Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Planning of "Ethnic" Violence

Today's BBC has a worthwhile article pointing out Human Rights Watch allegations that much of the "ethnic" (I'll explain the quotes in a second) violence ravaging Kenya is being planned and directed by political elites there. Again, worth reading, but hardly surprising to anyone who has looked at historical patterns of communal violence.

The nature of media coverage of such strife is a persistent complaint of people who study ethnic conflict and ethno-nationalist politics. By framing violence as "ethnic," without adding much context to the term, reporters unwittingly frame it as a result of ancient, hardened, immutable social divisions that spontaneously flare up from time to time (I - along with many others, prefer the term "communal," because it leaves open the possibility for boundaries to change). Furthermore, by using the word "riot" to describe the actual incidents, reporters conjure up images of pent-up anger, randomly exploding into wanton destruction (in the context of Africa, it also unwittingly reinforces racist stereotypes about tribal conflict). Recent history - from the Kristallnacht to the Rwandan Genocide to the 2002 Hindu-Muslim clashes in Gujarat - has shown that such violence is nearly always planned and directed by communal elites. "Pogrom" might be a more appropriate term.

The extent to which elites are responsible for such action (and, conversely, the extent to which the people "on the street" who actually engage in much of the destruction and killing can be viewed as sheep who follow their leaders blindly) remains a matter of debate. Personally, I'm not willing to pin all the blame on those who stoke the conflict. The dynamics by which communal identity is constructed and directed are too complex for such simplistic explanations. Still, it is good to see that some media outlets finally point out the calculated nature of communal violence.

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