What role has either ethnicity and religion played in state disintegration?

Long Reads, Politics
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In 1838, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that Catholics “constitute the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States”. The Catholic faith “places all human capacities upon the same level… reducing all the human race to the same standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar” 1. But nowadays, many regard religion rather as an impediment to democracy and stable statehood, seen by the increased separation of church and state, and the strict enforcement of secularity in countries like France and India. Ethnicity and subsequent ethnic ties are also tarred by the same brush.

Before we start analysing the truth of these claims, some definitions are in order. For the purposes of examining ethnicity and religion in this article, I will focus on ethnic and religious ties. Ethnic ties are feelings of belonging based on perceptions of shared social experience or one’s ancestors’ experiences. Those with strong ethnic ties see themselves as sharing cultural traditions and history that distinguish them from other groups 2. Religious ties are defined as a sense of belonging based on a common belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power 3. As for the concepts of state formation and disintegration, they are relatively intuitive. Within this article, I will focus on the early stages of state disintegration particularly within democracies, such as democratic backsliding and the weakening of the state. I chose such a focus in this broad article title simply because it is more interesting to look at stronger democracies weakening and collapsing as opposed to already weak states disintegrating. I will argue that ethnicity and religion play a large part in the weakening of the state by looking at the ways they poison political discourse in democracies.

Ethnicity and strong ethnic ties decrease the efficiency or legitimacy of a democratic country, leading to democratic backsliding and a higher likelihood of state disintegration. Ethnic outbidding, where ethnic divisions are weaponised as a political strategy, is harmful and inevitable. As politicians vie to maximise support from voters within their ethnic groups, this gives rise to parties centered on ethnic lines. Three explanations are offered for this theory. Firstly, people who have strong psychological attachments to their ethnic kin and ethnic groups tend to try to improve their status through dominating and denigrating other ethnic groups. This makes it easy for politicians to mobilise the electorate for ethnic voting and capture votes based on divisive rhetoric 4. Secondly, differing cultural or social values also stem from strong ethnic ties. For example, ethnic groups might wish to have their language endorsed, and for public policies to be tailored to their specific needs and values. Thirdly, ethnic groups are motivated by the pursuit of scarce material resources, such as jobs, government contracts and subsidies. Ethnicity hence often plays a crucial coordinating and informational role in this pursuit 5. Ethnic identity creates a largely exogenous marker that simplifies targeting, coalition building, and exclusion from government resources. It does not matter if group members have a particular set of policy preferences or ideologies, but rather what is important is that individuals can be identified for inclusion in government patronage (or exclusion from it) based on their group membership. As a result, ethnic ties often inform voting behaviour, leading to parties capitalising on ethnic divisions.

Particularly in emerging democracies with weak institutions, politicians have strong incentives to use belligerent ethnic and nationalist rhetoric to mobilize electoral support along ethnic lines. The rise of ethnic parties and the outbidding effect threatens the survival of democratic institutions and destabilises the whole democracy. The emergence of even a single ethnic party has the ability to “infect” the political system, leading to a spiral of extreme bids that destroy competitive politics altogether 6. Eventually, this results in a slide toward democratic breakdown, either because elites try to manipulate electoral processes, or because minorities reject majority decisions in which the minorities feel they have had no voice 7. This problem is particularly pertinent in unchecked majoritarian arrangements such as first-past-the-post voting rules. They are inadequate in representing minorities and can destabilize democracy in ethnically plural contexts by threatening to install the ethnic majority permanently in power 8. Based on the above reasons, Rabushka and Shepsle argue that the tendency towards ethnic outbidding makes democracies and governments fundamentally weak in ethnically diverse societies 9. Strong ethnic ties are hence likely to erode any democratic processes, leading to mass instability and a breakdown of democracy and government.

Strong ethnic rhetoric also increases the risk of ethno-nationalist conflict, weakening the state and precipitating state collapse. During transitions to democracy in multi-ethnic states in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union, Reilly highlighted the emergence of ethno-nationalist parties that drew their support from an ethnic group and espoused nationalist or separatist agendas 10. Ethno-nationalist mobilization and ethnic conflict happened in multiethnic countries which attempted to democratise or implement political reforms 11. Snyder applies this argument to explain the detrimental effect of democratisation on internal ethnic conflict 12. This means that strong ethnic ties are obstacles to stable states by preventing democratisation from happening in the first place, or stoking ethnic conflict during the process of political change. The ethnic conflict arising as a result leads to extremely unstable states, making the country much more prone to collapse and disintegration.

Strong ethnic ties can also precipitate the slide into a Herrenvolk democracy 13, a system where only the majority ethnic group participates in government while minority groups are disenfranchised. This was seen in South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries during Apartheid rule, and in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws. In both countries, legislation moved toward universal male suffrage for whites, and entrenched the prevention of black people from participation in government 14. In the United States, herrenvolk republicanism went beyond the marginalisation of blacks to a government serving the “master race”. “Blackness” became synonymous with dependency and servility, and was seen as antithetical to republican independence and white freedom 15. This horrific system was caused by strong ethnic nationalism, where the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity. As Muller (2008) states, nations become “defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry” 16. With strong ethnic nationalism, parties have the incentive to pander to the majoritarian ethnicity and discard all minority rights, as that is sufficient for gaining power. The dangerous herrenvolk democracy based on racial hierarchy is hence born. This demonstrates how strong ethnic ties can be a large obstacle to preserve minority rights in a democracy.

At the same time, religion is argued to be fundamentally incompatible with the concept of democracy. Religion gets in the way of making specific policies disinterestedly, harming essential democratic functions. There are three broad goals of legislators – a) their “representational function”, which obliges them to listen to the concerns and preferences of the citizens. That does not mean those views must be wholly followed, but they must be heard and considered; b) to consider the Constitution and what it permits and forbids; and c) to carefully consider the merits of the various proposals on which a decision is required based on public interest. Anything else is an impediment to the process and an interference in the carrying out of constitutional obligations 17. Religion is one such obstacle. Legislators might have the incentive to invoke religious reasons in support of policies to pander to devout voters at the expense of public interest or the sanctity of the constitution. One example is Republican United States senators using Christian rhetoric to oppose homosexual marriage. The senators did not consider the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protected citizens’ fundamental right to marriage. This constitutional guarantee was later invoked by the Supreme Court in 2015 to legalise same-sex marriage. Hence, strong religious ties can hinder lawmakers’ ability to make decisions disinterestedly in the spirit of the Constitution.

Religion is also argued to create divisiveness. Eberle points out that “when legislation is expressly based on religious arguments, the legislation takes on a religious character, to the frustration of those who don’t share the relevant faith and who therefore lack access to the normative predicate behind the law” 18. Religion hence breeds division and creates anger and distrust between citizens who have to find some amicable way to make collective decisions about common matters 19. This division hinders democracies through polarising discourse and pushing voters further to both extremes of the political spectrum. If one religious sector of the population operates on a platform of non-compromise on certain divisive issues, such as homosexual marriage or abortion, other parties also become less willing to compromise. Compromise and mutual tolerance are crucial bedrocks of democracy 20 as they take into account the views of all parties involved, not only the winning ones. This mutual goodwill means all minorities are likely to be protected regardless of election outcomes. With strong religious ties and a lack of compromise, the opposite happens. Parties become a way of life with different communities, cultures and values, creating intense partisan animosity. Hence religion polarises politics and is an obstacle to democracy.

Catholicism and Islam are pertinent examples that have been argued to be at odds with democracy. Lipset believes that states require a political belief system that accommodates competition among ideas, while the Catholic Church claims that it exclusively has the truth. He argues that Catholic countries are hence prone to instability and are intolerant towards compromise and pluralism that are fundamental to democracy 21. The unwillingness to accept contravening ideas echoes the argument presented in the previous paragraph, and could increase the likelihood of state disintegration.

Islam is also especially critiqued as inherently antagonistic towards democracy. Montesquieu was one such fervent opponent. In his own words, “the moderate government is better suited to the Christian religion, and despotic government to Mohammedanism,” due to the “despotic fury” that allegedly defined the behavior of “Mohammedan princes” 22. Kedourie echoed Montesqieu’s words, albeit in milder terms – “the ideas of the secularity of the state, of society being composed of a multitude of self-activating, autonomous groups and associations – all these are profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition” 23. For empirical examples of Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and corresponding ones in Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco, they have not been slowly moderating under the competition of elections as some political scientists speculate. Instead, these parties “embrace profound contradictions, creating hybrid agendas where notions of freedom coexist uneasily with illiberal concepts of Shari’a” 24. This coalition of ideas balances religion and liberal ideology precariously, threatening to revert back to Shari’a once voters turn against it. Hence this demonstrates how strong religious ties create a dangerously unstable system, making it more likely that states can disintegrate.

In conclusion, ethnic ties stoke conflict, encourage ethnic outbidding and polarise politics. Religious ties make use of dangerous religious justifications for policies that are subject to abuse. The exclusionary nature of politics also poisons democratic discourse, preventing compromise which is crucial to any political system. It is intuitive to justify how strong religious and ethnic ties in precariously surviving countries can precipitate collapse – but through this article, I have hoped to take on the more ambitious task of analysing how ethnicity and religion can create instability and conflict even within healthy states and even relatively stable democracies. Hence, we can conclude that both ethnicity and religion play a large role in weakening the state and ultimately in state disintegration.


1 Tocqueville, A.d. (1838). Democracy in America. New York: G. Dearborn & Co. 

2 People, J. & Bailey, G. (2010). Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (9th ed.). California: Wadsworth Publishing. 

3 Religion, Oxford English Dictionaries (3rd ed.). 

4 Connor, W. (2010). Beyond Reason, The nature of the ethnonational bond; Horowitz, D. (2000). Ethnic Groups in Conflict, California: University of California Press. 

5 Bates, R. (1983). Modernization, Ethnic Competition and the Rationality of Politics in Contemporary Africa, Colorado: Westview Press; Chandra, K. (2003). Why Ethnic Parties Succeed, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

6 Chandra, K. (2005). Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability, Perspectives on Politics.

7 Rabushka, A. & Shepsle, K. (1972). Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability, Ohio: Charles Merrill. 

8 Beissinger, M. (2008). A New Look at Ethnicity and Democratization, Journal of Democracy, Johns Hopkins University Press. 

9 Rabushka, A. & Shepsle, K. (1972). Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability, Ohio: Charles Merrill. 

10 Reilly, B. (2008). Democracy and Diversity: Political Engineering in the Asia-Pacific, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

11 Cederman, L.-E., Gleditsch, K. S., & Hug, S. (2013). Elections and Ethnic Civil War. Comparative Political Studies, 46(3); Mousseau, D. Y. (2001). Democratizing with Ethnic Divisions: A Source of Conflict? Journal of Peace Research, 38(5). 

12 Snyder, J. (2000). From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

13 Vickery, K. (1974). ‘Herrenvolk’ Democracy and Egailtarianism in South Africa and the U.S. South. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 16 (13). 

14 Ibid. 

15 Roediger, D. (1997). The Wages of Whiteness. Philadelphia: Verso. 

16 Muller, J. (2008). Us and Them, Current Issue 501 Mar/Apr, 9-14. 

17 Eberle, C. & Cuneo, T. (2017). Religion and Political Theory, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

18 Eberle, C. (2002). Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

19 Ciftci, S. (2010). Modernization, Islam, or social capital: What explains attitudes toward democracy in the Muslim world? Comparative Political Studies, 43(11); Greene, A. (1993). The Political Balance of the Religion Clauses. Yale Law Journal 102. 

20 Levitsky, S. Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. 

21 Lipset, S. (1959). Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. The American Political Science Review, 53(1). 

22 Montesquieu, C.d. (1748). The Spirit of Laws. Ontario: Batoche Books. 

23 Kedourie, E. (1992). Democracy and Arab Political Culture. Abingdon: Routledge. 

24 Wickham, C.R. (2013). The Muslim Brotherhood – Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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