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IDENTITY COMFLICT IS SYMBOLIC POLITICS

Author Ahsya Ahmad - -




On no issue is the divide between political science and policy practice wider than on the notion that politics can be understood as “rational”. Columnist Paul Krugman memorably published an article on election eve, 2002, headlined, “Stop Making Sense,” urging readers to vote in spite of political science theories that assume voting to be irrational. And foreign policy makers dealing with conflicts in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere repeat as a mantra the understanding that “these are not rational actors”.

Yet when it comes to making foreign policy and analyzing policy outcomes, the policy community oddly adopts this very notion of rationality. Foreign statesmen are often urged to adopt the course seen as most rational from the U.S. standpoint, and the likely effectiveness of these policies is projected on the assumption that they will be implemented by rational legislatures and bureaucracies, and complied with by mass publics regardless of any potential cultural barriers. The result is peace proposals that either cannot be accepted or cannot be implemented, economic reform plans undone by corruption or mass opposition, and so on.

What is missing in these cases is the recognition that, especially in case of identity conflict, foreign politicians are often engaged in symbolic politics–i.e., in using symbols to manipulate the emotions of their audiences for their own political purposes, rather than in promoting any national interest. The logic of symbolic politics is as follows:
  •   Ethnic, national or religious identities are built on myths that define who is a group member, what it means to be a group member, and, typically, who the group’s enemies are. These myths are usually based on truth but are selective or exaggerated in their presentation of history.[1] Their role is to specify, for example, that French and Spaniards, though they share the same religion, are different nations because of their different languages; while Serbs and Croats, sharing a language, are different nations because of their different religions.
  •   These mythologies give rise to emotionally-laden symbols that politicians can use to gain support and rouse their followers’ feelings–for example, Milosevic’s 1989 visit to Kosovo Field,[2] Israeli politicians’ references to the Holocaust, or Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s recent anti-Semitic remarks to the OIC conference.
  •  Ingroup-outgroup psychology typically leads people to see competition with other groups as competitions for esteem or status, so groups often feel emotionally that the other group’s gain is automatically their own loss, and vice versa. Emotion-laden status competition also leads to exaggerated threat perceptions, so groups are likely to see threats in all-or-nothing terms as threatening the existence of their group.[3]


Understanding where identity conflict is likely to arise or continue therefore requires understanding where group myths and fears are especially powerful, and especially hostile to some other group. For example, the vicious racist ideology propounded in Rwanda for three decades by Hutu governments was the necessary precondition for making the 1994 genocide possible. Hutu fears of Tutsis were intensified in the early 1990s by the invasion of Rwanda by the Tutsi-led Rwandese Popular Front (RPF), and by the coup and massacre of Hutu by Tutsis in next-door Burundi in 1993. These myths and fears together enabled extremist elites inside and outside government–including but not only in the media–to put genocide on the Rwandan agenda in 1993-94 by evoking the myth of past Tutsi domination and branding the RPF rebels and all Tutsi as “cockroaches” who needed to be exterminated. Rwanda’s economic crisis of the time, and international pressure on its government to liberalize, added to the crisis atmosphere and gave its threatened elites incentives to take drastic action.[4]

To generalize from this illustration:
  •     The long-term indicator that identity violence is likely is nationalist (or religious) myths justifying hostility against another group. These myths are easily discernable in the national media, school curricula, official government documents and speeches, popular literature and history, etc. The more hostile the myths or ideology, the more likely violence is to occur, and the more severe it is likely to be.
  •     The medium-term indicators suggesting increased likelihood of identity-driven violence in a state are evidence of fears of group extinction, economic crisis, and a political transition that creates the opportunity for extremists to mobilize.
  •    The short-term indicator that identity-driven violence may be imminent is the emergence of extremist elites who successfully mobilize support by playing on emotionally-laden hostile myths and stoking ethnic fears in pursuit of political support for themselves.


In:Social Identity and the Roots of Future Conflictby Stuart J. Kaufman, Associate ProfessorDepartment of Political ScienceUniversity of KentuckyOctober, 2003





[1] Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986).
[2] Stuart J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).
[3] Donald Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1985).
[4] See Gerard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

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