Does the world learn anything? Eliezer “Ellie” Wiesel, who died last Saturday, aged 87 liked asking this question. Ellie was born a Hungarian Jew. He later became an American citizen. As a teenager, he was tortured at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Adolph Hitler’s Germany. He lost both parents and many other close relatives in the Holocaust.
Having survived the camps, he would go on to devote the rest of his life to creation of awareness about the Holocaust. A distinguished academic and Nobel laureate, Wiesel has been very highly respected in Western scholarly and political circles as a crusader against intolerance and injustice. Critics, however, say he has not approached the Palestinian question with the same gusto as he has addressed the Holocaust. The jury is still out there, however.
Wiesel wrote many books. He taught many students and travelled far and wide giving lectures on conflict, war and peace. His abiding memories and reflections on the Holocaust are captured in the volume titled Night. First published in French, Night has been translated into 30 languages. It sold in its millions. Dawn and Day are sequels to Night. There are two overriding thoughts in Wiesel’s philosophy. First is that the world has the propensity to look on in silence as the captains of wickedness and evil do their worst. If the world did not embrace the conspiracy of silence in the face of intolerance and injustice, it would be a safer place. But those who should speak out will usually remain silent if, in their judgment, the injustice does not touch them.
It was Wiesel’s perception that the world remained silent as Jews died in their millions in Hitler’s concentration camps. Indeed, the original title for Night was And the World Remained Silent.
The second overriding thought is that the world learns nothing from the unending tragedies that afflict it. Four days before Wiesel died, the merchants of intolerance and terror attacked the airport at Istanbul, Turkey. Forty-four people died. Another 240 were injured. Before the world could even adequately express shock, gunmen took over a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They killed twenty-eight people. Baghdad was next on the cards. At the time of this writing, a car bomber had claimed 292 lives. The numbers could rise. Medina followed. This particular attack was on one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Prophet’s Mosque.
So who said that these people were fighting for Islam? But do I run ahead of myself? The same day, the merchants of terror had attacked sites in Jeddah and Qatif in Saudi Arabia. All these dastardly acts took place in the space of five days. Instructively, they came towards the end of the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan. We could ask again with Wiesel, does the world learn anything?
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was meanwhile in the news this week, alleging to have learnt something. In 2003 Blair escorted President George Bush to war in Iraq much the same way a poodle accompanies the master. The two went to Iraq in defiance of the UN. Now Blair has half-heartedly apologized to his country for precipitately taking it to war. His reluctant admission comes in the wake of a damning seven-year investigation his country carried out on the war.
The report was terrible on Blair. He wrote an email pledging to follow Bush to the dessert war, “whatever the case.” Regardless of what the then Mohamed ElBaradei led Atomic Energy Agency would find out on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Blair would take the UK to war! When Robin Cook resigned from Blair’s cabinet in protest he was parodied in political insolence. Now Blair admits that the war was not justified. Yet he goes on to say he did the world a great deal by going to Iraq to kill Saddam. Humankind would be in a worse place had he not invaded Iraq, he says.
It is difficult to imagine anything worse than the blasts that rock us everywhere all the time, despite the security rigours that are now a part of our lives. We live in fear of the unknown attacker, everywhere. You just can’t tell when and where they are going to bring your life to a sudden end. In all this, the solution seems to be more and more securitization. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama told us that we had come to the end of learning. He published the book titled The End of History and the Last Man. Western Capitalism had defeated Eastern Communism with the end of the Cold War. What remained was for capitalism to rule the world in tranquility, forever.
Does capitalism need to ask itself where it went wrong? In the prime of our youth, my generation found Marxist socialist notions exciting. If Karl Marx had described religion as the opium of the masses, Marxism was the opium of budding undergraduates the world over. We believed in the imminence of a scientific revolution that would never be. In the fullness of time, our excitement was nothing more than harmless youthful hot air.
The demise of Marxist socialist idealism has today given way to an intolerant religious idealism and fanaticism among young people. Yet does the world need to pause and reflect? To ask why young people are so angry about the established global order? In response to Fukuyama’s book, his teacher Samuel Huntington published, in 1996, the volume titled Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order. Huntington argued that people’s cultural and religions identities would be the source of conflict in the post Cold War dispensation. It is certainly happening.
Is the world learning anything? Global securitization would hardly seem to be the solution to the terror and fear that rules our times. Does the case for structured global cultural conversations seem to justify itself? In tandem with this is the need to give young people the world over something to hope for; something to believe in. The emerged world order does not seem to care at all about the future of a majority of the youth who wallow in poverty and hopelessness in Africa, Asia and in the Arab world. Emerging global conversations must address the cultural and existential questions that Huntington has raised on the remaking of the world order.