Book Review: FUNDAMENTAL THEORIES OF ETHNIC CONFLICT: EXPLAINING THE ROOT CAUSES OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC HATE

bookEdited by: Muli Wa Kyendo

Published by: Syokimau Cultural Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, www.syokimauculturalcentre.org. 2019, 156pp, ISBN 978-9966-7020-6-7 (paperback) 978-9966-7020-5-0 (e-book)

Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Fundamental-Theories-Ethnic-Conflict-Explaining/dp/9966702067

Review by: Emily Keles-Muli, University of Kabianga, Kenya

Key words: Conflicts, theories, ethnic groups, ethnic conflict, theories of conflict, ethnicity, social science

Easy to read and quite informative, Fundamental Theories of Ethnic Conflict by Muli wa Kyendo (editor) is a response to the call by Kenyans for “profound, radical, and sustainable transformation” that can challenge basic assumptions and lifelong traditions in the fight against dreadful ethnic conflicts in Africa. Deviating from what it calls “effects theories” which have so far guided research and peace programs in Africa, the pacesetting book goes much deeper and wider to seek the root cause or causes of ethnic hate.

It brings together scholars from various academic disciplines who try to establish the cause of the human blight from their own fields of specialization. Theories cover evolution, biology, religion, communication, mythology and even psychology. Specialized on evolutionary origins of government, politics and patriotism, political scientist Gary R. Johnson is an author of numerous articles and essays in this field who studies. He is therefore well-placed to search for the root cause of ethnic and racial conflicts from evolutionary perspective. His argument is that “conflicts are the variable and proximate means by which individuals pursue their ultimate interest—maximizing the reproductive rate of the genes.” He writes:

It is genes that are transmitted across generations, and genes are therefore the ultimate currency in natural selection. From this perspective, the observable objects of humans conflicts—territory, property, resources, power, privilege, wealth, security, status—are not ends in themselves. They are, instead, the variable and proximate means by which individuals pursue their ultimate interest—maximizing the reproductive rate of the genes they carry (Dawkins 1976, 1982; Alexander 1987).

I found his argument not only fresh in perspective, but also very challenging to those of us – and we are many – who believe that evolutionary theories support racism. To such people, Dr. Johnson says:

This is, of course, absurd. An attempt to understand the evolution of HIV does not commit one to supporting AIDS. Only the most simple-minded ideologues take this position seriously. This is not to deny, however, that racists, imperialists, and others have sometimes attempted to draw support from evolutionary theory for their particular values; they have. But there is nothing unusual in this—the human mind seeks support for its preferences in any body of thought that may seem to lend authority to those preferences, whether that body of thought is science, religion, or the supposedly inspired insights of some social and political prophet.

Another exciting contribution is that of Robert Sapolsky. Prof Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of biology at Stanford University, and of neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine.  Interestingly, he also has wide experience with conditions in Africa, having not only spent time studying baboon behavior in Serengeti – the expansive Tanzanian game reserve –but also having been in the Kenya during the infamous ethnic conflicts of 2008.

Bringing his extensive knowledge of primates to bear on the question of ethnic and racial conflicts Prof. Sapolsky constructs an overwhelming hypothesis of dichotomies or what he calls “The extreme nature of Us/Them dichotomizing in humans and other species.” This dichotomizing leads to “fatal violence among groups”, whether Chimpanzee or human groups:

The adult males in a chimpanzee group often carry out what are appropriately termed “border patrols,” and if they encounter a male from a neighboring group, he will be attacked in a frenzy of coordinated violence. Remarkably, such inter-group aggression can extend to the point where all of the males of one group are eradicated, and with the triumphant males then expanding their territory (Peterson & Wrangham, 1997). Thus, we are not the only species displaying the essence of genocide, where individuals are killed not for who they are, but merely because of their group membership

Religious conflicts dominate local and world conflicts, whether we talk of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or any other type of religion. They come clothed in other forms such as land or ideological conflicts. Dr. Glen T. Martin, who builds his argument around religion, is professor of philosophy at Radford University, USA and Chairperson of the university’s Program in Peace Studies. He is President of International Philosophers for Peace, President of the institute of World Problems and President of the World Constitution and Parliament Association.

“Conflict”, Dr, Martin argues, “often arises because our world is globalized while our religious, cultural, and group perspectives remain localized and parochial.” Noting similarities in all religious ideas and teachings, Dr. Martin argues we all search for the same truth. World peace requires us to stop giving priority to differences.

We need to think in layers of identity, with commonalities forming the highest order of identity, and differences the lowest. Universality can contain diversity, but diversity cannot always contain commonality.

A practical guide could be as follows:

When asked, “Who are you?” or “Where are you from?” I could reply, “I am a human being from planet Earth, and this is my primary identity. Apart from that I have a great number of emotional ties to different geographical regions on this planet, to different people from everywhere, and to different occupational, intellectual, and spiritual realms; however, all this is secondary to me being a human being.”

Basically, it can be argued that without communication there would be no conflict. Prof Bruce L.Cook builds a plausible argument to show that conflicts start with communication. For many years, Prof. Cook has worked in fields of communication and peace. He is the founder and Vice President of Worldwide Peace Organization, Vice President for Publicity, International Organization for World Peace and President of Global Harmony Organization—USA. Prof Cook marshals a wide range of academic fields to establish the centrality of communication in ethnic and racial conflicts. Through communication, human beings build individual identities. Conflicts started as soon as human beings learned to communicate:

Prejudices formed and fostered by verbal and nonverbal communication lead to discrimination which leads to exploitation or even enslavement of one community or race by another, resulting in conflict. The underlying issues are communication which develops and fosters racial and ethnic prejudice.

How then can language be used to create peace? Prof. Cook puts the responsibility on professional communicators such as journalists “to create a new connotation for evils in racial and ethnic conflicts”.

“…. journalists can foster public revulsion over power plays of leaders and nations that create disgusting racial and ethnic conflicts.”

Harold W. Becker bases his argument on a simple statement:

Peace radiates from the inside of person. From the core sense of inner awareness of our truth, versus what we accepted from others, we can unravel and transform long-held belief patterns that no longer serve.

From this point of view, Becker explains his idea of the source of human conflicts:

Conflicts come from fundamental flaw in our individual and collective understanding, where we see others as dissimilar, weaker, or as a threat, leads to successive generations of ongoing discrimination with cycles of violence, suffering, war, and needless death.”

Becker is the author of several books on the subject, including, Internal Power: Seven Doorways to Self Discovery and Unconditional Love – An Unlimited Way of Being. He founded and is President of the internationally involve The Love Foundation, with the vision of “inspiring people to love unconditionally.”

Muli wa Kyendo develops a revolutionary, thought-provoking theory of myth values which will be of particular interest to Africans. In the Chapter entitled, “Myth Values: An Approach to Understanding Ethnic Conflict” he analyses the myths of four Kenyan communities – the Luo, Kikuyu, Kalenjin and the Kamba – for their key themes, key values and attitudes. Values and attitudes, he argues, determine a community’s way of interpreting the realities they are daily confronted with. They determine whether a community’s ideas promote peace or conflict. Comparing the myth values of the communities he studied with their reaction to colonial experience and modern nationalism, Muli concludes:

From this analysis, we have seen that myth values direct human beings, deciding their reaction to the major issues they face. The problem is that human beings are not aware – and with modern ideologies – it is difficult to accept that their reactions are dictated by myths and legends.

The analysis itself is interesting, bringing out many fascinating aspects of African traditional beliefs and cultures we normally take for granted. Muli is a journalist, author and folklorist who read sociological theories in University of Nairobi and the Free University, Berlin. He has published creative and scholarly work on folklore and ethnic conflicts as books and chapters in scholarly books.

I commend the authors of Fundamental Theories of Ethnic Conflict because they understand that their book will need to be read, understood and used by a variety of people, most of whom may not be experts in their fields for we are all change implementers. Concepts are, therefore, simply explained so that even a lay person will have no problem following the arguments. It will certainly be useful not only to its basic target audience – policymakers, NGOs and scholars but also to others who seek to under the important subjects of peace, conflict and human nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: