at the beginning that he would rule for the sake and on behalf of all Ukrainians East and West? So why was this not being done much sooner? Why is there no genuine round-table? Who benefits from the continued unilateralism?

Another, even bloodier case is the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the Islamic world. Surely, there are differences and disagreements between these factions, some going back to the very beginning of Islamic faith. However, during several centuries, these differences were relatively manageable (in the spirit of “agree to disagree”). Everything changed during the last hundred years, for several reasons. One reason was the rise of an extremist Sunni sect (called “Wahhabism”) in the heartland of Islamic religion, a sect which was exported by that heartland to the greatest possible number of Muslim countries. Another reason is the unthinking, visceral opposition in the West to Shia Iran—which traditionally has maintained a certain balance among competing sects in the Muslim world. So, who benefits from all the mayhem, the internecine slaughter of Shiites and Sunnis? In particular, despite their overt opposition to Muslim extremism or “terrorism,” why have Western powers so relentlessly and one-sidedly supported the Muslim heartland in its terrorist funding and mobilization? And why the psychopathic opposition to Iran—despite the simultaneous support for a Shiite government in Iraq (and the non-support for the Alawite-Shia government in Syria)? Cui bono? For this is clearly more than sheer ineptitude.

In the meantime, Sunni extremism is in the process of unleashing a catastrophe in the Arab world. The devotees of a new caliphate are willing to impose the “dead hand” (manus mortua) of the past on the people living today. Their death-mongering seems to know no limits.  At this point, Western hegemonic powers are suddenly perplexed. “Divide and rule” suddenly provides no longer the customary comfort and amusement. Might the spectacle of relentless mayhem and killing perhaps have a sobering effect (even on inveterate war-hawks)? One lesson which emerges from recent events fairly clearly is this:  that the festering conflicts in the Muslim world cannot be mitigated or resolved, instead can only be aggravated and intensified by outside hegemonic intervention. The same goes for local or regional conflicts more generally. People in the area or region have to stand up and resolve their problems in their own way (except for strictly humanitarian help under UN auspices). This means that politicians, clerical leaders, and educators in the Muslim world today have a monumental task. At a minimum, clerical leaders must teach people that Islam has not abolished the Mosaic commandment against wanton killing, and that the main effort should be devoted to the “Greater Jihad,” the task of moral improvement and self-overcoming. Only this teaching can restore to Islam again its dignity and relevance in our world. It is also a basic requisite for the achievement of something approximating a just peace.

Endorsed by:

Hans Köchler, Founder and President, International Progress Organization
Chandra Muzaffar, President, International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
Vladimir Kulikov, Executive Director, WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations”
Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy; Professor, Committee on Global Thought; Director, South Asian Institute, Columbia University