Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda

By Taylor, Christopher C. | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda

Taylor, Christopher C., Anthropological Quarterly

Lee Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. 212 pp.

Was the Rwandan genocide of 1994 an example of atavistic African tribalism run amok? According to Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda, it was not. Lee Ann Fujii sets out to refute two related hypotheses about the genocide: that it was the direct result of long festering ethnic hatred between Hutu and Tutsi, and that it was the product of ethnic fears. Fujii uses her fieldwork from two sites in Rwanda, one in the northern prefecture of Ruhengeri and the other from the central prefecture of Gitarama, to advance the claim that national and local politics as well as the allure of gain were the primary motivating factors inducing Rwandans to join with Hutu extremists to assault, pillage, and kill their Tutsi neighbors.

Although this book demonstrates that those who joined in the genocide (termed "joiners" by the author) had a variety of motivations, that often their reasons for continued participation differed, and that their murderous behavior varied from individual to individual, the central argument of the book is something of a straw man. No serious student of Rwanda and the genocide of 1994 advances the idea that the conflict was due solely or primarily to simple ethnic hatred or fear. The sources that the author cites as exemplars of this ethnic hate/fear thesis include Goldhagen (1996), Kaufman (1996, 2001), and Petersen (2002); not one of whom devotes primary attention to Rwanda. Fujii is correct, however, in recognizing that there were other political and social tensions, besides ethnicity, that contributed to the violence between 1990 and 1994.

This does not mean that in some media the explanation was advanced that the genocide was due primarily to the straightforward expression of ethnic hate and fear. For example, in some journalistic accounts of the tragedy during the genocide and shortly after its end, it was not uncommon to read that African pastoralists and African cultivators had been fierce rivals for as long as can be determined, implying that the Rwandan genocide was merely the latest expression of a visceral antagonism between peoples practicing two competing modes of subsistence. This view concurred with many popular opinions about the genocide. Fortunately, the scholarly literature following in the wake of the genocide corrected many of these received ideas. Additionally, journalistic accounts after the first wave of writings tended to be more careful.

Fujii also emphasizes the adventitious nature of ethnicity in Rwanda before the genocide. This is partly correct, but may be overstated. In terms of the theoretical approaches to ethnicity in Rwanda, there are basically two poles: primordialist and constructivist. According to the primordialist view, people develop strong filial attachments to those who share the same ethnicity. Ties to those of the same ethnicity are seen as natural. Extreme primordialism closely resembles biological determinism and echoes the Great Chain of Being ideology that many colonialists brought with them during their conquest of Africa. In Rwanda, for example, Europeans deemed Tutsi to be closer to Europeans in physiognomy and in intellectual capacity. They favored Tutsi in education and reinforced the powerful political position that members of the Tutsi elite already enjoyed.

At the opposite pole is the theoretical approach known as constructivism. From this stand point, ethnicity is a social construction, highly malleable, invented largely as a function of the political and economic exigencies of the moment, and supported by a symbolic system that serves as a classificatory operator with regards to persons, things, aliments, social relations, etc. For the most part, scholars who have studied Rwanda in recent times adhere to stronger or weaker versions of constructivism. But constructivism also has its weaknesses. Stated briefly, it does not explain why some ethnic identities are more "constructed" than others.

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