IN a few days’ time, on January 1, 2010, we shall witness the end of the first decade of a new millennium.
I admit that, in the long winding river of history, the end of another decade is just another arbitrary cut off point. Still, it feels like a useful excuse for us to look back the last 10 years, and scour our memory for the most significant events that have changed our human history.
Even the study of history is subjective. The nation-state is still the most basic unit for our political organisation.
Since history is the collective memory of a nation-state, historical reflection tends to be nation-centric. But I shall make a deliberate conscious attempt at looking at the world in the last 10 years from a global point of view, subjective though I may be still.
Looking back many decades later, this first decade of the 21st century may look as ordinary as any other decade in the past — mundane, and even difficult to summarise. But I doubt it, sensing somehow that we have turned a corner of sort, rippling towards uncharted territory in the decades ahead.
The event of the decade has to be the 9/11 attack on American soil in 2001.
It was the first act of war on American home soil after the Pearl Harbour attack by the Japanese in 1941. It must have shaken the American people’s complacency to the core, because the American military responses in Afghanistan and Iraq were obviously ill-planned paranoiac over-reactions, which the Americans may yet live to regret.
The al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden were master tacticians in choosing the targets with hugely symbolic meanings. Except for the one plane that crashed in futility somewhere in Pennsylvania, two planes destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre and one hit Pentagon, the twin symbols of American capitalism and American militarism. There is a historical twist to this story.
Al-Qaeda grew out of the Afghan insurgence when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Soon after the Soviet occupation, Osama bin Laden travelled to Afghanistan to organise and train the Mujahideen and form the Maktab al- Khisdamat to resist the Soviet invaders, with financial and other forms of assistance from the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
The nine-year war ended with the defeat of the Soviet Union, whose last troops withdrew on February 15, 1989. The war almost bankrupted the Soviet Communist regime, and by a congruence of historical forces at work, communist rule in all Warsaw Pact East European countries collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989.
After the Soviets left, the Americans lost their interest and turned their global attention elsewhere. Afghanistan sank into civil war with the Talibans dominating local politics while harbouring Osama bin Laden as their closest ally.
Osama then turned his attention to the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and American foreign policies, especially on the plight of the Palestinians and the American support for Israel. He pronounced his first Fatwa against the Americans in 1996, the year when the mastermind of the 9/11 attack Khalid Sheikh Mohamad first proposed the idea of the bold terrorist assault on American soil to him.
Looking back, 9/11 was the necessary watershed that diverted the world onto a different direction.
With the communist bloc gone, the old bifurcated world of the Cold War was no more.
International politics cannot endure a vacuum, and so the 9/11 enabled the US to launch onto a new confrontation between the Christian West and the Islamic World. Samuel Huntington’s theory in the 1990s proposed in his book ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ that people’s clash of religious or cultural identities would be the source of world conflict in the post Cold War era had become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Since 9/11, the horrible terrorist suicide attacks have become the norm in countries with Islamic insurgency.
They have become the hallmark of extreme fundamentalist Islamic militancy, in Iraq, in Palestine, Indonesia, and now in Pakistan and India. Thank God we don’t have them in Malaysia!
Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of many voices in both Christian and Islamic worlds that try to explain from the margin that both the Christian and the Islamic worlds are not monolithic homogeneous societies. The groups of Christian and Islamic nations are all very complex entities, with their internal contradictions and dogmatic diversity.
It would be wrong to think that all Christians and all Muslims are the same. In international forums, countries cited for moderate Islam are Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, and even United Arab Emirates.
Unfortunately, extreme political Islam still rages on in too many countries, giving people of the world the wrong impression that Islam is not a religion of peace, but of war! The religious polarisation of the world is unfortunately very much rooted in history.
The 10 crusades launched by the combined forces of the Mediterranean Christian powers on vast Muslim territories from Andalus, Morocco, Turkey to Palestine from 1099 to 1369 left a deep scar in the relations between the Christian and the Islamic worlds.
Then, in the last few hundred years of Western imperialism, the European superpowers conquered much of these vast Islamic territories in the Middle East, reducing them to colonies and vassal states.
After WW2, when it became obvious that Western colonialism was no longer a viable option, the Western powers just created nations on the map as they pleased, without regard to history, natural boundaries, culture, or traditions, thereby sowing the seeds for acrimonious international conflicts later. Israel was just such one creation, and Iraq was another.
In fact, all the major conflicts in the first decade of the new millennium have their roots in the last few centuries. It is frightening to think that the one lesson we learn from history is that human beings never do learn from history!
There are many significant events that have happened in the last 10 years of course, and you can make your own list.
For instance, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games deserves mention, not only because it was probably the most successful Olympic Games ever held, but it symbolised the coming of age of China as the latest economic, military and sports superpower of the world. It is strange that we now remember the grandeur of the games, especially the opening and closing ceremonies, rather than the achievement of the athletes, as is the case with past games.
Some may like to cite the increasing number and frequency of massive and very destructive natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, the Szechuan earthquake in China, the Tsunami that hit many shores in the Indian Ocean in 2006, and so on. The odd superstitious soul may even turn the pages of the Bible to look for signs of the Apocalypse!
Inevitably, there would be those who would nominate the election of Obama as the American President as one of the top 10 events of the last 10 years. Many Americans would do that I think.
It was a trail blazing event in the US indeed, because the election of a man with coloured skin to the position of President would be unthinkable just 10 years ago. Given the global influence of the US, any such groundbreaking political development is likely to open eyes around the world.
Just a year into office, Obama has shown his mantle as a world leader, engaging in diplomatic dialogue even with what Bush used to call ‘rogue nations’, and thanks to his leadership, the Copenhagen conference on climate change has not been an entirely futile talk shop, even though the agreement reached is not binding. At least, the talk has moved forward.
In Malaysia, the top event in our domestic affairs in the last 10 years has to be the political tsunami on March 8, 2008. Something has changed fundamentally in the hearts and minds of Malaysians. The Barisan Nasional has lost their twothirds majority in Parliament, and their hold on state power in five states. Politics in our country will become unpredictable in the next decade.
Looking back at the last decade, there is not much room for optimism for the fate of mankind. The dogs of war still stalk the community of nations.
Everywhere in Asia, Africa and South America, localised armed conflicts still remain the scourge of innocent civilians, especially women and children, who die by the millions every year. Everywhere, hunger, disease, and human sufferings still prevail as our human condition.
I ask you: what is there to celebrate in ushering in a New Year and a new decade?