A few years ago, Steven Pinker published, to much acclaim, a book arguing that violence in the world was on a marked downward trajectory, and that we failed to appreciate how peaceful and stable our lives had become.
Yet today, as we are confronted by the extreme violence of ISIS, and the more conventional though still terrible conflict in the Ukraine, we might ask what is driving this violence?
No doubt there have been several positive factors reducing the death toll of conflicts. Most important is probably the globalization and digitization of wealth and wealth creation. These have made conflicts over land and resources — the major issue over which nations fought wars — much less relevant to anyone’s prosperity. Indeed, given the easy flight of capital and skilled workers, and the much greater contribution of these factors to economic growth than mere territory or resources, wars are almost always counterproductive today, from the viewpoint of seeking to increase economic wealth.
So why does violent conflict continue? This is NOT, as famously suggested by Samuel Huntington, due to a clash of civilizations: the biggest death tolls today are from conflicts within the Muslim world, and within the Russian Orthodox world. Instead, local violent conflicts are driven by three main forces.
One is a revival of religion as the prime factor of personal and social identity, including a revival of millenarian beliefs; these have led to fierce sectarian battles among religious sects for control of lives and territory in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Nigeria. This is largely Sunni vs. Shi’a but also involves fights against other religions and sects, e.g. Muslim vs. Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Bahai, and others.
Second, also driven by the revival of religion as a primary identity, is the conflict between the ideal of organizing society primarily on the basis of religious belief and holy writ vs. the ideal of society as secular and individualist, with religion limited to voluntary and private or communal activities that do not impinge on society’s primary legal/organizational framework. In Europe and North America, this conflict has played out mostly peacefully in agitation over abortion and gay marriage. But in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Egypt the conflicts between authorities seeking to preserve a secular government and those determined to impose religion on social order have spawned violence and terrorism.
This force also fuels terrorism within Europe, as those committed to religious primacy (mainly jihadists) attack those who exemplify secular freedom (e.g. Charlie Hebdo).
The third factor producing rising violence is the conflict within the few remaining multi-national empires between imperial control and repressed nationalism. In and on the borders of the Russian Federation, this involves conflict between the Russian state and Chechens, Dagestanis, and now most notably Ukrainians. In China the conflict is with the populations of Xinjiang and Tibet. In Sudan the fight was at first between southern and northern Sudanese, but now fuels civil war within South Sudan. In Israel, the conflict between Muslims and Jews is really much more about repressed Palestinian nationalism, as there are Arab and Muslim citizens of Israel who accept the Israeli state, which Christian Palestinians fight against Israeli control of their lands, although after several decades religious conflict has now so infused the nationalist struggle that in Hamas they are inseparable.
Intra-religious, secular-religious, and nationalist conflicts have been important drivers of violence in human societies for millennia; with the fading of cold war ideological conflicts, and the reduced importance of conflict over land or resources in an increasingly globalized, digital economy, it should not be surprising that these older sources of conflict should return.
Unfortunately, unlike economic battles, these struggles are less easily resolved by compromise or sharing of material goods. As long as believers find the rules and practices of unbelievers to be an existential threat to the dignity of their lives, we will see terror and violence continue. And as long as those who feel themselves belonging to one nation believe their aspirations for a better life are being blocked by leaders of another, nationalist strife will reappear.
The best way out is for those who live in secular free societies to demonstrate that the material prosperity and tolerance of those societies works best for ALL who live there, and for such societies to be a compelling model that will attract people away from the extremist believers. Muslims in Detroit and Melbourne and Pune do not turn to terrorism because they are, for the most part, well-integrated into society and free to enjoy their beliefs AND enjoy above average living standards in their societies. Muslims in other societies, where they are disproportionately poor and in prison and live in segregated enclaves, whether in Paris or northern Nigeria or southern Thailand, are much more likely to express themselves in violence against those who they feel have wronged them. The same is true for nationalist minorities in larger nations — whether Scots in Britain or French-speakers in Canada or Kosovars in Serbia — they either need to feel their success is not obstructed by the larger society in which they live, or like Kosovo they will seek to break free.
In the end, freedom and justice is what most people want, just as much as basic security and a chance at a better future. Sadly, there are still many parts of the world where people have to choose. And when they feel any of these core needs are being denied to them, they will eventually protest or fight, and they and others will pay the price.