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Upon analyzing many cases of violent conflict, some underlying abstract themes can be felt which have a  part to play in the anatomy of violence and conflict. The factors driving peoples into the active realm  from the passive realm are deeper and more complex than how they appear at first. Upon studying the  different forms and occurrences of violence – be it the ethnic, religious and sectarian riots in Karachi or  the racial segregation, prejudice and tensions in Los Angeles – we are left with similar questions: What  drives ordinary people to violence? What is beneath racial, religious, ethnic and sectarian violence? Why  do people of different races, religious beliefs and ethnicities coexist peacefully in some societies and  rise up in violent conflict in others? This paper explores the stance that the complex dynamics of identity  and shifts in identity can provide some answers to these questions.

        This paper aims to prove the linkage between identity, power struggles and conflict. Identity is an  individual or group’s sense of being, their perception of self and an awareness of their distinction with  respect to others. Identity dynamics cause people to associate themselves with a group or cause (Ross,  2001). Identity is concerned with judgments about groups and their motives. These groups of people can  have any commonality – religious, racial, ethnic  for example. These identities connect people through  ‘perceived common past experiences and expectations of shared future ones’ (Ross, 2001, 157).  For the  purposes of this paper, identity is thusly defined.  

       This paper aims to show how identity changes with context and how the concept of identity (both  individual and group identity) is not a static one, but a dynamic one.   It is linked to power struggles  between individuals and groups. People create and shift their identities according to situations,  depending on the opposition they are faced with. This strong sense of self leads man to create the  ‘other’ – the different, the opposition. This process of separation then justifies the dehumanization of  the ‘other’ and this is how ordinary people become perpetrators of violence. Conflict between different  groups usually starts with one or both sides feeling deprived or aggrieved in some way. As a group, they  are either being denied economic or political rights, or are being stereotyped to be further disadvantaged in society.  Human beings tend to create identities to support their cause, and they tend  to shift these identities when context changes. An individual never has one single identity, and is never  strongly self aware until he meets with difference or opposition of some kind: ‘Social identity theorists  argue that individuals possess multiple social identities that become salient in different contexts or as  context changes (Bryan, 2008, 1).’
              Identity dynamics play an important underlying role in all case studies of violence and conflict. This  paper looks at this salient force of shifting identities and claims that groupings among human beings are  based on a common purpose/cause – usually, the actual conflict lies not in being of different color,  religious beliefs or ethnicity, but in the threatened identities of people involved (Ross 2001). The context  (what we want and what is being denied to us) shapes our identity and in contemporary times,  urbanization and urban planning policies of the government also have a role to play.  

Having introduced the research question, this paper would assert its position that certain factors put  together mobilize ordinary people into being perpetrators of violence. These factors will be discussed in  detail, particularly referring to how they affect identity dynamics, and the overall conclusion in the case of ethnic/racial riots would be emphasized more. Differences of color, religion, race and ethnicity have  always existed between humans, but what drives these differences into violent conflict is when the  State starts to differentiate between its citizens and when State policies are biased in favor of one  community and against the other. The State should balance all its diverse citizenry and not provide  economic or political opportunities to a specific group at the expense of others. This is the root cause of  many incidents of violence, and this is the disease that should be treated instead of focusing on the  symptoms and declaring such conflicts as mere law and order situations.

Shifting identities could be a result of a politically maneuvered attempt to gain power. This is true in the  case of Johannesburg and the sexual violence against women. Society in South Africa had so deeply  been plagued by otherization that after the apartheid era was over, new identity dynamics were  created. Where earlier people identified with two groups – Afrikaners and Blacks, post-apartheid South  Africa saw the creation of new groups to identify with - men and women. To maintain social control and  power, men began using rape as a tool to dominate women. Identities changed – earlier people were  either Black or Afrikaners, and now they were men against women.  Political motivations behind shifting  identities can also be seen in the case of Karachi’s religious riots between Muslims and Ahmadis.  Political parties needed to legitimize their rule post-partition by creating an ‘other’, and they used  hatred against the Ahmadis to their advantage: ‘these parties capitalized on latent anti-Ahmadi  sentiments, which assumed an aura of religious sanctity and culminated in rioting in the fifties’  (Shaheen, 196). Religious sentiments of people are often used for this purpose, because religion is the  oldest identity-forming entity:
Religions frequently supply cosmologies,moral frameworks, institutions, rituals,traditions, and other identity-supporting content that answers to individuals' needs for psychological stability in the form of a predictable world, a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and even self-actualization. The peculiar ability of religion to serve the human identity impulse thus may partially explain why intergroup conflict so frequently occurs along religious fault lines (Seul, 1999, 553).

Economic reasons behind shifting identity are more pertinent to the sectarian, racial and ethnic conflict  cases: ‘Certain social and economic conditions intensify the likelihood of violence, while others promote  harmony between different groups’ (Shaheed, 195). Economics effects identity, grievances and conflict  to such an extent that Niccolo Machiavelli, in his ancient text ‘The Prince’ advises rulers not to interfere  with the property of their people, and in doing so they would never despise him: ‘A son can bear with  equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair’ (qtd. in The  Prince, Chapter  19)

In the case of the LA riots, three different groups seemed to base their racial identity according to their  economic situation and the jobs they could get. The LA riots seem to be a war for control over the city  and its resources, and in LA it rose when public sector spending and unemployment decreased, which  was the main source of jobs for Blacks and Hispanics: ‘it is the accelerated decay in the public sector that  best explains the rising tensions between different ethnic communities’ (Davis, 6). Racial identities  always existed in LA, but they resulted in violence primarily because of State policies against the inner  city and in favor of the suburbs, where the White population resided: ‘Racial polarization has been going  on for generations across the white picket-fence border between the suburb and city’ (Davis, 17).The  Whites had access to better jobs and better share in State resources. In Karachi, the war between  different ethnic groups was also based on resources, employment and jobs. The Sindhi-Muhajir conflict  occurred as a result: ‘Muhajirs were better placed to compete for jobs … than were the indigenous  people of Sindh’ (Shaheen, 199). The same economic struggle took racial tones in LA and ethnic ones in  Karachi.  

It can also be noticed that against the Whites, the Hispanic and Black populations joined together to  face a common enemy. But amongst them, conflict arose when jobs were few and had to be shared.   The same can be seen in the case study of Amristar, where after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the  Indians collectively opposed the British atrocity. At this point the colonizer was seen to be a common enemy, and so the Indians forgot their own internal conflicts and joined together as a joint identity.  Later on the Indians shifted this identity to one based on religious beliefs, and once religious identities  had fulfilled their purpose, people of the subcontinent shifted their identities to ethnic ones.  Also, in  the case of the French Revolution, the identity shifts are very pertinent. People of different occupations  and social standing came together to achieve a common purpose, and were united against a common  enemy – the absolute monarchy system. Peasants, the working class and lower level priests were all  joined in revolutionary efforts.  In the case of Karachi, we see how the Pathans shifted identity once they  migrated to Karachi. Earlier tribal identities mattered to them, but facing opposition from the Muhajirs  and Sindhis in Karachi, they united under a common identity of being Pathans: ‘Where tribal differences  and rivalries exist in the Frontier, these are erased in Karachi when Pathans presented a united front to  all the others’ (Shaheen, 202).   Similarly, for the Muhajirs, there were internal differences. Not all  Muhajirs were the same, and there existed Biharis among the Muhajir populations. But in the riots that  occurred, Muhajirs joint together against the Pathans to occupy the city’s resources.  In the case of  Karbala, we saw people returning to their post-Islam tribal identities as the Sovereign collapsed (the  Sovereign being the Prophet Muhammad, who maintained unity among the Muslims). Identities now  shifted from being Muslim to being of a particular clan, or family. The Umayyads were now against the  Prophet’s family and divisions sprung up between formerly united people. This struggle was also a  struggle for power, to keep the Khilafat inside a particular family. Therefore, it can be established that  identity is not constant, and the same people can be classified as alike or different, according to the  context.

In Karachi’s example, we see how violence occurs when identities are threatened. The Pathans had a  province of their own, but the Muhajirs had no province they could identify with, and Karachi was  central to their distinct identity and social value. Their jobs, homes and collective sense of being were all  invested heavily in the city, which is why they were so strongly opposed to any other who tried to  dominate the city. This can be attributed to almost all cases of sectarian and ethnic violence. The Tamils  of Sri Lanka, the Basques in Spain and the Bengalis in former East Pakistan – all shared this threat to  their identity. This makes ordinary people to resort to violence – the threat that another would  dominate their sense of identity, be it economically, politically or through social instruments like  language and culture.  

A very important reason for the LA riots also seems to be urbanization and the lack of urban planning by  the government, ‘returning the cities into the Hobbesian wilderness’ (Davis, 10). When the government  denied providing funds to rebuild LA, it also denied investing in providing urban housing and  employment to keep up with the rise in urbanization. Also in Karachi, the ‘criminal inadequacy of urban  developments’ has led to squatter settlements and to people depending on their social circle for money,  which strengthens ethnic identity and ties (Shaheen, 205).Therefore, it can be seen that interests and  identities are often interconnected.  

Human beings have the ability and inclination to form cohesive groups and to form targets of  externalization. Although this facilitates emotional survival, the strong solidarity between groups of  similar identity in a given context can give rise to competition and conflict with the others (Ross, 2001).  In texts as ancient as the Genesis, we find examples of these groupings. It is inherent in the Hobbesian  state of nature of man to self preserve. But such ethnic and sub national identities are a threat to the  Hobbesian Sovereign, as separatist movements based on different identities can occur and break the  Leviathan.

This sense of identity leads to violent conflict, otherization and dehumanization, and stereotyping. In the case of Amritsar, the British colonial identity felt itself to be superior to the Indians and thus created a separate realm of punishment and reward between the two. This led to the British legitimizing their use of violence. In the case of Rome, this dehumanization of the other led to the creation of separate  identities and legitimized brutal violence in the minds of the people, because gladiators and convicts  were seen to be inferior ‘others’. Identity dynamics lead to resentments among groups and rioting.  Identity dynamics also lead to stereotyping of certain groups which can legitimize using violence against all members that share the same identity. This is seen in South Africa’s example, where all Black men are stereotyped as being rapists, which causes people to believe that rape is a racial problem instead of a gender problem. In LA, all Blacks and Hispanics were viewed as parts of gangs or inherently violent people, and this sometimes led to violence against innocent people. The people residing in the core city were all seen to be drug dealers or gang members, and this further hampered the progress and the provision of justice to the core city dwellers.  

In the end, it can be said that the State in many cases has treated the symptoms of conflict as law and  order situations, but not the underlying causes of it, which are based on the lines of identity. It is not the  government’s job to differentiate amongst its citizens. Racial, ethnic and religious differences can be  contained into the spheres of non violence as long as State policy does not prefer one group over the  other in economic or political benefit: ‘Unbalanced economic and political policies have continued to  widen the gulf between different groups … as a result, subnational identities have become important’  (Shaheen, 200).  Instead of imposing a common identity on its citizens, or denying rights to particular  groups, the State can wait for different groups to amalgamate over the course of time on their own,  without any outside interference: ‘Only by including its citizens into decision making  and  by  evolvingdemocratic institutions can the state hope to reduce or eliminate the authority  of sub state entities’  (Shaheen, 210).  
Works Cited

Bryan, Todd A. “Aligning Identity: Social Identity and Changing Context in Community‐based    Environmental Conflict” University of Michigan Press (2008): 1-9. Web. 21 May 2011.  

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  ‘The Prince, translated by N.H. Thomson.’  The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F.    Collier & Son (1909): Chapter 19. Web. 21 May 2011.  Ross, Marc Howard. “Psychocultural Interpretations and Dramas: Identity Dynamics in Ethnic Conflict”   Political Psychology 22.1 (2001): 157-170. Web. 21 May 2011.   

Seul, Jeffrey R. “Ours is the Way of God: Religion, Identity, And Intergroup Conflict” Journal of Peace Research 36.5 (1999): 553-569. Print.

Written By:Fatima Akram (LUMS)

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