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Ethnic Conflict & Ancient Hatred, Cultural Concern

Ethnic Conflict & Ancient Hatred, Cultural Concern



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Published by Jacobin Parcelle
Encyclopedia Series OF Conflict, War, and Peace : Cultural Concern Ethnic Conflict & Ancient Hatred
Encyclopedia Series OF Conflict, War, and Peace : Cultural Concern Ethnic Conflict & Ancient Hatred

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Published by: Jacobin Parcelle on Feb 17, 2009
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Annual Re
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R. M. Williams
Ethnic Conflicts and Ancient Hatreds:Cultural Concerns
Theviewthatethnicconflictstodaycanbetracedbackto ancient group hatreds is known as essentialism,sometimes also called ‘primordialism.’ It is verypopular in nonscholarly circles, but has very fewproponents in the scholarly world.Essentialism relies on two interconnected argu-ments, sometimes made together. It refers to ‘pri-mordial’ or ‘ancient animosities’ as a cause of con-temporary conflict. The animosities are said to bebased on inherent differences of race, religion, orculture,goingbackintoancienttimes;anditisfurthercontended that individuals acquire the characteristicsoftheirraces,religions,orcultures.Asecondessential-ist argument is that ethnicity inheres in human beings,meaning that all of us inevitably search for, or caneasily be made to care for, our ancestry and blood.Either way, conflict results, for a rational calculus issuperseded by the emotional ties of blood, or byancient hatreds. Human beings live out not only thepositive attributes of the collectivity to which theybelong, but also its prejudices with respect to othergroups. Again and again in history, intrinsic groupdifferences activate prejudices and trigger violence.More than any other view discussed below, thisperspectivedominates theportrayals ofethnic conflictin newspapers and magazines. Almost any popularaccount of conflict between Hindus and Muslims,SerbsandCroats,ArabsandJews,WhitesandBlacks,Catholics and Protestants, Hutu and Tutsi is markedby phrases such as ‘old animosities,’ ‘tribalism,’ and‘ties of blood’ (Kaplan 1993). In the academic world,too, this view has had its exponents. Clifford Geertz(1973) was among the first scholars after the SecondWorld War to popularize the term ‘primordialism.’More than Geertz, however, Walker Connor has beena leading and consistent advocate of the essentialistview. Man, argues Connor, is a ‘national, not rationalanimal’ (Connor 1994). So powerful is the search fororiginsinhumanbeingsthatbothHitlerandJohnJay,says Connor, were driven to emphasize commonancestry to build their nations. ‘Blood binds morefirmly than business,’ argued Adolph Hitler; and theAmericans, contended John Jay, are ‘a people de-scended from the same ancestors,’ ‘despite,addsConnor, ‘the presence of settlers of Dutch, French,German,…. Scottish and Irish extraction’ on Ameri-can soil in the eighteenth century.Few academic scholars subscribe to the essentialistview today. On the whole, essentialism tends
tomake a distinction between ethnic (or national) ident-ityontheonehandandethnic(ornational)conflictonthe other. Though it is a problem not confined toessentialismalone,asexplainedbelow,essentialistsdotend to conflate the two. It may well be that forbuilding community feelings, leaders tend to, or haveto, emphasize ancestry. Conflict, however, does notnecessarilyfollow.Itisonethingtocallupanimaginedcommon ancestry
ethnic groups, in which casethe attempt would be to build bridges. John Jay’sexample above would illustrate a bridge-buildinginvocationofanassumedancestralcommonality.Itis,however, something quite different to summon thecommon ties of blood explicitly against an ethnicallydistinguishable group, in which case the result couldwell be ethnic hatred and violence. Hitler’s attemptwould clearly belong to the latter category, not theformer.That both John Jay and Hitler had to invokecommon ancestry implies neither that man is anational animal, nor that he is a rational agent—hecould be both. Nor do such attempts inevitably re-igniteancientanimosities.Ethnic,ornational,identitycan well be a source of meaning and security, withoutimplying hatred for another ethnic or national group.These two aspects of ethnic or national identity—positive and negative—are by now well understoodand clearly distinguished (Taylor 1997).Those who came to be known as ‘instrumentalists’launched the first systematic attack on the essentialistview. Indeed, going back to the late 1960s and 1970s,‘essentialism vs. instrumentalism’ was the first bigtheoretical axis around which scholars sought toformulate their views and understand the virulence of ethnicanimositiesandviolence(Young1995).Thekeyproposition of instrumentalism rests on the purelyinstrumental use of ethnic identity for political oreconomic purposes by the elite, regardless of whetherthe elite themselves believe in ethnicity (Hardin4810
Ethnic Conflicts
1995).The two views are presented as being funda-mentallyatodds;onefocusesontheintrinsicpowerof ethnic differences, the other concentrates on theirinstrumental value, political or economic.The emphasis of on how leaders strategically ma-nipulateethnicityforthesakeofpowerhasanintuitiveappeal because the behavior of many, if not all,political leaders can be cited in support. But this viewalsorunsupagainstafundamentaldifficulty.Theelitemay indeed gain power by mobilizing ethnic identity,without actually believing in it, and may thereforebehave instrumentally. But if the masses were onlyinstrumental about ethnic identity, why would eth-nicity be the basis for mobilization at all? Why do theleaders decide to mobilize ethnic passions in the firstplace? Why do they think that ethnicity is the route topower, not the economic interests of the people? Andif economic interests coincide with ethnicity, whychoose ethnicity as opposed to economic interests as acentral symbol for mobilization?In principle, an instrumental resolution of theseproblems exists. Ethnicity can serve as a ‘focal point,’which is defined as set of symbols so obvious, uniqueand easily comprehensible by the members of a groupthat it can facilitate convergence of individual expec-tations,andhencebeusefulasamobilizationstrategy.The idea of ‘focal pointscomes from Schelling’sseminal treatment of the coordination problem inbargaining. In the famous Schelling example:
When a man loses his wife in a department store without anyprior understanding on where to meet if they get separated,the chances are good that they will find each other. It is likelythateachwillthinkofsomeobviousplacetomeet,soobviousthat each will be sure that the other is sure that it is obviousto both of them (Schelling 1963).
Ethnicity,inotherwords,canbeviewedasonesuchfocalpointformobilization;itisnotvaluedforitsownsake.Itspotentialformobilizationmaybedeployedtoextract goods and services from the modern sector, orto establish power, by some leaders (Bates 1974).However, the idea of a ‘focal point’ is also notsufficienttoexplainethnicmobilization,foritdoesnotdistinguishbetweendifferentkindsofcollectiveactionand what their respective costs might be. Ethnic
for political action is not the same asethnic
for economic and social activities.By providing a social occasion, festivals may indeedbringpeopletogetherevenifnoteveryoneappreciatestheritual meaning of celebration or mourning; and byforming mutually converging trust, geographicallyspreadethnickinsmenarealsoknowntohavesuppliedcredit in long-distance trade without a prior explicitcontract between trading partners.But the analogy of a focal point cannot be extendedtogroup action when the costs ofparticipation for themasses are very high. By its very nature, ethnicmobilization in politics is group action not only infavor of one’s group
but also often against some other group
. An increase in the rights and power for onegroup often means a diminution in the ability of someother group(s) to dictate terms, or a sharing of powerand status between groups, where no such sharingearlier existed. Ethnicity in intragroup, social oreconomic transactions is thus very different fromethnicity in intergroup political conflicts. The formerillustrates the value of ethnicity as a focal point; thelatter presents problems of a different order. When anindividual provides credit to ethnic brethren withoutan explicit contract, incarceration, injury, or evendeathisnotthelikelycosthebearsinmind.Suchcostsare not unlikely in ethnic or national conflicts. Forsomething to be manipulated by a leader when death,injury,orincarcerationisaclearpossibility,itmustbevalued as a good by a critical mass of people, if not byall(Horowitz1985).Apurelyinstrumentalconceptionof ethnicity cannot explain why ethnic identities aremobilized by leaders at all (Elster 1988).Does this mean that essentialism is right after allabout the primordial character of hatreds. Do suchhatredsindeedplayanimportantroleincontemporaryethnic conflicts? Are there any other approaches toanswering this question beyond essentialism andinstrumentalism?Since the mid-1980s to early 1990s, the study of ethnicity has been profoundly influenced by construc-tivism (Varshney 1997). Part of the constructivistinspiration has come from postmodernism, but post-modernistsarenottheonlyconstructivists.Atvaryinglevels, scholars as diverse and ‘unpostmodern’ as EricHobsbawm and Ranger (1983), Linda Colley (1992),and Benedict Anderson (1983) have shared the con-structivist view, and demonstrated how so manyidentities that we take for granted today were quiterecently constructed in history.The central claim of constructivism is that theformation of ethnic or national identities is a modernphenomenon. Does this claim by any chance implythatthere wereno Hindus,Muslims,Jews, Christians,Tibetans, and Han Chinese in premodern times?Such a claim would obviously be quite absurd, andthat is not the constructivist contention either. Theclaim simply is that identities in premodern timestended on the whole to be face-to-face and operatedon a small scale. Ordinary people rarely interactedbeyond their local environments. Conflict, when itemerged, was managed locally and identities wereconsiderably flexible. Extralocal communities did notinclude‘thepeople’;suchlargercommunitiesconsistedprimarilyoftheecclesiasticaleliteandthecourt-basedaristocracy and nobility.Modernity changed the meaning of identities bybringing the masses into a larger, extralocal, frame-work of consciousness. It made identities and com-munitieswiderandmoreinstitutionalized.Inwhathasbecome a classic constructivist argument, Colleyshows how shared Protestantism, opposition to4811
Ethnic Conflicts and Ancient Hatreds: Cultural Concerns
France,andthebenefitsofempiremanagedtodissolvethebitterhistoricaldisputesbetweentheScotsandtheEnglish, and led to the construction of a Britishidentity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. InBenedict Anderson’s
Imagined Communities
, one of the most influential texts in the field today, theemphasis is on how modern technology and a moderneconomic system—the printing press and capitalism,to be more precise—made it possible to have imagi-nationsaboutlarge,popular,andsecularcommunitiesbased on language, which overtook the premodern,extralocal, religious communities of the clergymen onthe one hand and the aristocratic dynasties on theother.The constructivist emphasis is on the constructionof group categories by the knowledge-elite, its pro-motion by centers of power, and its effects on ‘thepeople.’ For example, the Census, a modern instru-mentofcategorization,wouldtypicallyaskthemasseswhether they were (a) Hindu, (b) Muslim, or (c)Christian, even if in their self-image the masses felttheir culture borrowed from all three and theiridentities were an intersection of (a), (b), and (c).Fuzzyidentities,evenwhenreal,werenotregisteredassuch and were instead split into lucid, modernistboundaries. Furthermore, if public policy, based onsuchcensuscategorizations,allocatedpatronage,pub-lic office, or state grants, then the very act of censuscategorization would begin to create larger identities.Such categorization, according to constructivists,was not innocent or scientific. The power elite createdsome categories, not others. The selectivity was basedontheir preconceptionsofwhatthebuildingblocks of a society were, or on a calculation of what divisionswould maintain their power. Thus, only those narra-tives acquire staying power that get promoted by theelite.On postcolonial societies, the principal constructiv-ist claim is that the major contemporary ethniccleavages were a creation of the colonial power and,given the immense power of colonial masters, suchdivisions have endured, and will last for a long time.Of course, the power of the colonial masters was notunlimited.Theydidrequirelocalalliancesandthenewcategories were established with co-optation of theindigenous elite in the colonial framework of power.In a sense, thus, the argument is about the nature of thecolonial
,notabouttheevilintentionsofthecolonial masters. ‘Modern colonialism,’ writes one of the best practitioners of the constructivist genre,‘instituted enduring hierarchies of subjects and know-ledges—the colonizer and the colonized, the Occi-dentalandtheOriental,thecivilizedandtheprimitive,the scientific and the superstitious, the developed andthe underdeveloped. …(T)he colonial rulers enactedtheir authority by constituting the ‘‘native’’ as theirinverse image…not because of the colonizer’s badfaith but due to the functioning of colonial power…’(Prakash 1994).Let us take a concrete example of this abstractclaim.OnIndia’sHindu–Muslimconflict,constructiv-ists argue, there is no universally acceptable theoryabout the origins, rise, and spread of Hindu–Muslimantagonisms; rather, there have only been ‘discourses’or‘narratives.InthehandsoftheBritish,aprimordialantagonismbetweenHindusandMuslimsdatingbackcenturies became the ‘master narrative,’ even thoughthere was enough evidence of Hindu–Muslim co-existence. Primordial antagonism was not the ‘truth’about Hindus and Muslims. It was constructed andpromoted as such by the British, partly because itsuited them to split India into its two largest religiousgroups, and partly because the ‘natives,’ argued theBritish, could not constitute a ‘modern’ nation—theycould think only in terms of premodern religiouscommunities. Hindus and Muslims may have existedbefore the British came to India, but being a Hindu orMuslim did not refer to large, political identities. Itonly signified small, personal, and village-based cul-tural identities.In what ways are these arguments a challenge toessentialism? Do they advance our understanding of ethnicity or ethnic conflict? What might their pitfallsbe?To explain the contemporary power of ethniccleavages, essentialism either referred to old animos-itiesortothepullofancestry.Itwasunabletoseehowthe episodes suggesting old animosities might havebeen selectively retrieved by the knowledge elite,ignoring the many instances of cooperation andcoexistence. The argument, one might parentheticallynote, is also different from instrumentalism. Forinstrumentalists, ethnicity is basically a mask for acore of interests, and as interests change, the masksalso do. Constructivists show why some identities,strikingrootsinpopularconsciousness,endureanddonot easily change. To call such identities a mask is toundervalue their endurance and not understand theirhistorical roots. The fact that they are constructeddoes not mean that they are not
constructed.Identities do not often, or automatically, change asinterests do.Has constructivism won the battle of arguments,defeating essentialism (and instrumentalism)? Thereare significant unresolved problems in the construc-tivist claim as well. After all, the basic constructivistargument for ethnic conflict in developing countries isthat the colonially created master narratives, empha-sizing cleavages between communities, led to conflict.The explanation provided for the formation of ethnic
is thus also extended to ethnic
.Whatever one may say about the constructivist ex-planationformodernidentity-formation,itsextensionto conflict does not make sense.To illustrate this point, let us return to the exampleof Hindu–Muslim conflict. Is Hindu–Muslim conflictubiquitous in India, or is it concentrated in somepockets? One could also ask the question more4812
Ethnic Conflicts and Ancient Hatreds: Cultural Concerns

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