Ethnic conflict

2004 04 07
Wha’d’y’all want, anyway?


In a post yesterday, I complained about a remark of Matt Bivens’ to the effect that Iraqis seemed to be voting for Islamic theocracy. A commentator took that up and (as I interpret it) implied that I was underestimating the strength of support for religious extremism in Iraq, particularly the South.

I should be clear that I don’t want to deny that there is support for religious leaders in Iraq, including many who give me the willies. What I do want to deny is that it’s especially helpful to fall for reductive explanations of what is happening in Iraq, or for that matter, anywhere else. If Iraq moves in the direction of an Islamic theocracy, or civil war, it won’t necessarily be because the majority of people wanted it, or even necessarily because it was anyone’s first choice (though, obviously it will be the first choice for some people). What happens will have very much to do with who has bigger guns, better organization, a head start, better intelligence, support from outside actors, etc. It’s no good to imagine that we can just aggregate personal preferences and – presto – figure out which way things will go. That’s why poll-driven optimism is so often misguided. But conversely, we can’t look at the way things go and then try to extrapolate from that to what the individual preferences of the actors were.

In general, I think we do a very bad job of understanding how group behaviour is related to individual preferences.1 Part of that is the effect of all the simplistic talk we’re accustomed to hear about democracy and group preference. We’re constantly hearing about what the voters wanted, mandates, and so on. Much of this is perfectly sensible, but it’s also potentially misleading. And I get especially worried when assumptions about group behaviour and individual preference get tied up, as they so often do, with notions of collective responsibility.

To give one example, I (think I) recall a high ranking American official saying at the time of the Kosovo war that Yugoslavia basically deserved to get pummelled because Milosovic had won elections – as if hundreds of thousands of moderates hadn’t marched in the streets against Milosovic for years; as if barriers to information weren’t high; as if the very limited options on offer didn’t force difficult choices on people; and so on. This isn’t to sidestep difficult questions of collective responsibility for ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, but it is to reject accounts of collective responsibility that rest on the faulty assumptions I’m complaining about here. Certainly the high ranking American official was being a jackass in this case.

Anyway, I hope this explains why I’m allergic to a lot of the talk about what Iraqis want – at least when it’s not loaded up with nuance and qualification. Poll away, but interpret with great care.

1. For a wonderful recent example of this, stunning in its obviousness, and yet almost completely neglected in the commentary, see this point about the Spanish elections made by John Quiggin.


Howls of outrage (2)

2004 04 06
The Nation’s Outrage


Here is Matt Bivens, writing in The Nation:

Several months ago, I argued we should declare victory (or defeat) and get out. “Iraq is headed toward a Lebanese-style civil war,” I wrote, and “the only question is how many tens of thousands of American citizen-soldiers, for how many months or years, will be caught in the crossfire.”

For me, that is still the only question. Which is why I still support the so- called cut-and-run option. I think to cut and run is an odious, ignoble, pathetic thing to do — and I support it because it’s better than all of the other realistic (as opposed to Friedmanistic) options. People talk about how “we can’t fail” — but we failed the moment we decided to roar in with tanks and air power to deliver liberal democracy to a land where the majority, apparently, will cast their votes for repressive theocracy. The rest is just epilogue.

I confess lately I have been very bleak about the ability of the U.S. to do good in Iraq. But set aside the question of when exactly it is best to leave. What’s really offensive is Bivens’ little crack about people casting their votes for repressive theocracy. That isn’t what’s happening at all. The roots of secularism go pretty deep in Iraq, and the vast majority of Iraqis clearly aren’t interested in a repressive theocracy. Instead of insulting Iraqis or impugning their preferences, Bivens might reflect on the structural causes of civil war, since that will give him more than enough support for his generally gloomy outlook. Civil wars often happen in situations like Iraq because there are plentiful resources, very high stakes, serious instability, deep corruption, easily manipulated ethnic divisions (NOT “seething ethnic hatreds”), and so on.

I haven’t been consoled lately by the opinions polls showing that most Iraqis hold very broad minded views of other ethnic groups in Iraq. Yugoslavia had the highest rate of intermarriage between ethnic groups in the world in 19911, and a large number of decent, liberal folks. Fat lot of good it did them. But the flip side of this is that when things go wrong it is often a mistake to fall back on facile generalizations about people voting for repressive theocracies or whatever.

One other point: As I say, I’m pretty bleak lately. But there are better and worse ways to leave, and following Bivens’ advice would be among the worst. I’ve had readers complain in the past that I’m picking on a straw man on this issue [ahem, Matthew], but The Nation is respected on the left, so it’s worth pointing out.

1. Warning! Working from memory here.


Howls of outrage (5)

2003 11 26
[Adesnik on Gelb]


David Adesnik, over at Oxblog quotes a friend in response to Gelb’s piece in the times yesterday (for my take on Gelb, click here):

Iraq is unique in the Muslim world as a country where Sunnis and Shias, both secular and religious leaders, have often collaborated against internal oppression and external aggression, and have not engaged in the vicious sectarian bloodshed seen in Pakistan, or the Wahabbi view of Shias as heretics and polytheists. Shia Ayatollahs supported Sunni opposition movements, and a radical Shia movement like the Da’wa party had a Sunni membership of ten percent…

Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias are related by common history and often common tribal relations, since Iraq only became a majority Shia state after Sunni tribes converted to Shiism in the 18th century. Even the most extreme Iraqi Shias are Iraqi nationalists and view Iran with suspicion. Iraqi Shias believe their country is the rightful leader of the Shia world, since Shiism began in Iraq, most sacred Shia sites are in Iraq and the Hawza, or Shia clerical academy of Najaf, dominated Shia thought until recently. Iran is a rival for them. Iraqi nationalism and unity were proven when all members of the Iraqi Governing Council unanimously rejected the American proposal to introduce Turkish peacekeepers into the country…

Kurdish leaders from all political parties have called for inclusion in the new Iraq, and while many may dream of an eventual Kurdish state, all recognize that it is quixotic at this juncture. There is only a light American presence in Kurdistan anyway, and it is not the reason troops are meeting resistance elsewhere. A Kurdistan without US troops is the greatest fear of most Kurds today who live under the ominous shadow of their Turkish, Iranian, and even Syrian neighbors. There is no clear border for Kurdistan. Kurds covet Mosul and Kirkuk, where many Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen would violently oppose secession…

Gelb’s proposal is the singularly least democratic suggestion offered to solve the Iraq crisis to date. Moreover, no neighboring country would accept the idea of dividing Iraq. How many small, artificial and unviable countries (like Jordan and the Gulf countries) does the west wish to create in repetition of its post Ottoman errors? Unlike Yugoslavia, Iraq’s different groups have no history of separate existence and they have no history of mutual slaughter. It is true that Iraq was to a certain extent an invention. But all states begin as an imagined idea. A state succeeds if its people believe in it. Iraqis believe in Iraq. If anything, the American occupation is only uniting Iraqis in resentment of the foreigners and non Muslims who
rule them, and increasing their desire to be “free, independent and democratic” as the graffiti says on walls throughout the country. Iraqis believe in Baghdad, an extremely diverse capital city, where Shias, Sunnis and Kurds live together and even intermarry.

I agree with the main sentiment expressed final paragraph, certainly. If I can add a pessimistic note, the author seems to assume that past ethnic harmony in Iraq (arguably overstated by the author) gives us a reason to hope that Iraq will continue to enjoy a reasonable amount of ethnic harmony in the future.

But past ethnic harmony is a good predictor of future ethnic conflict only if ethnic conflict is mainly about, um, ethnic conflict. I think it isn’t.

What do I mean? In many cases – Yugoslavia is an excellent example – the real causes of ethnic conflict have less to do with ethnic hatreds than may seem the case. It’s often far more plausible to see the causes as political, as having to do with the struggle for control over wealth and power. My sense is that the trouble in Yugoslavia had much more to do with the mafia and the struggle for control over state resources than with an eruption of long dormant ethnic hatred. And it is worth pointing out that Yugoslavia had the highest rate of intermarriage between ethnic groups in the world in the year before the ethnic cleansing started. Of course, recognizable ethnic groups are needed to get things going, and past grievances certainly help. Once things gets going, ethnic identity becomes the surest shortcut to figuring out who is safe and who is not – and this helps to fuel the impression that the conflict is, at root, an ethnic one.

This matters because it influences our sense of how likely an ethnic conflict is to erupt somewhere. Instead of asking whether there is a history of ethnic cooperation or conflict, it is probably more helpful to ask: Are there pre-existing ethnic divisions which might be exploited by unscrupulous leaders? How high are the stakes in the struggle over control of the state? What other legitimate kinds of groups exist besides ethnic categories (unions, associations, multi-ethnic political parties, etc.)?

I’m pessimistic because I think the answers to these questions are not encouraging, and because I think they matter more than the fact – to the extent that it is a fact – that Iraq has a history of ethnic cooperation.

Gelb is mistaken, I think. But make no mistake, the U.S. will need to work very hard to avoid a civil war.


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