The rationality and irrationality of ethnic violence

Aggressive nationalisms always claim that they are regrettable but rational defensive reactions against perceived external threats; but this claim that aggression is defence, and that aggression is rational, is always (or often?) itself an irrational claim.  Explain and comment upon this statement

Every ethnic group in the world had faced or initiated aggression against another throughout the human history. In the hundred years before the end of Cold War there have been radical transformations from monarchy to communism to democracy, from liberal capitalism to stringent economic protectionism, and vice versa across the globe. Not only have there been numerous instances of such changes but have also oscillated from one extreme to another. Amid all this churning, the one strong conception with which peoples in different parts of the world could identify with is their ‘nation’. The prevailing geo-political circumstances of the recent centuries have made these conflicts all the more fiercer and frequent. Irrespective of the arena and time of these conflicts, its initiators have always claimed some rationale and legitimacy for their purported ‘defensive’ actions. But there is obvious contradiction in the terms ‘defence’ and ‘aggression’. Moreover, an attrition warfare emerging from ethno-nationalistic feelings, inevitably leads to injustices in the form of war profiteering, mass rapes and other atrocities. In this context, it becomes difficult to justify the claim that aggression is defence, and that it is rational. This essay will elaborate on this assessment by perusing appropriate scholarly resources.

Ronald Suny article ‘Why We Hate You: The Passions of National Identity and Ethnic Violence’ attempts to sort through theories of ethnic conflict. It peruses the case of Soviet Union, before and after its collapse, to identify underlying motives of ethnic conflict. The author disagrees with the view forwarded by certain academics that Primordialism, which springs from an innate, natural identity, is at the root of most ethnic conflicts. But, since the notion of Primordialism is itself loosely and vaguely defined, this argument does not hold merit. Secondly, there are deficiencies in a Constructivist approach to studying ethnic conflicts, as this approach does not provide a satisfactory explanation for most conflicts in the past. Moving away from these simplistic assessments of ethic conflict, Suny suggests that a combination of both emotion and reason are at work in any given instance of conflict. The emotions that instigate conflict include fear, resentment, hate and anger. But it is debatable whether there is sufficient justification for these emotions and whether they are backed by historical fact (Suny, 2004). The Balkan region had seen some of the turbulent episodes of war and strife dating back to ancient history. Twentieth century Germany is another relevant case study, as the nation had gone through three distinct phases in this period. Similarly, a few South East Asian nations have composite ethnic, religious and cultural identities. By carefully studying the internal dynamics of conflicts in these examples, key insights into the nature of ethnic conflict could be gained.
The collapse of Yugoslavia into smaller states is a significant event following the collapse of the Soviet Union. To understand the complexities involved in this outcome, we have to grasp the history of the region going back a millennium. The middle centuries of first millennia AD was a period of continuous change in Europe. There were widespread animosities between various tribes in their quest for geographic locations rich in natural resources. At this period of time, around 6th and 7th century AD, no one tribe could claim nativity over a piece of land as there were constant displacement from and conquering of new lands. It was then that “the Slavonic tribes, mixed with the Avars, made their appearance in the Balkans, which was sparsely inhabited by many different tribes of the Illyrians, the Dardanians, the Thracians and probably others whose names have fallen into oblivion” (Almond, 1998). The present day hostility between Albanians and Serbians could be traced back to this period. Contemporary Albanians, who descended from the aforementioned tribal groups, were defeated in warfare by migrating Slavonic tribes. While some of the conquered were assimilated into Slavonic tribes, the rest took refuge in inaccessible geographic locations like mountain tops. The victorious Slavs on the other hand took control of the most fertile and irrigable lands in the region. Hence, the geography of the Balkans is an important aspect of ethnic rivalries there.

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