Ethnicity as a Basis for Divisiveness: Identity Politics

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository; it has been updated since Edition 2.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/version02a/6742.htm)

People might not usually feel that their ethnicity is very significant, but they will seek solidarity with others in the same group if they perceive threats (  Some politicians exploit this phenomenon to foment hostility, resulting in what is termed  ‘identity politics’ in this book.

There is no fundamental reason why opinions on tax and the provision of public services, for example, should be in any way affected by what ethnic group a person belongs to.  It can therefore be argued that ethnicity need not be a major factor in most political negotiations, so it might not need any form of structural recognition; in some countries, though, it is a very important feature of the political system.

In mature democracies with ‘first past the post’ systems of representation (, such as Britain, America and France, the political parties are formed primarily to offer different political ideologies and policies; people can then have a hand on the ‘joystick’ of government (6.2.6) simply by voting.  But if the political parties are based upon ethnic identity – either in an immature democracy or in an established system with proportional representation that allows many small parties – people may vote according to their ethnicity.  This creates problems:

·      If democracy is suddenly introduced into a country which had previously been ruled by an authoritarian government, cultural differences become emphasised – resulting in strife where there had previously been peace, as in Iraq after the invasion in 2003,[1] in Yugoslavia after the death of Tito[2] and in India at the time of independence from Britain (see  below).

·      The political system becomes focused on negotiation by proxy between ethnic groups; ‘joystick’ politics is not possible.

·      If there has been a history of conflict and lack of trust between ethnic groups they have no good basis for negotiating policy – they tend to posture and jockey for position rather than focus on the need to find collective solutions to the country’s problems.[3]

Voting on the basis of ethnicity offers people the safety valve of knowing that their cultural identity is visible, but it has the disadvantage of potentially exacerbating divisiveness by incentivising politicians to emphasise differences or 'play the race card'. 

Even if there are no recognised ethnic political parties as such, there are several tactical techniques which politicians commonly use to stimulate people’s sense of identity as a means of gaining support:

·      Hostility towards immigrants can form the basis of a politician's attempt to win support from the existing inhabitants of an area, by drawing attention to issues noted in the previous section (

·      People’s unfamiliarity with foreign cultures can enable immigrants to be demonised as a threat to national identity – as the British National Party did in its 2010 election manifesto, for example.[4]

·      Leaders can proclaim threats to a group’s freedom, status or security.  Jinnah stimulated such fears among Muslims in India, for example, as Britain was granting it independence; his "Direct Action Day" against the Hindu majority, in August 1946, resulted in 4,000 deaths and 10,000 people injured in Calcutta.[5]

·      Religious labels can be attached to existing political movements.  The political desire for a united Ireland, for example, acquired a religious dimension when Ian Paisley fanned the flames of anti-Catholic feeling,[6] and Protestants exercised discrimination against Catholics in council employment and in the allocation of council housing.[7]  The society was then polarised along religious lines, and terrorism emerged on both sides of the sectarian divide. 

·      Appeals to national identity can be used to mobilise people to take revenge for, or to ‘correct’, a past injustice.  Serbia’s invasion of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, for example, was politically linked to a desire to reverse its defeat in 1389 by the Ottoman Turks.[8]

·      Old religious disputes can be similarly re-awakened for political purposes.  For example, in 1992 the Hindu nationalist BJP argued that the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya had been built on the birthplace of the Hindu god-king Ram; this whipped up a frenzy of anti-Muslim feeling which resulted in the destruction of the mosque.  2,000 people died in the ensuing violence.[9]

·      Acts of political provocation can make a group feel good at the expense of its opponents.  The annual Orange marches in Northern Ireland are clearly provocative; they stir up resentment in the Catholic community and riots regularly ensue.[10] 

As shown in several of these examples, identity politics can easily escalate to violence.  Large-scale dissent can lead to separatism (6.6.3). 

An authoritarian government has two advantages, compared to a democracy, in reducing the risk of identity politics:

·      Politicians in an authoritarian system are less dependent upon short-term popularity, so they have less motivation to 'play the race card'.

·      There are no political mechanisms for one group to gain ascendancy over another, so it is less tempting to indulge in identity politics.

These arguments do not in themselves constitute a reason for preferring authoritarianism as a system, but they can contribute to the legitimacy of authoritarian governments in countries where there would otherwise be a risk of identity politics.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] In an article entitled The Situation of Iraqi Women Facing Both State Repression and the Brutality of Daaesh [also known as ISIS or Islamic State], Yanar Mohammed blamed the sudden introduction of democracy for the strife:

“The political process, as created by the American occupation forces, is a system that ensures the division of Iraqis into Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and other religious and ethnic groups. These groups are not based on a political, economic or social agenda, but only on the representation of ethnic or religious identities at the expense of other concerns. As the polarization of society along religious, ethnic and sectarian lines deepened, every religious political party formed its own militia that exercised power over its own territory. Iraq became a “ticking time bomb” divided into warring factions as we now see in the western, southern, and the Kurdish areas.”

This article was published on 5 February 2015 and was available in October 2015 at http://www.iraqicivilsociety.org/archives/3912.

[2] Tim Judah described the breakup of Yugoslavia in a BBC article published in February 2011, entitled Yugoslavia: 1918 – 23; it was available in October 2015 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/yugoslavia_01.shtml.

[3] Claude Louche found that “negotiation is not an alternative to intergroup conflict; it is one of the forms in which conflict is expressed."  This quotation appeared in p. 14 of Henri Tajfel’s paper Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, where he gave the attribution as: Louche, C. Open conflict and the dynamics of intergroup negotiations.  The paper was available in May 2014 at http://www.scribd.com/doc/66726661/Social-Psychology-of-Inter-Group-Relations-Henri-Tajfel.

[4] Hostility towards immigrants is a common component of nationalist propaganda, as exemplified by the following quotation:

“Britain’s existence is in grave peril, threatened by immigration and multiculturalism. In the absence of urgent action, we, the indigenous British people, shall be reduced to minority status in our own ancestral homeland within two generations.”

This wording, which was calculated to polarise sentiment against immigrants, was used in the 2010 Election Manifesto for the British National Party.  It then appeared on the “British Democratic Party” website, where it was available in May 2014 at http://britishdemocraticparty.org/the-scale-of-the-crisis/

[5] Yasmin Khan described the events of the Calcutta riots, and the context in which they took place, in her book The Great Partition, chap. 4 pp. 63-6.

In May 2014 the book could be previewed at http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_great_Partition.html?id=i9WdQp2pwOYC&redir_esc=y.

[6] Ian Paisley was the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.  In May 2014 his website at www.ianpaisley.org declared its aim to be “To promote, defend and maintain Bible Protestantism”. An article by him at http://www.ianpaisley.org/article.asp?ArtKey=treason, entitled None Dare Call It Treason, included this attempt to position Catholicism as a threat:

“the safety and welfare of this kingdom shows that the kingdom is in danger when it is under the control of a person who is under the control of the Pope”

[7]  Martin Melaugh examined this subject in his essay Majority-Minority Differentials: Unemployment, Housing and Health, which was published in the book Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland, edited by Seamus Dunn.  It was made available by the Cain Institute at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/discrimination/melaugh.htm and was available in May 2014.

[8] Der Spiegel published an article on 19 February 2008, entitled The Curse of National Grievance, which described the origins of Serb animosity against Muslims and connecting it with the rise of Serb nationalism which started the Balkan war in 1991.  This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,536218,00.html.

[9] The Economist published an article 0n 26 November 2009 entitled The mosque at Ayodhya; it published the result of the inquiry into the incident, which reported that senior leaders of the BJP were “complicit in the vandalism”.  The article was still available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/14969084.

[10] On 13 September 2005 the BBC published an article entitled Q&A: Orange marches, which was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/4241058.stm.