Sara Ahmad


Communal violence - or violence between groups which define themselves by their differences from each other' - is one of the fore- most human rights problems today.2 But the violence of the past 20 years differs from that of previous decades. Responsibility for current sectarian violence lies not with specific extremist groups but with gov- ernments which leverage inter-group hatred to gain power.3 Such sys- temic sources of communal violence threaten basic principles of democratic government and non-discrimination.4 Present-day communal violence originates in identity politics.5 Identity politics stress the group nature of rights, experience and iden- tity, whether based on race, sex, caste, class, language, religion or na- tional or regional origin.6 In many cases, the political-cultural movements which engage in identity politics seek fundamental juridi- cal changes, political power and, sometimes, cultural hegemony.7 Minority and women's rights advocates embrace identity politics because it has increased awareness of the legitimacy and unique expe- rience of different groups such as women or Asian-Americans.8 In contrast, however, the sectarian strife that has repeatedly torn India, Ireland, Sri Lanka and Pakistan illustrates its potential dangers. The experience of these countries demonstrates that identity politics not only fragments groups but also may render them "autistic."9 The rhetoric of identity politics allows groups to enclose themselves in their own myths of self-righteous victimhood so that they cannot hear or learn from anyone other than themselves.10 By over-valuing their own identity, group members distort the identity of non-group mem- bers" and lose recognition of the common public interest which they share with those non-group members.12 This perceived lack of com- mon ground undermines civic values, frustrates dialogue and facili- tates inter-group hostility. Such hostility manifests itself in communal violence.'3