Summary

Samuel Huntington’s explanation of post-Cold War tensions as a clash of civilizations had the effect of dismissing other causes and helped confine humanity within images of exclusion, fear and violence. Identity is varied and subjective; it is neither natural nor stable but a complex construction of particular compounds. Interdependence, mobility, the circulation of ideas and values, direct access to alternative models for every individual—all these now infinitely broaden the range of identities on offer.

The conventional view of the Cold War is one of societies contained within a rigid bipolar military and ideological system, with an exclusive state allegiance. The end of bipolarity has made pre-existing identity issues more visible, as demonstrated, for example, by the Partition between India and Pakistan. The diversity of societies within these countries is increasingly described in terms of cultures, civilizations, ethnic groups and religions, while the Other is seen to be confined within an exclusive identity that accounts for their distinctive behavior

When the illusion of an overlap between national, political, and cultural identities begins to fade, identity then serves as a basis for political or territorial campaigns. While the collapse of the communist bloc left an analytical void as far as the understanding of global conflicts were concerned, Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “ clash of civilizations ” (1993) appeared to offer an answer based on the idea of an opposition between eight great civilizations, seen as so many monolithic blocs which were ultimately defined by religion. Between these civilizations, the lines of future divisions and conflicts were seen to be marked out. The explanation of global post-Cold War tensions along cultural lines (the West and others) – a theory largely contradicted by the facts – dismisses other causes and their particular combinations in time and space.

Such culturalist geopolitics as an ideology, and as a discourse espoused by academe, schools, the media, and the political class, met with resounding success, but was also fraught with danger. Over the past generation, this view has been massively disseminated and deeply internalized as an obvious truth, helping to confine humanity within positions of exclusion, fear and violence (in which destruction of the Other and genocide are the most radical forms of expression).

The complex construction of identities

Greater interdependence and mobility, the circulation of ideas and values, and direct access to alternative models for every individual are now infinitely widening the possible identities on offer. The uniformity of middle-class life styles resulting from mass consumption is producing tensions between openness and withdrawal, integration and fragmentation. The Other has suddenly become more visible and closer at hand, and diversity more of an everyday experience, overturning collective and individual points of refernce, and opening up new questions about community, otherness, and identity.

The notion of identity is ambiguous, diverse, and subjective, neither natural nor stable; it is a complex construction process, malleable and ambivalent in its definition of and by the self in relation to others and by others. This cocktail of identities straddles linguistic affiliations (more than 6,000 across the world and an increasing number of polyglots), religions (exceptions apart, each individual has only one religion but many people have none, and the numerous forms of syncretism cannot be made to fit in with the main religious groupings), nations, traditions, and social attachments, not to mention a variety of other markers, including more personal ones such as age, gender or certain commitments.

Hybridization and mixing

However, the loss of symbolic power by nation-states, combined with frustrations and fears in the face of worsening social inequalities, cause or encourage sometimes aggressive retraction into refuge Rewritten histories, murderous ideologies of purity, identity labels, millenarian angst, and an obsession with security are all increasingly prevalent, fostered by identity and religious entrepreneurs who sustain and feed on them.

Diversity is a concept with different meanings according to the contexts and actors, from social projects to the masking of inequalities. The history of the Americas from the sixteenth century onward is the result of continuous intermixing which has led to ever greater diversity. “E Pluribus Unum” [Out of many, one] was the founding motto of the United States – a nation and a state built on immigration, in which ethnic, social, and geographical diversity combine in a particular way to produce a melting pot marked by profound inequalities.

Blacks and Hispanics in the United States, 2010

Source: US Census Bureau, 2010 Census , www.census .gov 

Comment: Although the two principal minorities in the United States are scattered over the whole of the country, their proportion of the population in the counties is very variable. The explanation for these differences is partly historical: the “Great Migration,” or the exodus of black people from the former slave states of the south toward the northeast and midwest over the course of the 19th century; but it is also due to the effects of proximity (Hispanics, for example, are more numerous along the Mexican border). However, the third map shows that their numbers increased in the east and center in the first ten years of the 21st century.

Main origins of migrants to the United States, 1820-2010 

Source: US Department of Homeland Security, www.dhs.gov 

Comment: This graph shows how thirteen of the original nationalities making up the melting pot of United States permanent residents have evolved over two centuries. Several waves of migration are evident: first it was European, from the mid-19th to the early-20th century (Germans, Irish, English, Italians and Russians), then an opening-up to the rest of the world in the late 20th century (Asia and Latin America – with the greatest numbers – and Africa –with the fewest).

This slogan recurs in the European motto (“Unity in diversity”) and in most of those in the Southeast Asian states, which gather within their colonial borders peoples of very different ethno-religious and linguistic origin. In Brazil, where nation-building was based on a population mix that included Indians, African slaves, and European settlers, non-white peoples have now become the majority, with over 40% being of mixed race. However, the increased prestige of hybridization does not protect people from suffering great inequality and the brutality of social exclusion.

Distribution of principal ethnic origins in Brazil, 2010

Source: Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, www.ibge.gov.br

Comment: The series of four maps created from data provided by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which takes a census of people according to their skin color (self-declared out of six possibilities), shows not only the diversity of the Brazilian population but also the importance of mixed origins. People of mixed race are by far the most numerous across the country, but particularly in the northeast and in the Amazon, in contrast to the greater numbers of white people in the south; this is the richest region and the traditional place of arrival for European immigrants. Black people are present in the northeast and in all parts of the South East which developed because of slavery, while Indians are mainly found in the Amazon.

European and Asian migrants to Brazil, 1819-1939

Source: Alvim, 1998

The populations of European states are the result of age-old mixing, which recurring bouts of nationalism, xenophobia and racism have tried and still try to deny. European integration has altered the scale of diversity in the space of sixty years (23 official languages, almost all the religions, and a great number of national, regional, and local traditions); in France, a country of immigration (neighbors, colonies, and then the entire world), almost a quarter of the French population have an immigrant ancestor. The European colonization of Africa and Asia created conflicts and lasting ties, evidenced by languages, the direction of migrations and social structures, as in South Africa. The French model of citizenship confines linguistic and religious affiliation to the private arena, while Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism allows differences to coexist in a public space founded on the principle of group representation and tolerance – although the latter is experiencing limits in the present context of identity withdrawals. Both these models are showing signs of wear, no longer able to guarantee equality of opportunity and the possibility of integration, and are therefore now under debate. The adoption by many actors of an interpretative framework in which mobility, interdependence, and diversity are dangers, conceals the social disintegration occurring worldwide, as well as aggravating frustrations and fears and leading to widespread violence.

Strategies of Transnational ActorsEurope as Global ActorStrategies of Transnational ActorsIdentity and Religious Entrepreneursback to top