Research Blog

The dark side of civil society: Indonesia edition

One of my favorite articles is Sheri Berman’s “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic” because it pushed past the blandly positive celebrations of civil society that have been very prominent in political science.

UChicago Ph.D student Sana Jaffrey has a fascinating preview of ongoing dissertation research in New Mandala. It explores how civil society in Indonesia has become an increasingly illiberal force:
“Yet instead of advancing progressive reforms that guarantee civic equality, these energies are being deployed to articulate illiberal demands that emphasise communitarian differences. . . .

Unlike the New Order, however, there is considerable slippage in the way that local leaders interpreted and executed their reinstated social control functions, far beyond just reporting suspected terrorist activity. They have, in fact, expanded to regulate a host of activities that allegedly “agitate” residents.

Most frequently, these efforts target individuals belonging to religious and social minorities. These include rejection of “deviant” sectsprohibition of worship by minority religionspunishment of alleged fornication and even the forced eviction of homosexuals, transgender people, and families of suspected terrorists. Troublingly, most of these interventions are made in consultation with local law enforcement officials, who acknowledge RT/RW chiefs as representatives of their residents’ demands and facilitate their requests as part of community policing.. . . .

recent events indicate that the RT/RWs may also be resuming their political control functions amid contests over the allocation of state funds by rival candidates”




Why is West Bengal so politically violent?

This is a thoughtful piece by Shoaib Daniyal; I’ve long thought that the particular fusion of violence and party politics West Bengal (and Kerala) is among the most under-studied topics in Indian politics:

“What makes politics in West Bengal express itself with such blood and fury? The answer might lie in the structure of rural politics in West Bengal and the existence of the “party-society”: a system where political parties dominate every strand of rural life”

Political violence in the developed world

The vast majority of research on civil war and political violence focuses on the “developing world.” Which makes sense, since that there is where we find most contemporary conflict.

But it’s worth remembering how widespread violence has been in what we now consider the relatively calm, stable, non-violent developed world as well. And often very recently.  Here are a few works I’m familiar with – staggeringly far from complete, of course – that provide insights into this history and its implications for the present. I’ll be adding new items as I remember them, come across them, or get recommendations.

Siniawer, Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan.

Obert, The Six-Shooter State: Public and Private Violence in American Politics.

Mobrand, “The Street Leaders of Seoul and the Foundations of the South Korean Political Order,” Modern Asian Studies.

Frymer, Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion.

Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End.

Diehl, Paramilitary Politics in Weimar Germany.

Cunningham, There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence and Klansville, USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-era Ku Klux Klan.

Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.

Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877.

Balcells, Rivalry and Revenge: the Politics of Violence During Civil War (about Spain)

Gerwarth and Horne, War in Peace: Paramilitary Politics in Europe after the Great War.

Della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State: A Comparative Analysis of Italy and Germany.

Kopstein and Wittenberg, Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust.

Acharya, Blackwell, and Sen, Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics.

Soss and Weaver, “Police are our Government: Politics, Political Science, and the Policing of Race-Class Subjugated Communities,” Annual Review of Political Science.

Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.

Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (chapters on Greece).

Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947.

Volkov, Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism.

Useful anti-Naxal overview

Jake Shapiro, Oliver Vande Eynde, Katherin eIngram, and Emefa Addo Agawu have written a really useful piece outlining the nature and timing of counter-Naxal strategies by the Indian central government and by various states. In addition to the case studies, they do some preliminary statistical analyses and find that “it is striking that no policy intervention was followed by marked drops in violence across the 8 states we study.” The Naxalite conflict has received too little scholarly attention, so it’s great to see this.

Mathieson on the “Burma gap”

David Scott Mathieson’s piece on the remarkable paucity of research on civil conflict in Burma/Myanmar within the study of civil war is a must-read:
“There is lamentably little known about the history of the civil war or about the micro-dynamics of conflict. It begs the question: why is Burma almost totally absent from the academic and reportage canon of conflict literature? In academic research and related human rights documentation and journalism, there is generally only passing mention of Burma’s conflicts within historical and academic surveys of civil war.”

And to bolster his point – even if we accept that there are serious problems with quantitative data on Myanmar, in the current UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict dataset, almost 12% of the entire dataset’s dyad-year observation occur in the country.

Managed democracy

This is a great piece by Reuters on the Pakistani military’s kneecapping of a free media:

“After Geo TV, Pakistan’s most popular station, was taken off the air across much of the country at the end of March, military representatives pressed the channel to cease favorable coverage of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and stop any criticism of the Supreme Court and the “establishment”, according to the two people, who had knowledge of the negotiations.

The “establishment” is a commonly used euphemism for the military in Pakistan.

Written instructions by Geo management to staff last week that were reviewed by Reuters spelled out “key editorial points that we have to manage and implement” to be restored to the airwaves.

Besides banning negative portrayals of the “establishment” and any allegations the Supreme Court might be interfering in politics, the instructions said there should be no reports on Nawaz Sharif’s ongoing corruption trial “that helps build a narrative that he and his children are innocent”. . . .

Three major cable operators, who spoke on condition of anonymity, earlier told Reuters they had pulled the channel from their rosters after direct instructions from unidentified military officers, even though the army has no official authority over the media. . . .

Five of the Geo insiders said they knew the widespread cable blackout was a result of military pressure. However, only two were willing to talk about the conditions laid out by military officials to Geo for restoring the channels, and they said they were doing so against direct orders from the company’s owner.

One executive at a leading cable company that covers more than a million households in Pakistan told Reuters he received a telephone call at the end of March from a senior officer in the ISI telling him to take Geo TV off their roster. . . ..

There was never any question of refusing the order, he said.

A second cable executive said his company shut down Geo broadcasts after receiving a telephone call. Asked who made the call, he said: “I can’t say the name, you know, big brother, the boots.””

Threat Perception among Hindu and Buddhist Nationalists

In South Asia, we currently see anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar (alongside fears of its spread to the broader category of non-Rohingya Muslims), and the ongoing rise of Hindu nationalism and its project of making Muslims second-class citizens in India.

I worry deeply about these movements and their frequently lethal and profoundly undemocratic consequences; their politics are very distinctly not mine.

But I also think Western analysis (especially press coverage) of these movements sometimes misses a key aspect of how they see themselves – as defensive projects provoked by expansionistic, proselytizing religions while being subjected to the hypocrisy and double standards of bien-pensant elites. The Myanmar case has been particularly striking – the anguished cries of Western elites about Aung San Suu Kyi do not appear to have any resonance in contemporary Myanmar. Similarly, hand-wringing about Narendra Modi and decades of condemnation of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka have had a distinctly limited influence on these movements. We need to better understand why.

This is an admittedly impressionistic, overly simplified summary of what I take to be key elements of the threat perceptions of these movements. Christianity and Islam are seen as offensive, aggressive forces that tend to take and seize land that once belonged to indigenous religions. They then demand an unearned indigeneity, asserting their total claim to the conquered territory. Non-proselytizing religions like Hinduism and Buddhism find themselves ever more squeezed and restricted, unable to take back what was rightfully theirs. This is, for instance, part of the Hindu right’s narrative on Kashmir – rather than a Muslim territory that needs to be in some way accommodated as special and different, they frame it as a formerly Hindu territory seized and colonized by Islam.

This fear of permanent loss was perceived as coming from both Islam and Christianity, but has diminished toward the latter since de-colonization (though paranoia about conversion and missionary activities endures). Islam has taken on the role of most insidious enemy, with the shadow of past invasions and perceived demographic subversion operating powerfully in the rhetoric of these movements. Yet they believe that concerns about Muslim expansion are dismissed as Islamophobia by culturally (if not religiously) Christian Westerners and their local Anglophile allies (this is how the Indian National Congress, and especially Nehru, are portrayed), who they see instead retreat to wishy-washy talk of syncreticism and voluntary conversation rather than confronting historical realities of Islamic expansionism. This has particular resonance in the context of India, where Muslim conquests were followed by Christian colonization.

Fear – no matter how exaggerated or inaccurate – about birthrates and migration combine with the sons of the soil dynamics I identified in the previous paragraph (which, ironically enough, also applies to the Muslim Malay majority of Malaysia) to drive a fierce reaction against what is perceived as an existential threat – “the Muslims” will spread, procreate, and never go “home.” In this narrative, though Muslims can always go to the many majority-Muslim countries in the world, there is, by contrast, nowhere for the Sinhalese or the Bamar or Hindus to go in the face of this tide. Better to stand and fight, angry editorials in the New York Times or The Hindu or not. Indeed, there is deep resentment of press coverage because they believe that coverage of Islam are driven by “minority appeasement” (a favorite Sangh Parivar phrase) for fear that Muslims will raise havoc, while the Hindu nationalists are relegated to the un-nuanced status of lumpen mob and Rakhine Buddhists to hate-filled genocidaires. Against the claim of many that Islamophobia dominates media coverage, these movements see a craven press relentlessly biasing its coverage toward Muslims.

To go out even further on a speculative limb, this is one of the reasons that many in India’s Hindu right so enthusiastically admire Israel. It is the state of a non-proselytizing religion that is nevertheless willing – and able – to unapologetically take back land seen as stolen from it, in the process denaturalizing the Muslim nature of the land in question. There is no scraping and bowing to the hypocrisies of the West or an intrinsically expansionistic Muslim world; instead, they see assertion, strength, and unity. As Jaffrelot has argued in great detail, there is a powerful strand of emulation in the Hindu nationalist movement, and we see it here too.

This does not mean analysts need to accept any of these claims, to discount the blood and terror that these movements have so often spread, or to believe they are not frequently just a cynical shield for the exercise of power. Rather than an oppressed minority, these movements have often acted in reality as a springboard for majoritarian dominance. Moreover, these dynamics are not unique to these movements – the same language that extremist Sinhalese Buddhists now hurl against Muslims has also been deployed against Tamils.

But not taking these perceptions seriously – especially the belief that Buddhism and Hinduism have a kind of “cap” on their numbers while Islam and Christianity can always add to their ranks through proselytization – as a political force will continue to lead to the analytical gaps and misfires that we have seen in many assessments of the politics of Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka. These are ambitious political projects with goals of political hegemony, fueled by a narrative of fundamentally defensive victimization from without. And they aren’t going away anytime soon, I suspect.