Identity and religious entrepreneurs bring ethnic or religious referents into play in order to persuade others to subscribe to their political or social project. In so doing, they reshape the global political scene by becoming part of a system of international non-state networks which, depending on the context, lead to the fragmentation of political units and/or the internationalization of conflicts.

Among the transnational actors who succeed in blurring our understanding of international relations, identity and religious entrepreneurs are those most inclined to mobilize ethnic or religious referents in order to gain support and make their political or social projects bear fruit. They tend to accentuate the barriers between human communities that lay claim to these referents as a source of primordial and exclusive affiliation. Depending on the contexts, these mobilizations are liable to shatter political unity or lead to the internationalization of conflicts.

Identities presented as exclusive and monolithic

Ethnic and religious referents enable identity entrepreneurs to legitimize the authority they claim to exert over human communities; they are also able to assert their autonomy with regard to institutionalized political spaces, or to mobilize support for the causes they are defending, notably in cases of conflict.

The common denominator between these different types of mobilization is the exclusive and monolithic nature of the identities referred to. These are presented as both superior to and incompatible with other affiliations (national or community), and yet uniform (identity entrepreneurs assume the right to speak in the name of the communities they claim to represent, of which they themselves often determine the shape).

Identity mobilization driving the Partition of India

Sources: Nigel Dalziel, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the British Empire, Penguin Books, 2006; George s Duby, Atlas historique mondial, Larousse, 2003. 

Comment: These two maps present the partition of the British colonial empire into two independent states (the dominions of India and Pakistan, divided into two regions that were very distant from one another) following the Indian Independence Act of 1947, and the redrawing of these countries’ boundary lines from 1949 to the present day. These territorial changes were produced by a hodgepodge of internal factors (mobilization of ethnic or religious representatives by political entrepreneurs like Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League, food crises, massive displacements of people); confrontations between the new states (Indo-Pakistani wars over Kashmir, separation of Pakistan into two states); and the interventionism of outside states (China, United States).

Depending on their nature, identity entrepreneurs can nevertheless be seen to have a vast range of objectives. The Saudi monarchy, for example, whose legitimacy rests on monopolization of the religious norm and promotes its conception of Islam internationally in order to establish its influence, behaves as a religious entrepreneur for the purpose of promoting social and political conservatism. Conversely, in the case of the Iranian revolution, Shiite Islam was mobilized by Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers for the purpose of challenging the status quo. Indeed, the mobilizing potential of religious identities makes them a powerful mainspring of protest, especially when they appear to cap the frustrations of populations in contexts where traditional political actors do not fulfill the roles expected of them.

Another characteristic of identity mobilization is that it only rarely cuts across state borders. This leads identity entrepreneurs to reconfigure the global political scene by mobilizing international solidarity networks. These constitute a resource for identity entrepreneurs in that they increase the visibility of their causes.

Balkan empires and states, 1878-2008

Sources: compiled by Rober to Gimeno based on K. Leonhardt, Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Stuttgart, Ernst Klett Verlag, 1954 ; Grosser Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Brunswick , Westermann, 1997; Grand Atlas Universel, Paris, Bordas, 1978; Atlas 2000, Paris, Nathan, 1986; G. Castellan, Histoire des Balkans, Paris, Fayard, 1991; J.-A. Dérens and C. Samary, Les Conflits yougoslaves de A à Z, Paris , Éd. de l’Atelier, 2000; G. Gorodetsky, Le Grand Jeu des dupes, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2000.

Comment: Over 130 years, the search for harmony between the borders of states established after the break-up of empires (Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian) and the resulting tangle of multiple identities, has contributed to the formation of a fragile patchwork of states, which are the products of open conflicts, population displacements, and successive attempts at ethnic cleansing.

Internationalization of identity mobilization

This phenomenon is particularly evident when identity entrepreneurs become involved in conflict situations. While ethnic or religious variables are never sufficient to explain the onset of violent action, they contribute to the aggravation of conflicts by encouraging commitments to support the cause (human, financial or logistic) outside the territories concerned. The mobilization of transnational systems of reference, particularly religious ones in the context of the conflicts which caused the break-up of Yugoslavia (notably Orthodox solidarity and Islamic jihad) well illustrate this phenomenon.

Identity mobilization is based on interpretations maintained by identity entrepreneurs, who convey their own view of the communities they claim to represent rather than a “natural” and immutable reality. However, the mobilization of ethnic or religious referents tends to make these views more visible, gradually concealing differences within the community and alternative interpretations of reality.

This phenomenon, in the context of intra-state conflicts, tends to lead on to the idea that communities are structurally incompatible and to demands for independence resulting from this, producing highly visible partition in the cases of ex-Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and present-day Iraq.

Each of these examples forcefully underlines the following paradox: if identity-based activism invariably results in territorial demands, satisfying these cannot constitute a solution to tensions because identity can never be completely aligned with territory. The union of identity activism with territorial demands tends therefore to end up in ethnic cleansing (genocide, massacres or population displacement), or else in a series of secessions.

In fact, the introduction of frameworks for understanding identities only succeeds in concealing the elements of social cohesion that are likely to serve as a basis for establishing pluralist political communities, thus undermining attempts at nation-building as well as attempts to reconcile identity-focused actors.

How the USSR counted its nationalities, 1970

Source: based on the Presidium of the Council of Ministers for Geodesics and Cartography, Atlas of the USSR. Formation and development of the Union of SSR, Moscow, USSR Academy of Sciences, 1972.

Comment: Despite the initial Soviet plan to build a vast Socialist political community (the “Soviet people”), USSR censuses from the 1920s were based on categorizations by ethnologists (48 categories here), as was the construction of territorialized “nationalities” during the following decade. This paradoxical tension formed the crucible for independence demands and the subsequent break-up of the USSR. Even now, it continues to stir up endless violence. The map and graph show both the great diversity and the largely dominant role of Russians, in number and in territorial spread.

Strategies of Transnational ActorsIntegrating DiversityStrategies of Transnational ActorsCivil Societyback to top