Change the language, change the story? Some thoughts on religion, conflict and peace in the Middle East and beyond Part One

Former Israeli Prime Minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin, with former US President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1993, the year of the historic Oslo Peace Accords. Nearly 20 years later and the Israel Palestine situation has hardly changed and many are wondering whether the peace promised by the Accords is an unattainable dream.

Following last night’s ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Erin Wilson considers whether the chances for lasting peace might be increased by changing how we think and talk about conflict and peace.

Last night brought the welcome news that a ceasefire agreement had been reached between Israel and Palestine following the latest round of violence. While this development is a relief to all, particularly the civilians traumatized by the ongoing exchange of hostilities, reporters and analysts are all asking the same question – how long can it last? As one BBC World News reporter put it this week, for the local population, the ceasefire simply provides a brief respite before the hostilities resume. The conflict never seems to be truly settled. Indeed, at times it seems as though there is no possible solution for the Middle East.

Why is it that this conflict seems so intractable? One popular narrative around this conflict suggests that the answer is “religion”. This narrative presents the Middle East as the example par excellence of the chaos and violence that religion can generate. Since biblical times, so the story goes, the two people groups have been at war with one another. Some members within each group believe that their possession of the same tracts of land has been divinely ordained and it is this that leads to the inability to reach a lasting peace agreement. As Yehezkel Landau from the US Institute for Peace has observed, “religious tradition, with its symbols and loyalties, is fundamental to the identities of both Arabs and Jews.”[1]

Indeed, aspects of the recent behavior of both Israel and Hamas only serve to exacerbate this view. While not claiming responsibility for the bomb blast that killed ten people on a bus in Tel Aviv on Tuesday this week, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stated, “Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres in Gaza.”[2] Israel’s language has been less overtly religious, but images of praying Israeli soldiers poised for a ground offensive along Israel’s border with the Palestinian territories certainly do nothing to counter the view that religion is a central component of this seemingly endless war.[3]

Yet, as with many conflicts labeled “religious”, this does not do justice to the nuances of the situation. Conflicts are never about religion, at least not entirely. A mistake that I think analysts often make is to think that a conflict is almost entirely materialist (over resources, territory, weapons etc) or entirely idealist (capitalism/liberal democracy vs communism; religion vs secularism, Jewish vs Christian; Christian vs Muslim; Muslim vs Buddhist). The reality is much more complicated. In both approaches, analysts and policymakers essentialize the problems, perhaps in an effort to come up with quick easy solutions, when there is no such thing available. Conflicts are a messy combination of material interests, idealistic goals, assumptions, prejudices, injustices and desires for retribution, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is no different. Religion is only one component of the identities of the Israelis and the Palestinians and it is also only a very small influence on what the issues are between the two entities. At stake are issues of sovereignty, the right of a nation-state to defend itself, the right to national self-determination, freedom from violence and the promotion and protection of peace and human rights. Yet, the Israel/Palestine conflict also provides a microcosm in which to explore how the broader ways we think about conflict and peace – not to mention the language and narratives that are used to discuss conflicts in politics and the media – contribute to their intractability.  We want concrete resolution and clearly apportioned responsibility and blame, when the reality of conflict is that such neat divisions are almost impossible.

A danger for peace and conflict analysts, media commentators and political operatives is to think about conflict in very stark, black-and-white, either/or terms. Someone is either a victim or they are a perpetrator, something is either true or it is false, something either happened or it didn’t, something is either right or it is wrong. Particularly in the Middle East, where neither Israel nor Palestine is innocent of violating international law,[4] working with black and white binary opposites such as “right/wrong”, “victim/perpetrator”, “true/false” makes finding a solution almost impossible.

[As an aside, we also often think about a conflict as involving only two parties, when there are numerous others, state and non-state. A few of the actors involved in the Israel/Palestine conflict, besides Israel and Palestine, include Egypt as the key broker of the current ceasefire, the United States as Israel’s most powerful ally, Iran as a major supporter of Hamas (so arguably the Israeli/Palestinian conflict also intersects with power plays between Iran and the US in international politics), the United Nations Security Council, where the tensions between the rights of states to sovereignty, and indeed who counts as a state and who doesn’t (Palestine’s state status is still not fully recognized by the international community)[5] and the human rights of individuals are played out between the demands of different member states; the media reporting on the conflict, the arms dealers providing the weapons for the combatants, and the NGOs working on the ground with the victims.]

Frequently in analyzing conflict, we get caught up in trying to determine the “truth” of what happened. Exactly when and where did such and such happen? Who was responsible? Who should take the blame? Who should administer justice? Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? In some instances it may be possible to “find out the truth” as it were, given enough eye-witness evidence, documentation and so on. But I think such occurrences are rare. Truth in many ways is fleeting, because what is true can only really be known in the moment of when something happens. Once the event is past, our recollections of it become imbued with prior assumptions. Particularly traumatic events have a significant impact on how people remember what took place – asylum seekers, for example, often have difficulty remembering specific dates around the times of their flight from their home countries (which authorities in receiving countries then use to discount their stories).  So any search to find out the truth, particularly in a conflict setting, is inherently problematic and fraught with difficulties from the very beginning.

In a sense, truth is also only relevant for conflicts that have occurred “recently”, because there is more chance that the people involved are alive, remember (in some form, bearing in mind that memory is never perfect) what happened and can share their memories in an attempt to piece together an “accurate” account of what happened. In the case of Israel/Palestine, it has to be remembered that recent events are not separate from previous conflicts but build on these. So the narratives of past hostilities become entwined with the contemporary experiences. In part two of this post, I’ll offer some thoughts on how we might address some of these issues.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.


[1] Landau, Yehezkel. 2003. Healing the holy land: Interreligious peacebuilding in Israel/Palestine. Washington D.C: United States Institute for Peace. Available at http://www.usip.org/publications/healing-holy-land-interreligious-peacebuilding-israelpalestine

[3] The photograph of praying Israeli soldiers may be viewed here http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/20/opinion/husain-hamas-israel/?hpt=hp_c1

[4] Though neither side is without blame, it should be remembered that there are immense power imbalances between the two sides. Israel’s armed forces are extensive and equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry while Palestine has no armed forces at all. In addition, the continued, unwavering support of the United States for Israel substantially increases this power imbalance. This support is becoming increasingly difficult for the United States to justify amongst increasing global support for full recognition of the Palestinian state. For more on this, see Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/21/israel-gaza-us-support

[5] See decision of the International Criminal Court earlier this year http://www.icc-cpi.int/NR/rdonlyres/C6162BBF-FEB9-4FAF-AFA9-836106D2694A/284387/SituationinPalestine030412ENG.pdf , along with Palestine’s unsuccessful bid to become a member state of the UN, blocked largely by the United States http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19508827

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