Pax Ethnica - Advance Praise
"Given the clashing creeds, cultures and ethnicities that plague our planet, is peace possible? It's hard to imagine a more thoughtful and creative attempt to answer this question than the original, surprising and sophisticated case studies ('sane oases in a fanatic world') that Meyer and Brysac provide in thoughtful and accessible prose, in this oddly reassuring book."
--Victor Navasky, former Editor of The Nation Magazine
"After reading this book one will forever question the shibboleth of unyielding 'ancient hatreds' and recognize that thoughtful leadership and wise policies can turn ethnic diversity into tolderable and tolerated coexistence,Pax Ethnica will take its place among original social and historical works in our time."
--Robert Jay Lifton, author of Witness to an Extreme Century
"Twenty years ago a police-brutalized Rodney King voiced the poignant hope, 'People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?' This book answers 'yes to that question by taking us on an educating tour of five places in the world whose diverse residents really are "getting along.'" The places span the globe from northwestern Germany to Tatarstan to South India to Marseille and finally to Queens, NY. It tells us that a pluralistic human society is no mere dream. If it has happened in these five places, it must be possible. We all need this book. It strengthens one's hope for our human future."
--Donald W. Shriver, President Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary
"Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac call themselves independent scholars, but they are also old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporters, and it is the combination of scholarly sensibilities and reportorial enthusiasm that makes their book such a delight. They started with a smart idea about the importance of multi-ethnic communities that thrive, then tested it against the realities of five such communities from Queens in New York to Kerala in India. The result is an engaging, provocative and satisfying book on one of the most important topics of our time."
--Robert G. Kaiser, author of So Damn Much Money
"In an age of ethnic strife, this inspired and prescient book takes readers to places where good people and good policies make peace prevail, in five regions as different as India's Kerala state and New York City's borough of Queens, perhaps the most multicultural place on earth. Diversity is the global future and Pax Ethnica lays out some proven pathways to successful coexistence."
--Barbara Crossette, author of So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas
"From 2009 to 2011, journalist-historians Meyer and Brysac (coauthors of Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East) visited five 'neglected oases of civility' where ethnic comity prevails: Flensburg, Germany, where peaceful accommodation reigns after centuries of Schleswig-Holstein strife; the Indian state of Kerala, where Hindu, Muslim, and Christian populations not only 'flourish peacefully, but have led the way in literacy, life expectancy, and health care within the world's most populous democracy'; the Russian Republic of Tatarstan where 'comity contrasts with turbulent Chechnya's unending strife'; multiethnic Marseilles, France, unaffected by the autumn 2005 violence which spread through hundreds of towns; and Queens, New York, 'arguably the world's most diverse political unit, in which 2.3 million people speak 138 languages.' All share pasts of conflict which the authors succinctly review as they interview a wide range of political figures and distinguished citizens: two legislators in Flensburg; a newspaper editor in Tatarstan; a Keralite environmental activist; Marseille's premier female rapper; and the Borough President of Queens, among others. Treaty or tradition may contribute to ethnic comity, so may location, the happenstance of history, and the passage of time. In the development of 'sane oases in a rabid world,' they argue, individuals make it happen, and they offer '11 guidelines for promoting civility in diverse societies'--un-news, but good news."
--Publisher's Weekly, January 23, 2012
"Meyer and Brysac, a married couple, have written previous books together (Kingmakers:The Invention of the Modern Middle East, 2008, etc.) and separately. By examining 'neglected oases of civility,' they break from the conventional wisdom that ethnic and religious strife are inevitable when perceived enemies share geographic space. These oases include Flensburg, a northern German city emerging from the Schleswig-Holstein region, the longtime border area contested by the warriors of Denmark; the Republic of Tatarstan in the former Soviet Union, where a population that is about one-quarter Muslim, (sic) an unusually high percentage for a European nation, mingles successfully with sizable Orthodox Christian and Jewish populations; the state of Kerala in India, a densely populated entity bordering the Arabisn Sea, where Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities have practice mutual respect; and Queens, N.Y. where more than 2 million residents speak 138 languages. The authors on-the-ground reporting is impressive, especially given the built-in language barriers. Near the end of the book, Meyer and Brysac share 11 guidelines "promoting civility in diverse societies," which include public grappling by government and private authorities with stereotypes of unpopular minorities; free reign of minority languages within the larger society; constructing housing to integrate diverse populations rather than segregate them; developing public libraries as community centers to overcome language and other cultural differences; empowering women as well as men; and harnessing popular culture to cross societal barriers.
A skillful rendering of an inspiring message.
--Kirkus Reviews, January 6, 2021
As ethnic and sectarian violence flares around the world, Karl E. Meyer, a former member of the editorial board at The New York Times, and his wife, Shareen Blair Brysac, an author and documentary producer, have written “Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds” (PublicAffairs, $28.99), a global survey of places where diverse populations live harmoniously together. And no place is as emblematic of the multicultural ideal as New York — specifically, they say, the borough of Queens.
“Queens a global model?” they ask rhetorically. “One can hear an incredulous gasp from the average native of Manhattan. A borough synonymous with clogged airports, depressing cemeteries, a losing baseball team and television’s stereotypical bigot (Archie Bunker)? Can Queens truly serve as the harbinger of multiethnic peace in an otherwise feral world?” Their answer: an unequivocal yes.
The authors write that its only global rival in diversity is London. More languages are spoken in Queens — 138 by one count — than any place else in America. Yet, they conclude, “an Esperanto of civility prevails on its sidewalks.” Sure, the borough has impoverished neighborhoods and illegally converted apartments. But the “visionary passions of a hybrid populace” channeled through community boards and civic associations and coupled with the dynamics of the real estate market and the reach of roads and mass transit mean that “what remains unchanged are the odds favoring those of every origin who are eager to rise.”
--Sam Roberts, New York Times, March 10, 2012 (Bookshelf)
As might be expected from authors who embody scholarly expertise and journalistic style, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have written a book jam-packed with little known and interesting information that provides many passages likely to provoke “Aha!” insights for its readers. And best of all, Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds is a joy to read.
In the pages of Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds, the authors argue that the conventional storyline of “domestic contention” and “clashes of civilization” throughout the Balkans, the Middle East, central and south America, south and southeast Asia, and “historically victimized Africa” grossly distort our perception of the actual reality.
Instead, they set out to demonstrate that many people who belong to quite different cultures and sociopolitical or ethnic subgroups do live peacefully together in the same space; i.e., that “multiple loyalties and languages can be creatively reconciled.”
They illustrate that proposition by retracing the historical evolution of the diverse populations living within five specific “oases of civility”—Flensburg (Germany); Kerala (India); Tatarstan (Russia); Marseille (France); and the New York borough of Queens (USA)—with a chapter devoted to each of those case studies.
A sixth chapter focuses primarily on the Canadian, Australian, and—with apologies to the United States’ other western hemisphere neighbors—“American” experience. With the exception of the discussion of Australia’s relatively unique inter-ethnic history and the reminder that it was not until “the 1960s . . . [that] all three countries lowered racial barriers” to immigration, the discussion in this sixth chapter covers ground likely to be familiar to most American readers.
A reading of this book suggests that some combination of political and administrative decentralization, respect for culturally legitimate—even if unofficial—methods of resolving conflict, the existence of a common language (even if other second or third languages are also used by subgroups), and some exposure to international trade and traders tend toward the lessening of inter-ethnic strife.
Conversely, the existence of sovereign-state borders that separate the national homelands of specific ethnic groups or concentrate such groups within states dominated by other self-interested nationalities, the absence of mutually understandable languages, the “allure of the flag” as a symbol of exclusive—rather than inclusive—nationalism, and the exhortation of narrowly xenophobic political leaders tend toward exacerbating interethnic strife.Some readers might view this book as begging a fundamental question: Can specific acts of human volition spark a transition away from potential or current interethnic conflict or are such transitions essentially a function of broader evolutionary processes that occur serendipitously. The authors anticipate that concern by concluding this book with “eleven guidelines for promoting civility in diverse societies” that are summarized only briefly here...One should acknowledge here that there can be no universal recipe for establishing oases of multicultural peace throughout every nook and cranny of our shrinking globe. And the items in the authors’ list are quite uneven; ranging from the substantial to the peripheral. Nonetheless, it can be hoped that policymakers seized with issues of multicultural collaboration will give the recommendations in Pax Ethnica serious consideration—rather than dismissing them as nothing more than academic wishful thinking.
--Jerry Mark Silverman, New York Journal of Books
If it bleeds it leads! The mantra of many a newsroom. In their new book, “Pax Ethnica” two great journalists, Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, argue that day in and day out ethnic conflict and tension along religious and cultural lines makes for reliable, if dispiriting, headlines.
Journalists regularly play plenty of attention to failed states, sectarian violence and societies at the breaking point. But what about those unsung exceptions, the communities of the world where diverse groups live together in harmony?
There are many myths that pervade both newsrooms and popular consciousness around this subject. In the last three weeks I have been reporting from Nigeria where one third of all the black people in the world live. For many it is still considered a failed state mired in corruption and violence in the oil producing Niger delta region and now with Boko Haram in the north. In fact it is a fast emerging economic success with the last election accepted as very fair. The delta is almost quiet. But find that in your newspaper or on TV you will be lucky.
Similarly, there is almost nothing on the fact that the number of civil wars in Africa has fallen dramatically and that all over the world conflict has sharply diminished in the last decade. Battle deaths have fallen sharply and those dying as a result of war have also steadily decreased.
Meyer and Brysac concentrate their fire on five areas of the world where disparate peoples who could well have cause to hate and fight each other get along.
For over a century Germany and Denmark were at loggerheads over a piece of territory called Schleswig-Holstein. It was one of the big divisive issues of the day. Amusingly, during one of its periodic crises, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston explained to Queen Victoria, “Only three people have ever understood the Schleswig-Holstein business – the Prince Consort, who is dead – a German professor who has gone mad- and I, who have forgotten all about it”.
The pot continually was stirred by unscrupulous nationalists. In Cologne, Karl Marx ran a newspaper, the Neue Rheinische. It derided the Danes as oafs and peasants who ungratefully relied on Germans for what passed as their culture.
Although it was predominantly German speaking, Denmark had long ruled the province until Bismarck snatched it away by war and suppressed the Danish part of the population. At the end of the Second World War Britain offered Denmark the return of the land. In a magnanimous gesture Denmark said “no” on condition that the language and cultural rights of Danish speakers be respected. A running sore was healed.
In the autumn of 2005 there were race riots in many parts of France but the southern port of Marseilles, which has more than its fair share of immigrants, mainly north African Muslims, remained quiet. The critical catalyst was the role of three consecutive mayors and the leaders of the Islamic, Orthodox, Christian and Jewish communities. Although there is a broad north/south divide in the city immigrant communities are not bunched into ghettos as in the suburbs of Paris. As important, the city’s diverse inhabitants identify themselves proudly as Marseillais – a civic pride fortified by a good soccer team and by concerts of local rap stars and the cohesive work of schools and civic action groups.
There is a similar story in Russia where in Tatarstan the majority Muslim population and minority Orthodox population live together harmoniously. The Orthodox cathedral adjoins one of Europe’s biggest mosques – the very emblem of centuries of proud tolerance reinforced by its long-time former president, Mikhail Shaimiev, who wrested from Moscow a form of “sovereignty” that gives the republic an unusual measure of autonomy while respecting the cultural rights of all its citizens both Tartars and Russians.
In Kerala, the Christian, least corrupt, healthiest and best educated state in India, the state has been riot proof and values its highly diverse population. At one time, but no longer, it had the most severe and oppressive caste system in India. A key factor in producing harmony has been the long-ruling communist party which has out-democratised most other parts of India. Elections regularly involve a peaceful rotation of power- with the empowerment of women an added essential catalyst.
Finally, the authors look at the borough of Queens in New York, arguably the most diverse place in the world, with its 2.3 million residents speaking 138 languages. There are many elements in its success – the way its schools and hospitals are run but, perhaps most of all, its ubiquitous libraries with DVDs in several Indian languages, Nollywood films from Nigeria, homework help in Hindi and computer classes in Spanish,
One can’t be quite so pessimistic about the world’s divisions if one studies these five examples. Why don’t the media focus more on what works?
--Copyright:Jonathan Power, Transnational Foundation for Peace
This informative look at successful immigration hubs worldwide explores what New York-based American academics Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac call "oases of civility."
These oases are as wildly diverse as the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, Sydney, Australia, and Queens, N.Y. What they all have in common is that all have implemented solutions to accommodate the traditions, religions and cultures of their new migrant populations within the established norms and practices.
Governments of the western democracies, including Canada, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated, take it as an article of belief that immigrants are necessary to supply a young, vibrant labour force to supplement their aging populations, to maintain the social safety net and to sustain economic growth.
Canada is at the forefront of the multiculturalism experiment. As Meyer and Brysac laudably write, Canada was the first nation to institute an official policy of multiculturalism and to establish a federal ministry of multiculturalism.
Do we have to be a multicultural society? If yes, how can that society be made to work? How do we foster acceptance for the cultural, religious and racial diversity new waves of immigrants bring to our shores?
Too bad Meyer and Brysac don't refer to the New York Times of last Nov. 12. A front-page article, Defying Trend, Canada Lures More Migrants, reports how the "parka clad" people of Winnipeg and the "famously friendly people of Manitoba" have accepted newcomers to the province.
However, as the authors detail, these issues are still political hot-button issues. It is not a difficult search to find anti-immigration pieces in magazines, newspaper columns, editorials and letters to the editor, particularly after a racially charged incident is alleged.
A partial answer to the questions is found in the concept of "pragmatic accommodation" of diversity, a term first used in 2005 by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Gerhard Bouchard.
Allowing Sikh boys to wear their traditional knives (kirpans) in school, finding a place for Muslim children to pray in school, allowing Muslim women to wear head coverings while voting and permitting Sikh members of the RCMP to have beards and wear turbans are examples of pragmatic accommodation.
Simply put, the authors believe, ethnic tensions can be defused and paths to a cohesive social structure are opened when pragmatic rational solutions to problems are sought out for the common good.
Meyer and Brysac conclude by offering guidelines for promoting civility in diverse societies:
-- Do not allow unanswered stereotypical caricatures of unpopular minorities.
-- Emphasize the value of multilingualism; don't turn communities into "hives of ethnic alienation (i.e. developments like the Lord Selkirk Development in the core area of Winnipeg).
-- Celebrate cultural diversity.
-- Empower the women of minorities and many others.
Although this book is written primarily for sociologists and political scientists, it is not overburdened by specialized jargon or turgid academic prose.
Non-specialists in the social sciences will find it accessible and, because of the breadth of the subject matter, containing much food for thought.
--Ian Stewart, Winnepeg Free Press
Today’s newspaper headlines tell conflicts, atrocities and civil unrest around the world leaving one to ask the question, are there places where people of different ethnicities, especially with significant Muslim minorities, live in peace? If so, why haven’t we heard more about them, and what explains their success?
To answer these questions, Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac undertook a two-year exploration of places notable for minimal violence, rising life-expectancy, high literacy and pragmatic compromises on cultural rights. They explored the Indian state of Kerala, the Russian republic of Tatarstan, the city of Marseille in France, the city of Flensburg, Germany and the borough of Queens. Through the use of interviews Meyer and Brysac document the ways and means that have proven successful in defusing ethnic tensions.
The result is Pax Ethnica.
The book, (PublicAffairs, March 2012) elegantly blends political history, sociology, anthropology and journalism, to provide big ideas for peace.
Their travels took them to the port city of Marseille, France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim community to the streets of Flushing and greater Queens where 2.3 million people speak 138 languages. They also traveled to Flensburg, Germany, the epicenter of the “Schleswig-Holstein Question” that fueled conflict for over a century but is now peaceful. They find that Kerala, India, a state where Hindus, Muslims and Christians live together peacefully, leads the country in literacy, life expectancy and health care, and that the Russian Republic of Tatarstan is constituted of a Muslim majority and significant Orthodox population who co-exist without conflict.
In each place Meyer and Brysac uncover creative, innovative solutions to and help answer the question, how do people overcome their differences and get along? The success stories that they tell feature strong civic and government leadership that defuses rather than provokes ethnic conflict, prioritizes the inclusion of diverse traditions within a common union, and offers clear paths to citizenship for economic migrants.
One key element of the book is the convincing argument for electoral arrangements that ensure minority representation, mutual respect for diverse traditions, and the emphasis on basic rights within as well as between ethnic and religious groups. Along the way, the authors explore the importance of pop culture, sports and rap music as powerful forces that bond people together.
When asked about researching Queens, Meyer and Brysac praised the Queens library system for its diverse approach.
“The library system is spectacular,” they replied. “At the Flushing branch, you can check out DVDs in several Indian languages. At other branches, you can get Nollywood films from Nigeria, get homework help in Hindi, join a Korean reading group, take computer classes in Spanish, get help with your taxes, immigration papers and job applications.”
The authors also praise Queens for its diverse selection of food covering everything from Greek food in Astoria, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean in Flushing and Argentinean grills and Indian food in Jackson Heights along the No. 7 subway line.
Meyer served on the New York Times editorial board and previously was a foreign correspondent and editorial writer on The Washington Post. Meyer has been the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton, and has taught at Yale and Tuft’s Fletcher School. He is the author of a dozen books and is emeritus editor of the World Policy Journal. He holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. Brysac was a prizewinning documentary producer for CBS News and author of Resisting Hitler: Mildred Fish Harnack and the Red Orchestra. Together they wrote Tournament of Shadows and Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East. The couple lives in New York City and Weston, Connecticut.
Pax Ethnica, (Pax the Latin word for “peace’ and Ethnica the Greek word for “people”) dares to look at one of the world’s seemingly most intractable problems from a new perspective that is fresh and innovative.
--Jason D. Antos, Queens Gazette
Too often, ties of blood have led to rivers of blood. However, as journalist Meyer and filmmaker Brysac contend, this is not inevitable. On the contrary, their journalistic foray into instances of ethnically diverse groups living in harmony offers an antidote to excessive pessimism. Their book can be read as complementing Michael Ignatieff's Blood and Belonging (l994) which focuses on the dark side of ethnicity when interethnic relations go badly wrong. As their book's title indicates, Meyer and Brysac are intent on examining successful instances of diversity without ignoring the discontents. Their examples are not the places that make the headlines. These include Flensburg, a city central to Schleswig-Holstein dispute in Germany; the Indian state of Kerala; the Russian Federation's Tatarstan; the city of Marseille; and New York City's borough of Queens. Without glossing over the potential for conflict or how difficult it is to achieve mutually respectful social relations across cultural divides, the authors illustrate the possibilities if the will, leadership and decency of ordinary citizens are present to make it happen. At a time when the ideals of multiculturalism are routinely challenged by those suspicious about its presumed divisiveness this book is required reading. Summing Up: Essential. All public and undergraduate libraries.
--P. Kivisto, Augutana College
New Book Praises Queens’ Diversity
In the late 1990s, a history teacher told her class at a Queens high school during a discussion about race, “In Queens, everyone is a minority.” In the last few decades, that has been technically true. There is no majority ethnicity in Queens, one of the few places in the country -- and indeed in the world--where that is true. Often it's a sense of pride for Queens residents, sometimes it has led to minor strife, but the borough's ethnic diversity has given it a reputation that has gone global.
Journalists and authors Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac are just the latest to write about that reputation. In their new book, "Pax Ethnica," the duo explores Queens and other places around the world where different cultures live together in relative harmony like the religious diversity of Muslims, Hindus and Christians living together in Kerala, India, and the large Muslim population of Marseilles, France - a country that banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves.
Although their travels took them all over the world, both say Queens definitely stands out as unique.
“There is no place on Earth as diverse as Queens,” Brysac said, noting 138 languages are spoken in the borough. “Queens sets the standard.”
She and Meyer “handled Queens a little differently” than they did in other areas they visited and profiled and noted that its location - directly across the river from where they lived in Manhattan - made it a much less time consuming place to research.
“It was easier in many ways because we had the luxury of time,” Brysac said.
Every week during their research, the two of them would visit different parts of Queens and see how different communities lived. They read local newspapers - including Queens Tribune - and visited with community boards and parent-teacher associations.
“Community boards and PTAs are very important,” Meyer said. “They provide a forum for different ethnic groups to get together and try to solve problems”.
Meyer said they took note of some of the borough’s quirks, such as the aging of the community board members. They interviewed Richard Italiano, the late chairman of Community Board 4 who passed away in January, and spoke about how many immigrants do not get involved in community board and civic positions because they tend to work multiple jobs and have little time to be involved in civic activities. They also took note of the “potpourri of ethnic groups” that ride the 7 train and the cultural events that often bring together large groups of different people, including the Phagwa Parade in Richmond Hill, which was held this past weekend.
“The Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jews, to a degree that’s really quite impressive, generated an general inter-communal feeling,” Meyer said.
Queens’ diversity can be seen even in its healthcare system, Meyer and Brysac said. Pharmacists in local small pharmacies gear toward the immigrant community and help customers not only with medicines, but also immigration and tax issues. At Elmhurst Hospital, there are 10 full-time translators because of the number of foreign language speakers in the community.
But what stood out above all else in the borough, the duo said, was its libraries.
“If you go to your local library in Manhattan and compare it to the library in Flushing, there is no comparison,” Brysac said, she went on to describe the borough’s libraries are “very people directed” and are not only places to check out books, but fully-functioning community centers that played host to organizations, community meetings and events; something that is not in Manhattan libraries.
In many ways, Meyer said Queens was what communities, faced with a future full of diversity, will evolve into.
“We felt we were visiting the future,” Meyer said. “Queens was pioneering a new type of cosmopolitism.”
-- Domenick Rafter, Queens Tribune
In Africa, the Balkans, the Middle Eat, and South Asia, troubled countries have been torn apart by seemingly intractable struggles among hostile religious, ethnic, and sectarian groups. In the public imagination, such conflicts are deeply rooted in "ancient hatreds" or inevitable "clashes of civilizations." In this engaging book, two veteran journalists challenge that popular narrative by examining places around the world where diverse peoples have found ways to live together peacefully: from the Indian state of Kerala, where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have prospered together; to the Russian republic of Tatarstan, where the Muslim majority has lived peacefully with the orthodox Christian minority; to the borough of Queens, in New York City, where a dizzying array of ethnic, religious, and language groups coexist. The book is a sort of travelogue, laced with local histories and colorful personalities.....Capable political leadership appears to help, as does a shared sense of citizenship, complete with rights and protections...
---G. J. Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs
Reviving the dream of diversity
The past 10 years have not been kind to defenders of multiculturalism. Around the world, we hear calls that multiculturalism has failed. It may once have been a laudable dream, but experience has proved it to be a “multicultural tragedy,” and only people blinded by political correctness cling to its defence.
Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac want to resuscitate the dream, or at least they want to challenge the pessimism that has accompanied recent debates around ethnic diversity. But rather than jumping directly into the heated arguments for and against multiculturalism, they set out on the road to find places where diversity “succeeds.” They looked to find the “unsung exceptions” where ethnic diversity might be expected to be a source of strife and conflict, but where, in fact, it is accepted and even celebrated.
The book identifies five such examples, from all corners of the globe: the German border region of Schleswig, where Germans and Danes fought for centuries over borders and language rights, but now live in peace; the Russian republic of Tatarstan, which has overcome its historic animosity between Muslim Tatars and Orthodox Russians; the Indian province of Kerala, where Hindus and Muslims live peacefully together; the French city of Marseilles, where North African immigrants feel more welcome than in other parts of France; and the New York City borough of Queens, with its dozens of languages and ethnic groups.
Canadians may be disappointed that we were not included in this list of success stories. In fact, Meyer and Brysac do cite Canada approvingly in several places, and we may have been left out simply because our story is not “unsung.” Canadians have been actively telling (or selling) our diversity story to anyone who will listen, and Meyer and Brysac have looked instead for less-known cases.
They spend a chapter on each of their five success stories, giving a brief history of ethnic relations in the location, and identifying one or more turning points where accommodations were made that helped turn diversity from a threat into a benefit. They flesh out the story with interviews of leading politicians, journalists, academics, artists and activists, whose personal anecdotes of amity and conviviality among the various ethnic and religious groups enliven and illustrate the argument.
Meyer and Brysac are both former journalists – he with The Washington Post, she with CBS News – and they write in the same engaging journalistic style they used successfully in their earlier books on Central Asia (Tournament of Shadows) and the Middle East (Kingmakers). They clearly have a strong pro-diversity perspective, but as much as possible they let the local interviewees do the talking. The result is an interesting and encouraging glimpse into five cases where diversity seems to succeed.
As a long-time defender of multiculturalism, I’m sympathetic to the authors’ argument. I agree fully that we need to challenge the idea that ethnic diversity inevitably leads to conflict. As the authors emphasize, human agency matters. It is the decisions we make, individually and collectively, that determine whether diversity succeeds or fails. Their five case studies persuasively show this.
And yet I worry about the strategy of invoking “unsung exceptions.” After all, the very idea that these are exceptions implies that ethnic conflict is the norm. And, indeed, the authors describe these five cases as “harbingers of multiethnic peace in an otherwise feral world,” which have overcome “history’s most pernicious quandary” and “most intractable problem.”
Yet this, too, is a myth that must be challenged. There is nothing normal about ethnic violence. Many people think that Africa is being torn asunder by ethnic conflicts, but studies have shown that if you randomly pick any two neighbouring ethnic groups in Africa, the likelihood that they are involved in violent conflict is infinitesimally small. In describing their five cases as exceptions, Meyer and Brysac may unintentionally be reproducing the myth that ethnic diversity is prone to violence. I would have preferred a more direct attack on the claim that ethnic diversity creates a “pernicious quandary,” rather than trying to identify “exceptions” to the alleged quandary.
Perhaps the authors would respond that what is exceptional about these cases isn’t simply the absence of violence, but rather that diversity “succeeds.” At their best, these cases go beyond mere tolerance or bare co-existence to include positive elements of inter-group solidarity, and this is what makes them harbingers of a better society. The various groups are committed to living together in justice, and to sharing fairly economic opportunities, political representation and cultural recognition.
But if this is the goal – to identify cases of ethnic justice and not merely ethnic peace – then this is an odd mix. The Danish minority in Germany may come close to achieving what ethnic justice requires, but that is not true of the other four cases. North African immigrants may feel more at home in Marseilles than in Paris, but they remain woefully disadvantaged in economic, political and cultural institutions. Here and elsewhere, Meyer and Brysac skip over difficult questions about how we would measure “success” beyond the mere absence of violence.
Without a clearer sense of what counts as success, the book is unlikely to mollify critics of diversity. After all, most critics of multiculturalism are not primarily concerned about violence. When critics say multiculturalism leads to Balkanization, they do not literally mean that it leads to Bosnia-type civil war. Rather, they worry that multiculturalism will drain public life of any real sense of common purpose and solidarity, leaving society as an archipelago of mutually indifferent groups who live together in (mere) peace.
To refute that fear, we need cases not just of ethnic peace, but of multiethnic societies that sustain a meaningful sense of solidarity, justice and collective purpose. Meyer and Brysac may intend some of their examples to fill this need, but they never clearly articulate a standard of success other than the absence of violence. At times, it seems that the main reason why Marseilles is a success is that fewer cars were burned there during the 2005 riots than in Paris.
Similarly, the main reason why Tatarstan is a success is that it avoided the civil war that engulfed Chechnya; and the main reason why Kerala is a success is that it avoided the atrocities between Muslims and Hindus that occurred in nearby Gujarat province.
It is hugely important to understand why some cities or regions remain peaceful while others erupt in violence. But if the aim is to respond to pessimists about multiculturalism, we need a different standard of success. And we are likely to need a different set of examples than those in this book.
As a legal scholar and practitioner, I have long examined ethnicity through the prism of international criminal law and how ethnic hatreds feed the major war crimes tribunals prosecuting atrocity crimes in Africa, the Balkans and other hot spots during the last two decades. The savagery of the slaughters, mutilations, ethnic cleansing and sexual violence leaves nothing to the imagination.
Much of the media coverage and scholarly treatments of the violence depict diversity as civilization’s downfall. The pessimistic thesis of Samuel Huntington in “The Clash of Civilizations,” first published in Foreign Affairs in 1993, has resonated for two decades, spreading a mind-numbing presumption of hopelessness about life on a crowded Earth.
But this presumption invites a challenge, which Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have delivered in “Pax Ethnica.” As veteran scholar-journalists and, it so happens, husband and wife, Meyer and Brysac journeyed to five ethnically diverse societies on three continents to discover what works as antidotes to conflicts among peoples.
What a great idea. This book should inspire wandering spirits to discover other ethnically harmonious cities and regions and spread the word: “reasonable accommodation” can work, gloriously.
In trying to devise a formula of co-existence and progress for groups seemingly destined to compete with each other, the authors take on a heavy burden. As they point out, the principle of self-determination and the negotiation of treaties protecting minority rights have been imperfect pathways to protecting ethnic diversity. These political tools nonetheless provide the much-needed historical context for some of the authors’ case studies.
Meyer and Brysac explore life in Flensburg, a town in the state of Schleswig-Holstein at the northern tip of Germany, just across the border from Denmark. The Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and the Third Reich long counted Schleswig-Holstein as part of Germany. The doctrine of self-determination had worked its will after World War I when the German majority in south Schleswig voted to remain within Germany.
But the post-World War II reality has proven far more nuanced. Denmark magnanimously traded land for peace with its defeated aggressor neighbor. The Bonn-Copenhagen Declarations of 1955 established enough autonomy for Schleswig-Holstein to forge its own distinctive preservation of Danish culture and recognition of other minorities. The Danish minority was guaranteed cultural and civil rights.
In the Indian state of Kerala, the comity that binds together Hindus, Muslims and Christians rests upon an exceptionally high literacy rate, particularly among women, and a thriving economy fueled by strong democratic instincts. Everyone’s holidays are celebrated. As one local professor proclaims, “In Kerala, there is no Hindu water and no Muslim water.” Sashi Tharoor, a worldly former United Nations official representing Kerela as a parliamentarian in New Delhi, said: “If America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thali — a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”
Meyer and Brysac journey to the Russian republic of Tatarstan to understand how a society populated by Sunni Muslims of Tatar origin and Russian Orthodox Christians, as well as about 70 smaller ethnicities, exists peacefully. The key was a pact with Moscow that granted substantial self-rule to Tatarstan. Russia’s then-President Boris Yeltsin told Tatarstan’s inhabitants to “take all the sovereignty you can swallow.” And they have done so while continuing their tradition of interfaith marriages.
In 1990, Tatarstan’s Supreme Soviet unanimously issued a rights-rich “Declaration of State Sovereignty” that was approved in a popular referendum. Tatarstan entered into a bilateral treaty with Russia that granted the republic some foreign-affairs powers and further solidified its autonomous character.
There remains a repressive environment for human rights and press freedom in Tatarstan, so not all is well there. Politics is dominated by a ruling elite. But the republic did not experience the fate of Chechnya, which declared independence following the collapse of the Soviet empire and then suffered defeat in a devastating war with Yeltsin’s army.
Marseille, a luckily situated seaside metropolis with mythical and historical traditions, survived France’s violent autumn of 2005 relatively unscathed. The young people of the city proudly described themselves as “Marseillais” above all other identities and joined with others to project a great sense of optimism. There are at least 27 ethnic groups in Marseille, but what distinguishes the city “is that succeeding migrant communities settled in the city’s central area, so that newcomers have long been clearly visible near administrative and political headquarters.” Europeans returning from the Algerian morass in the early 1960s tested the city’s tolerance and strengthened it for the future.
Meyer and Brysac journeyed across the East River to Queens, N.Y. The mantra “Nobody lives in Queens” is patently false, and they discovered a metropolis devoid of a city center but remarkably embracing diversity in 62 branches of the Queens Public Library, where cultural exploration is the norm. Streetwise New Yorkers find their most engaging home among the 2.3 million residents of a borough where 138 languages are spoken.
“Pax Ethnica” has one unfortunate weakness. I expected maps of the five destinations to enlighten the reader with a geographical focus. Cartography is repeatedly short-changed in contemporary books, and it deserves a revival.
Meyer and Brysac conclude with a set of guidelines for ethnically harmonious societies. My favorite is “Fear not the persistence of minority tongues.” Could someone please whisper that in the ear of politicians across this incredibly diverse land as they campaign to preserve E pluribus unum?
David Scheffer is a law professor at Northwestern University, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues and the author of “All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals.”