I have recently tried to take a small step back from events to gain some perspective on our world and where we are going. My mind keeps returning to the darkest period in our collective history: the two world wars that stained the first half of the 20th century. More than 100 million people, mostly civilians, were killed in those two wars – a mass slaughter and destruction that is almost unimaginable today. The hopes of Europe’s Enlightenment and revolutionary ideals born in the 18th century were obscured during the two world wars in a long Endarkenment. Darkness, hatred, malice and tribal warfare of the meanest kind cast a long, dark shadow over Europe and the world at the time. The hopes and the great minds of Europe were directed towards death and destruction on a massive scale, developing rockets, atomic bombs and the most terrible and terrifying projects of ethnic cleansing. During that darkness, we all fell into a deep sleep, our humanity was probed and our usual waking defenses lay disabled. Understandably, it took some time for humanity to regain faith in humanity.
The lethal trenches and abhorrent chemical warfare of World War I, the mass bombing of civilians and the genocidal acts of World War II, the flattening of entire cities such as Coventry or Dresden, this Endarkenment of humanity still weighs heavily in our minds and on our consciences. Thankfully, the extremism and the emperors of destruction were eventually defeated, but our genetic predisposition towards hatred and destruction could not be expiated. Regrettably, injustices and burgeoning hatreds were also carried forwards, with the parcelling out of lands, continued Western interference in a disjointed Arab world, the stolen territories of the new Israeli state, the division into two Chinas, two Koreas, two Vietnams, and a self-mutilating Soviet Union that would later be dismembered. The period from 1990 gave the world some hope for a new enlightenment, but those hopes were rapidly dashed as the new century opened.
America’s military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq
What worries me today is that I see the same forces of darkness and aggression at play again, all while acting through different means and going almost unnoticed or unopposed. President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points that were supposed to neutralize the darkest instincts of World War I lie all but forgotten today – one could say they were never truly applied even at the time, particularly regarding the right of peoples to self-determination. In this young 21st century we have seen Russia grab Crimea, challenging Ukraine’s integrity; Israel holding on to Arab territories and drastically expanding illegal settlements; China grabbing any land it can, enforcing suzerainty over its neighbors and even expanding into the sea with newly-built islands; and Iran imposing its control over Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. These are clear forms not only of aggression but of dictatorial powers negating the recognized rights of other states and peoples. America’s military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have also robbed entire populations of their lives and right to self-determination, with both countries now in the throes of permanent chaos and fragmentation. There may be no formal world war raging, but the violence and pervasiveness of these acts of aggression are just a slow-burning version of the tragedies of the early 20th century, lacking international reaction.
We must be more creative in our thinking, shining some light into the darkness in order to spread a new enlightenment. We should not be scared to seek new ideas to prevent further endarkenment of our world, instead bringing some light and hope back into it.Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
We have fallen under penumbra in which we have all taken our tranquilisers, as even the United Nations is unable to utter more than a whimper. Our telescopes and microscopes are exploring every corner of the universe down to the tiniest elements of being, yet we are unable to look at ourselves, at our world and the forces of multiple hatred and aggression that are casting a darkness not unlike the impulses we witnessed during two nightmarish world wars. We can see these impulses even in the state of the European project, where division and the reaffirmation of xenophobic nationalisms are the order of the day. Our consciences are asleep, and no world power or embodiment of an international community is present to keep any of this in check. While America is busy dismantling itself politically and ideologically, Israel, Russia, Iran, China and others are given free rein. In Africa and Latin America, similar forces are at work. Those of us who have lived through a long 20th century history are rather concerned, but no one else seems to be paying any attention. It is time we woke up from our sleep and actively remembered what all of our past struggles were for.
Those who benefit from the penumbra and our sleepiness today are the autocratic land-grabbing powers of aggression mentioned above. They are following an imperial instinct, the lines appear blurred only because there is no distinct emperor at work, nor any explicit empire we can identify. Meanwhile, America is paying little heed to the proto-empire they built last century, reneging on the principles of free trade they spent decades imposing on the world and denying their continued role in Iraq, Afghanistan and American dependencies. These are two more of Woodrow Wilson’s points that now lie disregarded by the country that expounded them. It is a complex and changing world, but this must not prevent us from trying to understand it better and to draw attention to phenomena that are intrinsically disturbing. We have not even mentioned the greater issues that we face when we take a further step back: our continued disregard for the environment and our over-exploitation of resources has to be at the top of our concerns, for the consequences will otherwise be absolutely devastating for the planet that gives us all life. Instead of milking it, we must feed it and care for it.
While the United Nations and its Security Council have seemed somewhat toothless in the midst of this period of unhinged international relations, its many agencies continue to do some very important work. There is great potential, and a great need, for the UN to lead a programme teaching the children and youth of the world the principles of peace, cooperation and respect for others and our environment. A universal course that would be willingly integrated into the curriculum of every nation could be jointly put together by several UN programmes and agencies such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Children around the world would be taught to be respectful and accepting of all genders, religions, ethnicities and skin colours; they would learn to respect the environment, to reduce waste and to pick up any abandoned waste they encounter; they would be given capacities to understand the world around them and the need for cooperation, preparing them to be true citizens and custodians of the world.
We must be more creative in our thinking, shining some light into the darkness in order to spread a new enlightenment. A United Nations Educational Programme for Youth Awareness and Empowerment is one such potentially transformative idea that could disperse the dark clouds of hatred and aggression. To some, this may sound like fantasy, but everything that humans have ever achieved began as a simple idea, just as humanity emerged from a single cell in the ocean, or from Adam and Eve, whatever your beliefs may be. We should not be scared to seek new ideas to prevent further endarkenment of our world, instead bringing some light and hope back into it.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin is a Saudi writer.