Research in intractable conflicts among radical fundamentalist groups is an ongoing and well-researched phenomenon. The use of violence among these groups highlights questions of power, historical narratives, emotional contagion, and ideological beliefs. These aspects can be embedded in a group’s collective identity and are often used as dialogical tools to avoid engaging in rational discourse (Bar-Tal, 2007; Hitman, 2016; Martinovski et al., 2017; Nicholson, 2019; Pilecki & Hammack, 2014; Walker & Pettigrew, 1984). The resistance to dialogue among radical fundamentalist groups is what this paper will examine further. Dialogue is not always a feasible answer in preventing violent outcomes among radical fundamentalists. Thus, this paper will investigate how historical narratives are used as semantic barriers to legitimize violence, fuel competitive victimhood, encourage deception and decrease intersubjectivity by portraying exclusivism.
How fundamentalist groups resist dialogue through historical narratives
Scripture as legitimizing violence as a moral obligation
According to Tajfel and Turner’s (1986) Social Identity Theory, individuals identify with their group based on collective interests, values and needs that differ from an out-group. The more salient the values, the stronger the group identity. Historical narratives are vital for maintaining a collective identity. They ensure solidarity, cohesion and erosion of opponents (Pilecki & Hammack, 2014). Because these historical dialogues cultivate vital beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of a group identity, they are vehemently protected from their opponents. Scriptural social representations of a positive in-group and a hostile out-group act as semantic barriers that reify polarization. For example, the religious legislation of Islam known as Sharia Law is a key component in bolstering the historical narratives amongst this group. Governments reference Sharia Law to justify violence or the death penalty (Penal Reform International, 2015) because of the literal interpretation of scripture that protects Islamic history and a collective identity (Monroe & Kreidie, 1997, as cited by Pilecki & Hammack, 2014). Deniers of Islam are portrayed in social representations as a threatening ‘other.’ These social categories act as identifiers that groups construct as a means of justifying inequality and intergroup violence (Tileaga, 2006).
Hitman (2016) claims that religious fundamentalists “…prepare the ground for potential conflicts with those who have different beliefs from them. On the contrary, dialogue with incumbent regimes was not a real option for this group or movement” (p. 9). The more an individual solidifies under this collective identity, the more motivation and guidance they have to execute these codes of behaviour (Arai, 2015; Tajfel & Turner, 1986), including an obligation to use terror and violence to abolish infidels (Hitman, 2016). Religious narratives are thus perceived as embedded in one’s identity. For these groups, dialogue is resisted because violence is seen as a moral entitlement to power that is legitimized by scriptural semantic barriers (Schori-Eyal et al., 2017). Moreover, the union between church and state provides justification for fundamentalists to actively participate in carrying out these commands. It is this rule of law that allows group leaders to persuade collective action through qur’anic narratives against threatening out-groups, and takes precedence over discourse.
Historical narratives fuel emotional contagion and a competitive victimhood
In intractable conflicts, memories are formed with high emotionality due to long-term psychological investments to cope with living in a hostile environment (Bar-Tal, 2017). Because these conflicts are emotionally-charged, they distort memory, and increase negative sentiment and inaccurate judgment towards out-groups (Tint, 2010). Ideal dialogue requires accurate information exchange, and emotions convolute this process. An example of this is collective victimhood. Schori-Eyal et al. (2015) defines this as perpetual ingroup victimhood orientation (PIVO) where groups believe they are victims of constant persecution from the opposing group. Groups justify their actions to delegitimize the relevant out-group as maliciously false (Bar-Tal, 2007; Gillespie, 2020; Klar and Baram, 2016) and portray a positive image of their ingroup (Noor et al., 2012; Schori-Eyal et al., 2017). Fear becomes an emotional weapon and defence mechanism that supports violence as a moral means to protect a collective identity and end their “chosen trauma” (Arai, 2015, p. 286; Bar-Tal, 2007; Noor et al., 2012; Tint, 2010). Arai (2015) further posits that a self-oriented and other-oriented conflict can arise in competitive victimhood (i.e. “our history” vs. “their history”). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of structural inequalities that were created historical narratives surrounding the 2014 war in Gaza to protect group identities (Nicholson, 2019).
As emotion is heightened and memory is compromised, groups try to demonstrate how much more they have suffered than the out-group by reinforcing semantic barriers of victimization in a historical context. This unwillingness to acknowledge or limit the narrative of an opposing group prevents a mutual understanding of intergroup perspectives – or intersubjectivity- from occurring. Per Habermas’s definition, the “ideal speech situation” requires empathy, openness, equality, symmetry, and a consensus (Payrow & Omid, 2003, p. 49, as cited by Gillespie, 2008). It is also a direct communicative practice of active listening and meaning-making (Moscovici, 2000; Phillips, 1999). These components are diminished in light of strong emotional responses as groups use narratives of historical victimization as semantic barriers to avoid perspective-taking and engage in constructive dialogue.
Historical narratives as a creative form of deception
Because historical narratives are socially constructed, they can be highly selective, devoid of impartiality, and used to reframe and manipulate discourse in pursuit of in-group favouritism (Arai, 2015). These biased accounts and memories are perceived as truth by the collective group. Reicher (2004) notes,
The uniqueness of the human species lies in the capacities that allow us to create a world that suits us, rather than simply adapt to the world as it is. Hence, the condition of human creativity lies in the capacity for symbolic representations and manipulation. (p. 927).
By creating aspects of history, it enhances distortions of reality, dictates present and future collective action, and propagates an ongoing conflict (Tint, 2010; Veenstra & Haslam, 2000). Rather than reality creating memory, memory constructs reality, and “myth and fact merge into a powerful and often indisputable dimension of individual and social history” (Tint, 2010, p. 243).
Part of this fervent desire to defend historical narratives is because they have been entrenched in their mental frameworks since childhood and reinstated in national holidays, art and literature, media and political discourse. Groups may also use propaganda as semantic speech barriers to further exacerbate polarization between groups with what social psychologists refer to as symbolic threats (Avraamidou & Psaltis, 2019). These symbolic threats start to become real threats that challenge outgroup narratives; in this case, groups can become defensive and refrain from objectively observing alternative information as a defence mechanism that can propel them for collective action (Baumeister et al., 1998). Social representations can develop into categories that can distort, confuse and delude. The issue, therefore, is not only deceiving outgroups, but the ingroup also deceives themselves. Without impartiality and the ability to recognize and separate the use of deception from these social representations of the other, rational dialogue becomes problematic and exacerbates attempts to resolve conflict based on a lack of judicious arguments.
Historical narratives can promote narrow perceptions of reality
History becomes a reference to a country and its inhabitants by providing accounts of the past, guidance for a collective behaviour in the present, and direction for ways to operate in the future in relation to themselves and other nations (Obradović, 2017). It also justifies “present socio-political actions intended to promote a future that is perceived as continuous with the past” (Obradović, 2017, p. 58). This notion of continuing past behaviours, rituals, thoughts and attitudes instills long-term perceptions of how the world operates within a specific context. For example, children who grow up in war-torn areas compared to those who grow up in peaceful nations may anticipate and perceive the world to be violent. Violence towards another individual or group thus becomes a justified means to cope with stress during a long-withstanding hostile environment. In childhood, violence is the first and only narrative children know in conflict, and dialogue is not yet a consideration. Violence is therefore assumed to be a continued response to past, present and future conflicts.
Proposed research methodology
Based on the significance of the findings above, this section will outline a direct empirical approach to answer the following research question: how is identity constructed in historical narratives and what semantic barriers are used to avoid discourse among groups involved in intractable conflict?
The construction of collective identity and how historical narratives contribute to this construction can be seen as the basis of struggle amongst fundamentalist groups; confronting this struggle can often lead to defensiveness. Johnson et al. (2000) contends that individuals who anticipate their beliefs being challenged tend to become close-minded, reject alternative perspectives when discordant information is presented, and are obstinate about maintaining their own beliefs. Thus, the proposed research will primarily examine how individuals construct and preserve their identity with specific semantic barriers in historical narratives during conflict.
Most research for intractable conflicts focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To add more variety to the data, this research proposal involves exploring religious fundamentalism among Muslim and Christian groups in Nigeria. According to the 2015 Report on Conflict, Human Rights and Peacebuilding, the majority of armed conflicts were in Africa (Amaechi, 2017). A sample population would be recruited from existing contact programs from educational institutions, such as the John Hopkins Centre for Communication. The context for participants to reference and reflect upon would be the Boko Haram insurgency. The research question would move beyond national identity and examine religious identity as an additional variable.
As observed with Monroe and Kreidie’s (1997) study (as cited by Pilecki & Hammack, 2014), educational institutions and contact programs provide a neutral ground and a fixed context where groups can discuss their individual and collective narratives without the pressure or fear that may be imposed on them by relevant and conflicting outgroups.
Method: Intra-group focus groups
Two focus groups will be conducted among the conflicting groups and examined separately so as to avoid hostile confrontation. An intra-group setting will help individuals understand how identity is created within their in-group and distinguish the threats imposed, or displaced, upon them (David et al., 2017). It will also help to identify how identity affects a group’s ability to communicate effectively and factually, and how it has been shaped through historical narratives and collective memory. Identifying and analyzing semantic barriers used in meaning-making frameworks to construct boundaries among the in-group towards the out-group can illuminate opportunities to reconstruct social representations of identity and historical narratives in intractable conflicts.
This qualitative approach will measure the utterance and meaning of speech that participants use in describing how their individual identities play a role in building a collective identity within historical narratives during intractable conflicts. Other measures will include the belief whether a historical event is true or not (moral obligation, subjective perspective and delegitimization), identifying the types of words and meaning-making frameworks (semantic barriers), the complexity of one’s identity (individual and social categorization), how willing participants are to recognize how historical events may have affected how they construct their identity (reflexivity, avoidance, limitations and potential for self-deception), and if they or the out-group played an active role in perpetuating violent conflict (reflexivity and intersubjectivity). These measures are similar to the ones used in the Perceptions of Collective Narratives Questionnaire proposed by Sagy et al., 2002 (David et al., 2017). Narratives would be recorded, and thematic analysis is suggested to examine emerging themes.
Reasoning for this approach
This study helps to create dialogue around individual roles at play within the collective group. Individuals can share their thoughts and emotions in a space removed from the influence of the out-group’s perspectives and utterances, without the need or pressure to defend from the ou-tgroup. Separate focus groups can mitigate high-emotionality circumstances that could cause vehement disagreement among two collective narratives.
The above approach takes precedence over Moaz’s (2011) coexistence model, founded on Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis (as cited by Pilecki & Hammack, 2014). The confrontational model addresses the competitive component of power struggles between groups, and encourages individuals to perceive each other as having mutual differences rather than having one superior identity over the others. This looks at intergroup discussion and encourages mutual understanding, patience, acceptance by finding commonalities and recategorizing identities.
While Moaz and Allport’s approach is crucial in developing a mutual acknowledgement of the historical narratives created by two conflicting groups, it does not immediately address the lack of willingness to engage in dialogue with opponents, including potential use of defence mechanisms, moral obligations and self-deception from subjective social representations and semantic barriers. Once these have been identified separately from both groups, a coexistence model can be used as a follow-up study to examine how both dialogues interlace with one another and propose opportunities for mutual understanding.
There are caveats to this study that facilitators will need to be conscious of. Pilecki and Hammack (2014) argue that describing personal histories and national identity can create polarized narratives. Whereas Moaz’s coexistence model seeks to create a common in-group identity with shared values and needs, sharing individual and exclusivist narratives might further divide the in-group and convolute a collective identity. This will subsequently enhance distortion in dialogue, which would further dilute the reality in context, and mitigate progress to a mutual understanding and the use of rational arguments with regards to the conflict. Additionally, the unwillingness to have an open and transparent discussion to protect and preserve ideological beliefs is plausible and may restrain any progress in constructing objective narratives surrounding the conflict.
Additional research suggestions after initial experiments
This experiment was introduced by former US diplomat Joseph Montville in 1993. This study provides a neutral playground for two opposing groups to create separate historical narratives of how the conflict emerged (Aira, 2015). Each group recounts how, in their perspective and recollection, the conflict arose, the main events that fuelled disagreement, and the pain points that made the conflict decisive. The end goal is to pinpoint misunderstandings of events and meaning between the opposing groups (Tint, 2010). The mediator plays a key role in navigating this highly contentious dialogue; they must identify and strategically build on threads of paradoxical narratives to create opportunities for insights, mutual understanding and relationship building. In conjunction, a guide with a discursive analytical framework can create interpretive boundaries that limit subjective analysis of the text and instill a rational approach to dialogical analysis (Hammack & Pilecki, 2004).
This last point of building on paradoxical narratives can provide insight into ways of co-constructing a new historical narrative that satisfies both conflicting groups. In this setting, the application of Gillespie’s (2008) alternative representations and semantic barriers may provide a way of reconstructing social representations. Alternative representations are ways of categorizing ideas and beliefs of others, whether imagined or real, through semantic barriers (Gillespie, 2020). Analyzing and identifying the semantic barriers used in meaning-making frameworks to construct boundaries between opposing groups can illuminate opportunities to reconstruct social representations in intractable conflicts. By first decategorizing and recategorizing representations of outgroups, as Gaertner et al. suggest (2000), it gives groups the ability to discuss how they represent their worlds and leave opportunities to build new representations of perceptions of historical narratives.
The understanding of knowledge in the context of dialogue and historical narratives is best illustrated through the ideas of Linell (2009) and Marková (2003b) (as cited by Gillespie & Cornish, 2009): the keys to achieving successful discourse is understanding historical, cultural and social contexts, as well as personal, intuitive and intra-psychological processes in creating historical narratives. What lies at the core of successful dialogue encompasses the above components, and it is until we prioritize these that individual and collective identities will remain solidified in a historical context by semantic barriers.