Is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict About Religion? Not Really, But it is Implicated
People often refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “war over God.” It’s easy for the casual observer to assume that the conflict is defined by Judaism or Islam. My response is always that it is not a war over God, but a conflict over land and national rights. But I always add that religion is “implicated” in the conflict. The Israelis and Palestinians are not arguing directly about God but religion hovers in the background and very often informs attitudes and beliefs. Moreover, religion has contributed to cultural differences that have evolved over the generations and play a role in the conflict. Let’s examine the role of religion a little more closely because religion is important to the conflict.
Religion is central to the identities of both sides and must be respected as a part of any solution, and there are unique qualities of Islam and Judaism that motivate conflict actors. Both religions have apocalyptic elements – although more so for Islam – that are responsible for extreme behaviors and make any sort of permanent peace elusive. Some orthodox and Zionist extremists have begun to see themselves as defenders of the state along with sanctifying the land such that the presence of any foreign groups is considered a transgression. Clearly aspects of Islam have triumphalist visions that define Israel as an illegitimate state built on Islamic holy land. Both sides talk about liberating the land for religious reasons and this further exacerbates the intensity and significance of the conflict.
Manipulative and unsubstantiated religious claims – for example, the Jews want to destroy the al Aqsa mosque and build the third temple on the site – circulate in the population and increase the amount of distorted information and inflamed opinions. And, of course, Jews draw on their own history of vulnerability and fear that Islam wants to annihilate them.
Given this attitude that the presence of another religion on what is considered land given to a people by God is a religious transgression, then peace is by definition impossible if it includes any sense of sharing the land or living together.
Religion is also used as an answer to social ills. In the Arab world in particular Islam, and especially radical Islam, becomes an answer for political and economic failures. The failing economic conditions encourage more religious-based politics reinforcing blame on the other side.
Imagine trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not understanding the religious foundations of the settlers in the West Bank or the status of Jerusalem. The settlers believe they are restoring biblical Israel in preparation for the Messiah, and Jerusalem is the site of many holy places for both Islam and Judaism. These two issues are good examples of how religion is implicated in the conflict. In fact, in the case of settlers and the status of Jerusalem the issue of religion is pretty clear.
Culture, religion, and politics share overlapping identities for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Any one individual might privilege one identity over the other, but all three are present at both the individual and group conflict level.
Incomplete Theorization: A New Way to Think about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:
There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.
People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:
The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.
Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.
So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.
Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.
Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.
If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.
How to Make Friends
Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.
In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.
We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.
But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.
For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.
But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.
Cultural Differences and Conflict
I know, I know. Dichotomies like the ones below are typically exaggerations and overly simplistic. But such distinctions also represent the real world of how people think. And even if differences such as the ones below are not perfect, they are the sorts of differences that must find their way into solutions. These distinctions also necessarily simplify issues and make them more manageable. Besides, they are better than the cartoonish “Clash of Civilizations.”It is simply true that two cultures such as Islam and the West do not share universal standards of argument and reasoning. It is not that they are incommensurate, but they are sufficiently different such that certain points of articulation must be discovered and addressed. Moreover, the religious versus the pragmatic traditions of the East and West respectively make for numerous points of disagreement.
A Islam-West conflict will be considerably different than other international relations conflicts, which might be more subject to rational negotiation and decision-making. But any conflict between an Islamic and Western tradition will be filtered through identity and made more difficult and sensitive by identity. A conflict will always have to recognize the centrality of identity issues and find ways to manage them.
Differences between Islam and the West with Respect to Conflict Resolution
Islam The West
|1. Believe an image of violent Islam is predominant in the West.
2. Peace is defined by the presence of Islamic values.
3. Issues of “face” and “honor” are particularly important.
4. Discourse of peace is the exception.
5. Modern social science is not very relevant.
|1. Islam and the West are incompatible and Islam is a threat
2. Peace is the absence of war and found in pragmatism.
3. These issues are important but somewhat less so.
4. Discourse of peace is normal.
5. Importance of the social sciences and managing conflict.
In my book “Fierce Entanglements” I cite 20 of these dichotomies but have only a few here for the sake of brevity and space. I think issues such as these deserve attention and I find that they get relatively little. One of our conundrums is that we currently live in an age of tremendous cultural difference recognition. Subgroups in a society demand recognition of their distinctiveness and the right to practice their culture even though it is at odds with the dominant culture. As a society, we increasingly take great pleasure in pointing to cultural differences.
But we’re much more hesitant when it comes to actually recognizing those differences legally and morally. When we generalize or categorize another culture we are quickly reprimanded and reminded of exceptions and variations. So, I do not know if all the distinctions referred to in the table above are justified, but they do represent a common template and for starters are worthy of discussion.
What do you think?
The Three Levels of Managing Conflict
The table below represents the three levels at which conflicts can and must be confronted and managed. All have implications for different types and assumptions about communication.
Approaches to Conflict
Level Idea of conflict Approach Outcomes
|Macro level: Political conflict||Problem of political order; structural problem of national unit||Diplomacy and power moves||Political settlements||Bargaining and negotiation; media symbolism; promoting understanding|
|Conflict management||Natural homeostatic state of conflict that leads to change but must be kept in control||Civil society development; education; contact between groups||Improved relationships and communication; respect for group identity||Problem-solving groups; civil society coordination; communicative relationships; legal channels; forms of conflict resolution|
|Transformational conflict||Conflict as a means for justice and problem resolution||Inclusive of minority groups; intergroup contact||Power-sharing; grassroots change in dialogue; leveling of differences; respect for different identity groups||Communication competency skills; dialogue; intercultural contact; deliberative communication|
This classification table permits conceptual clarity including characteristics of successful outcomes. It is an adaptation of a Table by Ropers (2004). The first macrolevel political approach seeks to stabilize the political order in an environment of violent conflict. The solutions within this framework are thought to be a balance of interests between competing groups. Communication occurs at the level of advisors, leaders, and diplomats. Bargaining, negotiation, and diplomatic processes are typical types of communication when working with problems on the level of political order. Negotiation is a second order discourse that has goals and procedures of its own. The goals are to maximize interests and construct a particular understanding of problems and potentialities. Parties to conflicts experience negotiation phases where individuals pursue their own preferences. Arguments are important in negotiations but they are tethered to power situations. One party can threaten another if they hold such a power position. A key concern about negotiation communication is that change is possible but usually leaves interests in attitudes intact. An Israeli or Palestinian might negotiate away property or sacred land and although certain negotiation goals would have been met, neither side would be satisfied. A decision might have been based on common understandings of the current situation, but those understandings would not have been subjected to critical reflection. Dialogic communication can have positive effects if the media projects it into the negotiation atmosphere. Citizen participation is typically rejected by official politics but positive influences by grassroots organizations is still possible by working toward socialization of future leaders in the creation of networks of communication with influences that find their way into the political process. Kelman groups are a good example of contact communicatively-based experiences designed to serve the policy process to produce changes in individuals and policy.
The difference between official diplomatic and power approaches to conflict and more “unofficial” interactions is more than simply an opinion about differing legitimacy; rather, to many conflict theorists interaction-based approaches represent a fundamentally different understanding of the conflict. Intractable conflicts are sign of failure to satisfy basic needs with respect to identity, recognition, and participation. The conflict management level deals with conflicts over issues of substance but also with the relationships between the various parties. The goal of communication is not necessarily to win arguments and maximize outcomes as much as it is problem-solving and forming new coordinative communication relationships. The parties begin with a joint recognition of shared problems and work to resolve these problems together. Dialogic forms of communication are important for conflict resolution because they clarify perceptions and help to improve communication. If more citizen level communication can be initiated and sustained over a period of time the chances are higher that the process will create a group of people that have close links and are able to influence political institutions. The problem is always a matter of how to take grassroots communication patterns and move them into the realm of practical consequences for political efficacy. Civil society institutions are important for conflict management because they serve as a legitimate outlet for problem resolution. Work by Varsheny, mediating tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India, demonstrates the importance of civil society and of rationalizing contact between groups. This results in improved relations and respect for group identity.
The conflict transformation approach is devoted to settling differences and conflict resolution, but particularly expresses the importance of structural change as well as fundamental changes resulting in peace. Intractable conflicts and highly divided societies – those traumatized by violence and the ethos of conflict – require conflict approaches designed to moderate inequalities and develop political capacities for deep change. The type of communication most associated with dialogue and deliberation is characteristic of this level of conflict including power-sharing and intercultural sensitivities designed to respect differences and identity groups. Intergroup contact is used to create change by strengthening disadvantaged groups and establishing a dispute settlement political culture. A transformational approach to conflict is necessary for identity-based conflicts. The mirror victimization identities described above between Israelis and Palestinians sense of victimization makes satisfying solutions elusive. Macro level and conflict management approaches to resolution are based on tangible interests and resources. But identity-based conflicts involve existential needs and values. The underlying issue in the conflict is not a disagreement over tangible resources such as food or land but the denial of identity, including respect and recognition, or the experience of humiliation. Such conflicts are about intangible communication and psychological issues rather than scarce resources. On the one hand, the identity issues are more symbolic and thus more difficult to manage. But on the other hand, the establishment of different relationship patterns through a dialogic process along with practical interdependent activities will force identity adjustments to coalesce.
Read more and about some related issues in: Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict
Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages
Communication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.
But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.
The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?
One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”
But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.
If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.
I’m naïve you say? Maybe.
Some Serious Solution Proposals to the Israel-Palestine Conflict – Pay Attention!
It’s just unconscionable how much time is spent analyzing and criticizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how little time is spent working on positive and productive solution possibilities. There are, of course, lots of solution proposals and options but the force of communicative energy is directed toward critique and justifications for why something cannot be done rather than the hard work of grinding out durable solutions that take into account the “facts on the ground.” True enough, many elements from both sides don’t actually want to work on solutions because their identities are wrapped up in the conflict but this is one of the stages in the conflict process the two sides must overcome. Listen to the sound file here from the “Voice of Israel” and their shallow criticism of the New York Times. They fail to make the distinction between bias and perspective and have slipped into a series of minor perspective differences informed more by defensiveness than serious engagement.
An animated video that you can watch here is a better and more productive presentation of the conflict because it presents the pragmatic issues that must be addressed rather than small matters that do not carry any traction. Here’s an alternative from IPCRI – a serious solution that clearly requires additional difficult conversation but seems “rational” to the extent that it addresses the needs of everyone.
IPCRI (the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information) is a welcome alternative. IPCRI has been working on detailed solutions designed to create “Two States in One Space.” You can access the “Two States in One Space Research Paper” here. The paper tries to balance a separation mentality with a cooperation one that requires somewhat less sacrifice and ameliorates potential trauma. The core idea of the paper is to avoid evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Palestinians by creating different categories of political participation. For example, on that portion of the land that will be Israel one group will be citizens (Israeli Jews) with all the privileges of voting, decision-making, and shaping the national identity. The minority group will be residents, not citizens, but who will have certain guaranteed liberal rights just not the same as citizens. The same will hold for the Palestinian state where Jews (many of them now are settlers) will be a resident minority but not citizens.
This model mitigates demographic fears, responds somewhat to the right of return issues, prevents massive population movement which is rarely easy or successful, and allows for independent nation building. Individuals can move to their own nation state or remain a resident granting the fact that population movement and control will be demanding.
But Most Important!
But most importantly the model sets up the conditions for the development of integrated cooperation and interdependence. The current asymmetrical relationship between Israelis and Palestinians will be softened as the two sides cooperate on security, regional and local governance, and the establishment of necessary shared institutions of government. Israeli Jewish needs for a democratic state devoted to Jewish particularity will be met and there will be no political possibility for the Jewish nature of the state to be challenged. And, Palestinians will have their own state devoted to cultural, political, artistic, and religious matters all in the service of a Palestinian political identity.
Of course, these things remain difficult with lots of work ahead but both sides have to assume that they are not going to get everything they want. This proposal is a matter of entering into a voluntary union that requires a certain amount of cooperation and allows for less sacrifice. And finally, it represents a sensible integration model rather than the separation mentality that characterizes most political solutions. Spend some time reading the documents at IPCRI.
This will not stop if we don’t talk
ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber
This won’t stop if we don’t talk
It is probably unimaginable to think of Hamas and Israel actually talking civilly but getting to the negotiating table is the only answer. Here are some thoughts on doing that.
The above phrase in transliterated Hebrew is going around Israel. It means “this will not stop if we don’t talk” and it appears on protest signs, news stories, and casual conversation. It rhymes in Hebrew. Truer words have never been spoken. The issue is not how to talk to each other or what form those talks should take, the issue is getting to the table. All of our knowledge and skill at communication, dialogue and deliberation, is wasted and unavailable if you cannot get the two parties to the table. If Hamas or Israel insists that the other side must be destroyed or their incompatibilities are irreversible and there’s nothing to talk about, then the violence and conflict will simply continue.
At the moment I’m concerned about getting to the table. Essentially, this is the issue of “ripeness” which you can read more about here. Ripeness refers to the right time or the belief that the conditions are best for talking and solving problems. Right now no one would consider the time “ripe” for conflict management between Israel and Hamas for example. The time might be necessary or the most urgent given the violence but the situation is not ripe. “Ripeness” is a delicate matter because it is a little subjective and difficult to know when exactly is the “right time.” One can move too early, too late, too fast, or misjudge the other. Moreover, conflicts usually have more than one ripe time.
But I do not advocate sitting around waiting for the ripe moment. Participants in a conflict sometimes avoid ripe situations because they get more out of prolonging the conflict. Hamas always says it has “time on its side” because the status attributions it receives from war with Israel outweigh any benefits of negotiation and talk. One question becomes then how you create ripeness, how do you construct conditions that will increase the chances of bringing two sides to the table? Here are some strategies:
1. Third parties are always good sources of incentives. The Middle East has been most calm and in control when there is a significant international polity (the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the United States,) that can provide incentives for talks. Actually, anytime a third-party is willing to intervene and try to mediate the conflict it is a good indication of ripeness.
2. The second strategy for getting people to the table, although a less pleasant one, is waiting until things are so bad that negotiation becomes attractive. As the saying goes, “sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.”
3. Sometimes it’s possible to get people to the negotiating table by promising them more than they expect. Perhaps some symbolic recognition that was earlier denied, or a tangible resource.
4. New ways to be interdependent that benefit both sides are always strong strategies. Interdependence creates common interest and overlapping concerns and the two parties will talk if the reward possibilities are sufficient.
5. Pre-negotiations or “talking about talk.” Finally, it is sometimes useful to get the two parties to talk about how they would organize and develop dialogue or deliberation. Don’t engage in actual discussion and deliberation and do not term the conversation as official negotiation or discussion. But get the two parties together and have them imagine what the process would look like. This should move them closer to the actual experience of problem-solving deliberation.
Persuading the two parties to talk and find a way to negotiate a settlement – to get them to the table – is typically more difficult than constructing an actual settlement package. There are lots of solutions and proposals to end and contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of them are understood and accepted by both parties and not very controversial. But none of this matters if the two parties do not talk.
Jihadists Humiliate Us: What Can We Do
I had a good chuckle the other day at the story of the Iraqi insurgents who captured the city of Mosul and found five nice American-made helicopters. They noted that the helicopters were pretty new and said in a posting on Twitter, “We expect the Americans to honor the warranty for these helicopters and service them for us.” Apparently even one of the most brutal jihadist groups has a sense of humor. But there is more than a prideful display of humor here. The comment was meant to humiliate. Even though it is a rather benign attempt at humiliation, and aimed at a strong target, it meets the conditions of humiliation as a communicative act between groups engaged in intergroup conflict.
Humiliation is an attempt to subjugate or diminish the pride and dignity of the other. Moreover the recipient of the humiliation is forced to feel helpless and if the humiliation is potent and long-lasting it can have deep psychological effects. Traditional societies rely on a sense of order and hierarchy and keeping the lower ranks “down” is expected. But when someone of status or higher rank is humiliated it is especially unacceptable because it does not serve the social order of the group, and it is especially painful for the higher status recipient. Acts of revenge and retribution are common. Jealousy, which is a powerful jailhouse emotion, is rooted in humiliation and the sense of being rejected, inferior, and disrespected. You can read a little more here.
Violence is especially likely when a formerly humiliated group feels powerful enough to humiliate its former tormentor. That many Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims feel humiliated by the West is commonly enough understood. But now that the formerly subjugated are in positions of power – or at least are feeling powerful – they will return the humiliation. Considerable historical violence (Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Rwanda, South Africa, colonial violence) is associated with humiliation. Moreover, trauma and victimhood are intertwined with humiliation in some complex ways. Anger, rage, and antagonism are strongly associated with political conflict and violence and very dangerous when associated with humiliation.
So what are we to think of our jihadist friends and their gleeful humiliation of the United States? We can ignore it which is often a good strategy and consistent with the popular ideology that says “nobody can humiliate you unless you let them.” This is not a platitude I consider very effective but it is the case that I have some control over how I feel. This little slight humiliation is insignificant enough such that ignoring it is easy. There is always dialogue and reconciliation and attempts to reconstruct relationships such that humiliation is not part of the new relationship. This is ideal and desirable, but difficult.
These jihadists fellows are feeling their oats with respect to military victories and this effort to exercise autonomy and stand up to the humiliater make for feelings of joyful catharsis. But if they were serious about problem-solving of any type they would take the next step which is to transition to a more balanced and respectful relationship. Former underlings who change their own consciousness first are in a position to change the other.
Then again, all of this is laughably idealistic as we read about the savagery of these ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) groups who casually execute prisoners, behead rivals, and loot the communities they conquer. On second thought, a little humiliation does not sound so bad.
Managing Ethnic Conflict – Moscow Style
If we want to treat Moscow’s interventions into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea seriously for the moment we might ask about any legitimate concerns on the part of Moscow. But the issue of “legitimate” concerns that justify aggression against others conjures up the rhetorical history of the Soviet Union and their claim to have spheres of influence. Hitler and Stalin used phrases such as this to intervene in the business of others and claim their “legitimate” rights to land and military presence in order to protect Russian citizens or interests.
This is exactly the situation in Eastern Ukraine on the lands that border Russia. Even though these territories have culture contact with Russia and a history of political engagement, the current tensions are not so much the result of locals agitating for stronger associations with mother Russia but with interference by way of propaganda and Russian adventurism. Moreover, it continues Russia’s persistent attention to breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union. Russia has desperately tried to hold on to influence in some of the states (e.g. Georgia, Azerbaijan) but this typically backfires. Ukraine and Kiev will probably be even more oriented toward the West and Ukrainian nationalism will soar.
Ethnic Conflict without the Conflict
The old Soviet Union, like so many political actors, wore blinders that allowed them to see primarily the colors of ethnic groups. The Soviet Union divided and assigned groups to territorial units predominantly on the basis of ethnic heritage. Stalin in particular created ethnic territories and established a broad array of territorial units defined as states. These states were supposed to be homelands for particular national groups (Azeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, etc.). The strategy was to keep groups separate so they could not easily organize against Moscow. It worked for a long time until various groups began to demand independence. Soon, there was ethnic violence and Moscow had its excuse to maintain influence by stepping in and claiming to calm the situation.
Russia has felt quite comfortable intervening in the affairs of its former territories. Russia felt, in fact, very secure and justified by its movement into Crimea. About 58% of the population of Crimea is Russian so the claim to a sphere of influence has some standing. But if Russia feels as if some international commitment has been violated, then they should use diplomacy and the avenues available to them through international law.
The Basic Instruments of International Conflict Management
For my money, Russia has never been particularly good at managing ethnic conflict. Even though historically they oversaw with the old Soviet Union 15 Soviet socialist republics all of which had minority groups, Moscow is sort of a “bull in the china shop.” There are typically four intervention possibilities – military interventions, economic interventions, diplomacy, and dialogue – but Russia relies mostly on military options. In designing a macro level institution meant to facilitate ethnic conflict resolution, the Russians have never been very innovative or creative. Take the case of the Chechens for example. In the northern Caucasus of South Russia Chechens are increasingly a higher percentage of the population, and there are about 20% Russians. Even without Russia agreeing to Chechnya’s autonomy assuring fair treatment, increased cultural autonomy, and more political rights would be reasonable.
When it comes to designing macro structures for divided societies Russia seems to ignore all of them. First, an ethnic group must address the issue of territorial organization of the state. The Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Chechnya and territories, Georgia, and other points of Russian interest are yet to resolve these territorial issues properly. Secondly, is the matter of the governmental relationship between the minority and the majority. And finally, Russia rarely concerns itself with the protection of identity groups and individual rights.
Putin may have successfully grabbed territory in the Crimea but he is increasingly competing with the West rather than a lesser prepared minority. And he may be banking on the fact that the EU will never consider Ukraine a proper European project, but this may be a dangerous wish as Ukraine increasingly turns its attention to the West and thereby makes progress on territoriality, sound governmental relations, and the protection of identity and minority groups.