The Populist appeal of Ethno-nationalists: An impetus for Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide?

To some, the term multiculturalism evokes a celebration of human diversity in all its splendour, showcased within pluralistic societies boasting exotic languages, alluring cultural practices and spiritually inspiring beliefs. To them, infinite possibilities abound for forging meaningful relationships with those living in vibrant cosmopolitan cultures.

To others, the same term conjures jarring images of existential threats associated with particular ethno-racial groups living within one’s national borders; threats said to undermine the perceived ethnical, racial and religious superiority of a dominant group within Society.

A concatenation of State engendered conditioned feelings of inexplicable fear, anxiety and paranoia associated with the presence of ethnic minorities holds swathes of society in their vice-like ideological grip:

Since those whom we know little about, whose color of skin, culture and religious practices differ from ours must pose a threat to the values we cherish, or so we’re told by our ethno-nationalist leaders….

When such a dominant ethnoreligious group forms the societal bedrock underlying the creation of a nation State and its nationals, ‘a quandary arises in dealing with the out groups- ‘ethnic minorities’ – that also find themselves within the boundaries of that State.’ ( Jones 2017, p.578).

The Durkheimian form of social solidarity based on a homogenized ‘collective conscience’ thought to be conducive to forms of social control envisioned by nationalistic State officials appears threatened.

In such a context, a singularly historical and contemporary response to the presence of ethnic minorities involves their ethnic cleansing from territories claimed by a dominant race; a crime against humanity.

As Dr. Jennifer Jackson Preece of the London School of Economics and Political Science writes:

‘forcibly moving populations defined by ethnicity (race, language, religion, culture, etc.) to secure a particular piece of territory-thereby cleansing that territory of a particular group-has been an instrument of nation-state creation for as long as homogeneous nation-states have been the ideal form of political organization.‘ (Preece, 1998, pg. 818.

Following US President Woodrow Wilson’s recognition of national self-determination ‘as the organizing principle of the 1919 territorial settlement‘, millions of ethnic minorities were forcibly uprooted from their native lands. ( Preece 1998, p. 818). As Preece notes:

in the interwar period, 1.5 million Greeks were cleansed from Turkey, 6 400,000 Turks cleansed from Greece, between 92,000 and 102,000 Bulgarians cleansed from Greece,….. 6 million Jews cleansed from Nazi-occupied Europe and eventually exterminated, 5 600,000 Soviet citizens belonging to politically suspect ethnic groups (e.g., Chechens, Tatars, Pontic Greeks) cleansed from their historic homelands on Stalin’s orders and relocated beyond the Urals,” ( Preece 1998, pp. 818-819.)

As these historical examples of ethnic cleansing bear witness, inherent within ethnically diverse and sometimes fractious milieu within national borders is the potential for ‘intercommunal violence, including genocide ‘(Jones 2017, p.578).

Far from being a naturally occurring phenomena, ethnic identities emerging within such culturally exclusivist societies are socially constructed on the collective imaginings of a community relying on:

‘1. a collective proper name, 2. a myth of common ancestry , 3. shared historical memories 4. one or more differentiating elements of common culture, 5. an association with a specific homeland,6. a sense of solidarity for significant sectors of the population”

( Anthony Smith quoted in Jones 2017, p.578).

But, how are such collective imaginings of a community realized by a dominant ethno-nationalist group?

One possibility is for nationalistic leaders to invoke the Hobbesian idea of an undivided and absolute Sovereignty as residing within ‘the People’

justifying the crafting of ethno-centric policies that protect the socio-political interests of a dominant, privileged group whose property rights, access to healthcare, education, religious freedom, life and liberty remain unfettered.

The question arises, however: ”But which people? How defined”(Jones 2017, pp.577-578).

Such a drive towards popular rule in the name of a particular ‘People‘ that political leaders sought to associate with ‘gave rise in the nineteenth century to modern ethno-nationalism, as Western rulers and their populations sought an ideology to unify the new realms‘. ( Jones 2017, pp.577-578).

One visible manifestation of ethno-nationalistic ideology is the practice of ethnic cleansing, instrumentalized for the creation of nation States of ‘ethnically homogeneous or pure (cleansed of minority ethnic groups)’;

A relentless ”quest for territory inhabited only by one’s own people‘.(Preece, p.821)

While a degree of conceptual overlap exists between the terms ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’, the physical destruction of national minorities is not always an inevitable consequence of the quest for such geographical territory .

As Preece writes, ‘States can physically eliminate national minorities either by removing peoples to fit existing nation-state boundaries, or by adjusting international boundaries to fit existing demographics.’ (Preece 1998, p.820);

The legal definition of Genocide, however, is unequivocal in recognizing the deliberate destruction of ethno-racial groups; Genocide as defined by International law involves:

The intentional ‘destruction in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, effected by:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’.

(Art. II, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948)

Genocide like Ethnic Cleansing, a crime against humanity (Art. 7, The Rome Statute of the ICC, 2002) , remains a perverse tool of State craft, exploited by nationalistic leaders drumming up populist support for ‘a country’s ”true people”…locked into conflict with ”outsiders” (Meyer 2021, p.6);

A tool of populist leaders for consolidating and entrenching unrestrained political power, since ‘nothing should constrain the will of the “true people”(Meyer 2021, p.6).

Genocidal destruction of the perceived ‘enemy’ at times is justified through a Cultural populism that strives to portray the ‘native members of a nation state as the ‘true people’, distinct from ‘outsiders’ comprising of ‘immigrants, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, and cosmopolitan elites.’ (Meyer 2021, p.6).

Unsurprisingly, Cultural populists give greater significance to ‘religious traditionalism, law and order, anti-immigration positions and national sovereignty” (Meyer 2021, p.6) in protecting their vested interests.

The Polish lawyer and creator of the term, Genocide, Rapahel Lemkin, recognised the contingent nature of genocide and the varied purposes for which it may be carried out by State officials and their supporters in Society; Lemkin wrote:

”vested interest groups often foster or actually supervise the carrying out of genocide for reasons of expediency . They may want to distract the people on whom their power depends for certain grievances or gain other advantages from the destruction of the victim group.” ( Jones 2017, p.580).

Inhumane traits imputed to such a ‘victim group’ or perceived ‘enemy’ by populist politicians may act to condition the psyche, emotions and responses of such ‘vested interest groups’ in ways —

that make it possible for genocidal acts carried out by State officials and the militaries to have the implicit if not explicit support of a civilian population.

For instance, following the 1994 Rwandan genocide by the Hutus of nearly 800,000 victims, most of whom were of the Tutsi minority tribe, Jean Hatzfeld, a French journalist, interviewed 10 Hutu militia members, many of whom were farmers and ‘active church goers…..who had ‘macheted to death thousands of Tutsi civilians’. (Zimbardo 2009, p.15-16). The was one account given by a prisoner:

“Our Tutsi neighbors , we knew they were not guilty of no misdoing, but we thought all Tutsis at fault for our constant troubles. We no longer looked at them one by one, we no longer stopped to recognize them as they had been, not even as colleagues. They had become a greater threat than all we had experienced together , more important than our way of seeing things in the community. That’s how we reasoned and how we killed at the same time.”(Zimbardo 2009, p.15-16)

Such insidious manifestations of psychic and emotional conditioning of citizens leading them to believe that minorities-such as the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Rohingya in Burma or the Uyghurs in Xinjiang– personify the ‘enemy’ of Society, —

hinge on the existence of entire political, military, religious and cultural institutions within certain societies, promoting the propagandization of hate speech and violent hostilities targeted at particular minorities,

The academic author, Kenan Malik poses a probing question in light of the recent protests that have erupted in Myanmar since the Coup D’etat on February 2021.

Malik asks: ”Where were the protesters when the Rohingya were being murdered?’ Malik writes:

”The military junta that came to power in Myanmar in 1962 (or Burma as it was then) fomented hatred against the Rohingya as a means of cementing support.

The latest and most vicious drive began in 2017. Under the pretext of a campaign against “terrorists”,

the army implemented a programme of ethnic cleansing, which many deem as possessing “genocidal intent”, a clampdown as brutal as China’s suppression of the Uighurs.

Aung San Suu Kyi first stayed silent, then dismissed claims of atrocities against the Rohingya as ‘fake news’ ,

And yet, the assault on the Rohingya was met with at best indifference, at worst active collusion, both from the majority population and democracy activists” (Kenan Malik, The Guardian, 21 February 2021).

It is inconceivable that a significant number of the Burmese Buddhist population and even the Nobel Laureate, pro-democracy leader of the NLD party, Aung San Suu Kyi, remained silent as the genocidal killings, rapes and torture of thousands of Rohingya were carried out by the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) in the Rakhine State.

What contributes to such a state of inhumane apathy and cruel nonchalance towards the mindless destruction of one’s fellow human beings?

A possible answer lies in the institutional promotion of ‘interethnic hostility‘ within some societies such as Burma (Myanmar) by organizations linked to ‘ethnically based political parties , that reflect and reinforce interethnic hostility through propaganda, ritual and force‘ (Jones 2017, p.580).

As Adam Jones explains ”their raison d’etre is the alleged danger from the ethnic enemy.” (Jones 2017, p.580)

Such violent conflict due to ethnic and religious differences have also been a historical legacy of the Balkans region, with the ‘last European genocide of the twentieth century’ evinced by the brutal 1990s Balkan wars, ‘the most catastrophic event in Europe since the Holocaust.” ( Mojzes 2015 , p.131).

A combination of ‘ancient hatreds’ and ‘contemporary ambition of leaders‘ existing against a historical backdrop of religious and cultural exclusivity arguably precipitated these wars in the 1990s ( Mojzes 2015 , p. 138).

Mojzes writes about the first religious ‘fault line’ emerging between Eastern and Western Christianity, a schism so divisive that it split the Balkans in half , with Bulgarians, Macedonians , Montenegrins, and Serbs adhering to the Byzantine Orthodox tradition centered in Constantinople, while the Croats and Slovenes adhered to the Roman Catholic Church.’ (Mojzes 2015 , p. 138)

A fault line fragmenting Bosnia in a way that resulted in some Bosnians embracing Catholic doctrines while other becoming members of the Orthodox Church. (Mojzes 2015 , p. 138). Mojzes argues:

while members of these two churches did not go to war against each other for religious reasons , they surely harbored animosities and rivalries, often stoked by outside powers” (Mojzes 2015 , p. 138).

Apart from inter-religious conflicts, ethnic and racial differences in the Balkans emerged during the reign of the Ottoman Empire and its occupation and influence over Europe from the fourteenth to the twentieth century and the conversion of many to Islam ( Mojzes 2015 , p. 13). Mojzes argues:

The Christian masses, both Orthodox and Catholic , were generally limited to working in the fields or tending sheep, thus living in the countryside, being vastly exploited (not in the least by Muslim tax collectors , so that even in this respect people were being pitted against each other” . ( Mojzes 2015 , p. 13)

More recent Sociological and Criminological theories accounting for the motivational forces driving such genocidal killings carried out against ethnic minorities have begun to evoke Jack Katz’s concept of ‘righteous slaughter’, —

a term used to refer to ”killings undertaken in a sense of righteousness , and reflect the defence of a communal good, or a value that the victim is seen to transgress.” (Jones 2017, p.582).

Adam Jones explains:

”Such ‘righteous’ killing is powerfully connected to a sense of humiliation, as when a man finds his lover in bed with another.”

”The perpetrators face a challenge that threaten to degrade them or humiliate them …they transcend the humiliation, and seek satisfaction in violence by making a last stand in defence of the Good.” (Jones 2017, p.582).

This essay argues that such emotional dynamics of humiliation, rage, and vengeance channeled towards ethnic minorities blamed for the economic ills, racial dilution, security risks and terroristic violence of a Society–

operate to deflect and assuage any sense of guilt or responsibility experienced by political rulers for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of entire communities of minorities such as the Rohingya in Burma and the Palestinians in Gaza.

Instead, one has begun to witness the ‘conventionalizing of Genocide as a government policy’(Jones 2017, p. 582), unashamedly acquiesced to by significant majorities of dominant ethno-racial groups, legislated by ‘legal system(s) (that) typically minimizes their culpability.’(Jones 2017, p. 582).

Such is the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt made reference to in her work “Eichmann in Jerusalem’, an evil that has assumed the facade of moral justifiability, legitimized by the legal machinery of the State.

The paradox of such State inflicted harms of terrorism, ethnic cleansing and genocide lies in its obvious contradictions;  

State militaries and officials rape, torture and murder particular ethno-racial groups with impunity while eluding the label ‘Terrorist’, ‘Genocidaire’ or even ‘Murderer’;

labels reserved for those who oppose the State.

Such is the populist appeal of ethno- nationalism when wielded as a political tool to reorganize the cultural, social, and religious ethnographic landscape of a State;

After all, the right to self-determination is a ‘Sovereign right’ of every political State and its rulers, and should never be interfered with by other States, —

or so say the nationalist leaders of rogue States.

Patrick J..


Adam Jones, ‘Genocide, A comprehensive introduction’, Routledge, NY, 2017.

Brett Meyer 2021, Populists in Power: Perils and Prospects in 2021, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Online: Populists-in-Power-Perils-and-Prospects-in-2021.pdf

Jennifer Jackson Preece, ‘Ethnic Cleansing as an Instrument of Nation-State Creation: Changing State Practices and Evolving Legal Norms’, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1998), pp. 817-842

Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides, 2015, Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland.

Philip Zimbardo, “The Lucifer Effect , Rider 2009

Where were the protesters when the Rohingya were being murdered? Kenan Malik, The Guardian , 21 February 2021;

Online: Where were the protesters when the Rohingya were being murdered? | Myanmar | The Guardian

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