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Language And Its Power

Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? Terrorists do not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting Al Qaeda and jihadist attacks against the United States as the work of “freedom fighters.”


How to Respond to Radical Islam

The post below was originally published in HartfordFAVS. You can access it here.

There are two ways to begin to approach the problem of radical Islam. The first is political and sees radical Islam as a problem of political will and development. The first question to ask here is, “what are the goals of an Islamist group?” Is the goal one of military takeover of the geographic area, or the spread of ideological and religious Islam? Take the case of the Gaza Strip and Hamas. Much of Hamas is militaristic and seeks political control of the Gaza Strip. Other elements, mostly smaller elements, want to impose religious law and work with offshoot groups that are Salafi-Jihad groups.

Hamas in Gaza receives international attention for its conflict with Israel but they also compete with other groups that are more radically Islamist in nature – even though the numbers are small and they are poorly organized. The competition is between principles of political Islam and not so much about military strength. There are more than a few members of the Hamas leadership who have little interest in debating political Islam and find these Salafi-Jihad groups to be annoying at the moment. Most Hamas leadership prefers to spend their time threatening Israel and organizing the Gaza Strip rather than finding new ways to express political Islam. In fact, there are times when Hamas has quite an oppositional and antagonistic relationship with these religiously-based groups. One leader of a radical Islamist group a couple of years ago challenged Hamas and declared in Islamic emirate in Palestine and demanded that Sharia law be imposed. At present, Hamas resists these groups and prefers to keep them at a distance while they maintain their more contentious relationship with the PLA and Israel.

So what is the best way to challenge and perhaps overcome radical Islam? These groups are very extreme, wishing to reestablish the Caliphate and bring all Muslims under a single rule, and removing anyone (especially Israelis) from what they considered to be Islamic holy land. And they usually classify declared Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran as illegitimate because they are not Islamic enough. This leads to infighting among Islamist groups and is troubling and destabilizing for governments. Governments in Central Asia and other places have contributed to the problem by engaging in strong repression. This radicalizes the group and forces them to respond even more aggressively. Worse yet, these groups can give governments a license to carry out violent retaliation that usually exacerbates the problem. Below are some suggestions for dealing with groups with a dangerous agenda and a threatening form of political Islam. All of these suggestions are based on the assumption that authoritarian political systems, which are economically undeveloped and lack legitimate democratic outlets for conflict resolution, contribute to the popularity of these groups and encourage citizens to turn toward them.

  1.  Governments confronting extremist Islamic groups must establish conditions for these groups to operate within legal confines of democracy. In other words, the government should allow Islamist groups to organize and express themselves on the basis of free symbolic behavior. This allows citizens to begin the habits of listening to alternatives. Imposing repressive sanctions on these grou I ps drives them underground and radicalizes them.
  2. Begin a program to work with young people explaining the consequences of political Islam. People in a community in general should develop more knowledge about religious issues and various leaders. What will it mean for the state to adopt or Islamic principle and its governance? Include in these discussions secular political groups as well.
  3. Allow democratically defended opportunities for criticism and complaints. This must be done within the confines of the law and proper modes of political expression. The press of course can be a good platform for the presentation of issues and ideas.
  4. Use the language of Islam to understand the language of extremist Islam. That is, the best way to challenge the political ideology of extremist Islam is within the discourse of Islam itself. This will require using imams and scholars to engage in such debate.
  5. Maintain proper control of police and security forces. They should be used mainly to control and manage criminal behavior and not to stifle political activity.

Steps in this direction will prevent Salafi-jihad groups from radicalizing and going underground which makes them only more secretive and difficult to manage. By eliminating the conditions under which these groups thrive, it becomes possible to control them. The process is difficult and slow but more open political systems, economic development, and freedom of expression will keep these groups exposed and under more control.

The Communicative Construction of Identity

The below is an excerpt from my book “Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict.”

The preference for one’s own kin is powerful. But identities are not fixed at birth. They are subject to developmental and social influences. They are not flimsy and change at will, but they are constructed out of the surrounding interactional environment. As Suny (2001) argues, identities are fashioned by the stories groups tell about their history, nature, homeland, and common descent. People change identities over time because such identities depend on networks of associations and proximity to others. An Israeli-Jew who lives in Israel will identify as “Israeli” but his son or daughter who moves to the U.S. will identify more as an American. The over arching “American” identity is very important here because it serves as a common identity category that helps perpetuate a commitment to a more general civic allegiance. Deep ethno-national divisions are most associated with violence and those situations where ethnic groups believe the state should cease to exist. The role of the deliberative experience in giving group members new communicative opportunities is most important for developing an over arching identity that can render each side more receptive to argumentative claims.

The actual nature and content of ethnic identity is a symbolic construction process done for instrumental reasons from instrumental resources. The conceptual difficulty with ethnic identity is that rigorous objective definitions of ethnic groups do not allow for variability and change or the importance of developmental processes and identity. Subjective definitions make it difficult to understand the nature and evolution of individual ethnic identity. Moreover, even if ethnic identity is not objective, and it is subject to social influences and manipulation, it remains an essential construct that is not only experienced as very real to people, but is strongly implicated in much human behavior. Instrumentalism is the idea that choosing an identity group is a practical decision that has potential beneficial outcomes. There is more human choice in instrumental notions of ethnic identity. Instrumentalism is how identity is formed. It is also the means by which identity is exercised. I will accept Brass’ (1996) description of instrumentalism as beginning with objective markers (race, religion, dress, food, dialect) but these are interpreted and subjected to change.

Instrumentalism recognizes a strong flexibility and developmental influence on identity formation. Yet, after an identity has been set it is very difficult to change. It is how people see themselves that matter. They may identify around a type of clothing at one time but something else later. This ensures that the group identity remains stable and only the token that refers to the group type changes. One is bound to his ethnic identity on the basis of personal relations, practical necessity, and common interests. Elites use these relationships to solidify identity groups for their own political interests. Slobodan Milosevic employed the rhetoric of victimization to characterize Serbs as in need of liberation through destruction. This was a clear instrumental use of political conditions to construct an interpretation of national identity.

Israeli identity is particularly interesting because it can serve as sort of laboratory for how social, political, and cultural resources are marshaled in the service of identity construction. And it is a good example of the instrumental construction of identity. Israel is a new state that differs from others in that it had no preexisting nationhood. The early Israeli immigrants shared no common culture, and new immigrants after the establishment of the state came from diasporic communities in many parts of the world. Still, Israel benefited from the common sense of Jewish nationhood. Even though this was not a geographically bounded national territory, and Jews lived as minorities with different languages, cultures, and appearance, they believed in a common ethnic descent. This included a common religious heritage, language, and affection for a territorial area (ancient land of Israel). As Smooha explains, these were the common bonds and ideological foundations of the state of Israel but the task of the Zionists was to organize these instrumental resources into an identity. Thus, Jews that began to settle in Israel were not called immigrants but “returnees” connoting their temporary absence from the homeland and their return to it with full rights. Various symbols of the state (e.g. Star of David, blue stripes, menorah) are taken from religious and biblical history, which is shared by Jews and easily identifiable by everyone.

Jewish ethnic identity in Israel has been strongly encouraged by assimilationist policies (Smooha, 2004). In order to seek a stronger base of unity the identification of ethnic differences was discouraged. Even though there were obvious differences (physiological and cultural) between Jews from Arab countries and Eastern Europe, these differences were less important than common Jewish ethnic heritage. All Jews are granted automatic and full citizenship. Jews from Arab countries do not go to culturally separate schools or are encouraged to foster a distinct Jewish identity (Smooha, 2004). There is certainly individual prejudice and economic and inequities, but these are outside official state efforts to fashion a cohesive Jewish ethnic identity. And, of course, nothing solidifies an ethnic identity like existential threat. The relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conflict ethos that permeates the culture, cultivates unity among Jews. Ethnic identity in Israel is produced and reproduced by politics, social class, and the ethnic separation that has characterized the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazi since the early days of the state. For the case of Israel, Smooha (2004) describes the persistence of ethnic identity and the major fault lines that divide ethnic groups (class, economics, cultural hegemony, conflict).

Identities develop communicatively in the context of relationships but the Israelis and Palestinians are in the unique position of developing group identities under conditions of conflict. When this happens, the open flow of information stops and individuals feel threatened. They feel destabilized and a strong sense of self preservation ensues. The impulse to respond in a violent manner is activated as an act of self preservation. This causes members of respective groups to “protect” themselves and “defeat” the other. The entire flow of information in the environment becomes distorted such that the normal refinement of ideas about ourselves that produces growth and development closes down. Group polarization becomes apparent and our negative images of the other become frozen in time. The development of our ethnic or group identity no longer incorporates new images of the enemy group, especially as contact with the other group diminishes or becomes informally restrictive. Under normal conditions processing new information that leads to identity change and development is self-protective and allows us to function and manage the world. But frozen identities under conditions of conflict close down the learning process as a new form of survival.

Identities become rigid as beliefs solidify and each group considers its view of events as most accurate. Attitudes about responsibility and blame take on great certainty. In Maoz and Ellis (2001) we found that Israelis and Palestinians argued from positions of certainty and because each side is relatively closed off from the other, their conclusions about resolving the conflict were formed in informational isolation. This resulted in conclusions that were unrealizable and based on zero-sum thinking because each side dismissed the other’s assessment. Identities fashioned in conflict are particularly characterized by the “blame game.” Since it is unlikely that one looks inward for blame, failures and responsibility are cast on the evil other. This protects a positive self image and maintains the group’s integrity.

Ethnicity is highly implicated in many political conflicts and involved in an identity development that is conflictual as well as ethnic. In other words, during the developmental process is when an ethnic conflict ethos can also become part of an adolescent’s fundamental ethnic identity. They develop not only recognition of membership in a descent group, but an oppositional relationship with an out-group is part of that definition. Strongly ideologically based Israeli-Jews and West Bank and Gaza Arabs, for example, have grown up in a societal milieu where the attachment process to their ethnic group includes an ethos of conflict. This culture of conflict supplies a steady stream of messages about what it means to be a member of an ethnopolitical group. The significant events in the developmental life of young people include religious, political, and cultural rites of passage that fuel ethnic distinctiveness. These are the conditions of intractability when identities are developed and defined in opposition to others. The identity is not one of simply a single implication of ethnic membership formulated normally with a customary amount of pride. Rather, it is a conflictual identity with double implications—the group membership is functional and allows for management in a difficult society, but then continues the conflict.

In work over the years with Israelis and Palestinians (cf. Ellis, 2006; Maoz & Ellis, 2006) it is possible to see the communicative and relational consequences of these conflict based identities. The protection of ethnopolitical group identity plays an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides feel threatened and the Israeli state stimulates a sense of humiliation for the Palestinians. And although the two state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state is now accepted by most Israelis, such a state continues to be threatening. There remains a zero-sum mentality that makes a solution that satisfies both sides still illusive. Both sides cling to ideas about what is “right” and have trouble finessing their positions because of their failure to continually process new information. Both sides have a long history of trauma and humiliation. The creation of the State of Israel was painful for the Palestinians and they feel historically marginalized and discriminated against, which has led to cycles of violence and revenge fantasies. The Jews, on the other hand, carry historical victimization and discrimination culminating in the holocaust. Hence, both sides have mirror victimization identities and are locked in a no win argument about who is more deserving. This sort of identity pain can last for decades or even centuries.

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