Monthly Archives: April 2014

Reframing Extremism


Terminological note: I realize that drawing generalities about cultures and religion (e.g. “Islam” or “the West”) is perilous business and many distinctions and semantic nuances are either exaggerated or ignored. But peacemaking and problem resolution is called for nonetheless. I continue with this Islam-West distinction because it is characteristic of how the public formulates the conflict. Some will surely be critical of this supposedly simplistic distinction but it does represent the level at which the conflict is talked about. Funk and Said’s discussion of competing narratives categorizes the conflict as between “Islam” and “the West” and uses these categories as the level at which dispute in consciousness operate. It is also a better capture of the conflict then phrases such as “civilizational conflicts,” a terminology probably worth avoiding.

There is no escaping 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 not to view extremism as confined to Islam but to view it as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Defining a problem relationally implies similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. The current cultural insularity means that each side establishes meaning and interpretations about the other independently and separate from broader political and historical frameworks. 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 by each group and also avoid insularity. The current conflict is a clash of symbols (including headscarves, religious symbols, and clothing) that act like a clash of stereotypes. They represent simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. This process results in an intergroup pathology where both sides reduce their beliefs to a small subset of meanings which are difficult to communicate about. When this small subset is politicized the result is fundamentalism as each side works to seal off their beliefs and maintain control. 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.

Intergroup images of the other must be replaced and counteracted. Consistent with a long literature on intergroup contact both ingroup and outgroup images must be modified. Dialogue is the mechanism for uncovering the existential reality of the other. In addition, a compatibility framework must appreciate similarities and differences in order to avoid militants and fundamentalist. If a provocation is responded to in a narrow and mechanical manner then fundamentalism is reproduced. Another simple truth is that we are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about Islam and the West. 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.

Still, there is a reason conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are called intractable. They are particularly resistant to resolution because an appeal to shared values and aspirations may not be sufficient. In fact, it would be naïve to think otherwise. The conventional discourse of the West and Islam is filled with assumptions that reinforce ingroup and outgroup mentalities. 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. But neither the West nor Islam can thrive in the midst of extreme antagonism. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. Neither Islam nor the West can drift into deep bounded subjectivity that fixates on fundamentalism but must discover the active process of dialogue and deliberation capable of generating new forms of communication.


Is This Woman Really so Dangerous That She Must Be Kept from Speaking

The recent dust up over Brandeis University’s decision to revoke an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak and receive an honorary degree is truly interesting. It clearly exposes the issues of free speech and the rights of intellectual contestation as well as shines light on that place on the political spectrum where the left meets the right. A picture of Hirsi Ali is below. First some very quick background:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been objecting to the treatment of women by Muslims for over a decade. She was born in Somalia and experienced female circumcision which prompted her to organize in protest against the practice which led to her forceful criticism of Islam. She immigrated to the Netherlands in 1992 and has developed a powerful reputation as an advocate for women’s rights and an opponent of religious extremism of all types but Islam in particular. Hirsi Ali is the recipient of numerous international awards.

Hirsi Ali is in general an honorable and articulate human rights and democracy advocate. Over the years I have enjoyed listening to her and found myself in agreement. But apparently, she goes too far; she’s too strident in her objections to Islam and once referred to Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death”

She was invited to speak and receive an honorary degree from Brandeis but the invitation was revoked as result of a protest against her criticisms of Islam which were considered extreme and politically incorrect. Muslim students at Brandeis objected to her appearance and she was quickly uninvited by the President of Brandeis. One noteworthy Brandeis graduate, Jeffrey Herf, wrote a damning letter criticizing the President for rescinding the invitation and defending Hirsi Ali. That letter can be found here. In the letter Herf chastises Brandeis for running to the defense of one of the most anti-semitic organizations in recent history and pointed out the inconsistencies between the freedom to criticize Israel versus the freedom to criticize Islam.

Liberals have supported the president claiming that Hirsi Ali’s statements are not compatible with certain values of free speech, namely, tolerance and respect. And conservatives of course are very critical of the president for not supporting free speech and kowtowing to a few minority voices.

This is the place on the political spectrum where the left starts to act like the right. The right typically wants to limit political speech that is critical of the government, and the left wants to limit speech that is insensitive to or critical of ethnopolitical or religious groups. The left in this case stands for nothing. I agree that Hirsi Ali is intemperate but she is also representative of a position, and the nanny state should not be in the business of deciding what people hear – within limits of course. Hirsi Ali should be allowed to speak and if she is too extreme she should be taken to task for it and the issue should be discussed rather than automatically taken off of the discursive table. Brandeis students and faculty are mature enough to listen to Hirsi Ali and not be oppressed by her.

The decision by Brandeis to uninvite Hirsi Ali amounts to using political opinions to determine who speaks on campus, something I think the University community is not interested in. Other critics, such as Yossi Klein Halevi and Abdullah Antepli have suggested that honoring Hirsi Ali would be a slap in the face to Muslim students and a negation of Brandeis values of inclusivism, tolerance, and interdependence. Halevi also made the distinction between a dissident in a renegade where a dissident tries to change things but a renegade just damns them. Hirsi Ali is a renegade according to Halevi, but she remains a renegade with respect to symbolic behavior, that is, language and argument. She is not organizing violent revolution.

The Conditions of “Difficult Conversations.”

Below are the conditions most likely to make for “difficult” conversations. They can be considered part of deliberative and decision-making processes that must be taken into account in order for communication that will be the most workable. The citations can be unearthed for additional insight.

Incommensurate cultural narratives. Difficult conversations are more apparent when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct or even incommensurate with respect to cultural qualities. And there is no shortage of descriptors and statistics that report differences between cultures. But our concern here is not with general differences such as those posed by Hofstede (1980) but with those differences that represent cultural conflict. Conflicting cultures such as the Israelis and the Palestinians delegitimize each other and have qualities that exacerbate the differences thus making conversation or contact between the two groups “difficult.” The Israeli-Palestinian narrative  represents significantly different accounts of the same historical events. They differ on how they selectively emphasize and organize events and motivations. But neither narrative recognizes very much legitimacy or pain of the other. Each blames the other and offers little recognition of its own behavior and how it has contributed to the conflict. Each sees the other as a threat and focuses on its own fears and reasons. Both sides demonize the other with historical events and have hardened their positions into mutually exclusive categories. The conflict captured by these competing narratives have certain cultural and psychological features that characterize them and these features are useful for understanding more precisely how cultural qualities make conversations difficult.

Cultural conflict becomes more restricted and difficult when both sides are heavily locked into the past, the myths of the culture’s birth and evolution. The Israeli narrative, for example, has been analyzed by many scholars with respect to its images of the past, parade of heroes and villains, and development of a worldview (Zerubavel, 1995). A key point is that these contemporary identities are constructed to meet contemporary needs by fashioning the modern narrative out of the past. The past is understood on the basis of the present. This is clearly the case for the Palestinians whose conflict ethos is completely directed toward its contemporary political conditions with the Israelis. This incommensurability with respect to interpretation of the past is particularly powerful because lessons drawn from the past are viewed as timeless and hence resistant to change. The past becomes glorified as a timeless truth that is a steady beacon of light. Consequently, conversations calculated to unlearn these lessons or change them are particularly “difficult.” There have been occasions when narratives converge and there is a movement toward mutuality. The Oslo Accords and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem are such occasions in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians. Although they are no guarantee, historical events such as these underscore the importance of leadership and identity widening.

Narrative particularity. Difficult conversations focus on particular emotional experiences that are presented as objective. There is a difference between narrative in history where history is more rooted in collective agreement about events and their meaning. But narrative focuses on particular events and weaves them into a story designed to serve group interests. Groups focus on emotional events such as victories or defeats and spend more time concentrating on the strength and character of their ingroup narrative than they do on the nature of the outgroup narrative. Hence, one’s own narrative becomes sharp and precise with clear defenses and the outgroup narrative is more opaque. Israelis overweight the “war of independence” or the “Six-Day War” while Palestinians interpret these events as a “Nakba” (disaster) or glorify the intifada.

A sharp and precise narrative produces high within-group agreement about the interpretation of events and results in intensified links between people. Consequently, any disagreement within the narrative becomes disloyalty and dissenters are particularly stigmatized as outgroups. Conversations become particularly difficult because high within group pressure is a powerful deterrent to change. Such pressure directs a wall of resistance to the exposure and adoption of new information and perspectives. But a regular discourse of deliberation or resolution does make the accumulation of new perspectives possible because we have seen new attitudes and beliefs emerge from intractable conflicts in a number of cases. The Israeli Zionist narrative, for example, has broken up with the rejection and alteration of many of its tenets and the narrative has somewhat less appeal than it did historically including the diminution of its emotional appeal.

Existential threat. This is a common characteristic of intractable conflicts which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.

Power differences. Conversations are most difficult and challenging when they are asymmetrical with respect to power (Deveaux, 2003). Power obstructs the pressures toward normative argumentation bound by norms of rationality. A clear position of power by one participant in a conversation pressures the person to use the power and makes him or her less amenable to listening and giving up strategic interests. Power distorts the issues and to the detriment of the process power becomes an issue itself. Dryzek (2010) reminds us that the deliberative and communicative processes involved are supposed to transform participants. They are supposed to help us clarify issues as well as deep commitments. But power makes it possible to exclude others and, more interestingly, it stunts normative reasoning. The conversation is clearly more difficult when the communication processes are distorted because of power asymmetry. And if one party is primarily concerned with its own status, or more concerned about one’s own gain and has the power to realize this, then there is not much incentive for good arguments and reasons in the deliberation process. The powerful party does not feel compelled to seek valid justifications because other easier power moves are available. In fact, an idealized version of deliberation might only reinforce the advantages of powerful participants. This would be especially true if the more powerful party has more symbolic capital than the less powerful party.

Delegitimization. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) write comprehensively about the psychology of delegitimization that is most fundamental to groups in conflict and perhaps most associated with the experience of difficult interactions. As part of intractable conflicts, where the parties have prolonged violent conflict and are existentially threatened, delegitimization adds stereotypes and distorted communication patterns to the mix. Delegitimization is categorizing the other group as outside the sphere of humanity and subject to moral exclusion (Opotow, 1990). Interaction between the two groups, either individually or on the group level, is more than difficult; it is often impossible. Intergroup relations such as that between Hamas and Israel is an example of delegitimization such that each group refuses to recognize the other and considers the other as undeserving of human recognition. The information received about delegitimized groups is not only distorted but dominated by conflict themes. Negative traits are attributed to the other including troublesome political labels, biased group comparisons, and homogenization of the other group that does not allow for individuality or member differentiations. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) explain how delegitimization involves stigmatizing the other group, which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.


How Many More Decades Do We Have To Watch This Silly Shuttle Diplomacy between Israel and Palestinians? It doesn’t work!

How much longer do we have to watch an American diplomat shuttle back and forth between Israel and some neighboring country? From Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to John Kerry it’s all the same process. The tennis match image comes to mind and I would use it if it were not such a cliché. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that it’s all pointless and that comes from somebody who believes in talk. Even though I recognize that talk is slow and there’s nothing magical about it, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself whether it’s all worth it.

Kerry and negotiation

When talk fails it is usually for one or a combination of three reasons. One, it’s the wrong kind of talk. Two, the wrong people are talking, or three the structural conditions are interfering. All three are at work in the Israel-Palestine shuttle diplomacy. It’s the wrong kind of talk because the two sides are unprepared to have serious political conversations when they need more authentic mutuality. The wrong people are talking because there should be more conversational work at the civil society and interpersonal levels. The structural conditions could be improved to increase democratic forms of communication, inclusion, and more creative and grassroots routes to problem-solving.

Palestinian supporters often boldly claim that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to bringing greater peace to the region and although this is an exaggeration supporters have been successful at turning the conflict into the symbolic prototype for all the world’s problems. I think about the ugliness in Syria, the savagery of militant groups, rising religious authoritarianism, escalating economic inequality, Iran and the spread of nuclear weapons, and then discover that serious people in Washington want to talk about West Bank Palestinians!

Of course the conflict must be resolved or at least managed into agreement. But the biggest beneficiary of any resolution is going to be Israel. How long can Israel continue to occupy the West Bank? How long can it remain a security state? How long can Israel maintain its successful democracy and market economy if it has to oversee 2 million Palestinians?

There will not be peace between Israelis and Palestinians – real peace when barriers can be removed – until it emerges from democratic impulses born in civil society. When Palestinians demand more of their own rights from their own leadership they will be in the position to demand rights from Israel. America should be supporting Palestinian political infrastructure by working on the economy, improving governance and civil liberties, and expanding business practices that can rationalize relationships and serve as a foundation for future democratic relationships. But the conflict remains intractable and diplomats like Kerry are operating at the wrong levels.

Muslims and the Jews tell two different stories both of which are fueled by media and policy decisions. Israel tells a story of historical oppression and discrimination culminating in the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. Jews feel vulnerable and threatened. Muslims feel disrespected by the West and the victims of media biases that portray them as fundamentalist and inherently backward, not to mention violent and religiously extreme.

These narratives produce tensions between Islam and the West and are decisive. They make for a cultural divide which results in polarization of identity issues, adversarial framing of historical matters, and rejection of any sense of shared responsibility for conflict. US policy and world media circulate these images and messages to the detriment of any sense of complementarity between the two.

In my opinion, there are two things that can happen: the differences between these stories can be emphasized, which will lead to increased intensification leaving the disputants to be trapped inside their own threatened identity. And the macro level of official contact will continue to founder. Or, these narratives can be reframed in order to seek points of convergence where it is possible to formulate cooperation and mutual affinities that direct them away from a “conflict-saturated” reality. Rather than rival narratives, Jews and Muslims can avoid the drift toward polarization and begin to tell a new story, one that affirms a distinctive identity while acknowledging the “other.” I choose this direction.


Hebrew and Russian Language Vitality and Conflict

One way to track the power and influence of a culture is by watching the shifts in language use. People are attached to the language they speak and the culture it embodies. When a group speaks a language it’s because they perceive that language to have standing and relative importance.
Russia may have just asserted itself and flexed its muscles but it’s really a weakened national polity as evidenced by the erosion of the Russian language around the world. As Marshall Singer reports, in his Foreign Affairs article “Language Follows Power” Russia is no longer the official language among many of its republics and the countries of the old Soviet bloc. Many state powers are turning away from Russia and its language and showing preferences for English and French.
Languages get used when they are functional and vital. A vital language is responsive to new usages and terminology and changes to reflect an active culture. Hebrew is a good example of a restored and revitalized language that is only spoken by about 8 million people but exercises a power beyond its numbers because of its ties to sectors of the economy and popular culture as well as traditional religious groups.
As nationalism broke out among non-Russian nationalities they began to reject Russian culture and especially the language. Singer also reports that the publication of books and the production of television programs has decreased in Russian but increased in other native languages. The Russian language has faded with the power of the Russian political entity – recent militarism notwithstanding.
Hebrew, on the other hand, within its national boundaries is so strong that it has drowned out some minority languages. Freeburg in a study of the revival of Hebrew offers interesting data on how other smaller languages in Israel (Karaim, Ladino, and Yiddish) have almost been threatened out of existence. The revitalization of Hebrew is typically pointed to as a tremendous success story but Freeburg suggests that the negative consequences of the revitalization of Hebrew have been overlooked. Still, as Russian and Hebrew evolve they change their relationship with the process of conflict resolution.
The Role of Language and Conflict Resolution
The assumption of universality is one of the first mistakes conflict resolution theorists make. In other words, they emphasize the common structural features of conflicts. Or, at least what they believe to be the common features. A Westerner will talk about “negotiation” or “reconciliation” and assume that these concepts are shared by the conflicting parties. The Westerner will assume common patterns and regularities even if terminology is different.
But Raymond Cohen has written cogently about emphasizing variations rather than resemblances. The differences between conflicting parties are important because meanings carry cultural weight and depict different versions of reality. Peace may seem to be a familiar enough idea but its use by various cultures contains characteristic distinctions and meanings. As Cohen explains, in English to “compromise” means to balance concessions and is a very laudable and positive term. But Arabic lacks such terminology and even the ones they use can imply a compromise over a principle of honor or justice which is to be avoided not embraced. Moreover, Israelis argue in a direct and pragmatic manner and consider deep philosophical arguments over principles to be paralyzing. But in Arabic there is no word for pragmatism and it is offensive to neglect principles.
Managing and resolving conflicts is an unavoidable human activity that is steeped in cultural values and differences. Consequently, meanings and implications of conflict resolution have accumulated over the millennia and found their way into the deep semantic structure of language. These semantic structures must be extracted and re-formed until conflicting parties see the nature of conflict from the same perspective – or at least the perspective that is “close enough.”


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