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Ethnicity culturally differentiates groups from one another based on each group’s prominent characteristics, including a common history, ancestry, language, as well as other kinds of symbols, dress, religion, and traditions. Ethnic affiliations do not necessarily fragment ethnically diverse societies but the context tends to influence how individuals organize and define themselves as well as how others regard them. Ethnic differences can generate ethnic conflict when these differences are used to promote prejudice and discrimination against a group that has been marked or stigmatized. Stigmatization of groups can occur within and between countries. It may manifest itself in various forms and to different degrees. But the pertinent literature diverges on the root causes of ethnic conflict, from riots to genocide. Broadly speaking there are two contending perspectives, the cultural and structural paradigm. Both perspectives implicitly or explicitly implicate the role of social institutions.
The cultural paradigm regards ethnic conflict as a social identity issue prompted by real or perceived threat to group boundaries and a familiar way of life. In this case resorting to group identity represents a fallback position for the frightened, alienated, and the angry as the ethnic group becomes the magna mater. Structural changes, for example, rapid, often imposed modernization or dramatic regime change, both accompanied by institutional failures, may evoke reactions expressed in cultural terms in triggering the closing of ethnic group boundaries.
The structural paradigm postulates that ethnic conflict is not about ethnicity at all but rather involves economic and political factors, including territory. Ethnicity may be manipulated to gain economic and political power, and for stratifying societies or nation-states within the world system. Stratification usually involves exploitation of the less powerful groups.
When diverse ethnic groups share a common territory they may resort to segregation as one type of ethnic conflict. Segregation inhibits a group’s contact with other groups, as was practiced in Europe, beginning in Venice, Italy, in 1516 with the confinement of Jews to areas of towns or ghettos. Other examples include blacks in the United States between the end of slavery and desegregation, and blacks in South Africa under apartheid. During World War II (1939–1945) the U.S. government confined Japanese Americans to internment camps. Generally, forced segregation renders the ghettoized group vulnerable to individual and institutionalized harassment by the other group and sexual relations between groups as well as intermarriage are punishable by law. One of the unintended consequences of segregation is for the forcibly isolated group to further accentuate its distinctive cultural characteristics. This is one area where race and ethnicity intersect. Segregation may avert ethnic riots, a type of ethnic conflict, which involves sudden, often brutal violence inflicted on members of one ethnic group by members of another ethnic group.
Expulsion is another strategy of ethnic conflict, when the dominant group forces a less powerful group to relocate. One historical example is that of European colonists in the Americas, who conquered territories inhabited by Native Americans, displacing the indigenous population from its ancestral lands. Another example is the case of the Palestinians, who were expelled from Israel to make room for the Jewish State in 1948. An additional case, rarely discussed although it constitutes the largest forced migration of modern times, is the expulsion of 14.5 million Germans from East Central Europe between 1944 and 1950. Expulsion is a type of ethnic cleansing. Usually the perpetrators want to achieve simultaneous goals: wipe the region clean of the expelled ethnic groups and decimate it in the process.
Ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia attracted world attention and international intervention largely because it involved ethnic cleansing. Yugoslavia had been under the iron fist of communism. With the demise of communism latent ethnic tensions erupted into open ethnic conflict in a civil war in 1991. Yugoslavia disintegrated as a nation-state, splintering into smaller states with populations of numeric majority and minority ethnic groups, some of which vied for political power. Croatia asserted state autonomy by forcibly expelling a substantial number of Serbs that formerly coexisted with Croats. The Bosnian conflict between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims erupted into a war in 1992. Serbs attempted to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of the Muslim population. Serbs’ strategies of ethnic cleansing involved the internment in concentration camps of large numbers of Muslim men, as well as their torture and murder, and the systematic mass rapes of their women. In addition to harassment, these are widely used practices of ethnic cleansers toward survivors of the targeted group, regularly accompanying expulsion. The former Yugoslavia also generated the 1999 Kosovo War, in which Serbs attempted to ethnically cleanse the province of Kosovar Albanian Muslims. Following NATO’s military intervention, the process of ethnic cleansing reversed itself; Kosovar Albanian Muslims turned on Serbs. The region has remained volatile despite new borders representing ethnic nationalism and the presence of a United Nations contingent.
The most extreme form of ethnic cleansing is genocide, the intent to systematically destroy an entire national or ethnic group. The term genocide was first applied to the attempted extermination of Jews by the National Socialists or Nazis in Germany. Millions of Jews and others deemed unfit or dangerous to Adolf Hitler’s regime were murdered in concentration camps during World War II, in the context of a well-orchestrated campaign of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. History witnessed additional instances of attempted genocide, including the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s massacre of more than 1 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s where 2 million Cambodians perished, and the Hutu’s slaughter of the Tutsis during the 1990s in Rwanda, Africa. The structural school of thought views the Rwandan case as a class war instead of ethnic cleansing. Some regard the forced migration of 14.5 million Germans from East Central Europe, resulting in more than 2 million civilian deaths, and the fire bombing of Dresden at the close of World War II, additionally killing several hundred thousand civilians, as attempted genocide. Scholars disagree, however, on which cases besides the Jewish case constitute genocide.
If one applies the structural lens to the ethnic conflict in Iraq that erupted since the U.S. war on that country and the removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime, one can explain the conflict between Shi’is, Sunnis, and Kurds as an attempt by elites to gain political and economic power by appealing to the respective ethnic group. The absence of strong institutions able to mediate exacerbates this conflict. Similar to the former Yugoslavia, each power broker tries to capitalize from long-standing tensions between the groups. The international context and external powers are implicated as well.
- Bardhan, Pranab. 1997. Method in Madness? A PoliticalEconomy Analysis of Ethnic Conflicts in Less Developed Countries. World Development 25 (9): 1381–1398.
- Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Horowitz, Donald L. 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Rudolph, Joseph R., ed. 2003. Encyclopedia of Modern Ethnic Conflicts. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Van den Berghe, Pierre. 1981. Ethnic Phenomenon. New York: Elsevier North Holland.
- Várdy, Steven Béla, and T. Hunt Tooley, eds. 2003. Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Europe. New York: Columbia University Press.
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