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Identity-Based Conflict in Deeply Divided Societies

Ethnic conflicts emerge when ‘the goals of at least one conflict party are defined in ... ethnic terms’ and ‘the primary fault line of confrontation is one of ethnic distinctions’.33 Thus the Lebanese civil war, Northern Irish Troubles and 2001 conflict in Macedonia are ethnic conflicts, which involved communities in violent struggles over the identity and very existence of the state, the extent of power to be exercised centrally and ‘whether there should be one or more central governments’.34

The relationship between ethnonational cleavages, other social, political and economic divisions, and the political system can facilitate the outbreak of violent conflict. Where societal cleavages coincide, they reinforce each other, and make violent conflict more likely.35 In pre-conflict Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Macedonia, religion, ethnonational identity, political allegiances and attitudes to the state overlapped, exacerbating intergroup tensions.

Moreover, when the legitimacy of a state is founded on narratives of common ethnic descent, and political order is premised on the ethnocultural homogeneity of the citizenry, diversity can appear as a threat to popular sovereignty and be openly suppressed.36 This makes violent conflict more likely. For example, in the 1990s, the founding narratives and state-building policies promoted by the newly independent Macedonian state emphasised the congruence of the state with the ethnic Macedonian nation. These policies nurtured ethnic Albanian feelings of collective exclusion and fear of assimilation, which ultimately motivated the 2001 insurgency.

Finally, the outbreak of violent conflict also depends on contextual and logistical factors. Hanf argues that inter-group tensions increase with urbanisation, when their members ‘start competing’ for resources.37 A history of hostile inter-group relations, support for violence by public authorities or communal elites and a catalysing event encourage descent into war.38 The existence of logistical opportunities, such as support from external actors, inaccessible terrain, financial resources, potential leaders and media outlets make armed conflict more likely.39 In this perspective, ethnicity is a tool for collective political mobilisation in the context of material grievances and opportunities for violent action.

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