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ETHNOCULTURE  (Vol.2, 2010 pp. 2-10)



Magid Shihade

Lahore University of Management Sciences

[email protected]


In this paper, my aim is to help understand ethnic and communal violence in the Middle East and beyond and to contribute to the critical field of ethnic conflict and resolution studies. I do this by discussing some prevalent explanations that are dominant among academics, politicians, media pundits and lay people alike when talking about communal and ethnic violence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Third World and beyond. After discussing the limitations of these theories, I move on to suggest an alternative framework to explain this phenomenon. The approach I develop in this project examines intergroup violence, or state violence against a group, not simply as a historical event but rather as a structure embedded in Western modernity that has ramifications for the present and the future. My research offers a model for understanding communal conflict and violence in relation to the nature and origin of the state. It demonstrates how political, social, and historical developments create structures that have long-lasting implications for inter-ethnic and inter-religious group relations, and how these relations in turn can affect the politics of the state, the region, and the international community. It contextualizes the problem of communal and ethnic violence within frameworks of colonialism and neocolonialism embedded in Western modernity and in the structured racism that plagued colonizer and colonized alike. This paper attempts to widen the frame of analysis in the field of ethnic and religious conflict, and also adds to the understanding of the phenomenon of violence, ethnic or religious. In this paper, I argue that pervasive theories in the academy and public sphere in general are insufficient explanations for the phenomenon and that this is due to misconception and blind spots embedded in Eurocentrism and Orientalism that dominate our thought, knowledge, knowledge production and dissemination. Thus, the paper is a humble contribution to the process of decolonizing knowledge and a step in correcting our disfigured perspectives on so many issues that dominate our lives in and outside the academy.


The discussion here does not aim at engaging with all dominant theories in the field of conflict and violence in a comprehensive manner. It rather aims at engaging some dominant explanations that are pervasive in the academy, media and the general public about the phenomenon of conflicts and violence. For this, I engage with three theories: historical antipathy, manipulative leaders, and the weak state arguments. These theories are often used by politicians, academics, media pundits and lay people alike to explain conflicts and violence in Iraq, Palestine, or Afghanistan, among many other cases in the Third World. To do a detailed study of even one case in view of these theories is beyond the scope of this paper, yet, a brief engagement will suffice to show the limitations of such theories. In discussing these dominant theories, I refer to different cases from the region and beyond as a way to illustrate my argument while engaging with each theory and discussing its limitations.

"Historical antipathy"
One of the most commonly used explanations in the field is the "historical antipathy" paradigm, which is offered by scholars such as Donald Horowitz (1985, 2001), who argues that the primary cause of ethnic and communal violence is historical antipathy-economic and/or political-between groups. This paradigm is often used to explain violent conflicts in the Middle East by liberal and conservative scholars, politicians, media pundits, and lay people alike.

In my view, historical antipathy might be a factor that comes into play after a conflict begins to unfold, but it is not the chief cause of conflict and violence and should not be used as a totalizing, ahistorical framework. Thus, when analysts suggest that the sectarian violence between Shi'a and Sunnis in Iraq is due to deeply ingrained antipathies, real or imagined, between Muslim sects that stretch back in time to the 7th century, they forget that if this were the case, there should have been Shi'a-Sunni violence in Iraq for hundreds of years. But there is no historical evidence for this argument. To the contrary, historical evidence shows that Shi'a and Sunni Muslims mostly lived at peace with each other rather than at war. Thus, it is important to historicize conflicts in the region rather than resorting to Orientalist explanations of ancient hatreds that flatten history and evade analysis of specific temporal and political contexts, framing the problem in primordialist views of culture and through essentialist constructions of history.

The current seemingly "religious" conflict simmering in Iraq is, in fact, a political conflict between various segments of Iraqi society (Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish) that is born of the U.S. occupation and policies of colonization of Iraq that started in 2003. As histories of colonialism show, the main principle of colonizing projects is to divide-not unite-and rule, and divide and quit when rule becomes too costly. To shed light on the internal violence in Iraq it is important to remember that the groups involved in violence there are armed Iraqi religious factions currently fighting one another. The groups gained military and political power and their leaders were elevated to national level by the American occupying force, who also as a result of American policy destroyed not only the preexisting economic, but also the social and political, fabric of Iraq. Keeping that in mind, it would be more accurate to conclude that the violence in Iraq is waged mainly by an insurgency that is fighting U.S. occupation and colonization of Iraq and their local enablers, who tend to be heavily from among the Shi'a.

Thus, the focus on historical antipathy misses the context of recent history in Iraq, and seems to treat historical actors as permanently static subjects that do not change and evolve. According to this view, a Shi'a-Sunni conflict that took place in the 7th century remains the primary explanatory paradigm for Shi'a-Sunni relations in the 21st century. Such explanations tend to frame historical events through an essentialist and primordialist cultural lens, often providing ahistorical explanations. As Mahmood Mamdani (2004) has rightly argued, such culturalist explanations are superficial, simplistic, and tend to obscure political and historical contexts.

Furthermore, such totalizing theories lump various groups of people together in certain categories without seeing through the differences in time, space, and context to the diversity within such categories, and homogenize them as if they proceed in history as unified blocks that have nothing in common with other groups, and that their relations is a zero sum game. This perspective emphasizing ancient hatreds and the culture of violence based on separate unified blocks of groups, that is Shi'a and Sunni, is exposed in an article in the U.S. media (Hallinan, 2007, p. 8) about a massacre in Iraq of Shi'a tribes in southern Iraq in January 2007. These Shi'a tribes were actually opposed to the Shi'a led government in Baghdad and had been building coalitions with Sunni Iraqis, who were the target of Shi'a militias (Al-Badr and Al-Mahdi militias empowered since the U.S. invasion in 2003) dominating the Iraqi army and police under U.S. occupation. When the militias were unable to suppress these Shi'a tribes, despite assassinating many of their members and leaders, they engaged in a direct, full-fledged confrontation with them near the city of Najaf. They were unable to defeat the tribes, so the Iraqi army and militias called on the U.S. and British forces that came to their aid and bombed the two tribes, killing and injuring hundreds of their members. Yet this massacre was covered up by the U.S. media which reported the official line of U.S. and Iraqi governments that the battle was against a fanatic religious group.

The media continues to echo the U.S. government's focus on Shi'a-Sunni tensions, obscuring the reality of the situation in Iraq and presenting it as a conflict between two groups with ancient antagonisms. Although there might be differences between Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis, these differences arose in relation to political and historical contexts that changed over time, and in each time of conflict and violence there is no evidence that the conflict was between two confined blocks; the situation is rather more nuanced. Currently, as the example mentioned earlier shows, the struggle in Iraq is between those who are collaborating with the U.S. occupation and colonization of Iraq, and those who are opposed to it.

Thus, the current conflict and violence in Iraq is a result of U.S. policies since the occupation, which aimed at installing certain leaders and their groups into hegemonic positions that serve U.S. interests, and which included arming and promoting certain militias who have since been dominating the security forces and public space in Iraq, and have been engaged in violent attacks against groups who were supportive of the Iraqi political system prior to the U.S. occupation, as well as against those who do not agree fully with U.S. policies in Iraq since its recent occupation. To call these conflicts and violence as embedded in ancient hatred and antagonism is to ignore the complexity of Iraqi history, and, intentionally or not, it is to provide a cover for the U.S. presence in Iraq and for the failed policies of pacifying Iraqis who are in opposition to U.S. colonization since 2003.

"Manipulative leaders"
Another common paradigm in the field focuses on the manipulation of leaders. For example, in Paul Brass' work on communal violence in India (2003), he argues that a primary reason for violence between Hindus and Muslims is that community leaders utilize violence in order to gain greater support from their communities, especially during election campaigns, and that this was a factor in the rise to power of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. This theory has a kernel of truth for it is evident that leaders of ethnic and religious groups can benefit from ethnic and communal violence that further divides and bolsters communal identities and compels members of these communities to turn to leaders for protection. This is especially the case when they believe that the state is unwilling, or unable, to protect them in times of internal violence. However, this same perspective on the power of local leaders implies a belief in the state's ineffectiveness in controlling it, which is the weak point of this explanation.

Rather than focusing on the "magic" power of community leaders who incite to violence, the question ought to be why the state is unwilling or unable to intervene in violent conflicts, to punish harshly those who commit such acts, and to hold officials accountable for such incidents, since the state is ultimately responsible for the safety of the public. Thus, by focusing on the leaders' role in isolation, the state is let off the hook according to this explanation, rather than being the primary focus when studying communal violence.

Furthermore, Brass' theory fails to account for the lack of violence in many regions and localities in India itself where mixed religious communities lived for years in close proximity without experiencing violence, even during election campaigns. Thus, the particular case or two that Brass uses from India seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and there must be other reasons more primary than the role of community leaders in explaining inter-communal conflicts and violence.

Even more problematic is the implication that the ordinary people who participate in these incidents are passive subjects manipulated by their leaders and lacking any agency of their own. That community members participating in violent clashes are willing to kill and be killed is never explained, unless we are to believe that the leaders of these communities have a magic power that puts groups into a state of hypnosis, so that they can be activated as a machine to kill and be killed. According to this explanation, the common people seem like irrational being lacking any independent rational thought and calculation. In this context, one cannot resist but to think of Enlightenment philosophers and their argument on the rationality of the European and the irrationality of the darker people, and the Eurocentric and racist assumptions behind such philosophies.

If the manipulation of ethnic or religious violence is a strategy by political leaders to increase their standings in the polls, why would this strategy not be used, at least to varying degrees, in other countries, such as the United States or Canada, given that violent conflicts do occur in these countries at various moments? Or is this communalization of politics and violence just an Indian or Third World phenomenon?

It is true that some political parties in various Western states do attract particular ethnic or religious constituencies. For example, the Republican Party in the U.S. tends to draw its supporters heavily from the Christian right and it is well known that the Conservative party in Canada draws its political power mainly from Catholics, especially in the Quebec region. This is also true for many parties in Israel and Europe that have religious and/or ethnic bases or followings, but it seems that the manipulation of leaders for vote banks is not related to violent conflicts in discussions of these other cases. Is this strategy of communalizing politics, then, a cultural explanation only applicable to states and societies outside the West?

In my view, the manipulative-leaders theory cannot be used in many cases from around the world because it fails to offer a sufficiently complex account of communal violence and ignores the role of the state, which is after all the only legitimate source of power and perpetrator of violence. These leaders, for example in the case of India Brass discusses, would not be able to achieve their aims if they were made aware that the state does not tolerate such tactics, and that those responsible for igniting violence would face punishment and harsh consequences. Lack of punishment or state intervention is more likely to be the reason for these phenomena rather than any cultural traits of the leaders or the groups involved.

"Weak state"
A third major paradigm in the field of ethnic and communal violence is that of "weak states". For example, David Laitin and James Fearon have argued in much of their work that the defining factor in keeping internal peace is the strength of the state under consideration. They argue that the weakness of particular states is the cause for ethnic and communal violence (Laitin & Fearon, 2002).

While this theory has much merit, it is still limited in content and scope for it does not shed light on ethnic and communal violence in "strong" states, such as Israel. Even more importantly, I argue that this approach explains only the surface, and not the core, of the problem of communal violence. Taking as an example the sectarian violence within Iraq since 2003, it may be plausible to argue that the weakness of the state-especially the security branch-is partly responsible for the ethnic and communal violence among Iraqis. But such an explanation, if it stops there, skims just the surface of the issue, failing to address why the state became weak in the first place, when it became weak, and "who" is the state presently.

It is now common knowledge that the U.S. has since its invasion of Iraq destroyed the pre-2003 state structures, including all branches of the state security apparatus, which are important organs, crucial to maintaining peace and stability. It is also well known that the U.S. armed certain militias, and empowered certain Iraqi groups (e.g., Kurdish and Shi'a militias ) with the aim of undermining other groups (Sunnis and Ba'thists). This process has created many state-like groups in Iraq who take the law in their hands when they wish to, without any serious attempt by the U.S. to change that reality. How, then, could the notion of the weak state explain the current situation in Iraq and what can even be considered the state under present circumstances, when the sovereignty of Iraq and its people has been hijacked by the U.S. military?

Put differently, the current ethnic and communal violence in Iraq cannot be explained without situating it in the context of the U.S. occupation and colonization of the country starting in 2003. Thus, the real state with the ultimate power in Iraq is the United States, not Iraq itself, and it is the United States that is responsible, as an occupying power, for the safety of the Iraqi society that is under its occupation.

Furthermore, theories of weak states are generally applied to examples of states in the global South as if this phenomenon prevails only in those areas, while states in the North are orderly and peaceful (Lustick 1997). Such approaches ignore historic conflicts in the USA, France, Britain, Spain, Ireland, Australia, and many other Western societies that have witnessed, and still witness, violence against ethnic and religious groups, particularly minorities, yet rarely recognized as such. Although these minority groups are often used by these states as enablers of their nation-building project- economically, politically, and in a variety of other ways-they are always the targets of violence when the national project fails or seems, to some, to be failing or be threatened (Mitchell 1991).

Finally, even the so-called weak states are not truly impartial in their responses to ethnic and communal violence. One example of this is the current conflict that has been brewing in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Even though the Sudanese state has been described as weak by many scholars, it has not been neutral in the violence in Darfur, at times directly taking part in the killings, and at others providing support to or allowing one party to attack another in order to achieve the Sudanese government's primary goal of controlling the region and its resources. Furthermore, the weakness of the Sudanese state should be assessed in relation to the external-regional and global-powers that are involved and their relative strength and role in affecting the unfolding conflict in Darfur. To explain the situation in the Sudan chiefly in terms of the weakness or strength of the state is to ignore the many external factors affecting the conflict there (Mamdani, 2007). A situation such as this cannot be explained in isolation, as is also the case for conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, or other countries around the world that are highly dependent on the world system. Even though many of these states are no longer subject to direct colonial control by Western powers, indirect control and influence operates economically and politically. The hegemony of global and regional powers can not to be freed from responsibility for outbreaks of violence in the so called "weak" states (Mamdani 2001, Prunier 1997).

Alternative approach and conclusion

As apparent from the previous discussion, it is the problematic naming and framing of variables that leads to biased explanations of communal and ethnic conflicts. One of the central bias and blind spot in these theories is that they are heavily focused on Third World states and societies, and this leads to their limitations in providing a much more holistic understanding of ethnic and/or communal conflicts and violence. These theories are hardly ever applied to cases in the First World-the West-when discussing for example cases in Germany, Britain, France, or the United States. When episodes of conflicts and violence occur in places such as Germany, Britain, France, or the US, they are mainly framed through the citizenship paradigm. For example, acts of violence in Germany against people of Turkish ancestry are called anti-immigrant violence. Yet, many of the Turks involved are not immigrants but citizens of Germany, having been born there and having lived there for a very long time. Within an objective theory of social conflict and violence, these cases should also be recognized as examples of ethnic or communal conflicts and violence, since Germans of Turkish descent have different ethnic and religious backgrounds from that of "white" Germans. The same is true if one looks at violence against South Asians in Britain, against North Africans in France, or against Arabs, Asians or Latinos in the U.S.

So, the question is, why is it that these cases are not studied and explained through the same conceptual frameworks which are applied to cases emerging in the Third World? A possible explanation for the different framing and explaining of the same phenomenon in the West and the rest of the world points to the biases and blind spots derived from two powerful influences on our system of knowledge: Orientalism and Eurocentrism.

Orientalism, as Edward Said (1979) has theorized, is a system of knowledge production and thought about the non-West that is heavily politicized, and influenced by stereotypes, racism and ignorance about non-Western societies. This body of knowledge is also used as a strategy for intervention in Third World societies in the name of saving those societies from their own backward and violent culture. Not only is Orientalist bias used as a tool for Western intervention abroad but also, as Laura Nader (1989:323) argues, as a tool for silencing voices at home that want improvement on social, political, and economic issues. There is a linkage between the working of Orientalism at home and abroad.

Orientalism is also a biased perspective for it treats non-Western societies and cultures as stagnant, or non-changing, and thus what one knew about places like Egypt, Iraq or India decades or centuries ago is considered sufficient to explain these places in all time periods. That this knowledge was originally heavily influenced by the interests of European powers involved in colonial interventions in these areas is also hardly ever acknowledged by Orientalist scholars, many of whom continue to explain conflicts and violence in Iraq in 2003 as a result or continuation of conflicts that took place in the 7th or 8th century.

Orientalism as a framework of knowledge is also paternalistic in its views of societies and states in the Orient who seems to be at once violent, dangerous and chaotic, and, at the same time, helpless and in need of rescue. In this context, it is only the Occident-supposedly developed, peaceful and orderly- that can provide such help. In a sense, therefore, Orientalism is a type if cultural racism that goes hand in hand with the Euro or Western-Centrism that has traditionally framed knowledge production and dissemination in Western academies and societies.

Eurocentrism, as theorized by Immanuel Wallerstein (2004) and Samir Amin (2004), among many others, is a system of thought and knowledge production that is linked to the rise of the Western modern global capitalist system, and the academy and the mass media are profoundly embedded in it. Such framework treats the world as composed of developed states (the West) and underdeveloped regions (the non-West), where the West is presented not only as advanced economically and politically but also as peaceful and culturally orderly, while the rest of the world is underdeveloped economically, politically, and even culturally, so that violence and disorder prevail. According to this Western-centric view of the world, it is only with time, and only with the help of the West, that the Third World will reach an advanced stage of development.

This approach has framed Western knowledge and practices since the beginning of European colonial expansion, and continues to do so in places that are still formally colonized as well as in those who formally have achieved their national independence. It is a system of thought that also became dominant globally, going hand in hand with Western global domination, to the point that many in the Third World itself became influenced by these perspectives (Mamdani 1996).

The critique of Western-centrism through the framework of world system analysis was originally advocated by Latin American scholars, who argued that to understand political and economic issues of any part of the Third World it is necessary to see the world as a global economic and political unit, where the Third World is a dependent variable and much of its economic, political, and social development are a reflection of local, colonial and post-colonial global conditions. In this framework, the West carries a heavy responsibility for causing or complicating many of the problems faced by Third World societies and states, whose elites work hand in hand with Western and global powers to the benefit of both, and at the cost of the less fortunate in these societies, who carry the burden of paying the price for these globally structuring policies.

In other words, both Orientalism and Eurocentrism have had a major impact on various theories about Third World conflicts and violence, and only if one pays attention to their flaws and blind spots, one can reach a better understanding of this phenomenon. Then, one can see that the question of communal and ethnic conflicts and violence is an issue that is rather a modern global phenomenon that has its roots in modern European colonial history, and continues to shape our present.

As Elkins and Pedersen (2005) argue, Western colonial policies in Australia, America, and Israel, among other places, have not ended in their effect with the end of the official or initial colonization, but rather continue to influence both colonized and colonizers alike. Thus, to better understand the situation of native communities in these countries one needs to pay attention to the policies originating in the initial stages of colonization and their ongoing influence on the currently or previously colonized societies and even on the colonizing societies themselves.

This framework that sees history in terms of structures, rather than events, is rooted in Western modernity and the invention of the nation state. Conflicts and violence emerge from the process of national inclusion and exclusion, and as this model was globalized through colonial history and Western global political treaties-making states, or rather nation states, the only model acceptable in political organization-intergroup conflicts and violence have become endemic, since they are triggered by group-specific differential access to power and resources, and by the competitive relations triggered by systemic inequality.

Thus the alternative approach proposed in this paper would not dismiss the valuable contributions of current theories, but rather it aims at reframing them, overcome their limitations, and contextualizes them in their modern global structure, by arguing the following:

  1. Cultural explanations for conflicts and violence are Orientalist and Western-centric, and can be also seen as racist. While the era of biological racism has passed, cultural racism came to replace it. As a consequence, the West is seen as developed, peaceful and culturally orderly, while the non-West remains hostage to a culture of conflict and violence, needing the help of the West to get out of such a backward tradition.
  2. Conflict and violence are global, and in their current context are a product of modernity, the nation state, colonialism, and neocolonial interventions.
  3. World-system analysis helps to better understand what happens in different parts of the world for it explains local situations as a reflection of the globalized world system and of its impact on local conditions.

If one takes into account the previous three points, it clearly follows that:

By way of conclusion, I would propose that theorizing on this topic in the framework suggested here can help us better understand the phenomenon of ethnic and communal conflicts and violence. It can also help link different fields of study that have the same questions or concerns, yet seem to study them separately as if they were different issues. Fields such as ethnic and communal conflict resolution studies, that seem to focus heavily on the non-Western world, have much in common with fields studying citizenship and immigration, which seem instead to mainly focus on the West, and which continue to treat these issues as unrelated to the origin of nation-state ideology and to its dynamics of exclusion and inclusion, which so strongly impact both identity-formation and unequal access to power and resources.


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