The clash of civilisations will not be with Islam

“Don’t panic!” says distinguished Cambridge academic.

Amid the news that France's lower house of parliament voted yesterday to ban women from wearing face-covering veils, a pathetic piece of populism aimed at exploiting fears about Islam which has already been condemned by Amnesty, it is something of a relief to come across a more pragmatic, no-nonsense assessment of where the real sources of global tension will be in the future.

Professor Nicholas Boyle, president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a scholar of German and European history, has just published a book titled 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis. Many might expect such an imminent doomsday to involve terrorism of some sort (probably Islamist, as that's the kind of terrorism most people seem to fear), or militant jihadism spilling out of Afghanistan, through Pakistan and into central Asia and the Middle East, destabilising all those pro-western autocracies we've propped up for so long.

Four years is too soon for the "couple of generations" that one Mail columnist has warned is all there is left before "Islam will be in control in Europe", but something on those lines, some tipping point in birth rates, perhaps, could soon be upon us. Or so many seem to think.

Not at all, says Boyle. "It would," he writes, "be a mistake to include [among the worst-case scenarios] a supposed clash of 'western' and 'Islamic' civilisations." How so? I'm going to quote the swift paragraph with which he dismisses such fears in full, as it's such a surprisingly different perspective:

It is not a profound source of tension in the world, of the kind that moves economies and armies. The apparent significance of the western-Islamic divide is a consequence of the dependence (in the drug-addicted sense) of the USA on Middle Eastern oil and of the disproportionate leverage on American foreign policy exercised by states in that region, from Saudi Arabia to Israel. If in the course of the 21st century that oil runs out, or alternative sources of either oil or energy in general become available, the late-20th-century concern with the culture and politics of these small and otherwise unproductive countries will seem as obsolete as 16th- or 17th-century concerns for the control of the Spice Islands.

Boyle clearly makes several assumptions here, not least that the spread of violent radicalism to what are certainly not small countries -- Pakistan, for instance -- is contingent on backing by oil money. And his rather rude description of the Gulf states makes it unlikely that his book will fly off the shelves in Doha or Bahrain, let alone Tehran or Riyadh.

But he is not a great Islamophile or "apologist". His assessment, which has no cause to be partial with regard to religion, is simply that those who constantly warn of cataclysms and "Eurabia" are wasting their time. You're worrying about nothing, he says. And with that one paragraph, he is done with the likes of Daniel Pipes, Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips et al. As I say, a bracingly refreshing view indeed!

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage