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Are democracy and diversity a tough balance?

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Coptic Christians have survived persecutions and conquests

Written by New York Times |
October 17, 2011 2:38:54 am

Ross Douthat

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Coptic Christians have survived persecutions and conquests,the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam. They have been governed from Constantinople and Ctesiphon,Baghdad and London. They have outlasted the Byzantines,the Umayyads and the Ottomans,Napoleon Bonaparte and the British Empire.

But they may not survive the Arab Spring. Apart from Hosni Mubarak and his intimates,no group has suffered more from Egypt’s revolution. Last week two dozen people were killed in clashes between the Coptic Christians and the Egyptian Army,a grim milestone in a year in which the Coptic community has faced escalating terrorist and mob violence.

This is a familiar story in the Middle East,where any sort of popular sovereignty has tended to unleash the furies and drive minorities into exile. More important,though,this is a familiar story for the modern world as a whole — a case of what National Review’s John Derbyshire calls “modernity versus diversity.” For all the bright talk about multicultural mosaics,the age of globalisation has also been an age of unprecedented religious and racial sorting — sometimes by choice,more often at gunpoint. Indeed,the causes of democracy and international peace have often been intimately tied to ethnic cleansing: both have gained ground not in spite of mass migrations and mass murders,but because of them.

This is a point worth keeping in mind when reading the Big Idea book of the moment,Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,where Steven Pinker marshalls an impressive amount of data to demonstrate that human civilisation has become steadily less violent,that the years since 1945 have been particularly pacific,and that contemporary Europe has achieved an unprecedented level of tranquillity. What Pinker sometimes glosses over,though,is the price that’s been paid for these advances. With the partial exception of immigrant societies like the United States,mass democracy seems to depend on ethno-religious solidarity in a way that older forms of government did not. The most successful modern nation-states have often gained stability at the expense of diversity,driving out or even murdering their minorities on the road to peaceful coexistence with their neighbours.

Europe’s era of unexpected harmony,in particular,may have been made possible by the decades of expulsions and genocide that preceded it. As Jerry Z. Muller pointed out in a 2008 essay for Foreign Affairs,the horrors of the two world wars effectively rationalised the continent’s borders,replacing the old multi-ethnic empires with homogeneous nation-states,and eliminating minority populations and polyglot regions. A decade of civil war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia completed the process.

Along the same lines,the developing world’s worst outbreaks of ethno-religious violence — in post-Saddam Iraq,or the Indian subcontinent after the demise of the British Raj — are often associated with transitions from dictatorships or monarchies to some sort of popular rule. And from Kashmir to the West Bank,Kurdistan to Congo,the globe’s enduring trouble spots are usually places where ethno-religious communities and political borders can’t be made to line up.

Europe’s long peace is an extraordinary achievement — but was it worth the wars and genocides and forced migrations that made it possible? A democratic Middle East would be a remarkable triumph for humanity — but is it worth decades of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing?

I don’t know the answer. But maybe we should ask the Copts.

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