Ancient hatreds made me do it?

kosowo zdjThe social scientist and layman share at least one main goal when grappling with political events: they demand explanations of what they observe. For the most part, people seek to quickly make sense of seemingly endless conflicts and human atrocities. One stream of explanations always seems to fit the bill for such emotional satisfaction and expediency – appealing to ancient group animosities.


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As humanitarian catastrophes and international security dilemmas engulf Syria, distant observers are eager to explain away the horrors through the ethnic and religious animosities that exist between domestic groups. Indeed, in his Syrian Ghosts piece, retired Adm. James Stavridis insists that modern-day Syria is almost identical in this way to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. As in Syria, Balkan states simply “blew apart in a frenzy of religious and ethnic hatred” between Bosniaks, Croats and ethnic Albanians. But it does not end there. The now infamous Iraq War was supposedly so difficult to manage by Western powers because of similarly pesky ancient animosities between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Even today’s terrorists want us to pit the Western culture of “freedom” against the Islamic one, a dichotomy that appears natural and persistent to many.


These “clash of civilisations” arguments never cease to dominate political discourse. Over and over again, the arguments claim that modern-day people fight one another because of timeless cultural and identity grudges. Today, they colour our perceptions of Muslim refugees, systemic political violence across the Middle East and Africa and responses to international crises. Why are these narratives so ubiquitous amidst academics, public officials and regular citizens alike? Do they truly provide a comprehensive, inherently satisfactory explanation of our political world?


No, ancient hatreds do not make for accurate, comprehensive explanations of most violent political conflicts. They do, however, indulge many of our core assumptions about an ever conflictual world. Ancient hatreds feed into the need to simplify identities and social relations – yet they do so at great cost.


Defending timeless identities


As highly social creatures, humans thrive through group membership. Beyond this, we crave certainty and coherence in our group identities. In other words, our social bonds are not merely abstract. They are fortified by “natural” features – tangible objects such as language, physical appearance and territorial space. Some scholars believe this urge resides within our most basic biological makeup – a perspective called primordialism. It holds that people have an instinctual, evolutionary need to become into identity-laden nations and have done so since ancient times. Unchanging kinship networks, blood ties, common language, religion and shared territorial origins are vital assumptions for such a robust collective identity, one that facilitates political unification and mobilisation.


The perspective gives rise to the popular “ancient hatreds” or “clash of civilisations” theses – linking aggregated social outcomes to fixed, mutually exclusive group identities. Different groups must often fight against one another to strengthen and preserve the purity of their respective identities. As primordial ethnicity is archaic and overpowering, this narrative presents cultural assimilation or multicultural co-existence within territorial bounds as nearly impossible. Moreover, external factors such as power structures, elite decision-making and macro institutions become merely secondary forces within political outcomes.


Samuel Huntington, in his book Clash of Civilizations, introduced an implicit assumption of primordial identities in his security analysis. He painted all post-Cold War conflicts as epic, inevitable battles between civilisations – defined as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” His civilisations form on the basis of both objective elements – history, language, religion – and subjective self-identification. Through them, Huntington sought to prove that the balance of power is shifting from the West to the Asian states and Islamic communities, and that the survival of the West depends on the reaffirmation of a mutually exclusive Western identity. In similar fashion to his contemporary progenies, Huntington blatantly disregarded material power structures, cultural heterogeneity, identity reconstructions and peaceful eras that have characterised his civilisations.


What we miss


No one can deny the significance of culture in socio-political interactions. Marc Ross argues that culture, as a system of meaning, indirectly shapes political phenomena by framing the context in which politics occurs and linking individuals to collective identities. Culture also defines group boundaries, offers a foundation for interpreting others’ motives and provides resources for political mobilisation. But the danger begins when culture is removed as a product of social interaction and politics itself. The limitations arise when cultures are only seen as divisive, territorially-bound and timeless.


Hence, it is not surprising that others are skeptical of the absolutist cultural perspective. They worry that a narrow focus on dichotomies of culture, ethnicity and religion masks the real cause of conflict. After all, many of the features we take as inherent in group dynamics are not naturally given – they can be created to serve the same purpose. Here is where our popular narrative of politics fails us. It blinds us to elite manipulations and the power dynamics that underscore them. It allows people to ignore the structures of power that craft and re-craft group identities toward different political mobilisations.


Ethnic, religious and national identities are painstakingly molded for political gains, especially when elites need to form new political units (states) or combat new threats to their monopoly on power. Most fundamentally, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities shows that national memberships and related identities are not founded upon ancient tribal origins or other “natural” ties – they are forever fluid conceptions and functions of political contexts and motivations.


Huntington’s absolutist cultural argument, for instance, ignores the author’s own characterisation of civilisations: they are long-lived and the most enduring of human associations. Then how can they account for the dramatic rise and transformation of conflict in the post-Cold War era? While cultures cannot change in a few years or decades, other forces, such as elites, political configurations and economic development, can and do.


But despite its limitations, "ancient hatreds" simplify explanations. There is no need to worry about individual state leaders, economic systems, the legacy of bureaucratic institutions and case details when one can focus on those clearly delineated group differences. The most convenient part is that those differences can be found in every past, ongoing and future conflict. It makes for fast policy-making and political interpretation – allowing the narrative to thrive amidst its fatal flaws.


Yes, ancient hatreds still haunt the Balkans


Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts, echoed in contemporary arguments regarding Syria, solidified the ancient hatreds narrative for the Balkans. But the wars and massacres that enveloped the region over twenty years ago had less to do with timeless clashes and much more to do with elite mobilisations of identity and institutions of power. History, religion and ethnic identities were a set of emotive tools constructed in the present by political elites bent on expanding their own influence. As I have argued previously, this also explains why different ethno-religious groups across the Balkans hold vastly different, often opposing perceptions of their own historical origins and regional roles. Cultural identities are neither natural nor timeless – but they are some of the most powerful features of a population, ripe for political manipulation. If we snub this facet of politics, we make the manipulations more likely and transform them into self-fulfilling prophecies.


David Campbell’s National Deconstruction reveals how Bosnia’s portrayal through the lens of ethnic politics led to the interpretation of the 1990s violence as an “intractable” problem, demanding solutions of ethnic partition and delaying international reactions to systemic massacres. As Anthony Borden put it, the international community and media were “deeply infected with the view of the conflict as among three ethnic ‘sides’ with ancient and essentially irresolvable animosities.”


Consequently, the Balkans was seen as backward, barbaric and fundamentally different from civilised Europe. The removal of human agency in lieu of historical fatalism disenabled calls for political or military action. As a conscious policy to eliminate Bosnian Muslims progressed, the international community merely allowed a presupposed nature to take its course. They muted the emergence of counter-narratives founded on an understanding that the violence was a product of strategic plans of political domination. The narrative of ancient hatreds reigned supreme, and humans perished.


The Balkans narrative, which now easily replicates in Iraq, Syria and other heterogeneous societies, requires assumptions of “pre-given agents with autonomous, intractable and observable identities.” Campbell adds that the assumptions create a “seamless, ethnically ordered world in which no other conceptions of identity have political import, and where group relations cannot be other than mutually exclusive and conflictual.” Today, the city of Mostar in Bosnia has become a stark warning against such a narrative and the consequence of ethno-religious partition. Bosniaks and Croats still live divided between six political units and public institutions falter and fail – allowing a beautiful, historic city to drown in rats, alongside absolute ethnic divisions in electorates, education, economic resources and much more.


I have argued elsewhere that the city of Mitrovica is Kosovo’s counterpart to the construction of lasting ethnic divisions. Since the war of 1999, it remains divided between ethnic Serbs and Albanians, delineated by the Ibar Bridge. Animosity between ethnicities thrives through territorial de-facto partitions, separate educational systems, and other public and private facets. Similar to Bosnia, Kosovo’s violent past was and is still painted through the lens of nationalism and fixed identities, firmly cementing this narrative as the only possible reality for the Balkans. The wave of recent violent protests in Kosovo stems directly from the notion that the land is divided between two opposing ethnic interests, and if one gains, the other surely must lose.


Self-fulfilling prophecies


Let us fast-forward to the plight of Syrian refugees and the conflict in which they are embedded. As refugees escape a brutal warzone, world governments, from small Balkan nations to large regional hegemons, construct security doomsday narratives on why they refuse to act. If Syria is just another endless civil war between natural factions, what can the world really do in the long-run? Moreover, instead of taking the time to analyze the relationship between refugees and national security risks, many simply accept the dominant cultural narrative and split refugees into ethno-religious “safe” and “unsafe” categories. They overlook facts that counter this zero-sum depiction, as in for example, the reality that out of the 785,000 refugees resettled since September 11th 2001 in the United States, only a miniscule fraction of them, less than one percent, have been arrested or removed due to terrorism concerns. In other words, ethnicity and region of origin have little to do with increased risks of national terrorism. Many actors also discount analyses that posit refugee intake and the de-politicisation of religion as two of the strongest counter-terrorism strategies the West has in its arsenal.


When Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or future conflicts appear just like the Balkans did to our collective minds, it is only because we insist on applying the same simplifying narrative of ancient hatreds to all regions with a diversity of identities. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy with the worst of consequences as it minimises the likeliness of prudent policymaking, one that considers all facets of an issue alongside costs and benefits. Yet, many will continue to enjoy the instant clarity that the “ancient hatreds” narrative offers, willfully blind or indifferent to its destructive consequences.


Sidita Kushi is a PhD candidate and lecturer in Political Science at Northeastern University. Her research centers on the interplay between human security and economic forces in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, particularly as manifested during external military interventions. She has recently published on Balkan security, Russian foreign policy, transatlantic identities, the Greek debt crisis and Albanian and Kosovar domestic policies. Follow her on Twitter: @SiditaKushi.