Identity and War

This article makes two arguments. First, sectarian identity (ethnic, tribal or religious) is an outcome of war rather than a cause of war, even though such identities make (selective) use of memory. The implication of this proposition is that war should be interpreted less as an external contest of will between two sides but rather as a one-sided and/or parallel effort to construct unidimensional political identities as a basis for power. Power derived from identity so constructed is likely to be authoritarian and repressive. Second, different methods of communication provide the basis for different modalities of power and this matters; power diffuses through all forms of communication. But the language of violence is much less amenable to freedom and human emancipation than other nonviolent forms of communication. The arguments are elaborated through a critique of the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt and his notion of the friend–enemy distinction as a basis of political authority. The article concludes by arguing that in a global era, when traditional inter-state war is declining, there are greater possibilities for multiple identities and a layering of political authority, even though there are also efforts to resurrect the friend–enemy distinction in many ‘new wars’ and, above all, in the war on terror.

Understanding that war is a way of constructing political identity rather than a contest between different political identities has profound implications for policy in conflict zones. Instead of intervening on one side, separating sides, or finding apolitical compromise, policy needs to emphasise how to prevent or marginalise violent processes of identity construction.
The argument that sectarian identity is an outcome of war rather than a cause has implications for global efforts at mediation and reconciliation of conflicts. Instead of sectarian compromise, global policy should aim at promoting multiple identities and strengthening nonsectarian identities.
The war on terror can be interpreted as an effort to resurrect the friend–enemy distinction and establish a permanent ‘state of exception’ – the suspension of rights. Terrorism should be treated as a global risk rather than as an enemy and addressed through rights-based law enforcement.
A global layering of political authority is an expression of multiple identities and is more amenable to human emancipation than binary identities based on the friend–enemy distinction.