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In general, the principles of separatism are rooted in the desire of one group to separate from another group, whether it is for economic, political, social, or religious reasons. Some interpretations of separatism have translated to full secession from a group while other interpretations have emphasized little more than a greater sense of autonomy within the bounds of a larger cultural group.
There are a variety of motivations for any separatist movement.
- Resentment of another cultural group can emerge, seen in economic or social elements.
- Protection from ethnic cleansing, genocide, or outright discrimination can also be a strong motivation for a separatist movement.
- Separatist movements can also ensure the preservation of one culture's unique traits, including language, religious practices, and other elements that can be so easily lost.
Throughout history, there have been a number of separatist movements that have shaped our society's development. First and foremost are the English Christians that wanted to break away from the Church of England and practice their own faith; some of the earliest members of this group came to North America and established the earliest colonies. Ethnic separatism has also been seen in the recent past: in 1993, Czechoslovakia, for example, broke into the unique ethnic Czech and Slovakian republics. Racial separatism has also been seen several times in our nation's history, such as the emergence of a black nationalist movement led by Marcus Garvey in the early part of the 20th century.
In order to begin this investigation, it is first helpful to provide a broad overview of how separatists movements have been conceptualized in the current literature. Examining the basic context of secessionism and the manner by which it has been assessed in the literature, it becomes evident that this process is often defined in the specific outcomes that are desired. For example, one scholar reports that "Secession is the withdrawal, from an existing state and its central government, of part of this state, the withdrawing part consisting of citizens and the territory they occupy.  the ultimate objective of a secessionist movement is to acquire international acceptance and recognition as a sovereign member of the community of states". Because secessionist movements are often considered to be illegal, they are typically rooted in military conflict, which is viewed as essential for the success of separatists. "Since most states consider secession to be an illegal act and resist it with force if necessary, secessionists must be ready and able to engage in military confrontation in order to neutralize the central government's opposition to secession".
Although not all separatist movements have devolved into military conflict, there are clear indications that violence is the rule rather than the exception. As such, understanding secessionism requires a deeper consideration of the issues which promulgate its evolution. A critical review of what has been written about modern secessionist movements seems to suggest that secessionism and its outcomes are deeply rooted in the development of national and cultural identities. In particular, Lecours asserts that there are notable differences that exist between ethnic and civic nationalism. As reported by this author, these differences are imperative to understanding the development of secessionist movements and the specific results that are accomplished by those leading change.
Looking first at the definition of ethnic nationalism. Lecours makes the following observations:
Ethnic nationalism uses seemingly objective criteria such as language or descent as its basis for inclusion and exclusion. It does not allow individuals to choose to which national they belong but hold that membership is decided at birth. This type of nationalism views the nation as an organic whole, that is, as a natural and self-regulating social system.
This author goes on to argue that the development of multicultural states and institutions is an aberration to the cultural identity that is essential for development.
Examining next the issue of civic nationalism, Lecours argues that, "Civic nationalism does not equate cultural homogeneity with nationhood. This conception of the nation insists on the territorial and legal dimensions. It does not defined the nation using cultural markers but considers it a community of laws". In this context, it becomes evident that the evolution to civic nationalism is what serves as the foundation for the creation of a more stable movement. Under civic nationalism, the goal is not to create an autonomous state based on the specific needs of a cultural group; rather the goal is to create a state based on shared values that are expressed through a community of laws.
Other scholars examining the development of secessionist movements also argue that delineations in this process can be made on ethnic and civic lines. According to Brancati, when ethnic secessionist movements are developed, notable inequalities often arise. In particular, the author reports that: "Regional parties, in turn, increase ethnic conflict and secessionism by reinforcing regionally based ethnic identities, producing legislation that favors certain groups over others, and mobilizing groups to engage in ethnic conflict and secessionism by supporting terrorist organizations that participate in these activities". Thus, a clear distinction can be made when it comes to the types of secessionist movements that have, and are, taking place in the international community.