Jóhanna Birnir discusses her book : “Alternatives in Mobilization: Ethnicity, Religion, and Political Conflict”

By Holliday Woodard

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland hosted a Zoom event on Nov. 30, where professor Jóhanna Birnir presented the findings in her new book “Alternatives in Mobilization: Ethnicity, Religion, and Political Conflict,” co-written by Nil Seda Şatana. 

The book brings up questions such as: What if having something in common with a person didn’t mean unity, but actually division? 

Amy Pate, a UMD alum and executive research director for START, has worked closely with Birnir. Pate was impressed with Birnir’s use of analysis and in-depth case studies to explore her theory. 

“This type of research takes years to generate, but it’s a time and resource investment that yields much more nuanced and interesting results,” Pate said. 

A professor of government and politics and the director of GVPT Global Learning at UMD, Birnir has spent her life studying politics and identity, currently focusing on how personal identities are used in peaceful and violent political situations.

According to Birnir, political identity is a missing piece of the conversation when discussing worldwide politics. 

“We make the argument that if we better understand the demographics, the underlying identity, that sort of underpinning mobilization opportunities, then we can better understand a lot of political outcomes that have remained puzzling until today,” said Birnir about her book.  

Birnir highlighted two specific conflicts in her talk: civil war and electoral politics. Birnir used the example of ethnic civil war and how many countries may appeal to religious identities to gain more support. 

“You can see these identity strategies in American electoral politics all the time. People talk about the Hispanic vote or the Black vote. They are referring to an identity of a group of people that can be appealed in order to get them to turn out in support,” Birnir said. 

The book analyzes the dynamics in multiple countries such as Uganda, Pakistan, Nepal, Turkey, and Indonesia. Birnir recently traveled to Indonesia and found the country to be perfect for studying identity. According to Birnir, the country has several hundred ethnic languages, sizable ethnic groups, a multi-layered democratic structure and five different recognized religions. 

“In Indonesia, ethnicity may be important in politics, whereas at the national level, it is all about religion. Because of its identity structure and institutions, it is a fascinating case for the study of identity” said Birnir.   

Why do identities in politics matter? 

“Up until this point, we thought shared identities made groups less likely to get into conflict with each other. But sometimes that is not the case,” Birnir said.   

According to the book’s findings, groups who share at least one identity and are similar in population size are more likely to get into conflict. Birnir explained that she does not understand why this is the case, but hopefully, further research will clarify it.

These ideas are applicable to students at the University of Maryland, Birnir said.

 “Our students go on to careers in all sorts of global and national capacities, so understanding what the politics are, whether they are at the local level, in the United States or internationally, is very important,” Birnir said. 

A graduate student of Birnir, Henry David Overos has a bachelor’s degree  in international relations, a minor in French, and is currently working on his Ph.D. in political science. He said he appreciates the complexity of her work. 

“I think that when one is dealing with group-level research, there is a lot of nuances that can be lost. Ethnic and religious groups are complex, and they often overlap. Knowing this, she works to embrace complexity rather than dismiss it, demonstrating that there is a politics at work behind coalitions that, on the surface, seem to be defined by group labels,” said Overos. 

Birnir’s book is available on Amazon and Barns & Noble

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Featured Image: Erin Copland introduces Jóhanna Birnir to the attendees in College Park, Maryland on Nov. 30, 2022. Photo by Holliday Woodard.

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