Big, Small, and New European Tribes

by Ram Manikkalingam


I am sitting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We are at peace and are enjoying real democracy after more than three decades of civil war and almost five years of creeping authoritarian rule under the previous president. I spend half my time in Amsterdam, just a two-hour train ride to Brussels and a couple more to Paris – sites of so many attacks recently. It is surreal that Europe, the continent I went to, to avoid being targeted by terrorism in my country, is now becoming less and less safe while Sri Lanka has become an island of peace and democracy. While the cost of how we did it can be debated, and continues to be, there is no denying that we ended up in a good place for all of us in Sri Lanka, and the world too.

Meanwhile, (with perhaps a small degree of schadenfreude) I watch Europe become tense, turn in on itself, exclude communities, become subject to attacks, impose emergency law, and break apart with Brexit. I ask myself what is really going on in Europe. While we may draw a direct line from the invasion of Iraq to the attacks against civilians in Paris and Brussels, that alone is insufficient to explain why young men in Brussels and Paris will travel thousands of miles away to join a movement with which they have little social, cultural or political affinity. And it simply does not even begin to explain Brexit, Scottish nationalism, or Marie Le Pen. Maybe, just maybe, it might be more useful to start in Europe and ask how have things changed in the past decade since I have been living there. What do I see now that I did not see before? And how would I describe the politics of Europe to someone who had never been there, not experienced it, and needed to understand it better?

For all its progress and enlightenment, Europe is still a continent of Tribes – Big Tribes, Small Tribes and New Tribes. Big Tribes have their own state. Within this state they feel dominant (or at least feel that they ought to be). These Big Tribes may be as big as the English and French or as small as the Dutch and Danes. What they have in common is they live under their own political roof. Then we have the Small Tribes. These are invariably the Tribes that live within the borders of a state the Big Tribes dominate. These Tribes range from the Scots and the Northern Irish, to the Basques, the Tyroleans and the Corsicans. They yearn for a political roof that is closer to them. Or at least they reject the political roof that has been built on top of them by others who are more powerful then they. And finally you have the New Tribes. These are Tribes related to Europe’s colonial project. Some arrived during colonialism, others after colonialism ended, and still others continue to enter today. This Tribe is viewed as foreign by the Big Tribes. But they are, or at least feel they are, as European as the other two Tribes. Let me unpack each of these Tribes a little further.

The Big Tribes are the English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Dutch, among others. These are tribes that ruled the world or had ambitions to do so. So they had to deal with the rest of the world. They became accustomed (at least their elites did) to engaging with other Tribes – Small, Big and New. Small ones they conquered and Big ones they countered. And in the process helped create new ones. By and large these big tribes understood they lived in a cosmopolitan world, even as they sought to dominate it. Such domination had its limits. The transformation of these big tribes from expounding grand visions to pursuing pedestrian progress can be seen in the collapse of three world transforming projects – the Colonial project, the Soviet project and the European project.

With the colonial project the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, among others, decided they were going to conquer the world with cultural, economic, political and military power. Even if they may have failed at total conquest, they did succeed in radically changing how the world is. Whatever criticism we may make of this project, we cannot fault it for being inward looking, weak and vapid. It was a visionary project that had a story to tell and a role for all peoples. The Soviet project was no less grand in its global ambitions. It would settle for nothing less than a world revolution. The Soviet Union sought to build one-party states that mirrored its own and promoted communism throughout the world. It attracted leftists, nationalists, radicals, social democrats and anti-colonialists from around the world. It also had a military, political, economic and cultural component to its vision. And it had a role for all the peoples of the world as part of its world wide network. Again, whatever criticism we might make of this project, we can hardly say that it lacked a grand vision. The European project after World War II is probably even more ambitious than any one of these projects. Because it was built on the idea of a wholesale transformation of Europe from a society at war to a society at peace through democratic means. Big Tribes would pool their money and share their power to avoid war and build prosperity. It was a project that won over liberals, leftists, conservatives, nationalists and even some radicals. It was a grand cosmopolitan project.

And at the forefront of these projects were the Big Tribes. The French, English and Spanish led the colonial project. The Soviet project was inspired by the Germans and was implemented by the Russians. And the European project was mooted by the French, Germans, Dutch and Italians, with the English quickly joining in. Imagine that just six years after the most devastating war mankind has known, mortal enemies – the French and Germans – joined together to form a common market in coal and steel with a view to “make war unthinkable.” We can only appreciate the grandness of this vision when we compare it with the US taking seventy years to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after the revolution. These Big Tribes, not only thought big, they also acted big.

But now, they are struggling to find a vision beyond themselves. They are looking inward. Indeed, they appear to be not just incapable of finding a vision beyond themselves, but even apprehensive of doing so. Consider England with Brexit. A conservative cabal of one Big Tribe is tearing apart a continent because of conflicts over leadership. It isn’t that petty political rivalry among individuals or within factions for power have not lead to world wide convulsions. But when they did, at least these leaders pretended that they were about something grander, and indeed made them grander, than simply who is to lead a faction within a faction of a party. When Stalin and Trotsky fought over who was in charge, they did so in terms of whether or not you could have socialism in one country without revolutions in others. The Big Tribes have started to think small and act smaller. They want to dominate once again at “home” as they fail to dominate abroad. Curiously, they are developing the defensive attitudes of the Small Tribes – or at least the attitudes these Small Tribes had in the past. And their first instinct is to become afraid of both the Small tribes and New tribes in their midst. This has given rise to the Le Pens in France, Geert Wilders in The Netherlands, and Nigel Farage and Brexit in England.

The Small Tribes are the Scots, Northern Irish, Catalans, and Basques, among others. Set upon and put upon by the Big Tribes, Small Tribes developed two contradictory strategies. Collectively they resisted and looked inward. They feared they could not compete outside with the Big Tribes. So they countered by closing themselves off culturally and socially from the outside world. This fuelled a narrow Small tribal world view as a defence against a dominant Big Tribe from outside. As individuals, members of these tribes took on a different strategy for survival and even success. They became the pioneers of the Big Tribes outward expansion. The Scots and the Basques were often the vanguard of the colonial project for the British and the Spanish. And individual Scots and Basques often did very well under colonialism. This dual strategy for survival has now converged as the Big Tribes decline and look inward. The small Tribes are now beginning to look outward. They are emboldened by supra national entities like the European Union and the United Nations, because they see in them a framework for countering the Big Tribes or, even better, bypassing them and making them irrelevant. For example, even as England voted overwhelmingly against the EU, immigration and economic globalization, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly in support of it.

The Scots, the Northern Irish, the Catalans and Basques are taking their case to the EU, by playing up their own regions and seeking direct ties and bypassing London or Madrid. A close colleague in Northern Ireland was describing to me how many diehard Unionists and Loyalists in Northern Ireland are now trying to get Irish passports. The attitudes, demeanour and style of the Small Tribes is becomoing akin to that of the Big Tribes (in the past). They have become outward looking, even if they may not have the economic, political and military heft to carry through on the substance. While shunning the Big Tribes, these Small Tribes are accommodating, if not embracing the New Tribes. Previously hostile to outsiders, these Small Tribes now welcome them. Previously conservative in social policy, these Small Tribes now embrace a more progressive one. To my amusement a few years back, a leading member of the radical nationalist Basque party associated with the armed group ETA, informed me with pride that the May day rally of his party that is fighting for a separate state in the North of Spain, was led by two Muslim women in head scarves!

There are many New Tribes in Europe – Indian, Pakistani, Arab, Black, Turkish, Moroccan and Tamil. But only one New Tribe has come to dominate the political debate – Muslims. The New Tribes are not sure whether to integrate with or isolate themselves from the Big tribes. Unlike the small Tribes – Scots or Basques – that are territorially concentrated, for the New Tribes exit is not a collective option. It is only available to them as individuals. New Tribes integrate by either abandoning their cultural/religious markers and assimilating into the Big Tribes – if they will have them. They privatise religion, while participating in a secularized public space (London’s first Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan, reflects this approach). Or they integrate by developing an apolitical and defensive framework that focuses on their cultural/religious traits to the exclusion of the political ones. They adhere to the laws of the land, while creating their own communities of culture and religion within specific neighbourhoods. They live in Muslim neighbourhoods, attend Muslim schools and work in Muslim owned businesses, but vote for the Labour Party in the UK or the CDU in Germany or the UMP in France.

This dual approach is similar to the survival strategies of the Small Tribes, who either culturally walled themselves off from the Big Tribes or assimilated and/or joined joined their expansionist imperial project. There is a twist to some elements of the New Tribes in Europe. This twist only affects a tiny minority, but it is having a critical impact politically. Like their Small Tribe counterparts who were part of the imperial project, they are individually joining a new imperial project – the global jihad – to express their hostility to the constrictions of the Big Tribes or their frustration with being ignored altogether. Again it is a project with a vision for everyone. And lacks neither ambition nor a commitment to violence in pursuing this vision. Yet, it is also cosmopolitan. An Iraqi Sunni Arab colleague from a region of Iraq overrun by Islamic State, described them, only mildly tongue in cheek, as the United Nations. He said a third of the fighters were non-Iraqi. And they came from every region of the world – from China, the UK, India, Pakistan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Senegal, Libya, France and numerous other places, including the Americas. They came from every part of the globe, were united in their vision and commitment to violent means for achieving it. While distasteful to many, this may be, it is no less grand in sweep than the colonial, soviet or European projects that preceded it.

For Europe to survive these three Tribes must reach a modus vivendi. They must find a way to take on the outward looking elements of the Big Tribes while ditching their proclivity for domination. They must take on the adventurous and creative elements of the New Tribes without the tendency of some of them towards destruction. The gradual transformation of the small Tribes from inward looking isolation towards outward looking engagement, whether with people, goods and culture provides an example, if not a blueprint. Our only hope for a Europe where all tribes can survive is if they can transform themselves into New Small Tribes – outward looking and engaged without the need to dominate and destroy.