Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Separatism on the rise

Separatist movements are on the rise across the world today, but some of them may be unrealistic and have unpredictable consequences, writes Azza Radwan Sedky​

In this day and age as yet more conflicts and wars devastate entire regions and terrorists wreak havoc across all corners of the globe, one might think that nations would seek empowerment in numbers, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Many nations are seeking autonomy and self-government, and many others want to separate. 

From Scotland to Punjab, from Kurdistan to South Sudan, from Catalonia to the Basque Country, such regions and nations have sought independence or separation.

A main cause for such moves is the holding of a distinct ethnicity, language or culture. When a region is not the same as the rest of a country in such significant terms, its citizens may become alienated and seek separation.  

If marginalised regions feel alienated, and if citizens are considered second class, they may seek secession. As history tells us, when the former colonial powers clustered regions haphazardly with other regions that did not belong together, or intentionally splintered ideological units into factions instead of sustaining a single society, people may seek secession.

In other cases, economic burdens and possibly economic benefits may be why some regions seek separation. One region, wealthier than the rest, may be expected to support adjacent, less wealthy regions. Due to its wealth, it may be confident it can handle separation.

When the sense of belonging ceases to exist, or when it wasn’t there in the first place, calls for separation may engulf society.

Quebec’s call for breaking away from Canada, for example, is not only a call for autonomy, but also a case of linguistic and cultural difference. In 1995, a referendum failed to secure Quebec its sovereignty, with 50.58 per cent voting against secession. But the separatist movement in Quebec never died away, even if it has dimmed compared to other separatism movements around the world. 

Hardly anyone, even the British themselves, expected the vote on the UK’s leaving the European Union to turn out the way it did. Today Britain is leaving the European Union, but it is still grappling with the change. 

Scotland has had its own calls for separation, though in 2014 the independence referendum on separation from the rest of the UK did not succeed. The no side won with 55.3 per cent of the vote. However, after Brexit Scotland is once again contemplating its independence.

Catalonia, along with other Spanish regions such as the Basque Country, maintains its ethnic differences, even as it remains within Spain. In 1977, Catalonia was granted a degree of autonomy, but complete independence remained an aim. As the economy suffered in Spain, the calls for separation increased. 

In September 2017, 2.26 million votes were cast in a referendum on secession in Catalonia with the majority in favour of independence. To Spain, this was an act of rebellion, and it hit back. It has issued arrest warrants for the former president of the region and for four other ministers and detained nine others who were freed on bail later.  

The Kurdish conflict in the Middle East has been going on for decades since Britain and France divided the Kurdish population over the four countries of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. The Kurds have never had their own state, and they have suffered persecution at the hands of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and others. 

So when the independence referendum took place in September, the majority of the three million Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly to secede. The results of the referendum, however, were rejected by the international community and Iraq. Israel was the only exception. 

Whether due to ethnicity or economics, many citizens of these areas believe that they are better off severing ties with the states to which they belong and moving on alone. But would these regions be better off as independent entities? I doubt it. 

Regions wanting secession are often dependent on the rest of the country to which they belong, lacking sea access and airport facilities. They often don’t produce many commodities and are dependent on importing goods from surrounding regions. Armies to protect them and a security apparatus to safeguard them may be non-existent. 

Yet, the existence of different languages enriches and discrete ethnicities enhance nation-states. Heterogeneous societies are more accepting than homogeneous ones, and coexistence is what more advanced societies aim for.

It is to be hoped that people will prefer to live together rather than apart, but equal rights for all should be the name of the game. Non-partisan laws should rule. Only then can different groups feel that they belong and that they are living amongst their own people. 

The writer is a political analyst.

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