Hate the other, take his stuff

The media usually cover communal conflict with a superficial "this religion/tribe/ethnicity attacked this other one today, causing bloodshed, isn't it terrible." With this kind of coverage, it's not surprising that people in the USA and other stable rich countries end up thinking people in the poor countries are filled with barbaric hatreds — one factor in the long tradition of popular support for imperialism.

But as this rare article from The New York Times shows, irrational hatred is hardly ever the only thing going on. While suspicion and prejudice against communal others can be found everywhere in the world, it seldom escalates into violence unless there's an economic stake involved.

The example used in the article, violence between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria, is more a competition for land and how it will be used (for pasturage or agriculture) than it is a conflict over religion. The communal differences make it easier to demonize the rival group, but can't explain how these groups managed to live together peacefully for years.

We find similar conflict over the control of resources wherever communal strife breaks out. Anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998 were the product of ethnic chauvinism, it's true. But the resentment generated by the fact that Chinese Indonesians, a mere 3 percent of the population, control 70-80 percent of its wealth, was just as important. As was the economic crisis caused by the Panic of 1997, which was increasing prices for basic food items (see this article).

The terrible wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia were cast in the West as a result of "ancient hatreds". But it wasn't the resurfacing of submerged identities that tore the country apart; rather, it was opportunistic politicians using ethnic chauvinism to mobilize support behind themselves. Yet these appeals were only compelling because the country was experiencing an economic crisis. The IMF had imposed its typical "shock therapy" program of austerity measures and contractionary policy and the economy was rapidly shrinking. Once competition for the declining wealth of the country had begun along ethnic lines, everyone was forced into increasingly rigid ethnic identities for protection and, as the violence mounted, for revenge.

The periodic anti-immigrant backlashes in the USA and Europe, which usually happen during a recession or periods of high unemployment, involve the same dynamics.

So the typical pattern is preexisting communal distrust being used by demogogic leaders to generate support in a climate of struggle over economic resources. But we shouldn't overlook one other factor that shows up again and again: the creation of rigid communal categories in the first place thru encounters with imperialism.

To go back to the Indonesian example, it was the Netherlands, the colonial ruler before indepedence, that singled out the Chinese as collaborators in handling most commercial matters. Or in Rwanda, where the ruling Belgians seized upon the loose division between Hutu and Tutsi, proclaimed the Hutu racially inferior, issued identity cards to differentiate between the two, and systematically empowered the Tutsi. Drawing fast boundaries around what had been fluid identities was a key precondition for the genocide of 1994.

Or take the terrible communal conflicts that have afflicted South Asia for decades. At the beginning of the 20th century, the cohesive groups "Hindu" and "Muslim" did not exist in British India. People called themselves Hindus or Muslims, but few identified with a colony-wide communal group; primary identification was to native place and one's position of wealth and power in the village. It was the colonial experience that created these splits — Britain's use of the categories to classify and divide people, Indian politicians' exploitation of them to generate national networks of support, and the British division of power and resources along communal lines as they devolved power. The horrors of partition, the India-Pakistan wars, the riots and massacres up to this day — South Asia would be a very different place had it escaped colonizing.

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