Miraculously they’d arrived. Emerging from the coach were thirty Nigerian sheikhs, imams, pastors, priests and activists from areas affected by Boko Haram’s terrorism in Nigeria, men and women, some hardline some open-minded, run off their feet, not knowing what to expect. An attempt to create some interfaith unity against the ISIS-style terrorism in the north-east of Nigeria was underway.
The Conference Centre was tucked away outside a small town in Northamptonshire. That first day was hard going. The body language from the senior Pentecostals said it all. They were boarding with the enemy. Most of the Christians had never been in a mosque. Most of the Muslims had never been in a church. The divisions were immediately visible in who sat with whom. With only the sheep outside the Centre to talk to, everyone was stuck, way beyond their comfort zone.
It was a high risk strategy but the only way to break the tension. Three Christians were placed opposite three Muslims and each asked to tell their story. The Muslim story was about being second class citizens in a Western dominated the Nigerian Federation. The Christian story was - implicitly - that “Muslims were killing Christians”. Tension mounted.
Then came the first woman Muslim speaker. She described being in a car ambushed by Boko Haram. Her three female companions shot dead. She was partly hidden by the body of her companion in the back seat. A terrorist looked through the window but decided they were all dead. A few months later Boko Haram came for her brother. Tears began to flow. The body language amongst the Christians changed, arms were unfolded, the tension evaporated. After that the religious divisions began to break down, doors appeared in cultural walls. By the end of the week they had a shared story “Terrorists are killing Christians and Muslims”.
The divisions in that room were religiously motivated and, on day one, entrenched. Some Pentecostals believe that Muslims worship the Devil, some Salafi Muslim reject Christianity as kufr, unbelief and Christians as infidels. The change in narrative was no small thing. But the tears broke through religious identity to a common humanity. Most of the participants had lost kin and loved-ones or experienced suffering caused by their religious affiliation. The empathy at work broke down barriers. Several of the participants, began to work together, and still communicate across religious lines years later. Nigeria remains plagued by religious divisions.
This is not just a lesson for Nigeria. What of our own social and religious neo-tribalism? A plethora of articles and books have appeared diagnosing the roots of contemporary divisions: identity politics, “somewhere” versus “anywhere” people, the differential impact of the 2008 global financial crisis. Such divisions are not just imagined, the projections of a fragmented present against a fanciful harmonious past. We seem to be heading into apocalyptic W.B. Yeats country: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Much quoted but presciently descriptive of the political gyrations occurring globally today.
What has gone wrong since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and Fukuyama foolishly gloried in the eternal triumph of democracy and liberal capitalism? Whatever it is politically, sociologically and economically, it has had an impact on people’s minds. Or perhaps it would be better to say it has made up many minds that the apparently contradictory mix of an emotional tribal and a cognitively individualist worldview is in their best interests.
It is a commonplace to suggest that a world in which most people spend a significant part of their life in virtual reality, with identities shaped and intensified by self-selected peer groups, might be an important factor in generating neo-tribalism. Or that social media peddles a fake individualism, nurtured by advertising agencies, based on promoting the purchase of different sorts of goods, my music, my shoes, my clothes, for example. The rapid decline of organized religion means that what is right has become simply what is right for me. And the default position for what is right for me is what most of my peers do. Traditional wisdom and ethics are like the remains of a meal, cold and congealed, to be swept into the garbage. Historical humility, the idea that the past may have some lessons to teach us about how to live, disappears in the immediacy of virtual interactions.
Yes, this me-now generation is a dismal caricature. There is a new Generation Z campaigning for strict gun laws in the USA, voting against Trump. In the UK, a youthful food and alcohol puritanism concerned about climate change and bio-diversity, voting against BREXIT. Both are alert to infringements of the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities.
But caricatures are based on certain features artfully exaggerated, and depend on these features being there in small measure ready to be exaggerated. There are people everywhere who, in the pursuit of profit and power, are ready to manipulate these features to their advantage.
Another way of looking at what has happened since 1991 is to consider not what is new or apparently growing, but what is rare, missing or notable by its absence. What is in people’s minds, or missing from them, when they see large numbers of migrants desperate enough to drown in the Mediterranean – over 2,000 this year - or die crossing the US border in pursuit of a better life, yet campaign against them? Who put jobs in the arms industry above 14 million people facing famine in Yemen. Who rise up baying in huge numbers for the death of a Christian woman on trumped up charges of blasphemy? Who gun down people of different colour, religion or political views, or from different gangs? What are the roots of this, our contemporary neo-tribalism?
My answer is not some brilliant sociological insight. I wish it were. What has been disappearing is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or the desire, skill and formation to do so.
Can democracies create and sustain a culture of empathy? Even affluent Germany is struggling. Can Empathy be taught? Let’s hope so.