“United in diversity” is the official motto of the European Union. Europe has always been diverse and has always had minorities; at no mythical point in Europe’s long history have states had completely homogeneous populations. Yet, during the 20th century, Europe’s rich diversity came under attack when millions of people belonging to minority groups were murdered or expelled from national borders.
Today, there are some 60 million people from ethnic and religious minorities living in the European Union, representing roughly 12% of the total EU population. Exact definitions of what constitutes a “minority” are difficult to agree (some countries, such as France, do not officially recognise the existence of minorities), however the scholars Christoph Pan and Beate Sibylle Pfeil have estimated there are 87 distinct “peoples of Europe”. Is this diversity a source of strength?
What do our readers think? We had a comment come in from Craig, who says: “All other things being equal, a lack of common ethno-national identity will lead to tensions and conflict… Human beings are hard-wired to identify along ethno-linguistic lines.” Is he right?
To get a response, we spoke to Professor Klaus Schlichte from the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bremen, an academic who has studied links between ethnicity and conflict. Does he think Craig’s comment is right?
No, I do not think so. I think the first sentence is not quite correct, that ‘a lack of common ethno-national identity will lead to tensions and conflict’. Because we know that it is a historically relatively recent phenomenon that people identify with such large national groups, or feel a sense of belonging to them. So, people’s collective identities have actually been very small-scale for millennia, and for many people they still are today.
It is not as if everyone in the world feels that they belong to large nations, and therefore I do not believe that the absence of a national affiliation automatically creates a tension or a problem. I also don’t believe in the second part of the question, that humans are ‘hard-wired to identify along ethno-linguistic lines’. So, beyond our metabolic physiology, humans are ‘hard-wired’ to do very little, at least when it comes to the aspects of life that we call ‘spiritual’ or ‘mental’.
We know, first and foremost from ethnology, but also from history, how diverse human beings can be – from the way you understand the world and how you think of yourself as an individual. So, I don’t think such hard-wiring exists. I just think that statement is empirically wrong. That there is tension about this question of ethnicity, or about the question of nationhood, or that there are conflicts between nations are all, of course, beyond doubt – but that is a historically recent phenomenon and it is not inevitable at all.
Next up, Gabriele thinks this is a bad question to ask, because, she says: “There is no such thing as mono-ethnicity left in the world except maybe in some extremely remote parts of Africa or the Amazon… so why even ask the question? Mono-ethnicity could only be achieved through massive deportation of people which would be completely illegal“.
What would Professor Klaus Schlichte say?
I like the critical impulse of the question, but I can’t really agree here either. I have done a lot of research in sub-Saharan Africa and there is no mono-ethnicity there either. So, this idea of belonging to large groups, that one identifies oneself as ‘Juruba’ or ‘Buganda’, comes from a Western mindset partly as a result of the colonial administration, which started to introduce these notions, and they developed their own life, so to speak.
Africa is very interesting because we know from research that people identify very differently depending on the context. So, it is also not the case in Africa that people can only be classified under one label, but they describe themselves as very different depending on the situation. And that stands out, but when you reexamine Europe with that in mind, you find that it’s exactly the same with us.
When I’m in France, I’m German, but when I’m in the USA, I’m European. So, it also applies to us – we define our affiliations very differently depending on what the context is at the moment. That is why I think the criticism of this mono-ethnicity is quite correct, but I do not believe that it is such a novel thing.
There are, of course, ultra-nationalists; there are those, not only in Russia or Turkey, but also in Germany and France as well, who only define themselves through their nationality and, of course, have difficulties with how their perceptions mesh with reality… Most of us would say that their beliefs put them in an uncomfortable situation, but also that those beliefs are also politically dangerous, or at least not helpful when it comes to living together..
Finally, Javier thinks asking whether ethnicity causes conflict is a “stupid-ass” question, because anything can cause conflict. He thinks even asking the question itself implies the answer is that it does, and thinks it’s a dangerous question that we shouldn’t ask.
How would Professor Klaus Schlichte respond? Is this is a valid question to ask?
Yes, I think you can ask this question. In public debate, every question must be allowed – even if some find it stupid. Nor do I think that addressing this issue will automatically lead to politically dangerous consequences. To be honest, I would find it more dangerous to suppress the asking of questions, because then resentments against science or against the media would presumably continue to grow. You have to allow the questions to be asked, and you have to respond to them. There is no way around it, even if you think that it may be oversimplifying complex issues.
I also don’t think any factor can really be the ’cause’ of conflict. Scholars of conflict have moved away from this ‘factor’ thinking and rather think about conflicts as processes. And, if you think about conflict as a process, there is no longer one single factor or even seven factors that lead to conflict… And, of course, it is the case that such ethnic or national identification can become relevant during conflicts. But we all know that conflicts can arise without them. You don’t have to go far back in time to find wars and conflicts in which national identity never appeared.
Before the age of nationalism, around the 18th century, there were great wars in Europe. However, they weren’t fought over by nations, but were ultimately wars between different rulers. Rulers pushed people into armies, but that did not take place in a national context. The processes are important and they are very different historically. And there is not one factor, nor even seven, that lead to conflict through some combination.
It would be important to me to point out that we are not fundamentally opposed to conflict, above all because conflict cannot be avoided and because conflict can also be productive. What the discussion is really about is how these conflicts are resolved, and especially whether or not violence is used. The fact that people argue or disagree with one another, these are all situations of conflict that we would not find abhorrent in themselves, but it is always a question of whether these conflicts can be resolved in such a way that there is no greater damage and no greater injuries arising. For this purpose, we have invented institutions in which we mediate conflicts. The classic example of this is the parliament, where there is discussion and then a decision comes, but where the speech and counter-speech are, of course, conflict behaviour. And this question – how can we keep our conflicts mediated in an institutionalised way so that there are rules to the conflicts – in my opinion, this is actually the most important question.
Does ethnic diversity cause conflict? Or are multicultural societies more peaceful? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!