Dealing With Ethnic Conflict

Ethnic conflict is not a given, either in our genes or in our cultures. How then do we account for the atrocities that flicker daily in our TV news reports? To answer this question, Cultural Survival has, for this issue of the Quarterly, invited distinguished scholars from all over the world to analyze ethnic conflicts in every corner of the globe.

Their analyses underscore a point that is now well accepted by scholars of ethnicity, namely that ethnic conflict is not the simple expression of the primordial instincts of humankind. This is true even of Rwanda, the scene of the most recent genocide in our genocidal age. Lemarchand's article below stresses that Tutsi domination of the Hutu was exaggerated and institutionalized as a "natural fact" by Belgium in colonial times and that European writers invented a racial rationale for it - tall, aristocratic, Hamitic Tutsi lords ruling short, peasant, Bantu Hutu serfs. In fact, individual Tutsi and Hutu are not easily distinguishable from each other, which is why they were issued with identity cards to "fix" their identities. At that time, people owning 10 or more cows were classed as Tutsi (superiors) while those with less than 10 were relegated to Hutu status. Subsequently, ethnic agitators inflamed the Tutsi/Hutu divide, some (like the infamous Radio Milles Collines) systematically inciting one group to massacre the other.

How does this kind of thing happen? How it is that people, as stated in the editorial at the beginning of this quarterly, can be transformed from neighbors into enemies? The issue is explored at length below in the articles dealing with the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Barfield points out that multiethnic systems worked in Central Asia until the Soviet Union conquered the region and defined its republics in ethnic terms. This did not matter so much when the ethnic republics were controlled by Moscow in a multiethnic empire under Russian hegemony, but the collapse of that empire shattered the Moscow orientation of the republics and left them to their own power struggles.

Tishkov points out that the FSU, like Yugoslavia, lacked alternative structures to help people cope, once the soviet state disintegrated and ordinary people were left to deal as best they could with extreme political and economic uncertainty. His paper and Yamskov's document the dilemmas of populations who awake to find themselves minorities, often disfavored minorities, in new ethnically defined nations. They point out that the ethnic definition of the state is the cause of the problem, a view that is borne out by Danforth's documentation of the complex issues now confronting Macedonia, also called Skopje or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a new nation whose definition of itself is a divisive political issue internally, and whose very name is the cause of international dispute. Tishkov discusses how ethnic definitions of the state can be challenged and what measures can be taken to counteract the efforts of those who seek to create or inflame ethnic tension.

The articles in this issue show that the traditional ways of dealing with ethnicity have not worked well. Authoritarian states that try to suppress it have not succeeded. Arretxaga's article shows, for example, how Franco bottled up ethnic regionalism in Spain till it was ready to explode, how Franco's socialist successors defused ethnic violence by allowing considerable autonomy in the regions, but also how there may be a backlash in the making as Europe tires of regional and ethnic demands and the Spanish electorate tries of the socialists, whose administration is perceived as corrupt and economically disastrous.

The liberal state, which was supposed to render ethnicity irrelevant, has fared little better. India is the classic example, Secularists like Nehru hoped that the country's religious divisions would lose their significance in the modern state - a hope which has clearly not been borne out. In Madan's surprising analysis below, he points out that the majority Hindus feel their way of life is threatened and some of them insist that, in order to protect it, India must become a Hindu state. Yet, in spite of the efforts of these fundamentalists, their party (the BJP has recently been rejected at the polls in major north Indian states.

John Comaroff sounds a similar note of caution about liberal democracy as he shows how the extraordinary South African turnaround became possible. The system seems to offer hope and human fulfillment to people suffering under despotic regimes, but all too often it disappoints in practice, encouraging anomie and a kind of unsatisfying consumerism. That is why thoughtful Africans fear the dislocations of democracy and hope that their democracies will be social movements, not mere guarantors of voting rights.

Salée also concludes that the liberal state has not been particularly adept at solving Canada's ethnic problems. He analyses the puzzling situation of Quebec, whose francophone population has taken control of its own cultural and political destiny in a province whose economy has made immense strides and is still doing relatively well. All this has been accomplished, though not without tugging and heaving, within the framework of the Canadian federation. Yet, at the moment when francophone Quebecois seem to have achieved success, there is considerable sentiment among them to separate from Canada altogether.

Schlesinger, speaking of the USA, argues forcefully that the liberal state, in spite of all its problems, is still the best solution for this country. Americans should not encourage their ethnic minorities to be preoccupied with the celebration of their own cultures, for this will eventually fragment the national culture and the nation itself. Instead he urges Americans to live up to their ideals and practice the democratic inclusiveness that they preach. This, he suggests, is the best hope for immigrants and the hitherto excluded. He therefore deplores the multiculturalist tendency to undermine the country's proud motto E Pluribus Unum by stressing pluralism and scorning the whole.

Aragon analyses a different way of maintaining Unity in Diversity (the equally proud motto of Indonesia) as she describes how the Indonesian government holds together a nation with the fourth largest population in the world, scattered over thousands of islands, containing hundreds of ethnic groups and even greater numbers of local languages. She notes that the Indonesian solution has involved a more authoritarian political system than would be acceptable in the west, with an outright ban on hate speech directed at other religions or ethnicities and suppression of "extremists" who might upset the delicate balance of the state.

She notes that Indonesia, like other Asian countries, insists that some freedoms have to be postponed in the interests of economic development, and points out that this view appears to be shared by politicians and businessmen in the USA who regularly argue that human rights concerns should not be allowed to interfere with trade. She also notes that it is this emphasis on development which poses the greatest threat to the smaller "indigenous" societies of Indonesia.

Cultural Survival has long argued that the "imperatives of development" are not imperatives at all, but simply excuses for ignoring the rights of indigenous peoples. There is still debate however over which peoples can properly be called "indigenous" and what rights they have. Kaapcke's paper shows how difficult it is to determine who are indigenous people in the Former Soviet Union and how such peoples fit into the bewildering kaleidoscope of new nations and new minorities that has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet state.

It is clear who indigenous peoples are in the Americas or Australasia, where invaders from overseas subjugated the native inhabitants of an area and settled among them. Elsewhere, populations migrations and patterns of land use dating back thousands of years make it hard to distinguish indigenous peoples from the rest. Currently the term is used to refer to peoples who claim their lands by virtue of lengthy use, who have maintained languages and cultures different from those of mainstream in the countries where they live and are subject to the rule of states that are alien to them.

Such peoples have a special interest in the prevention of ethnic conflict, for they are likely to suffer most if they become the targets of ethnic violence. They have an even greater interest in the recognition of ethnic pluralism within the state. This solution is currently being tried in a number of different countries. It is still the Spanish way and the Indonesian way. Canada is trying to find the right framework for a multiethnic federation, but keeps stumbling over its own commitment to the liberal state. Mexico too, as Stavenhagen shows in his article below, has decided that it must rethink itself and has proclaimed itself a "pluriethnic nation", though exactly what this means and how it will be put into effect over strong internal opposition is unclear. More startling is self-consciousness in Guatemala and the government's apparent support of specifically Mayan linguistic and educational programs in the schools. If this can happen in a nation where the government was recently massacring its Mayan citizens, then one can hope that few circumstances are so desperate as to make ethnic approximation completely impossible.

The articles in this issue show us how and why ethnic conflicts are created and by whom. This is the understanding on which we must build if we ever hope to do anything about them.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.