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Ethnic violence and political entrepreneurs

February 22, 2008

We’ve seen horrendous instances of murderous violence among groups in a given society in the past century, often along ethnic and religious lines. Most recently there is the example of Kenya (article, article, article). But in the past twenty years we’ve also witnessed Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka, India, and Iraq. (This is deliberately not to include societies like El Salvador or Guatemala where organized militias or death squads have deliberately murdered thousands of innocent people; these conflicts appear to have a different social cause.)

My question here is just a small piece of this large subject. What are the circumstances that cause apparently ordinary people to attack, torture, and murder their neighbors?

Commentators sometimes try to understand these horrific outbreaks in terms of a background theory of essential ethnic or religious identities defining groups that can then explode into murderous intra-societal violence. This is what some call a primordialist theory — the language of “tribalism” suggests the same idea. On this theory, ethnic conflict is taken as inherent in ethnic difference.

However, it is important to realize that this theory is almost always incorrect. The fact of ethnic or religious difference by itself does not create violence between groups, and often these identities don’t even figure importantly in ordinary social life. Instead, there are other factors at work in specific social circumstances that bring about ethnic mobilization and violence. (Donald Horowitz goes through many specific examples of multi-ethnic societies — some with violence and some without; Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Updated Edition With a New Preface.) Ethnic violence appears to be almost always a political process, involving leadership and organization.

In particular, political scientists who study ethnic conflict argue that there are usually underlying processes of political mobilization underway, led by opportunistic leaders who deliberately mobilize support around ethnic identities and ethnic hatred. These instigators can be called “political entrepreneurs”, and their strategies can be discerned in many of the century’s worst instances of inter-group violence. Hatred and violence are simply tools of mobilization for these leaders and parties. (Atul Kohli goes through a careful analysis of Hindu nationalist mobilization leading to anti-Muslim violence in Democracy and Discontent. Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India is also an important contribution.)

And it appears that evidence of just these sorts of processes of opportunistic mobilization by leaders on the ground can be found in the reporting available about the current violence in Kenya. Reportage in January about the post-election violence in Kenya provided multiple reports of messages of hatred being disseminated through cell phone networks, and of advance preparation of the organized violence that would emerge — before the election occurred. The violence that swept across Kenya was not a primordial outburst; it was an organized political effort — or so the reports would indicate.

These “ethnic hatred” politicians have done enormous harm in so many societies; and it must be a first order of priority to find ways of stamping out this form of politics.

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