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3 / III / léto 2001 / summer 2001Extremismus a menšiny / Extremism and MinoritiesTisk / PrintDownload

Identitary Polarisation, Violence and Terror: A Study on Ethnic Terrorism

Maxmilián Strmiska

This article forms part of the output of the research project "Pluralist Democracy and Subversive Terrorism" (GA 407/00/0421)

The links between nationalism and nationalist or ethnic violence have been the topic of a large number of articles and studies that mostly conclude that such links not only exist, but also assume the form of an ”intimate relation”. The close relation between state nationalism and militarism, which has become a fact so many times proven by the history, is hard to ignore (cf. Letamendía 1990; Barša, Strmiska 1999). On the other hand, many scholars consider the deliberate use of violence as a characteristic constitutive feature of ”ethnic extremism” or radical anti-system (anti-government) neonationalism.[1] Clearly enough, one has to do with a vast and complex problem area which cannot be briefly described using a single and easy to grasp schematic. Let me therefore restrict this article to some brief reflections concerning the role of violence and terrorism in the identitary mobilisation of the centre and the periphery, naturally without any claim for a comprehensive assessment of the issue.

International military conflicts represented in the past, and still represent today, a special opportunity (primarily for the winning party) to assert its national and state identity, and to provoke a nation-forming and ”system creating” centralist identitary mobilisation. The question which arises in this context may be worded as follows: ”Does this assertion apply exclusively to the identitary mobilisation of central nationalist establishments on the level of international conflicts, or is it also applicable to internal conflict interactions between established centres and nation-forming peripheral movements? Can an internal armed conflict fulfil a function, in the context of the nation-forming processes taking place in national states today, similar to that fulfilled in the past by major military confrontations between national or pre-national European states in formation? As a matter of fact, it may, which does not necessarily mean it must.

No matter how problematic the above view may seem, it has many theoretical and empirical arguments to its favour. The west-European context in itself has provided clear evidence of the formative role of violence, e.g. in the Basque and Northern Ireland conflicts. Regardless the opinion of the supporters and advocates of the respective centralist establishments, we should bear in mind that the above cases are not examples of inexplicable deviations, but rather of ethnic and political confrontations that by their nature result from explicable patterns of conflict interactions in which violence and violent threats have become critical tools for both identitary mobilisation of the periphery and counter-mobilisation of the centre or other forces acting in the interest of the state-forming central establishment.

Generally speaking, violence within a territorial and political system is made structurally viable, and is determined, by the absence, or at least serious disturbance, of the political system’s legitimacy. However, it is necessary to distinguish between disturbance of legitimacy involving destruction on the one hand and radical negation of the existing national and state identity on the other. Identitary nation-forming mobilisation of the periphery is usually based on a greater or smaller potential necessary for the process of delegitimising.

On the other hand, the central establishment has the power tools used in delegitimation of another kind, i.e. the delegitimation of peripheral nationalist movements and of the actors representing such movements on the political scene. The key catalyst triggering off the dynamism leading to identitary polarisation and to conflict escalation is exactly the reaction of the national centre, as peripheral movements – except for rare exceptions – lack the power tools necessary for an immediate switch from the process of delegitimation to the process of modification or destruction of the given arrangement. The above concept of delegitimation is primarily based on political provocation of the centre. On the other hand, the central establishment has all the means necessary for an immediate switch from delegitimation to repression. The stigmatisation process may be very quickly supported by and accompanied with concealed or blunt violence (cf. Letamendía 1990; Letamendía 1998a). Some researchers even point out that the central establishment symptomatically tends towards a double delegitimation of peripheral nation-making movements not only as the bearers of alternative cultural and political identities and of projects of alternative territorial and political frameworks, but also as social and political actors. This corresponds to the structure of the concept of internal enemy. [2] Such conditions make it extremely difficult, even in an environment of at least formally liberal-democratic states, to prevent the erosion of the procedural consensus and of the mediating mechanisms preventing an uncontrolled power confrontation using identitary mobilisation and counter-mobilisation to achieve their goals.

While pragmatic, ”moderate” nation-making movements of non-governmental ethnic and cultural groups mimetise the respective national collectives, making frequent use of their communitarian characteristics of a national community (Gemeinschaft) in the initial phases of their development and later, to a smaller or greater extent, also of their national society (Gesellschaft) characteristics, radical, violence using nation-forming movements use parallel double mimesis, i.e. a mimesis of the national collective and the national state. The mimesis of a national state as a monopoly of violence naturally results in the establishment of an armed vanguard personifying the anti-state. At the same time, a political counter-collective is established, conceiving of the armed vanguard as an anti-state in order to legitimise it. [3] A nation-forming movement thus acquires a paramilitary dimension. The conditions resulting in inevitable paramilitarisation of a nation-making movement are difficult to specify on a general and theoretical level. There are two important issues to be considered in differentiating between the different aspects of peripheral identitary mobilisations and nation-making movements. First, it is necessary to verify what violent action we have to do with. Relatively frequent sporadic demonstrative violence in itself does not have a major impact on the character and dynamism of identitary mobilisation. However, this does not apply to systematic and planned violent action coming from armed groups aspiring to represent an anti-state. The problem resides in the fact that especially in the initial phases of terrorist campaigns (because this is the form of psychological war such action usually assumes), it is rather difficult to distinguish between a ”new quality” of violent action occurred and its actual and potential impact both on the respective national movement and on the interaction between the nation-making movement and the respective central establishment. [4] Second, it is necessary to bear in mind that in the course of the nation-making process, the nation-making movement is subject to a certain differentiation which may result in its branching, split or even into the formation of two or, exceptionally, more relatively independent streams of nation-making movements with their own elites, dynamics and last, but not least, their own strategic and tactical preferences. We should also remember that one and the same actor of identitary mobilisation may change his strategic and tactical preferences, including, naturally, his attitude towards violent action. From this point of view, it is very instructive to compare, say, the Basque and the Catalan nation-making-movements and their individual factions (see, e.g., Conversi 1997: 222). Bearing in mind the complex nature of the conditions favouring the outburst of an armed conflict on the background of ethno-political and nationalist identitary polarisation, we will better understand why the attempts at drawing schematic maps of such conflicts inspire a great amount of hesitation. [5]

The unequal potentials of the state and non-state (anti-state) actors in critical ethnic and political conflicts, as well as the nature of the (potential) space for military action explain why an armed conflict between such actors in the present day European context assumes the form of terrorism on the one hand and of an anti-terrorist ”dirty war” on the other. Terrorist psychological war has replaced more or less conventional armed conflicts and the ”profit and loss account” made by the parties involved clearly reflects the asymmetry in the overall proportion of power and in the nature of means available to the parties to the conflict. Unfortunately, this is far from making armed conflicts less cruel, as can be seen in the specific traits of ethnic (ethno-political) violence (cf. Byman 1998). The nature of ethnic terrorism (both the subversive terrorism of non-governmental groups, and the repressive terrorism of the governmental establishment or vigilant groups acting with its silent approval) is in the first place determined by the existence of an ethnic and cultural cleavage and the nature of its transformation into a political issue involving the above mentioned identitary polarisation. Identitary polarisation brings about a relatively simple negative self-identification, which in itself cannot provoke an armed conflict but may be a significant catalyst in the escalation of its brutality and a systematic use of violence once the conflict arises. Nevertheless, we should beware a simplified or biased approach to this issue, not only admitting, but pointing out that this set of agents and circumstances has an impact on all the parties involved in the conflict, as well as on the nature of both the ”freedom-fighting” or ”national-liberation” terrorism and the repressive ”dirty wars” lead by state apparatus and actively supported by paragovernmental groups. Especially in the case of protracted ethno-political conflicts (e.g. in the Basque country and in Northern Ireland), there is a typical process of crystallisation and institutionalisation of identitary polarisation and of the respective patterned stigmatisation and stereotyping taking place which has often been so interiorised by the individual segments of the national societies and their ”counter-societies” that a transition to another model of interaction between them has become almost impossible. In similar situations, it is extremely difficult to analyse and clearly identify all, and especially the long term, anti-system manifestations and impacts of identitary polarisation. They are mostly represented by multi-dimensional processes whose elements change their position and acquire new implications which may often radically change their original meaning and significance in the course of time. [6]

The anti-system nature of radical factions of nation-making movements of non-governmental ethnic groups may assume different dimensions. Apart from a primary rejection of the status quo in the sphere of cultural, territorial and political delimitation, it can – at the secondary stage – relate to procedural consensus and the ”rules of the game”, to individual ideological components of the given arrangement, etc. However, this anti-system nature may – and this is of special interest in this context – or may not include a clear rejection of (and/or self-identification against) a particular model of social and political arrangement, while the question of the arrangement of a ”free” national community according to such models may remain open. [7] Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that the nationalist terrorism of peripheral non-governmental groups, regardless of the ”liberation” aspects of the resulting terrorist war, also destroys the value patterns and mechanisms necessary for the creation of a functioning democratic system. [8] Brutal methods of fight used against the external, ”strange” enemy, including cruelty committed and exposed to appreciation, may be eventually used in fighting the ”internal” enemy (the real or presumed traitors, inconvenient dissidents, critics from within, etc.) or in the fight between competing factions of an armed nationalist vanguard. [9]

If such identitary polarisation basically represents a necessary condition for the escalation of a conflict between the central state establishment and the ”subversive” nationalism and for its transformation into a conflict between the state repressive structures and the anti-state armed clandestine group, such conflict is not its only possible and inevitable outcome. Let us remind that the conditions for such conflicts in the west-European context in the past resulted from a specific combination of the influence of third-world liberation models and the expansion of new social movements. Such situation is quite unlikely to repeat. We should also bear in mind that chances for de-escalation and the stimulation of reconciliation processes occur from time to time even in major and largely irreconcilable ethnic and political conflicts, as has been the case of the Basque country and the British Ulster in the recent years. The question whether such chances have been or will be made good use of cannot be answered here. We can only hope that if the conflicts are of political nature, even though somewhat special, there are political remedies to them which can be explained on a rational basis and as such, understood and solved.

Poznámky / Notes

1. The article of Raphael Zariski (Zariski 1989) represents, in this respect, a ”paradigmatic” study. Zariski considered the tendency to use violence, the cultural and political exclusivity and separatism as the three key moments of ethnic extremism (Zariski 1989: 253--272; esp. 253--254).
2. Cf. Letamendía 1990. Similar statements can be also found in the works by other authors who are typical for direct or indirect advocating nation-making movements of non-governmental ethnic groups (Sergio Salvi, Robert Lafont etc.).
3. See four phases of ”violent” militant nationalist mimesis as defined by Francisco Letamendía; the first phase – the development of reactive (anti-repressive) defensively-aggressive social violence; the second phase – the formation of an armed core; the third and fourth phases – the transformation of the armed core into an anti-state, a mimetising national state, and a simultaneous creation of an anti-repressive counter-community accepting the armed core as the embodiment of the anti-state. See Letamendía 1998a: esp. 285. On development of the Basque anti-community, see also Mata López 1993.
4. The first phase of an ethnic (ethno-political) subversive terrorist war is usually ”armed propaganda”. Some nationalist armed forces failed or were just unable to go beyond this phase. The chances to employ different political and military strategies remained very limited in their case. An example of this is the Brittany Liberation Front (FLB) and also Iparretarrak (”Those from the North”) in the French ”northern” Basque country (cf. Le Quilliec 1997; Moruzzi—Boulaert 1988).
5. Perhaps the most ambitious example of such attempt is the schematic made by the above mentioned American scholar Raphael Zariski. Zariski attributed the greatest importance, of the thirteen different approaches and explanatory principles, to the combined action of different factors, including for instance unequal development or differential modernisation, economic penetration and a threat of socio-economic competition resulting from migration from the wider cultural environment, the governmental (negative) discrimination, frustrated upward mobility, tradition of violence and the character of governmental response to ethnic and territorial claims. See Zariski 1989: esp. 258--259. Peter Waldmann chose a different approach and identified middle classes as the principal bearer of ethnic radicalism, potentially prone to extreme violence (See Waldmann 1992).
6. For instance, the meaning of the message put across by violent (terrorist) action clearly varies depending on the target population (target public). One and the same violent action may be a confirmation of (auto)exclusion, of inner cohesion and loyalty, or it may be a tool having a differentiated ”educational” impact (cf. Strmiska 1996a). As for the anti-community, the action of an armed vanguard reinforces the identification with the anti-state and such identification may acquire a higher intensity and emotional charge than in the case of citizens’ identification with a national state and its central establishment. The whole process, which often involves sacralisation, may acquire almost a quasi-religious character, including apparently archaic elements whose use was not expected by the actors of the process and whose occurrence they may have not even expected. As for the problem of quasi-religious elements in the ETA environment see, e.g. Fiala--Strmiska 1997: 119--140, esp. 133--134.
7. In this respect, it is interesting to compare the political platforms of the Irish Republican Army (IRA, especially the former Provisional IRA), of the Basque country and freedom (ETA, and especially the dominant ”military” faction of ETA) and the Corsica National Liberation Front (FLNC; or its different factions); while the programs of IRA and ETA traditionally included such more or less clear self-identification against incumbent models of a socio-political arrangement, in the case of FLNC such self-identification was absent or quite marginal.
8. “Terrorism, unfortunately, is an ideal tactic for separatists in multiethnic democracies. For those with a separatist agenda, the purpose of elections is to polarize communities, not bring them together. Terrorism forces a polity to divide further along communal lines. Thus elections--the West's panacea for civil disputes--often backfire" (Byman 1998).
9. See Strmiska 1996a: esp. 35.

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3 / III / léto 2001 / summer 2001Extremismus a menšiny / Extremism and MinoritiesTisk / PrintDownload

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