February 17, 2008

 Welcome Kosovo ..

- and take a seat at the back.

Unlike the few other bloggers who have responded to Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, I have actually been there - three times! for several days at a time! and have travelled outside Prishtina, as far as exotic Mitrovica! - which therefore makes me an Expert in the Wa-benzi sense.

Which small knowledge makes me curiously reluctant to comment. Independence was probably inevitable, as visitors could already see in 2000.

The revanchism of the Albanian Kosovars, generated by their undoubted sufferings at Serb hands, was I felt exacerbated by the fact that their victory was not theirs, but handed them on a plate by outsiders with their own complex motives. It's far easier to be magnanimous to those you have overcome yourself. The Serbs - and here I have the commentating advantage of never having been to the country - never SFIK made any serious effort to do the things that might conceivably have kept Kosovo nominally within their state, like an apology and an offer to negotiate a statute of autonomy.

My impression was that many Serbs, and not just Milosevic, actually prefer defeat to compromise, as it nourishes their longstanding victim complex. Here's a thought: nationalisms and other triumphal ideologies - like Communism, Fascism, imperialism, American exceptionalism - are eventually discredited by events. Two catastrophic defeats in thirty years, and goodbye German nationalism. But ideologies and identities that internalise defeat and suffering are practically invulnerable to experience; every failure reinforces the narrative. Hence Milosevic and the IRA.

A similar process helps explain the survival of both Judaism since the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the Temple, and Christianity under the persecutions of the Roman Empire: current sufferings are made good by apocalyptic hopes and a cult of martyrs.

Is this what is going on in Islam? The original version of the Prophet was triumphalist, but the continual reverses of political Islam since the second siege of Vienna have made the shrinking, divided, and enfeebled Dar-al-Islam an uninspiring focus for Muslim loyalties. The classic alternative paths for development have been the mystical, personalised religion of the Sufis; and an apocalyptic jihadism, holding out messianic hopes for losers, complete with martyr cult. On this reading, OSL's world caliphate is not a deluded political project but a symbolic rallying call like the Second (or the First) Coming. And OSL's foes would be well advised to spend more time studying the mechanisms that took the early Christian martyrs into the arena.

PS: I am perfectly aware that there's a huge moral difference between non-violent martyrs and suicide bombers. But is the psychological gap very wide at all?

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