Given the contemporary image of Islam as violent, and the current grip that extremist Islam has on the image of Islam, it’s a little difficult to explain that Islam has a preference for nonviolence and forgiveness. But Islam has a long history of reestablishing harmony and solving problems through genuine reformation including the moral courage to sincerely forgive others.
The interpenetration of Islam as a religion and the resolution of secular problems is a core theme in the Islamic definition of peace. Peace in the Islamic tradition is related to God and reflects a higher reality. In the Koran peace is affirmed in many aspects of the language and as a condition of paradise. It is something the innermost person yearns for and it is related to wholeness attained through the relationship with the divine. Now, peace in Judaic or Christian traditions is also a higher-order reality and integral to the primary religious precepts of these religions. But the contemporary problem with conflict resolution in Islam is just such a notion of the divine because the most recalcitrant tension is that peace has been defined as Islamic peace. And making relationships and having a sense of community is based on sharing Islamic principles. Thus there is an inconsistency between theory and practice where both sides, Islam and the West, have arguments between principles and practice and conflict is rooted in these disagreements between how to express and practice the divine. So in extremist Islam jihad is an effort aimed at the more abstract religious principles of the Islamic community and its maintenance (according to the practitioners of this strand of Islam) but it is a practice that justifies violence. Hence, the Muslim extremist and the religious Christian or Jew – or even the secular person – holds the same sense of peace as being integrated into the community but the conflict results from the practice of violence which is justified in one case but certainly not in the other. The jihadist “practice” is not considered acceptable as an expression of the holy Koran by either some other Muslims or group.
There is considerable overlap between the Western conception of peace and the Islamic one but the overlap is not complete. Even the role of acceptable legal precepts and wisdom is valued in Islam above the capricious decisions of dictators or force of the military. Islam has always held its military and check and rejected abuses of power. There is a tradition of positive peace based on the actual practice of justice and not only the absence of arbitrary rule. There has been a long tradition of Islamic scholarship and wisdom, even wisdom in the Western tradition, but the relationship between reason and religion has maintained which is one difference between Islam and the West. This leads to an important difference between Islam and the West which is that reason in the West has been elevated to a more “correct” way of thinking. Passion in Western conflict management is considered disruptive and in need of control. A fundamental difference that accounts for the difficulty and intractability of conflicts between Islam and the West is the thorough integration and wholeness of the concept of peace with religious precepts. Peace is not only the domain of secular social science but peace begins with God and his attained as God calls everyone to the “house of peace.” Peace in Islam is patterned on harmony and religion based integration. The word jihad means to strive for the divine, but from a contemporary Western Islamist perspective has been corrupted by the inclusion of justifiable violence.
Islam also has a tradition of cooperation and coexistence with groups that were either divergent or even antagonistic toward Islamic precepts. There is a discursive tradition in Islam which refers to the “house of peace or truce” and includes issues concerning limits on war, truce with non-Muslims, and general concerns about managing conflicts. But the more dichotomous thinking of fundamentalists currently holds sway because military ideas about jihad have moved to the forefront. It remains true that a conception of peace and conflict management cannot be separated from Muslim discourse. Even the idea of individual freedom in Islam is based on the attainment of freedom as a result of being at peace with and integrated into the broader religious community. Individual freedom clearly is not synonymous with “doing whatever you like.” Rather, individual dignity emerges from the maintenance of harmony between individuals and God. There is in contemporary Islam a tension between using religion to justify violence and actual conflict dynamics. Conflicts are typically rooted in political and economic grievances, but religion is used to intensify attitudes and rally support. Nuance and issue complexity are lost as the discourse gets simpler and adherents become more radicalized. Currently Islamic fundamentalist leaders have made the claim that Muslims are occupied by non-Muslims in foreign lands and oppressed by various transnational governments. Casting such a wide transnational net is unusual and is typically interpreted as exceptional religious vocabulary used to justify violence. But from a dialogue and conflict management perspective using such religious discourse is not unusual. Moreover, the West must approach Islam with respect to pragmatic conflict dynamics (economic, political, and social issues) – including exploring the relationship between the conflict and Islamic principles – in an effort to meet group secular needs while maintaining harmonious relationships within the community. The West after a long period of engagement can turn this tradition to its advantage and the advantage of all.
Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan
I have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.
The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.
Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.
The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.
The Answer: Education
One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”
The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.
There is currently a court case in the United States about to be heard by the Supreme Court pertaining to Menachem Zivotofsky who was born in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem – Western Jerusalem. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2014 Menachem’s parents are US citizens but when they went to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for his passport they listed his place of birth as “Israel.” The consular officials said no. The case is currently under consideration and interestingly is a major issue in foreign policy. Let’s explain with a little background first.
Jerusalem from 1517 was part of the Ottoman Empire up until the First World War. It was an international city mostly of interest because of its religious sites traced to the Abrahamic religions. After World War I Jerusalem was part of the British mandate and in 1948 the United Nations partitioned Palestine and Jerusalem was declared a “separate body” with special political status. After the establishment of the State of Israel Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and Israel maintained control in West Jerusalem. Jerusalem was divided for 19 years and after the 1967 war, Israel retook the old city and declared Jerusalem united.
Status of International Law
UN resolution 181 in 1947 declared Jerusalem a “separate entity,” and would be managed on the bases outlined in the United Nations Proposal 181 which concerned the partition of Palestine. Israel has always considered the partition proposal null and void because the Arabs rejected the UN resolution and attacked the new state of Israel. Consequently, separating Jerusalem out as a separate entity was unjustified. Israel was again attacked in 1967 and as result of their victory in the Six-Day War Jerusalem was reunified, or reclaimed by Israelis, as a Jewish city. Since 1967 all residents including Arabs were offered Israeli citizenship, although most of them declined. The Palestinians argue that in violation of United Nations principles Israel acquired land by military means and the unification of Jerusalem was illegal.
Israel in 1980 declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital and made the argument that such claims are rooted in 3000 years of history citing King David, biblical events, the structure of Jewish prayer which turns toward Jerusalem three times a day, as well as the foregrounding of Jerusalem in the thoughts and liturgies of Jews everywhere.
Still, the Palestinian Authority claims all of East Jerusalem including the Temple Mount and maintains that West Jerusalem and its final status can only result from negotiated agreements between the two sides.
So What Is to Become of young Menachem Zivotofsky?
The United States prefers Jerusalem to remain an international city with final status to be the result of negotiations. It does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel according to international law. The United States position is specific in that it supported the partition plan but not UN control of Jerusalem. The US also objected to all unilateral action, including moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, that made decisions for Jerusalem outside the boundaries of negotiated agreements.
US foreign policy became entangled in this issue when Congress passed a law in 2002 that directed the State Department to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to identify “Israel” as their place of birth. This allowed people like Mr. Zivotofsky to self identify. But the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to implement the rule claiming their exclusive powers in foreign policy and avoiding antagonizing the Arab world by maintaining the international standing definition of Jerusalem.
As of now, Jerusalem remains a potentially contentious definitional issue with much of the world automatically associating it with Israel and other parts of the world refusing. It has found its way into a political battle between Congress and the presidency with respect to who is most authoritative when it comes to directing the nation’s foreign affairs. Can the executive branch just ignore Congress, and can Congress direct legislation over the head of the President. These are the matters influencing the Supreme Court decision while Menachem Zivotofsky waits to see where he was born.
We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
Everyone has seen the images of the poor fellow on his knees with the hooded executioner standing over him. The imminent death of the captive is sufficient existential horror, as we all have a momentary absorptive identification with what it must be like, that moment, but the real focus of our identification is the violence made visible by the idea of a severed head. There are many quick and efficient ways to kill somebody, especially in the modern era. Then why behead someone? ISIS and like extremist groups are skillful users of media and savvy about manipulating images so they know that beheadings have a long history and carry a symbolism that resonates not only with Islamic traditions but captures the attention of the audience. The beheadings may be part of Islamic true believer’s traditions – of which I will say more about below – but they also hold a special horror in the West and have a long tradition of literary and artistic representation. Since beheadings are not the most rational or simplest way to kill somebody, they must carry extra social significance. Moreover, “ritual” beheadings are particularly symbolic and infused with cultural symbols. Beheadings, in fact, constitute a system of meanings that serve strategic as well as internal group purposes. It is always is difficult to draw a line from religious and cultural precepts to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend that these things don’t matter.
Perlmutter, in her explication of honor killings and ritual murder, begins with a basic Islamist tribal code originally designed to recognize proper social values, establish differences between right and wrong, and bind the community together. These evolved into Sharia law and have maintained their tribal commitments to ancestry worship, solidarity, purity, and powerful ingroup-outgroup mentalities.
It is purity that is most associated with the evolution of the moral code and this is true in most fundamental religions including Orthodox Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. But Islamism in particular observes moral and purification rights by establishing prohibitions and practices on everything from dietary laws to sexual behavior. Ritualization inculcates these principles into the social unit and assists with learning and repetition. When an individual is afforded status or respect in the group it is because he or she is representing honor and adherence to the code. Dishonor and humiliation are to be avoided and when they are present in an individual or the community, then restoration in the form of vengeance is called for. Beheadings are form of vengeance and restoration.
As Perlmutter explains, ritualized killing of enemies is even more barbaric than honor killings because the enemy represents the threat of eradication. A beheading is a masculine response that restores honor because it is particularly vile but represents the group as brave, powerful, and heroic. Westerners may not recognize it, but the hooded fellow standing over the debilitated and restrained victim is experiencing an orgiastic sense of power, status, and honor.
In a symposium on violence, terrorism and Islam, participants made regular reference to “shame” cultures and the honor-shame continuum. Shame is associated with feminine qualities of weakness, defeat, acquiescence, and the loss of masculine identity. Shame requires a culture to move it more toward the honor end of the continuum and the shame is redressed by restoring masculine qualities such as violence. Shame resides in two places – the sexual organs and the face. One results in “honor” killings, and the other in the killing of enemies. The face is the focal point of human interaction and the location on the body that carries meaning, insights, and communicative expression. Beheadings, then, represent a strike at the core of one’s humanity and a form of mutilation that robs the other of manhood.
In her book titled Losing Our Heads, Beheadings in Literature and Culture, Janes identifies five types of severed heads: venerated, trophy, presentation, sacrificial, and judicial, corresponding to five types of traditionally authorized beheadings in human culture. There is the ancestral head, removed after death; the trophy head, taken in warfare or raid; the sacrificial head taken from a living person by decapitation in the performance of a religious rite; the presentation head, taken in a political struggle to remove a contender or rival; and the public execution, proceeding from a legal decision.
Beheadings, thus, are infused with meanings. They are the visible signs of deep cultural meanings and make manifest the inner workings of the culture. Knowledge of such workings is a crucial first step toward some sort of reconciliation, if not transformation.
Lately, Thomas Friedman and a few others have been talking about pluralism and pointing out how extremist groups like ISIS live in a pluralistic world but have no concept of “pluralism”. They have no concept of the many viable approaches to life and knowledge and that these differences can coexist and thrive in non-rancorous competition. Liberal democracy is the political and communication condition most conducive to achieving pluralistic relations. I don’t mean to imply that Western democracy must be forced on Islam in some triumphalist sense, but it remains true that a diverse and respectful peace will not be achieved if one or both sides of the conflict hold a single overarching philosophical idea they consider unassailable and necessary to force on the other. A pluralistic mentality stresses the beneficial consequences of cultural differences and works to guard differences with legislation and accommodate all groups and centers of power as much as possible. This accommodation is steeped in argument and communication processes designed to incorporate minority views, respect differences, and work out solutions to competing demands.
Pluralism as a political and communication theory emerges from the philosophical tradition of liberalism which challenged monism and dominant ideologies in favor of individual rights and especially the right to association and speech. Such rights are considered in the Western tradition “inalienable” since they cannot be given away. And pluralism requires a vigorous and healthy regard for discussion and communication to solve problems. Pluralism remains a complex theoretical concept not in principle but in practice. The recognition of other sources of knowledge and power, and the argument for their advantages, even between Muslims and Westerners, is not that controversial. But the practice of pluralism is difficult and more controversial. And it is not the case that pluralism is simply the imposition of American liberalism. The logic of intercultural contact designed to solve or control conflict by definition requires the conditions of pluralism. Terms like compromise, mutual respect, accommodation, dialogue and deliberation, and other relational terms are all definitionally tied to the foundations of pluralism. Countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan established the conditions of a pluralistic society after World War II and became increasingly stable. If politics is about the management of differences, then pluralism is the highest expression of the management of differences.
Once you get past its noble expression of basic principles pluralism produces a messy and difficult system of working out problems and trying to achieve stability and morally balance interests. Then pluralism gets us to communication. Its basic principles may be foundational and quickly recognized, even if one selfishly ignores those principles, as the only acceptable moral philosophy. But after that, after the statements about respect for differences, the real lived world, the life-world of human beings, is subject to the communication process. The differences and divides that separate people can only be closed or moderated by the process of interaction. Hence, intercultural contact and all those activities designed to achieve peace or manage conflicts are discursive in nature. Participants in conflicts, carrying their arsenal of plurality assumptions, begin with incommensurability and cultural divides and move toward communication in its full expression. It is the communication process that reaches across the divides and the gaps that define differences between groups. Certainly communication is more contestatory in the beginning of the conflict management process but must proceed to dialogue and deliberation as conditions dictate.
Some authors are clear with respect to the strong peace building and dialogue traditions of Islam. Muslim politics is not predetermined by a rigid category of religion that prevents them from inclusiveness, plurality, and dialogue for problem-solving. There is no way Islam can confront peace building without responding to issues in pluralism, secularism, and civil society. But too few people are aware of the work that has already taken place in this arena. Scholars have explained how there is no necessary contradiction between Islam and the embrace of pluralism and democratic processes. In fact, many Muslims admire Western engagement with secular knowledge and pluralism. Islamic principles of unity, mercy, subjugation of passion, and accountability emerge from the Koranic concept of nurturing alliances with other groups. And these groups are typically non-Muslims including Jews, Christians, and others. It is easy to make the argument that pluralism is a major issue for peace building in Islam. The discourse of pluralism and nonviolence is the cornerstone of interreligious dialogue and mediation of East-West differences.
In their USIP report on “New Media and Contentious Politics” Aday and associates identified five levels of analysis in which new media and political conflict intersect. The five levels are pretty straightforward but useful. Still, I find two things most interesting about the evolution of new media: they are the fact that new media is not so “new” anymore, and secondly that new media relies on old media more than we thought. There is an interdependence and dependency on the two media (new and old) that organizes itself according to bridging structures. Quickly, the five levels are individual such that individual attitudes and behaviors are changed. The society is a second-level evidenced by things like polarization, protests, and participatory events. Collective action is a third level of analysis which points to the ability to organize and catalyze political activity. Regimes are also affected by new media because information and stories, accurate or not, can circulate in the society and stimulate regimes to respond impressively. And new media brings international attention which was especially potent during the Arab uprisings.
Again, Aday and colleagues in another Blogs and Bullets report explained in more detail the functioning of new media during contentious politics. When the audience is local new media such as Facebook serve mostly an information function. And of course it is increasingly important for mobilizing protests and organizing the community. But when the audience is more global new media plays a megaphone role in that it attracts international attention to local issues.
It remains interesting that new media are not so central to the news process as some people were beginning to think because it turns out that their relationship with traditional media is more complementary. Sometimes traditional media cannot cover a story because they are restrained or simply organizationally unable to manage coverage. Consequently, new media which are smaller and more mobile can cover a story and then make it available to traditional media and their often superior resources. And if new media and traditional media are both available then they make up a more complex media ecosystem that enriches the information value available.
The location of click data, reported in the Blogs and Bullets report, indicates that the majority of them came from outside the country thus reinforcing the notion of new media as an international megaphone. But the international community has a short attention span and they turn away from the story rather quickly. The Blogs and Bullets report suggests that counter to the popular conclusions about the local organizational role of new media (Facebook, Twitter, various webpages), they actually had more effect outside the region and internationally. Moreover the report underscores the fact that disentangling traditional media effects from new media effects is difficult if not impossible. The two media systems if you will have mutually influential effects on one another and are not quite so distinct as some believe.
Generalities about “new media” or “social media” have to give way to more precise questions and relationships. Thus, Facebook seemed to have some definite effects in Egypt but it did not another places. Why would that be? What are the lines that connect new media with traditional media? In other words, how do they work together to create an effect and can we parse out these effects?
The term “new media” continues to be a convenient shorthand and is communicative to the extent that it refers consistently to network-based asymmetrical forms of communication made possible by digital technology. But more work needs to be done on just how preferences and concepts are formed and spread, and which medium (new or old) is responsible for which affect.
The media in general, and new media in particular, are increasingly effective tools used by extremist in Syria or ISIS. Even their extraordinary brutality is no match for the skill in which they are using new media to attract new recruits, send propaganda messages, scare the enemy, and promote their goals of a single Muslim state. ISIS is now one of the more sophisticated users of technology and they are intent on strutting their stuff to show the world what they can do. You can read more by Gabriel Wiemann on new technology and terrorism here and here.
First, ISIS begins with a historical frame or a brand if you will that marks them as epochal and steeped in the language of historic Islam and religious triumphalism. This brand frame is consistent and deftly designed for particular audiences. Hence, they refer to the current organization of states in the Arab world as “colonial” or “Crusader” partitions. They use video messages to challenge the arrangement of states and call for a single Muslim nation under the protective covering umbrella of Islam. Like all ethnopolitical groups, they claim to have been oppressed, mistreated, and brutalized such that they are justified in righting an ancient wrong. They frame messages designed for young recruits on the basis of ancient injustices and deep threats to their primordial claims of truth and geography. These messages must be working well enough because recruitment is up along with supplies and weapons.
You have to give ISIS their due with respect to rhetorical sensitivity and their ability to adapt to technology and message strategy. With just about the same skill as any Hollywood producer, ISIS creates a sense of importance, urgency, and participation in something greater than yourself. Messages are crafted differently for Westerners then Arabs (the Westerners get a softer less violent sell). Long boring speeches by Osama bin Laden on video sent to Al Jazeera were replaced by jihadists who were familiar with colloquial English and could speak to American youth about liking their next-door neighbor because you borrow their lawnmower, but how that neighbor was really an enemy of Islam. Now ISIS has mastered twitter, Facebook, and has many messages translated into various languages. They send images through Instagram and travel with a camera person who takes video of battles and dramatic moments to be used later in the other images.
The website ask.fm (you need to logon and get an account) has a section where you can ask questions about how to travel to a particular location and join ISIS including suggestions on what to bring. There are instant messaging programs designed for communication that can be kept secret and are not made public.
Terrorist and extremist groups have been using social media for some time now but the effectiveness of these media will only grow. These new communication technologies are cheap, accessible, and highly interactive. They promote more individualized contact as well as coherent yet dispersed communities. Combating these new forms of connectivity is increasingly more interesting and challenging than understanding how ISIS are other groups use them.
Maybe some of you saw the article from the Wall Street Journal on August 30, 2014. It graphically depicted (see the accompanying screenshot) all the various relationships among political actors in the Middle East and how they changed from enemies to friends or discovered common interests. So, historically Iran and the United States have been at loggerheads but Iran is a Shiite country and ISIS is a Sunni movement therefore Iran and the United States are in league with one another against the common Sunni enemy. Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have been fierce competitors but both parties now have the same enemy in the radical Islamic movement. It’s the old story that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You can read more about it at the link above.
The various combinatorial factors of allegiance can be actually quite humorous if we carry out this “enemy of my enemy is my friend” shibboleth far enough. ISIS is a threat to Al Qaeda therefore Al Qaeda and the United States can form common cause. Syria has no love loss for ISIS so we can coordinate with them. Even Israel, who almost nobody chooses as a dance partner, shares interests with Egypt in opposing Hamas.
While these political associations have some element of truth to them, they are highly temporary, ad hoc, and abstract. They might cooperate for a couple of minutes behind the scenes but don’t count on the development of quality new relationships. There are too many problems and inconsistencies to forge much of a relationship. Moreover, if the United States does cooperate with one group they antagonize another. Can you imagine the US actually getting closer to Iran and the implications of that for our relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia? That would be a complex dance indeed. Actually, the potential alliances are quite confusing and our judgments about the various alliances are probably distorted by media images and their general lack of information about ISIS.
Still, they do represent examples of commonalities that we are always calling for. We are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about ISIS. The availability heuristic would predict that we use and overemphasize information that is easily available to us. Since we can imagine images of violence easier than ones of peace and reconciliation, simply because these images are more available, we tend to think that such images and relationships are more characteristic of the conflict. And certainly the same is true of the negativity bias, which holds that negative information is more easily attended to and brought to mind than positive information. So when we think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we think of negative things such as violence, religious differences, and a whole host of tragedies that cause us to remember those more than anything else. These heuristics of negativity and availability can fundamentally define an intergroup conflict and contribute significantly to its intractability.
There is no escaping the requirement that any genuine and diligent effort to resolve Islam-West differences must confront extremism and violence. The first step, and this will be difficult for many, is to view extremism as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Hence, the issue is a problem that requires efforts from both sides. Defining a problem relationally implies a similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. These common enemy situations can play a part. If there is going to be a compatibility perspective rather than a rivalry perspective, which is an initial crucial step toward ameliorating conflicts, then extremism must be confronted. These temporary relationships are opportunities for contact and defining problems more relationally. They at least provide entrées into the issues.
The current conflict represents simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. For Muslims the fundamentalism gravitates toward puritanical religious ideology that defines offenses and outsiders. For Westerners fundamentalism equates liberal democracies with the natural flow of history and market economies as beyond criticism.
Real security is not a private good but one that is achieved by developing consensus, and cooperation, and interdependence – all relational terms. Justice cannot be imposed by one side but must be a concept that binds the two sides into a just relationship. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. These temporary interdependencies formed against common enemies allow at least a toe if not a foot in the door.