Ancient Ethnic Hatreds


This photo from a BBC report on the ongoing fighting in South Sudan made its rounds on the internet today, showing refugees being segregated by ethnicity at a UN compound. As of last month, an estimated 93,000 people had been displaced by the conflict, indicating the scale of the crisis (source: reliefweb).  

Signposts in Bentiu camp

Sign at a camp in Bentiu, South Sudan, segregating refugees by ethnicity. (Source: BBC)

Others have pointed out that while ethnicity (tribalism) plays an important role in the fighting in South Sudan, the full picture is more complex, as it almost always is. In his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges had this to say about perceived ethnic conflicts:

“The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.”

One of the dangers of seeing a conflict solely in terms of “ancient ethnic hatreds” is that they distract attention away from the fact that they must be organized by someone, making them seem inevitable. If that’s just the way things have always been, then it’s easy to conclude that’s how things always will be. Therefore, reconciliation is beyond reach. However, as Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

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2 thoughts on “Ancient Ethnic Hatreds

  1. Of course an anthropologist cannot see ‘Nuer and Dinka’ without thinking Evans Pritchard (1940s, before and after). It was Pritchard’s analysis of the two tribes and their interrelationship together with Malinowski’s analysis of Trobriand Islanders that gave us full-blown functionalism, where just about everything in a society and, in this case, between neighbouring societies, functions to define and maintain a society (functionalism). EP focused on cattle ownership, use and raids between Nuer and Dinka. In fact almost all raids seemed (to him) to be Nuer-inspired ~ to the point where Dinka cattle are seen as ‘reserves’ for when Nuer are in need. EP witnessed the situation at one point in history (although he attempted to reconstruct history), when the Nuer were perhaps in the ascendency. He makes the point that the division is not absolute and that many Dinka groups live within Nuer areas and as Nuer. EP did not work for the colonial authorities (as has been suggested) but he did not work against them. The authorities read and respected his works (many anthropologists yearn for similar respect! but rarely get it). Noting how important cattle were, when the authorities had trouble with the Nuer, they bombed their cattle as punishment. One can condemn nasty imperialism, or one can say that it was better to bomb cattle than people. Problems with Dinka were dealt with similarly. The basic division between the two certainly allowed colonial authority to maintain a presence, but it was not so much ‘divide and rule’ as noting and using divisions that were already there. The conflict was NOT manufactured from outside any more than the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland was manufactured by England ~ this could be rephrased as ‘any less than’. That existing conflicts will be made use of by third parties is evident throughout the world ~ it’s the way politics works: alliance and conflict, the enemy of my enemy is my friend (until the enemy is defeated). If we consider all conflict to be manufactured from outside we are into conspiracy theory. Better is to be realist and note that even the worst ethnic or religious conflicts intersperse war and hatred with long periods where apparent differences live side by side in peace and common cause ~ and not only when in alliance against a third party. History as we learn it focuses on conflict and war ~ long periods of peace are just too boring. But it is during the peace that the Shakespeares emerge and the wonders of the world are created ~ although it must be said that Shakespeare more often than not entertained with stories of war and conflict, and the wonders were created through slave labour. To reach understanding requires analysis of peace as much as conflict. How people come to the point of conflict is often readily apparent, how they maintain peace should be equally apparent ~ when it comes to analysis, give peace a chance.

  2. Hi Robert,
    I do remember encountering EP in graduate school. However, I have to admit to not retaining much of his writing, sadly, beyond that he worked in Sudan and perhaps a vague memory that he found the Nuer particularly aggressive (as you alluded). My faulty memory is not a knock on EP’s place in anthropological history, just that my interests were elsewhere at the time. Thanks for the refresher.

    I don’t doubt that the Dinka and Nuer had plenty of conflicts without colonial influence, just as conflicts can arise spontaneously between any two groups. I think the Hedges’ quote was not about manufacturing conflict from the outside, so much as manufactured by thugs from within the group who promote conflict with others for their own benefit. Hedges is not strictly an academic (though he has some graduate training in theology, I believe), but a former war journalist who writes scathingly about the ways that, in his experience, people all over the world succumb to war fever.

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