Sunday, April 27, 2008

How sectarian hatred gets started


When outside news media cover such developments as Albanian-Serbian conflict in Kosovo, or Sunni- Shiite conflict in Iraq, they are often described as the result of centuries-old hatreds, and readers are referred to the ultimate origins long, long ago. But in real life, most of these conflicts are rather irrelevant unless something more recent brings them to life again. Ontario and much of Canada has a long history of Catholic-Protestant conflict over schools and their funding. Unless, however, a school funding issue pops up, that old conflict is completely irrelevant to people's public identities or the way they interact with their neighbors. The number of people who sit around thinking about William of Orange or the Battle of the Boyne is insignificant; indeed, and I know this from personal experience, most people have no idea what what either of these things might be or what kind of influence they had on Canadians of the past. The Glorious 12th of July used to be the biggest public holiday in Ontario -- at least for Protestants -- but no one knows what it is now. But with a lot of bad luck and human perversity, one can imagine a Catholic-Protestant conflict welling up in Ontario in the future, and then if Catholics and Protestants wanted reasons to hate each other, they would find the libraries full of books to tell them why this was appropriate.

How this works in Iraq is well illustrated by this story from Inside Iraq. It illustrates how old hatreds come back to life, when everybody, or most everybody, thought they were dead. The story only makes sense if, when the correspondent's friend got married, she hardly gave a thought to Sunni or Shiite identity. Now, however, she can hardly think of anything else. The harsh reactions that she expects from her new neighbors don't have much to do with what's in Iraq's libraries, directly, but I'm sure that for everyone involved, if this woman's fears are at all realistic, conflicts from the time of Ali and Hussein or even Saddam Hussein are a lot more present than they were in 2003.

I was at a party last evening with some historian colleagues, and we were talking about how the Canadian social history class went this year ( pretty well in many respects). My friend who taught the course said that for our students, most of whom were born sometime in the late 80s, historic Canada is unrecognizable as their country until a point of very few years before their birth.

This is just another illustration of how present concerns have a huge effect on what aspects of the past we choose to think about.

Image: William of Orange. Boo, hiss!

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