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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.



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.”


How to Understand “Reasonable Disagreement”

Ever have a political discussion with a friend and have it degenerate into incompatible positions that cause tension, anger, and exasperation? You have to learn how to appreciate “reasonable disagreement.” This is not a contradiction in terms; you can disagree and be both reasonable about it.

In the culture-laden and pragmatic world of communication disagreement is the norm, so we have to deal with it. Some people are taught that specific sources of information are the true guides to knowledge. Scripture and religious communities which include all sorts of information about the earth and animal species can be cited as a supreme source of knowledge. If people take no critical stance toward these issues and accept them thoroughly then they are justified in their beliefs. There can be a debate about what is true and what is not but this does not change the normative system. The beliefs of the religious person are justified; they are part of a system of relationships their empirical content notwithstanding. A “creationist” and “evolutionist” produce disagreement because they live in different knowledge worlds. They may be polarized and the position of the other may be unimaginable but this is the “stuff” of disagreement and must be managed.

Relationships that are “fiercely entangled”, such as between ethnopolitical groups in conflict, are characterized by the incommensurability that accompanies situations where the parties in conflict are divergent. Conflicting groups must be able to experience disagreement; they must, as Benhabib describes, treat the other as an “adversary” and not an “enemy.” The ability to tolerate disagreement as well as work with it is central to the communicative and resolution process.

There is more to reasonable disagreement than a gentleman’s agreement to respect differences. Clearly, communities, cultures, social networks, and groups establish different sets of standards and principles regarding beliefs and drawing conclusions. And while there are overlaps between groups in terms of standards of knowing (e.g. science) there are also sharp differences between them. For this reason, reasonable disagreement is a defensible philosophical position and a communicative state that usually cannot be avoided.

Some theorists are relativists in that they do not believe there is any overarching cultural norm of rationality. Others want to argue for more objective standards. One problem is that for one side of a cultural disagreement to be “correct” there must be a standard that determines such correctness. Such standards are difficult to establish. Still, rampant relativism is equally as indefensible and it is possible for certain positions to be more justified than others. The central question is posed as the following: is it possible for two cultures or conflicting groups, both of which have epistemic standards, to both share evidence and have reasonable disagreement. In other words, one group believes a proposition and the other group does not. An explication of the clash of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians present a good example. Zionism, for example, as stated in historical documents and instances can be interpreted as a noble effort to return a historically oppressed people to their homeland, or as a European colonialist enterprise with an expansionist ideology. The two groups (Israelis and Palestinians) are in disagreement such that one believes a proposition to be true and the other disbelieves it.

The disagreement is “reasonable” to the extent that each side is justified in holding the belief or disbelief. Ideally anyway, members of both groups should have equal access to evidence and documentation including the benefit of full discussion. In many cases this condition is not met. Differences in education and availability of information will also account for disagreements. To make matters even more complex, we must include the fact that people have graded beliefs based on subjective probabilities.

Participants in groups who disagree are working on the basis of a proposition that states that their own system of information justifies their beliefs. The simple act of observing Jews migrate to Israel justifies both the belief in “noble return” as well as “colonialism.” And from a communicative and discursive standpoint there is nothing malevolent about these differences. Both beliefs are justified and linked to some system of information. One side of the argument is not more correct than the other.

One solution to the condition of reasonable disagreement is for the two parties to converge on what counts as evidence. Some progress here is possible but slow and difficult. Then again, we always note that the process of communication and decision-making is slow and difficult.

Learning How to Talk to People

The polarization that currently characterizes the American political environment, and is graphically depicted above, is a consequence of the degeneration of political relationships. Political friendships treat opponents as respectful adversaries, not enemies, that have common interests in problem resolution as much as anything else. The issue sophistication that comes with political relationships is quite compatible with the ability to sustain “reasonable disagreement.” Solving political and ethnopolitical conflicts involves initiating the two conflicting groups into the larger cultural conversation, where the understanding is that the conversation is about the relationship between the two groups. This involves creating a relationship where members of each group understand that they must engage in reasonable discourse, accept the burdens of justification, and reject illiberal attitudes and behaviors. Another way to think about it is as a network of weak ties. Weak ties are important forms of relationships that are more casual friendships or work relationships (e.g., acquaintance or coworkers) and engage in less intimate exchanges and share fewer types of information and support than those who report stronger relationships. Strong ties include in their exchanges a higher level of intimacy, more self disclosure, emotional as well as instrumental exchanges, reciprocity in exchanges, and more frequent interaction. We have fewer strong ties and they are more important to our personal lives. Facebook and electronic contacts create numerous weak ties that serve important functions.

What Danielle Allen (2004), in her book “Talking to Strangers”, describes as “political friendship” is a sort of important weak tie. This is the sort of friendship that goes beyond the close relationships we have with family members and intimates. Political friendship is a set of practices and habits used to solve problems and bridge difficult differences. Emotional attachment to the other is less important than the realization of interdependence and the need for practical problem resolution. This form of a communicative relationship serves as a useful outlet for conflict resolution, and allows minority groups in multicultural societies to establish mature relationships with the dominant group.

The concept of political friendship is important and deserving of some elaboration. It is necessary to develop a healthy path to the resolution and reconciliation of group conflicts in order to provide either citizens or members of competing groups with political and interpersonal agency. The idea of political friendship is particularly associated with citizenship which is not necessarily a matter of civic duties but a communicative role that values negotiation and reciprocity. It is an excellent relationship to cultivate between members of different cultural and political groups because it is based more on trust than self-interest. Political friendship recognizes self-interest but develops a relationship that rests on equitable self-interest; that is, a relationship where each attends to the utilitarian needs of the other. As Allen (2004) writes, “Equity entails, above all else and as in friendship a habit of attention by which citizens are attuned to the balances and imbalances in what citizens are giving up for each other.” (p. 134). Political friendship is less concerned with intimacy because intimacy is reserved for relatively few relationships that are more absorbing and based on sacrifice and strong identity with the other. But utilitarian political relationships can apply to large numbers of people and is focused on the pragmatics of problem solving or resource gratification. Parent-child, ruler and ruled, or superior- subordinate relationships are not political relationships because they limit the autonomy and agency of one person (the child, ruled, or subordinate) and are based on maximization of differences. In short, the political friendship relationship is central to the problems associated with multicultural contact and the ability of groups to develop their capacities for trust and communication. As Allen (2004) points out, we have to teach people how to “talk to strangers.”

It is necessary to identify some conditions of political friendship. These are habits of communication that facilitate the relationship. They include recognizing and publicly acknowledging groups and their differences as well as promoting deliberative environments and intelligent judgment. Many of these communication behaviors require exceptional sensitivity and tolerance. Recognizing a group, for example, that is less talkative or more remote from Western habits of thinking and either accepting the differences or trying to meld cultural norms is difficult. So minority groups simply need to learn communication skills most associated with success depending on the nature of the dominant culture. Diverse groups must understand their problems as “public” problems. Under the best conditions different groups will have secure knowledge of each other and a similar level of understanding about what is occurring between them.

Best of Luck to the Kerry Talks between Israelis and Palestinians: But There Is Not yet Enough Pain

The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry has organized talks between the Israelis and Palestinians is noteworthy for two reasons – it’s a positive anytime you can bring these two sides together, and the world has issued a collective shrug. Israelis are generally bored with the Palestinians and don’t believe there is anyone really to talk to. The cynicism over the possibility of anything actually coming of these talks is extensive. Few people are even paying attention because they are so sure that this will all be an empty exercise. Even President Obama seems distant from the process.

But we should avoid cynicism and I am all for any sort of engagement and it can be anytime, anyplace, and even under less than ideal conditions. There are numerous posts on this blog at various points in time explaining the advantages of communicative contact (e.g. see July 8th 2013). There are good reasons to have talks all of which are pertinent to unpacking this complex conflict and repackaging it into something sustainable. Let’s look at a few of them, but first a little context.

The Unique Nature of the Talks

The Kerry Talks are supposed to focus on final status issues; that is, the crucial six issues which are the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, Israeli security, settlements, and the Palestinian right of return. These issues have been ignored in the past and sometimes defined as too difficult and hence put off for a future date.  Read some background on final status issues here . Barak and Arafat made some attempts at a final status agreement as did Olmert at Annapolis. These efforts failed and the explanation always was that the two sides were still too far apart. But it is also the case that both sides simply cannot imagine themselves settling on the decision. Conservative political blocs in Israel oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and Palestinian leadership is a proxy for the larger Arab world and feels very uncomfortable giving up anything or recognizing Israel.

The divisions that separate these two groups run deep especially when it comes to the special status of Jerusalem and refugees. Jerusalem just may be the most intractable problem because of its sanctity. The Palestinians, on the other hand, choke on the possibility of any recognition of Israel and will not accept their presence as a Jewish state. Gritty and thorny as these issues are talk is all the two sides have and there are reasons to engage it.

The Palestinians have been frustrated and thus decided to go around the Israelis through, for example, their petition to the United Nations as a basis for claiming statehood. Any final agreements must be and should be the result of negotiation between the two principal sides, and the Palestinian petition to the United Nations was counterproductive and responsible for the deterioration of the process. Israel and the United States opposed the Palestinian petition to the United Nations and threatened financial pressures. The proposed talks can help repair the damage to the relationship between the three parties (the US, Israel, and the Palestinians) and move the center of discussion back to the principals.

Secondly, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around. Even though the conflict has been with us for decades and seems to be a constant on the political playing field, one in which the issues are fixed in people’s minds and will not change much, it remains a powerful symbol of difficult ethnopolitical conflict and the “clash of civilizations.” Moreover, the US has practical “on the ground” concerns with respect to terrorism, balanced international relations, oil, democracy development, and national security. Although the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of so much international tension is simply unjustified, it is a combustible political symbol that arouses ethnopolitical passions around the world.

The settlement issue must be solved. Israel will have difficulty moving settlers and the Palestinians have stated that they want no Israeli presence in the future state of Palestine. A Palestinian state must be negotiated by the two sides and cannot come into being otherwise. The two-state solution is the only way that Israel remains Jewish and democratic and there is considerable work to be completed before the contours of this potential state are fashioned.

Finally, talking to one another is the only way that compromises and adjustments will be made. Both sides have powerful positions that control aspects of the discussion and direct communicative encounters are the only way these compromises and adjustments will come into being.

My guess is that these talks will fail but at least represent a step in a long journey. It’s possible that both sides believe the other will be the cause of the failure and have agreed to enter into the discussions for that reason alone. Sadly enough, I’m still of the opinion that there is insufficient pain. In other words, if conflicting parties have to wait until they are at a “hurting stalemate” before they get serious than these two parties simply aren’t hurting enough yet.

Hold onto your hat! Israeli-Palestinian Violence Is Coming

Ethan Bronner of the New York Times last week wrote about the disconnect between Israelis and the general problem they face with the Palestinians. Bronner, who was a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, had recently returned to Israel and found Israelis to be almost intoxicatingly removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They could “care less” about it and are more removed from the political situation than ever. Israel is a very successful economic culture and, various social inequities notwithstanding, they are enjoying the fruits of Western democracies and market economies. Bronner writes that even the Israeli left is increasingly insignificant, and a shell of its former activist self.

I must say that this is generally consistent with my own experiences. I was teaching in Israel last year at this time and quite struck by how “bored” the average Israeli is with the entire matter. They don’t believe there is anyone to talk to or that the Palestinians are serious. I spoke to plenty of students, wait staff, bartenders, and average citizens and the majority is fed up and has simply decided to ignore the whole thing. Cynicism about the peace process is so great that nobody cares to talk about it. Israelis don’t understand the extent of their international condemnation; Israelis don’t understand how anyone could offer up political and moral support for organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah; Israelis don’t understand why the world can’t learn from the lesson in Gaza that giving the Palestinians in Gaza what they wanted (an Israeli pullout) resulted in more rockets fired into Israel.

The Palestinian Authority is in bad shape and things will get even worse with the resignation of Salam Fayyad who was focusing on economic and institutional security in the West Bank. Things are quiet at the moment with John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts deserving of some credit. Even though the Palestinian Authority continues to receive criticism, it’s unlikely for now that the system will be pushed to its limits. The Palestinians are just as tired as the Israelis but for different reasons. They are fed up with their own political leaders and divided amongst themselves with respect to how to proceed. The issues of checkpoints, settlements, prisoners, and financial matters are weakening with respect to their individual issue capabilities. In other words, these matters do not hold the intensity they once did because the population has spent the political capital associated with them and the peace process is still elusive.

The International Crisis Group (go here) issued a report on May 29, 2013 concluding that the Palestinian Authority is in financial trouble and cannot pay salaries. And although they have been recently lulled into a sleep-like state with respect to larger peace issues with Israel, things are beginning to change. The Palestinian Authority, according to the crisis group, is under threat of dissolution. It is simply likely to evolve away into a different reality as Abbas ages. Abbas has a certain amount of historical legitimacy and is committed to a negotiated settlement. But with the Palestinian Authority so fragile, and enough time has gone by such that patience is running thin, any political act (settler violence, clashes in Jerusalem, hunger striking prisoners, or some act of violence) will spark the combustible mixture into a conflagration.

It does not matter how complacent Israelis feel or how content they are about their own good faith efforts, the current situation is not sustainable for very much longer. There remains economic fragility, violence, humiliation, and perceived injustices that cannot stand a much longer test of time. Images of the Titanic come to mind with some killer iceberg waiting in the not-too-distant dark.

Settlements are Clearly Illegal – Say Some

Those who argue that Israeli settlements are illegal cling to their position with considerable passion. They maintain that settlers are living in a fictional world with a tremendous commitment to Israel but not to human rights or anyone else. The arguments are typically made on the basis of international law – which is a questionable and still unclear legal domain with respect to matters of legitimacy and efficacy. But in any case, the challenge to the Geneva Accords is directly confronted. The Geneva Accords, the argument goes, is concerned with people, not land, and claiming that the Accords do not apply to the West Bank because it is not strictly the territory of a sovereign state is inconsistent with the spirit of the convention. The Accords are further interpreted as protecting any group of people who find themselves in the clutches of an occupying power. This argument than devolves into discussion of the minutia of the Geneva Accords including interpretations and intentions that are probably impossible to know with any reliability. Those who deny the legality of the settlements claim that the near universal consensus on the matter is sufficient to establish the argument.

The international standing of the United Nations does not rise to the level of commonly accepted international law, but it is a significant body that functions in a legal capacity. That said, United Nations Security Council resolutions consistently call for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories and reaffirms the conviction that Israel is occupying the land illegally. The UN regularly treats the Israeli occupation as illegal and often defines it as a simple fact which is not subject to dispute. If it is possible to establish the territories as “occupied” then settlement activity is illegal. The West Bank is consistently considered occupied by the UN and this by definition makes settlement activity illegal. Very simply, it is somebody else’s land.

Moreover, if a territory is occupied then the occupying powers cannot transfer its citizens to the conquered territory, making what Israel does illegal. As I stated in last week’s post if the legal status of the land is unclear and no one has a clear political claim then settlement in that territory is permissible and the settlements would be legal. The defenders of legality claim that the prohibition against population transfer applies in cases unrelated to Israel; that is, if the land is available for use than those who moved there to use it are not violating any laws. But, of course, if the West Bank is considered to be official Palestinian territory then Israeli settler encroachment into that territory would be illegal.

Israel insists that its presence in the West Bank is militarily justified because of the attack on Israel in 1967 and Israel’s right to establish defensible borders as a result of success in the 1967 war. But the counter to this point is that Israel’s presence is not necessary for its security and that the occupation is thus illegal because it is a ruse for rank land acquisition. There is what is called “customary” international law which argues for the legal power of such “customary international law” when it represents the accumulated weight of international opinion. Even if there is no legitimately recognized international court, when it is a matter of overwhelming international opinion that settlement activity is illegal and inappropriate then such sentiment has the weight of legality behind it.

Finally, the International Court of Justice concluded that the mandate for Palestine was about self-determination for Palestinians and never mentioned anything about Jewish rights. Accordingly, any Jewish presence in the Palestinian territories is illegal.

The arguments on both sides of the issue can carry weight and have elements of them that are defensible. For that reason, the matter will not be solved on the basis of legal issues alone. Rather, the pressing interest of peace and solutions that respond to the needs of all parties are more important than legal debates. Having said that, I do not mean to diminish the importance of legal precedents and standing except to remind people that the law is simply a form of conflict resolution and some problems are solved by methods that do not involve formal legal arguments. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be one of them.

The Power of Just Not Giving a Damn

I think we under estimate the communicative and reconciliatory value of just “not giving a damn about some things.” There was a story in the paper last week about a 26-year-old boy, Ethan Saylor, with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caretaker. When the movie ended his caretaker asked him to wait while she went to get the car. The boy walked back into the theater and sat down when the theater personnel came in and told him to leave. The theater manager called mall security who forcibly removed the boy from the theater while he was crying and calling for his mother. Somehow, while restraining the boy and wrestling him out of the theater he went into distress and died. The theater manager and the mall security agent were more intent on upholding rules and “doing their job” then they were concerned for the safety of Mr. Saylor. Who cares if this young boy was in the theater without a ticket? It was not something worth “giving a damn about.”

Along a similar vein, I was listening to Charlie Rose interview the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Khazaee. At the end of the interview Rose asked the ambassador if he had seen the movie Argo about the escape of some Westerners from Iran during the revolution. Khazaee said that he had seen the movie and there were numerous mistakes such as Iranian linguistic conventions for “hello” and “goodbye.” He then went on to demand the movie producers (that would be George Clooney) apologize to the Iranian people for this great insult. Such heated and indignant insults simply demand retribution! Again, I thought about how these demands for an apology were more damaging than anything else and tensions would diminish if people just “didn’t give a damn.” Read the rest of this entry

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