Montreal Research Group on Ethnic Conflict

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Stephen Saideman: Treading an ethnic minefield


By STEPHEN SAIDEMAN / The Dallas Morning News

The Bush administration is working hard to engage other countries in the fight against terrorism. But one of the obstacles to forming a successful coalition is the conflict's ethno-religious definition.

As we learned when the world addressed Yugoslavia's wars of disintegration, the international relations of ethno-religious conflicts can be quite complicated, if not inevitably contentious.

Countries tend to side with the combatant with which they share ethno-religious ties. Iran and other Islamic countries supported the Bosnians. Austria, Germany and Italy backed Croatia. Greece, Russia and other countries with Orthodox populations helped Serbia. All of that complicated multilateral decision-making.

Will ethnic politics paralyze action or limit the United States to acting unilaterally as it responds to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

Cut both ways

Ethno-religious identities can cut both ways, causing some countries to ally with the United States and alienating others. The enemy of my enemy is my friend – a truism in international politics but also an important dynamic in ethnic conflict.

We already are seeing countries that have long disagreements with the United States offering support. India, for example, has offered the use of its bases, its intelligence and its territory for American forces, despite a history of tension with the United States. Russia has been sending mixed messages. President Vladimir Putin has offered support, but the military has indicated that no basing will be provided. That may change because Russians have been harmed by Taliban/Osama bin Laden-sponsored terrorism.

Countries with significant Islamic populations are exposed to conflicting sentiments. Muslims might identify with their religious kin in harm's way. And American attacks on Afghanistan might cause a backlash, perhaps even endangering moderate regimes in the Middle East. But while that danger is real, it may not be as problematic as feared.

The brand of Islam promulgated by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden isn't widely shared. Separating the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from other Islamic countries will be difficult but not impossible, as Pakistan's apparently supportive efforts indicate.

Right moves

President Bush's speech last week showed that the administration is on the right path, focusing on the terrorist threat rather than defining the enemy in religious terms. There is more sympathy in the Middle East for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks than the TV reports might indicate. That can and should be tapped.

Furthermore, the Bush administration has made all of the right moves – the multi-religious cast at the National Cathedral a week ago, Mr. Bush's meeting with Muslim-American leaders and the FBI's investigation of hate crimes directed against American Muslims. Such actions not only serve the better interests of Americans but will help to legitimize the anti-terrorist effort abroad.

The U.S. government needs to take into account the ethno-religious dimensions of the war on terrorism as it considers its next steps. Specifically, the indiscriminate use of force would be counterproductive. Presenting the world with evidence of Osama bin Laden's guilt would be helpful, so that the United States doesn't appear to be guilty of picking convenient Muslims.

This conflict is likely to be longer and more complicated, politically as well as militarily, than past conflicts. It also will require a more nuanced understanding of ethno-religious identity and politics.

Stephen M. Saideman is an associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University and the author of The Ties That Divide.

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