Primordialist Blinders: A Reply to I. M. Lewis

Essay Excerpt

I. M. Lewis and I obviously disagree about how to interpret the collapse of the Somali state and the pattern of southernviolence that followed. Lewis favors a primordialist interpretation of the 1990s warfare in Somalia, arguing that the traditionally aggressive nature of Somali culture and traditional solidarities maintained within the Somali segmentary lineage system explain the violent breakdown of the Somali state and the widespread victimization of interriverine communities in the ensuing years of warfare. To support his view, Lewis characterizes Somalis as "pervasively bellicose," cites a 16th-century account of the Muslim conquest of Ethiopia that both discusses Somali "guerrilla warfare"and names specific clans and lineages to demonstrate the enduring nature of Somali lineage segmentation and warlike values. He then claims that his view is shared by contemporary Somali scholars and provides a brief description of Somalia's segmentary lineage system drawn from his previous writings. In contrast,I suggest that we might come to a fuller understandingof Somalia's breakdown and the pattern of southern violence by investigating the tensions generated within Somalia's 20th-century political economy and by acknowledging the distinctions that have served to stratify and hierarchize Somalia's population on the basis of racialized statuses, "purity"of heritage, occupation, region, and language. (Besteman, 109)

About the Author

Catherine Besteman is a Professor at Colby College. 

"I have taught Anthropology and African Studies at Colby since 1994. My teaching and research interests focus on analyzing power dynamics that produce and maintain inequality, racism and violence, as well as activist and community efforts for social change. I have studied these issues in southern Somalia, South Africa, and the U.S. While on leave during 2012-13, supported by grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and ACLS, I am an ACLS Fellow at the Heyman Center at Columbia University."

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