. 2
( 11)


social scientists are so ready to be, at least partial, constructivists, while popular
conceptions are primordialist? Probably this gap between social scienti¬c formulations
about social identity and popular images tells us a lot that is useful about how people
understand the social world, about our powerful need to see social categories as ˜˜real™™
and stable, and about the threats posed to individual identity by a constructivist view of
the social universe.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

mechanisms as a motivating principle for group action. The interest
maximization argument emphasizes attachments, and changes in attach-
ments, as a function of costs and bene¬ts rather than affective sentiments
(Hardin 1995). It can explain, for example, the decline in the twentieth
century of German-American ethnic organization and identity due to the
social cost of ¬‚aunting this identity in the context of two world wars. It
fails to do as well, however, in explaining the persistence of small language
communities such as Catalans, Norwegians, or francophone Que
given the cost to individuals and societies when they refuse to abandon
their language in favor of a more widely spoken one.
Psychocultural interpretations are the shared, deeply rooted worldviews
which help groups make sense of daily life, and provide psychologically
meaningful accounts of a group™s relationship with other groups, their
actions and motives (Ross 1995).22 Psychocultural narratives are the
aggregation of interpretations into accounts of a group™s origin, history,
and con¬‚icts with outsiders, including its symbolic and ritual behaviors.
Interpretations and narratives are at the core of shared systems of meaning
and identity that de¬ne cultural communities (Ross 1997). While it is
often easy to dismiss in-group accounts as incorrect or irrational and
therefore irrelevant ˜˜just-so™™ stories, to do so would be as foolish as it is
for a psychoanalyst to tell a patient he or she had just recounted a stupid
dream. This response is not methodologically useful, for it throws out
important information that can provide both understanding and a point
of entry for peacemaking efforts (Roy 1994).
Interpretations and narratives arise from the human need to make
sense of experience, which is at the core of our capacity to learn and to act
upon our environment. Yet the same factors that push actors to make
sense of a situation also lead to cognitive and perceptual distortion in
identity con¬‚icts because the desire for certainty is often greater than the
capacity for accuracy. Not only are disputants likely to make systematic
errors in the ˜˜facts™™ underlying interpretations and narratives, but
homogeneous social settings and the presence of cultural ampli¬ers also
reinforce these distortions. What is most crucial, however, about inter-
pretations and narratives regarding a con¬‚ict is the compelling, coherent
account they offer to each group in linking speci¬c events to that group™s
I use the term ˜˜psychocultural™™ because I am interested in interpretations of the world
which are widely shared among people in a culture and which are acquired through
psychological processes. For further elaboration of this concept see Ross (1993a; 1995;


general understandings. Central to these accounts is the attribution of
motives to parties (Pruitt and Rubin 1985: 103). Once identi¬ed, the
existence of such motives seemingly makes it easy to ˜˜predict™™ another™s
future actions, and through one™s own behavior to turn such predictions
into self-ful¬lling prophesies.
A second factor that propels the interpretive process is the ambiguity
and complexity of most ethnic con¬‚icts. While participants in any dispute
can often tell someone ˜˜just what the con¬‚ict is about,™™ this precision is
usually illusory (Roy 1994). Opposing parties operate from very different
frames of reference; as a result they don™t agree about what a con¬‚ict is
about, when it started, or whom they consider involved. The ambiguity of
most events means they can be interpreted in different ways, and to deal
with this ambiguity groups turn to readily available interpretations and
narratives that then shape subsequent behavior. This, of course, is what
makes ethnic con¬‚ict so dif¬cult to contain and manage and why
ambiguous events are selectively interpreted as con¬rming evidence for
preexisting beliefs. Furthermore, since many disputes involve parties with
a long history of con¬‚ict, older grievances are easily appended to newer
ones as political conditions warrant. For all of these reasons, it is
appropriate to suggest that rather than thinking about particular objective
events which cause con¬‚icts to escalate, we ought to be thinking about the
interpretations of such events that are associated with escalation and those
that are not.
Shared identity is both a cause and a result of shared images and
interpretations. Group members often go through common develop-
mental experiences including shared events that are incorporated into
their personal identity (Ross 1995: 526“31). The process of within-group
identity formation overemphasizes what it is that group members actually
share, giving greater emotional weight to common elements, reinforcing
them with an ideology of linked fate, and frequently overestimating
within-group uniformity (Turner 1988).
Psychocultural narratives are invoked in psychocultural dramas, which
are con¬‚icts between groups over competing, and apparently irresolvable,
claims that engage the central elements of each group™s historical
experience and their identity and invoke suspicions and fears of the
opponent (Ross 2001). Psychocultural dramas are polarizing events about
non-negotiable cultural claims, threats, and/or rights that become
important because of their connections to group narratives and core
metaphors central to a group™s identity “ precisely the kinds of events in
Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

which cultural expressions play a leading role. These events emphasize the
role of symbol and ritual in claim making and group mobilization,
especially around contested cultural expressions (Kertzer 1988). They are
rarely fully resolved, but they are settled for a time when the con¬‚ict is
rede¬ned away from incompatible principles to the symbolic and ritual
domain where disputants can emphasize shared concerns and super-
ordinate goals. Psychocultural dramas offer an excellent analytic tool for
examining cultural contestation and for understanding new possibilities
for managing ethnic con¬‚icts constructively, because they reveal core
issues for the parties in con¬‚ict.

Culture, identity, and con¬‚ict mitigation
Polarization and escalation around contested cultural expressions is
common in ethnic con¬‚ict. However, these are not the only possible
outcomes. Groups in con¬‚ict also draw on culture to rede¬ne long-
standing con¬‚icts in more constructive directions (Kriesberg 2003).
While all groups are able to de¬ne outside enemies in cultural terms, all
cultural traditions also contain core images of peace and peacemaking,
which can serve deescalation and reconciliation (Gopin 2000). As a result,
con¬‚ict articulated around cultural issues offers an opportunity to reduce
the intense emotions associated with contested identities and can serve as
a powerful mechanism to bring former opponents into new institutional
arrangements. For example, in the American South, con¬‚icts over the
Confederate battle ¬‚ag and civil war monuments have often been harsh
and unyielding. However, there are states, such as South Carolina and
Georgia, and local communities, such as Richmond, Virginia, in which
dialogue between white and black southerners has produced new, partially
shared, narratives of the suffering and experiences of people from all
communities in the past (Chapter 10). As a result, people have developed
constructive outcomes that have included new, redesigned, and relocated
¬‚ags and monuments that are more inclusive, that acknowledge losses on
all sides, and that reinforce inter-group understanding and tolerance.
Attending to cultural expressions is not a substitute for politics and
negotiation, but it can be a valuable supplement to them. Signed agree-
ments between long-standing opponents, such as Protestants and
Catholics in Northern Ireland, are only one step in the peace process.
From a cultural perspective, implementation of agreements obliges us to
recognize interpretation and narrative as signi¬cant parts of peacemaking

and peacebuilding either by developing new inclusive cultural expressions
that link different communities or by rede¬ning existing ones so they
become less threatening and exclusive.
The new cultural expressions and narratives that develop in peace-
making and peacebuilding processes begin with the parties™ frames of
reference, and their recognition, often implicit, that cognitive approaches
aimed at persuading opponents to change their positions are almost
always efforts that fail when used alone. A more productive approach
must acknowledge the threats to identity that groups perceive and seek to
diminish them and in so doing to create space to actively and jointly
envision alternatives to ongoing confrontation. Con¬‚ict mitigation from
this perspective occurs when there are explicit connections made between
inclusive cultural images and metaphors, and events on the ground. This
can be seen in changes found in verbal expressions and gestures, such as
occurred when white South Africans began to see majority rule as
coming soon and many worked to facilitate it (Sparks 1995). Mutual
acknowledgment of prior loss through symbolic and ritual expression,
when linked to a common future, can supplement interest-based bar-
gaining or efforts at cognitive rede¬nition (Volkan 1988; 1997). Cultural
expression of emotional and ritual acknowledgment does not mean
abandoning one™s position, but can provide room for creative reformu-
lations that can result in new more complex, more inclusive symbolic
landscape, and less directly opposed identities, for example the emergence
of a European identity after World War II (Kelman 1999).23

What psychocultural analyses can and can™t answer
Psychocultural analyses often tell us little about the speci¬c interests that
will emerge as critical in a con¬‚ict and why the parties de¬ne their
identities around one set of concerns rather than another. While psy-
chocultural analyses can offer plausible explanations for the de¬nition of a
con¬‚ict once it has emerged, the theory behind the approach is not yet
powerful in suggesting why one form of expression will become so much
more contested than another. A third problem is that psychocultural
analyses focus on broad-gauged phenomena and can easily ignore the role
In divided societies, there are few shared symbols and rituals and often those that are
strongly positive to one group have a completely opposite meaning for the other side.
When rituals, such as recast holidays and festivals, link previously disputing groups, they
can support new narratives of coexistence and even reconciliation.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

of proximate forces, including institutions, that direct a con¬‚ict in one
direction or another. Fourth, while a psychocultural analysis may point to
cultural expressions that arouse strong emotions, by itself it says
relatively little about what a group will do in a given situation. When will
arousal lead to collective action, and when is it associated with anger and
Psychocultural examinations of ethnic con¬‚ict can inform us about the
ways the parties understand unfolding events, the core issues that are at
stake, and the way they express their fears. They offer evidence con-
cerning the way the parties frame a con¬‚ict, its intensity, and what is at
stake in it. These offer valuable clues to make sense of a con¬‚ict™s
dynamics and insights about matters that must be addressed for it to be
managed constructively. The narratives surrounding a con¬‚ict are not just
re¬‚ectors of the con¬‚ict but operate as well as exacerbaters and inhibiters
of further con¬‚ict, and play a causal role in make certain courses of action
more plausible and appealing than others. However, the fact that exam-
ining culture and cultural contestation can be helpful for examining
ethnic con¬‚ict and identity doesn™t mean that cultural analyses have no
limitations or weaknesses. Quite the contrary. Ethnic con¬‚ict is not just
about identities but also about tangible interests and power, constitutional
arrangements and values (Ross 1993a; 1993b). Lastly, an exclusive focus
on culture can mask underlying structural issues, homogenize groups, and
essentialize differences (Avruch 2003).

Plan of the book
This book develops an approach to understanding identity con¬‚icts, their
escalation and mitigation. Central to the argument is the hypothesis that
bridging incompatible identities in long-term ethnic con¬‚icts is not
simply a matter of ¬nding a clever interest-based constitutional formula
for sharing a limited pie. Rather, solutions must also address basic threats
to identity and the intense sense of victimization expressed in cultural and
political acts. This requires both institutional and informal procedures
that promote the rede¬nition of con¬‚icts, advance con¬‚ict mitigation, and
facilitate reconciliation between long-standing opponents. To accomplish
these goals, we need to better understand the role of culture and its
enactment in speci¬c ethnic con¬‚ict situations and its potential for con-
¬‚ict mitigation. The cases considered here are not a random sample of
ethnic con¬‚icts in the world but rather a selection of those in which

cultural contestation is a prominent feature, and that exhibit signi¬cant
variation in their intensity and violence. I selected the cases on the
dependent variable because my goal was not to estimate how often
identities were crucial in ethnic con¬‚ict but rather to examine in detail the
role of psychocultural dynamics in ethnic con¬‚ict. I would, however,
hypothesize that the longer a con¬‚ict continues and the more intense it
becomes, the greater the likelihood that identities will be important.
Chapters 2 and 3 provide the tools of analysis with an emphasis on
psychocultural narratives, rituals, and dramas that animate group identity
with important political consequences. The argument is then articulated
through the exploration of speci¬c cases of cultural contestation; it is clear
that once one begins to look for this phenomenon in deeply rooted
con¬‚icts, they are not hard to ¬nd. The speci¬c issues of contentious
cultural expression examined in Chapters 4“10 illustrate somewhat
different features of this phenomenon as I analyze the role of cultural
performance and memory in Loyal Order parades in Northern Ireland,
language policy and regional identity in Spain, the holy sites in the Old
City of Jerusalem, Muslim headscarves in French public schools, memory
and memorialization in post-apartheid South Africa, and the display of
the Confederate battle ¬‚ag in the United States. In each of these con¬‚icts,
even as each con¬‚ict has taken different forms over time, fundamental
identity issues raising deep fears about each of the parties™ cultural and
even physical existence are at stake. In these cases, cultural rede¬nitions
have been central in shaping whether, and how, there has been con¬‚ict
mitigation. The ¬nal chapter re¬‚ects on the ¬ndings of the cases and
emphasizes the role of cultural expressions, narratives, and ritual
acknowledgment in peacemaking and reconciliation.


The political psychology of competing narratives

How do people make sense of complex, emotionally powerful events and
why do different, seemingly contradictory, accounts of what seems to
outsiders to be the same event so frequently coexist? A short answer is that
the different accounts re¬‚ect the divergent socially and culturally rooted
experiences of opposing groups. Each group expresses collective mem-
ories and perceptions through narratives that seek to make sense of its
experiences and to explain events in terms of their interpretations of past
and future actions. Shared narratives recount and reinforce emotionally
signi¬cant events and experiences within a group, sometimes through
dramatic rituals but also as they frame daily interactions and behaviors.
Psychocultural narratives offer an entry point to examining intergroup
con¬‚ict. In focusing on narratives I am not dismissing the importance of
the structural features of states or the international system, or the com-
peting interests of different actors. However, structures and interests are
not my focus here.1 Narratives matter for at least four different reasons.2
First, a narrative™s metaphors and images can tell us a great deal about
how individuals and groups understand the social and political worlds in
which they live and explain the con¬‚icts in which they are involved (Roy
1994). Second, they can reveal deep fears, perceived threats, and past
grievances that drive a con¬‚ict. Third, narratives are important because
they privilege certain actions over others. Fourth, recounting narratives,
Exploring connections between cultural frames and interests, strategies and alliances is an
important question that is recognized but not explored here.
My interest here is solely in the narratives the parties in a con¬‚ict recount, not in the
analytic narratives that academic or other analysts develop to explain the unfolding of

The political psychology of competing narratives

or storytelling, is part of the processes through which communities are
constructed and strengthened (Roy 2004).
Narratives can be analyzed in several ways. On the surface level, nar-
ratives are stories about the unfolding of events. At a deeper level, they
reveal the motivations and reactions of the parties, sometimes explicitly
and sometimes indirectly, through the emotionally signi¬cant images and
metaphors they invoke. Analysis of narratives at these different levels
helps us understand what is motivating the parties in a con¬‚ict. Of great
analytic signi¬cance is what a narrative includes and excludes. Opposing
parties™ narratives do not necessarily directly contradict each other.
Rather, opponents draw on distinct metaphors, emphasize different
actions, cite clashing motivations, and communicate different affects to
such an extent that it is sometimes hard for a na±ve observer to recognize
that the narratives protagonists offer are describing the same con¬‚ict. We
need to consider all of these factors to develop constructive solutions.
This chapter has four sections. The ¬rst discusses nine features of
psychocultural narratives and their origin in deeply rooted collective
memories, cultural worldviews, and group identity. Second, I explore the
diverse, but not mutually exclusive, roles narratives play in intense con-
¬‚icts: as re¬‚ectors, exacerbaters or inhibiters, and/or causes of con¬‚ict.
Third, I consider how narratives are signi¬cant in developing constructive
solutions that move a con¬‚ict toward settlement. Good settlements must
meet the real interests of the protagonists, but they must also be framed to
address the emotional fears and threats that drove the con¬‚ict in the ¬rst
place. Central to this process is the development of new narratives, ones
which do not directly challenge older ones, but which reframe them in
more inclusive terms that deemphasize the emotional signi¬cance of
differences between groups and identify shared goals and experiences.
Finally, as one example I examine competing Israeli and Palestinian
narratives to illustrate the general points made about narratives in the ¬rst
three parts of the chapter. This part emphasizes the core events, per-
sonalities, and images in each group™s account in an effort to show how
the same events are understood so differently by each side and how they
serve as signi¬cant barriers to peacemaking.

Psychocultural narratives
Psychocultural narratives are explanations for events “ large and small “ in
the form of short, common sense accounts (stories) that often seem

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

simple. However, the powerful images they contain, and the judgments
they make about the motivations and actions of one™s own group and
opponents, are emotionally powerful. Narratives are not always internally
consistent. For example, group narratives often alternate between por-
traying one™s own group as especially strong and as especially vulnerable “
and the same holds for the portrayal of the opponent (Kaufman 2001).3
Narratives meet a number of needs and people are especially likely to
rely upon them when they are disoriented and struggling to make sense of
events in situations of high uncertainty and high stress. In such contexts,
group narratives with their familiar shared images provide reassurance and
relieve anxiety while reinforcing within-group worldviews. Yet it would be
foolish to suggest that within-group narratives are fully consistent or that
there is no variation in how members of an in-group understand a narrative
or the parts of it they emphasize. Rather, narratives are best understood as
existing at different levels of generality, and as having elements that can be
added, discarded, rearranged, emphasized, and deemphasized. All cultural
traditions have access to multiple existing narratives that provide support
for diverse actions in anxious times. Narratives, therefore, are not made
from whole cloth, but are grounded in selectively remembered, interpreted
experiences and projections from them that resonate widely in a group.
Psychocultural narratives have a number of features relevant for the
analysis of group con¬‚ict. Here I describe nine of these to which I return
throughout this book in the analysis of speci¬c con¬‚icts: past events as
metaphors and lessons; narratives as collective memories; selectivity;
fears and threats to identity; in-group conformity and externalization of
responsibility; multiple within-group narratives; evolution of narratives;
enactment of narratives; and ethnocentrism and moral superiority claims.
These features are not mutually exclusive; many have overlapping ele-
ments, but the particular combinations and emphases vary in ways that are
analytically useful.

Past events as metaphors and lessons
Emotionally meaningful narratives are rooted in shared culture and
worldviews that are ¬lled with deeply emotive images and meanings that

The general argument is found in LeVine and Campbell (1972). A speci¬c recent example
is that although the US is by far the world™s strongest military power, a recently published
book on the US military is titled America the Vulnerable (Lehman and Sicherman 2002),
a post 9/11 theme that is frequently echoed.

The political psychology of competing narratives

provide the psychocultural narrative™s building blocks. Narratives invoke
the past in response to contemporary needs. ˜˜By placing the present in
the context of the past and of the community, the myth of descent
interprets present social changes and collective endeavors in a manner
that satis¬es the drive for meaning™™ (Smith 1999: 62). At times narratives
manipulate time sequences through what Delivre calls ascending and
descending anachronisms (Bernbeck and Pollack 1998: S140). The
ascending anachronism pushes an event back in time away from the
present to confer legitimacy on it, while the descending anachronism
reaches back in time, ignoring large gaps so that people in the present can
claim it as their own. These processes serve political claim-making by
linking a selectively remembered past to the contested present in defense
of the in-group.
Narratives are normative accounts with heroes and villains and lessons
about how life should be lived. They offer in-group versions of the past,
including the origin and development of the group; they invoke past
threats and con¬‚icts and enemies; and they laud group survival. In some
cases, there is a conscious effort to develop a narrative with an eye toward
future political goals, as was the case in Israel during the Zionist period, in
South Africa among Afrikaners following the Boer War, and again in
South Africa as part of the peaceful transition to the post-apartheid
present (Moodie 1975; Thompson 1985; Zerubavel 1995). In most
situations, however, worldviews and the narratives to which they give rise
are much more like patchwork quilts sewn and re-sewn over a long time
Harkening back to historical events, such as battles, that make up
collective memories is one common way in which a shared community of
experiences is communicated. Serbs emphasize the defeat of Prince Lazar
´becers continue to mark the swift English victory
in Kosovo in 1389, Que
over the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, and some French still
remark that it was the English who burned Joan of Arc. These references
offer a direct link between a shared identity in the present and one in the
past that is constructed more to meet contemporary needs than to re¬‚ect
historical reality via descending anachronisms that overrepresent continuity
between past and present. Weber™s (1976) masterful analysis of the
transformation of identity in nineteenth-century France is very relevant
to the argument that the past is often understood through the needs
of the present via ascending anachronisms. The French today regard
themselves as having a long national history and identity. However,
Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

Weber argues that in the French countryside there was only a weak
identi¬cation with the state and French culture as late as the mid nine-
teenth century and that elites in Paris saw their mission as one of bringing
civilization to the primitive peasants. His detailed account shows how
peasants were transformed into patriotic Frenchmen and women between
1870 and 1914 through improved transportation and communication
networks, universal primary education in French, and military service.
The development of a strong French identity produced a population
ready to make sacri¬ces in World War I after which the sense of a much
longer-standing national identity was further strengthened, in part, to
explain the high cost and sacri¬ce the war entailed.
Narratives exist at different levels of speci¬city.4 Some focus on general
questions such as the origin of the group, while others are built around
particular events such as a single battle or the fate of a past leader.
Narratives rely on timeless images and metaphors, and this ˜˜time col-
lapse™™ evokes the emotional rather than the chronological immediacy of
the past (Volkan 1997). Signi¬cant dates in a group™s emotional history
are often centuries old. For Protestants in Northern Ireland it is William
of Orange™s victory in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, for Catalans it is
their loss of autonomy in 1714, while for Jews, it is the destruction of the
Second Temple in AD 70, reinforced by the Holocaust. The signi¬cance
of these long-ago events is their lessons and warnings about the present. It
is misleading and too simple to regard people citing events from the past
as either prisoners or exploiters of it. Rather, past events are signi¬cant
because the lessons drawn from them are viewed as timeless truths rele-
vant to each generation.

Narratives as collective memories
Ethnic groups commonly recount their narratives in a chronological
fashion that blends key events, heroes, metaphors, and moral lessons
(Kaufman 2001). These recountings can be usefully thought of as col-
lective memories and products of social interaction and individual
memory processes (Devine-Wright 2003: 11). Collective memories, as
Halbwachs (1980) and others have pointed out, are selective and what is
Some authors use the term ˜˜master narrative™™ for an account that is, for example,
associated with a group™s origin or its more general core values, to distinguish it from more
speci¬c narratives that recount speci¬c events or the life of an important ¬gure in the
group™s history. I prefer simply to say that some are more general than others.

The political psychology of competing narratives

emphasized is facilitated through socially produced mnemonic devices
such as physical objects that become repositories of group memories. Social
memory for Nora is at odds with history and ˜˜takes root in the concrete,
in spaces, gestures, images and objects™™ (1989: 9).5 For Connerton too,
collective social memory is clearly different from the more speci¬c activity
of historical reconstruction, which is more dependent upon evidence than
is social memory (1989: 13“14). He argues:
We may say, more generally, that we all come to know each other by asking for
accounts, by giving accounts, by believing or disbelieving stories about each
other™s pasts and identities . . . We situate the agent™s behavior with reference to
its place in their life history; and we situate that behavior with references to its
place in the history of the social settings to which they belong.
(Connerton 1989: 21)

Groups, from this perspective, remember many of the same events,
battles, and heroes that a historian might consider important. However,
the explanations for them, and how the two modes of understanding
interpret their signi¬cance are often highly divergent. In addition, while
groups see collective memories as unchanging, objective accounts of a
group™s history, it is clear that not only are there often major changes in
emphasis and the speci¬c events or people included in group narratives
over several generations but at any one time there is also variation in
which memories are most salient across generations (Devine-Wright
2003: 13). Memories associated with historical events may often be far
more recent and develop as political claim-making a good deal after the
event took place. For example, the French did not celebrate Bastille Day
until a century after 1789, the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in Northern
Ireland only became signi¬cant in the nineteenth century (Roe and Cairns
2003: 174), the 1838 Battle of Blood River in South Africa was unmarked
for several decades after it took place (Thompson 1985:164), and the
emotional connections between Jewish and Muslim identity and the holy
sites in the old city of Jerusalem have been dramatically strengthened in
the past century. Thus particular events whose lessons and metaphors are
emphasized can vary as collective memories evolve.
The objective manner in which collective memories are often
recounted should not blind us to their emotional signi¬cance as links

What Nora (1989) terms lieux de memoire does not seem to be best understood as only
physical sites of memory for they are not simply locations that hold memories but can be
located in images and expressions as well.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

between the individual and the group as well as the past and present.
Otherwise how could we explain the strong reactions people have to
totally non-utilitarian physical objects such as buildings, potsherds, and
statues on the one hand and to household objects on the other?
Connerton (1989) asks how collective memories are conveyed and
sustained. While he sees a role for unconscious dynamics, his emphasis is
on social processes that make connections to the past that are useful in the
We experience our present world in a context which is causally connected with
past events and objects . . . [and] We may say that our experiences of the present
largely depend upon our knowledge of the past, and that our images of the past
commonly serve to legitimate a present social order.
(Connerton 1989: 2“3)

For Connerton, the past matters because it shapes our present needs.
My argument emphasizes the opposite relationship, namely that how we
understand the past grows out of our present needs. The difference is
parallel to the distinction between ascending and descending anachron-
isms. However, like Connerton, I emphasize the role that social partici-
pation and especially ritual commemoration play in conveying and
sustaining knowledge about the past, a topic to which we turn in
Chapter 3. For him, commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices are
important because they are performative, and participation builds com-
mitment to the group and to its core narrative. Like Halbwachs (1980),
Connerton emphasizes that through group membership ˜˜individuals are
able to acquire, to localize and to recall their memories™™ (1989: 36).
Memories exist in relationships and because the group is interested in
the memories they ˜˜provide individuals with frameworks within which
their memories are localized and memories are localized by a kind of
[group] mapping™™ (Connerton, 1989: 37).

Events in the present and the past and memories of them are used in complex
ways as groups selectively focus on events, individuals, and how they are
linked. For this reason, while group narratives refer to the past, they are
different from a history of the group.6 The selectivity arises for at least

Nora (1989) explores the complex relationship between memory and history.

The political psychology of competing narratives

three reasons; ¬rst, the narrative™s focus on emotionally signi¬cant events
is central in prioritizing what is included and how central its role is;
second, narratives are a form of na±ve realism, offering an account of the
unfolding events that, while presented as objective, makes no effort to
understand an adversary™s perspective; and third, an opponent generally
receives little attention in the in-group narrative. Because present needs
and challenges shape the narrative™s relevance, speci¬c events in it shift in
importance, elaboration, and emotional signi¬cance over time.
As a result, it is sometimes the case that when faced with competing
narratives of groups involved in a con¬‚ict, outsiders may believe that they
refer to different places or the same place at different points in time. Even
when it is clear that this is not the case, the shared images and explana-
tions for events that opponents provide often seem to have little in
common. Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, for example,
while agreeing that there has been signi¬cant violence in the past
thirty-¬ve years, generally offer highly divergent explanations of the
events, just as whites and blacks in the United States provide differing
narratives on race relations. What this says is that actions rarely speak for
themselves and must be interpreted within a wider cultural narrative
(Bates, Figueiredo, and Weingast 1998).

Fears and threats to identity
Narratives are central to understanding ˜˜who is a people,™™ to spelling out
what in their ˜˜imagined past™™ is shared, what dangers they face, and
offering a dream for their future. These narratives articulate an ethnic
conception of the nation and its past that emphasizes the group™s com-
munity of birth and shared culture (Smith 1991). Even in minimal con-
¬‚icts with no physical danger, individual and group self-esteem seems to
be quickly invoked and defended, affecting judgments about worthiness
and resource allocation (Brown 1986; Tajfel 1981). In bitter con¬‚icts,
among the strongest feelings people express are fears about physical
attacks on their group, and about symbolic attacks on its identity. While
the distinction between physical and symbolic attacks is not hard to make
conceptually, it is much harder to separate the two in the heat of a real
con¬‚ict. Both fears involve feelings of vulnerability, denigration, and
humiliation that link past losses to present dangers. Fears can be about
physical security and/or the extinction of the self, family, and the group
and its culture, including its sacred icons and sites. For example, even
Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

where directly related deaths do not occur, Smith (1991) uses the term
ethnocide to describe deliberate efforts to destroy a community™s cultural
icons. Recent examples of such attacks include the Hindu dismantling of
the mosque at Ayodhya in Northern India in 1992, destruction of cultural
treasures and mosques in Bosnia (Sells 1996), the Taliban™s toppling the
ancient huge Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001, and government
schools for Native American children in the early twentieth century that
removed children from their families, prohibited them from speaking
their language or wearing their traditional clothing, and even insisted on
cutting their hair to resemble mainstream notions of civilization.

In-group conformity and externalization of responsibility
All groups exert conformity pressures on their members, and these are
greatest in high-stress con¬‚ict situations when there is assumed high
within-group agreement about the meaning of events, heightened in-
group solidarity, an intensi¬ed sense of linked fate that inhibits social and
political dissent, and blame for the con¬‚ict directed outside the group
(LeVine and Campbell 1972: 21). As part of this dynamic, disagreement
quickly becomes disloyalty, and often those holding dissenting views are
careful not to express them publicly, and sometimes even in private.
Within communities, high conformity pressures increase acceptance of
the dominant elements in a narrative. This does not mean, however, that
once a narrative emerges, it is unchangeable. Quite the opposite; as new
events unfold, there can be questioning and con¬‚ict around, and change
in, a narrative following the emergence of alternative versions of events.
For example, in South Africa there was high consensus among Afrikaners
about the justice of, and religious basis for, apartheid when the Nation-
alist Party ¬rst came to power in 1948, but by the 1980s there was
widespread rejection of many of its core elements which meant the
Afrikaner narrative no longer had the same broad emotional appeal. In
this context, majority rule and the idea of Afrikaners as white Africans in a
rainbow nation became more acceptable.
Political leaders know intuitively that building consensus around the
key elements in a narrative can be crucial to mustering support for their
actions, which are presented as ˜˜naturally™™ following from shared
understandings. In short, building active public consensus around a nar-
rative is a form of public opinion formation that both provides a strategy
on the part of leaders to mobilize public support and helps individuals
The political psychology of competing narratives

reduce their own anxiety. A good indicator of this dynamic is the greater
homogeneity of publicly expressed opinions, greater public agreement on
key parts of the dominant narrative, and externalization of responsibility
for the con¬‚ict onto an out-group as a con¬‚ict heats up. For example,
prior to the outbreak of the Gulf War in January 1991, American public
opinion as expressed in surveys, newspaper editorials, and in Congress
was quite divided on the question of the war with Iraq. Once the ¬ghting
began, however, public support for military action increased dramatically.
This is seen at the level of political elites as well. Just a few days before the
outbreak of ¬ghting, the Senate narrowly voted in favor of action. Within
a few days, however, few Senators publicly offered signi¬cant criticism of
the war effort. Few surveys, however, clearly identify the extent to which
people actually change their attitudes toward what they perceive as the
dominant view in their society versus the extent to which they engage in
what Kuran (1995) calls preference falsi¬cation to avoid ostracism or even

Multiple within-group narratives
There are times when group consensus around a narrative increases, but
there are others when within-group differences remain highly signi¬cant.
Often our language implies that opposing parties in a con¬‚ict are
internally uni¬ed, although the reality in most long-term con¬‚icts is that
there is considerable diversity within each community that re¬‚ects sig-
ni¬cant debates and disagreements. In Northern Ireland and the Middle
East, for example, for a long time there have been strikingly different
narratives within both the majority and minority communities over the
use of violence and the conditions under which peace is possible. These
disagreements re¬‚ect deep differences in the fears the con¬‚ict evokes and
contrasting motives attributed to the other side, and different images of a
desirable future. Within each group, there are some who view the other
community as capable of living in relative peace and harmony with their
own group, and others for whom any move toward peace is viewed with

Noelle-Neumann (1993) describes a different dynamic as ˜˜the spiral of silence,™™ arguing
that for many people the fear of social isolation is more important than holding an
unpopular belief. Consequently, people are quite attuned to public opinion in their society
and not only are less likely to speak out when they perceive themselves in a minority but
also change their opinions. Smith, Bruner, and White (1956) also identify social motives as
signi¬cant in opinion formation especially for issues that are not crucial to people.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

suspicion, heightened insecurity, and is perceived as a potential ¬rst step
toward even greater demands. These competing interpretations some-
times re¬‚ect in-group differences in interests, but the emphasis here is on
their very divergent emotional interpretations.
There is no simple relationship between culture and narratives, just as
Eller (1999: 8) notes that there is no one-to-one correspondence between
culture and ethnicity. The very ¬‚exibility of culture means that it can give
rise to multiple narratives to cope with the same event or series of events.
These narratives may compete, as in the Northern Ireland and Middle
East examples in the previous paragraph, or they may coexist, providing
complementary perspectives on the same experience. Linenthal (2001b)
illustrates this idea particularly well in his examination of how Oklahoma
City residents, in particular, and Americans more generally, came to
understand the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal building, which
killed 168 people. He describes three different, but not necessarily
incompatible, narratives to explain the attack and responses to it. The
progressive narrative emphasized renewal and recovery as people struggled
to rebuild the city and their lives. The redemptive narrative put the horri¬c
events in a religious context, emphasizing the struggle between good and
evil and ultimate redemption. The toxic narrative stressed the ongoing
disruption and insecurity in many lives after the bombing and the losses
that could not be restored. Linenthal™s analysis shows how each of these
narratives is deeply rooted in American culture. They exist side by side, he
argues, and many survivors and family members of victims could readily
identify how each of the three re¬‚ected their own experiences and emo-
tions at different times.8

Evolution of narratives
While a key feature of narratives is how they frame the past, it is often the
case that the meaning of the past is contested and periodically rede¬ned
both within and between groups. For many years, American historians
and educators have had bitter disagreements over what should be taught
in social studies and history courses (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 2000).

A fourth narrative Linenthal (2001b: 81“108) identi¬es is one that focuses on the role of
trauma in the aftermath of the bombing. This account, he argues, dominated the response
of health professionals and some government agencies. It was signi¬cant in medicalizing
and individualizing responses to the events, and providing health care professionals with a
standard, acceptable formula for treating those touched by them.

The political psychology of competing narratives

Con¬‚icts over the control of historical narratives are fought out in
decisions about museum presentations and battle¬eld and other mem-
orials (Linenthal 1993; 2001; Linenthal and Engelhardt 1996). Con-
temporary con¬‚ict over the past is intense because it has implications for
group identity in the present.
As con¬‚icts evolve, contested cultural expressions and their sig-
ni¬cance shift. Eller (1999:141) notes how in Sri Lanka pre-existing dif-
ferences were reinterpreted to emphasize antagonism and hostility rather
than tolerance and exchange. New issues can emerge or ones that were
latent for a long time can heat up quickly. For example, Jewish migration
to Israel over the past 120 years increased the emotional signi¬cance of
Jerusalem™s holy sites for Muslims and in response raised the signi¬cance
of places in the old city for Jews, an issue that is explored in Chapter 6.
Similarly, after 1991, language issues emerged as signi¬cant foci of con-
¬‚ict in former Soviet Republics, often taking on an intensity that many
had not expected a decade earlier (Laitin 1998).

Enactment of narratives
Powerful narratives are far more than simple verbal accounts. Music,
drama, and art, often ¬lled with richly powerful images, enact and rein-
force psychocultural narratives. ˜˜We Shall Overcome,™™ the anthem of the
American Civil Rights Movement, still brings tears to the eyes of many
participants and supporters, evoking not only memories of the struggle,
but also of its goals. Collective memories are often symbolized through
physical objects and sites that represent group identity and through rituals
that enhance a narrative™s persistence and emotional signi¬cance. Exam-
ples of this connection abound in group holidays and rituals that assert
relationships between the present and past through sacred objects, holy
sites, special foods, and prayers. Zerubavel (1995: chs. 5 and 8) describes
the development of Masada in the Zionist period as a pilgrimage site for
Israeli youth, and the powerful emotional role it came to play for them.
The creation of, and visits to, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington
helped Americans to move past their pro- and anti-war positions of the
1960s and 1970s and to develop a new, more inclusive account of the
period. It is not so much that past disagreements over the war changed, but
that the events became less salient in comparison with the shared recog-
nition of the large-scale loss and suffering for families and communities
that resulted from bringing people together at the site where they shared
Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

common emotions. Flags, memorial sites, inaugural ceremonies, sacred
holidays, and state funerals are ritual objects and events that reinforce
in-group identity and the emotional power of the group™s narratives.9 Of
course, the same symbols that unify a group can also be sources of intense
con¬‚ict between groups.

Ethnocentrism and moral superiority claims
Group narratives are not morally neutral. Rather, they portray a group™s
experiences in a favorable light emphasizing moral qualities the group has
displayed in overcoming enemies and threats to its existence over time. In
recounting challenges and triumphs, groups invariably emphasize moral
qualities as the most crucial resources to explain their survival. Even when
the group has greater resources than their opponents, a group™s persis-
tence is often accounted for in terms of the group™s hard work or ded-
ication. What is notable here is the in-group ethnocentric bias in claims
that both justify a group™s collective actions and frame the group as the
protector of the highest moral virtues. This ethnocentric pattern con-
sisting of interrelated attitudes and behaviors fosters in-group solidarity
and out-group hostility (LeVine and Campbell 1972: 7“21). While the
concept of ethnocentrism posits that an in-group cannot exist without a
real or imagined out-group, its intensity can vary cross-culturally and is a
function of both out-group actions in long-standing con¬‚icts, including
particular moral superiority claims, and in-group responses to them.

Narratives as re¬‚ectors, exacerbaters or inhibiters, and causes of con¬‚ict
Psychocultural narratives matter because of the various roles they play as
re¬‚ectors, exacerbaters or inhibiters, and causes of con¬‚ict. The way

Smith is clearly talking about enactment when he writes, ˜˜These concepts “ autonomy,
identity, national genius, authenticity, unity and fraternity “ form an interrelated language
or discourse that has its expressive ceremonials and symbols. These symbols and
ceremonies are so much part of the world we live in that we take them, for the most part,
for granted. They include the obvious attributes of nations “ ¬‚ags, anthems, parades,
coinage, capital cities, oaths, folk costumes, museums of folklore, war memorials,
ceremonies of remembrance for the national dead, passports, frontiers “ as well as more
hidden aspects, such as national recreations, the countryside, popular heroes and heroines,
fairy tales, forms of etiquette, styles of architecture, arts and crafts, modes of town
planning, legal procedures, educational practices and military codes “ all those distinctive
customs, mores, styles and ways of acting and feeling that are shared by members of a
community of historical culture™™ (Smith 1991: 77).

The political psychology of competing narratives

events are framed and motives are attributed shape behavior. In short,
how people understand a con¬‚ict affects what they are likely to do about
it. When, for example, an opponent is seen as untrustworthy and insati-
able in its demands, conciliatory steps are much less likely to be con-
templated or to receive public support.
As re¬‚ectors, narratives tell us how those involved in a con¬‚ict
understand it. These re¬‚ections of their ˜˜real world™™ provide signi¬cant
cues to in-group members and can make it clear that dissenting from a
societal consensus is risky. For third parties, narratives can provide
insights into what each side needs in order to move a con¬‚ict toward a
constructive outcome. Political psychologist Vamik Volkan writes about
emotional ˜˜hot spots™™ that are part of all intense con¬‚icts. When nar-
ratives bring them to the surface (Volkan 1997), this not only promotes
understanding of the deeper roots of complex con¬‚icts, but also can
identify barriers to change and opportunities for strategic intervention.
Unless each party™s central fears and concerns are addressed, settlement
efforts are not likely to be successful. In many situations, one side in a
con¬‚ict has an incomplete, or even inaccurate, understanding of what
opponents need and how they frame the situation ( Jervis 1976). Kelman
argues that one of the signi¬cant bene¬ts of the Israeli“Palestinian pro-
blem-solving workshops he has organized for over thirty years is that key
people on each side acquired a more realistic sense of what the other side
was thinking and what they required in a settlement. The narratives
participants recounted in his workshops often surprised those on the
other side, re¬‚ecting deep fears that were central to each group that had
to be understood for movement to peace talks to occur (Kelman 1987;
1995). As a result, new understandings developed, new language and
metaphors came into use, and each understood much more fully and
realistically what a peace process and eventual settlement could look like.
Sparks (1995) describes a similar pattern in the peace process involving
the African National Congress (ANC) and the white South African
government in the 1980s, prior to Nelson Mandela™s release from prison
and the legalization of the ANC in 1990. Meeting in a variety of places,
often outside South Africa, each side developed a clearer picture of the
other™s positions and needs and concluded in this case that negotiations
could be fruitful.
As exacerbaters or inhibiters of con¬‚ict, narratives emphasize differ-
ences or commonalities among the parties that variously support con-
tinuing hostility and escalation or moderation and deescalation in
Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

response to the opponent. Sometimes a dominant narrative leaves no
room for negotiation as was the case of Franco™s national narrative of a
uni¬ed Spain that excluded all regional languages. However, following his
death, the new government quickly endorsed a different way of thinking
about being Spanish “ that a person could have multiple identities, for
example, as a Spanish citizen and as a member of the Catalan or Basque
nation. Whereas the ¬rst narrative about Spanish identity exacerbated
con¬‚ict between the central government and Spain™s historic nationalities,
the post-Franco narrative inhibited it, an issue further explored in
Chapter 5.
Narratives play a causal role in con¬‚ict when they frame cognitions and
emotions to structure and limit the actions individuals and groups con-
sider as plausible (Bates, Figueiredo, and Weingast 1998). In this process,
narratives shape what constitutes evidence and how it is to be used
(Kaufman 2001). As Smith notes in writing about myths of ethnic descent,
˜˜By telling us who we are and whence we came, ethnic myths of descent
direct our interests like Weber™s ˜switchmen™ and order our actions
toward circumscribed but exalted goals™™ (1999: 88). When narratives
portray no possible common ground between opponents, a search for
alternatives to ¬ghting is unlikely. Thus there will be political pressures
for leaders to pursue certain kinds of action, while other options will have
been already eliminated. From this perspective, narratives do not force
parties to take a particular action, if for example they lack the capabilities
or support, but narratives may be crucial in limiting the range of choices
that are considered. A good example of this is found in Holsti™s (1967:
25“96) analysis of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles™ interpreta-
tion of the Soviet Union and its motivation in the 1950s. He argues that
even when Khrushchev provided signals of a major shift in Soviet policy,
after Stalin™s death, Dulles continued to read these only as signs of
weakness, and not as possible evidence of a change of motivation and
behavior from the new leadership.

Narratives and peacemaking
Narratives are implicated in the onset, escalation, and maintenance of
ethnic con¬‚ict. However, as we have noted already, it is important to
recognize their potential in deescalation as well, because narratives
can and do evolve over time. The role of narratives in deescalation is
illustrated dramatically in the period following World War II, as new
The political psychology of competing narratives

relationships among former enemies were built in Europe and between
the US and Japan. Narratives are at play in more slowly changing rela-
tionships, such as the US and China since 1972, or US“Russian relations
in the second half of the 1980s. Evolving narratives also play a role in
peace processes in long-term con¬‚icts, such as in South Africa, Northern
Ireland, and even at times the Middle East, as groups on all sides come
to believe that movement toward a settlement is possible, even with those
who were previously viewed as ˜˜beyond the pale.™™ In these situations,
there is a signi¬cant shift in how each side describes the other (sometimes
including the name by which they are called) and the gradual emergence
of images of the bene¬ts peaceful coexistence could bring. When the
narratives begin to include more nuanced views of the other side, people
can envision a future apart from the intense con¬‚icts, and political leaders
have newly opened space to move the peace process forward.10 This
occurred most dramatically in South Africa, but in Northern Ireland and
the Middle East (prior to September 2000) the same shifts of public
opinion and discourse also could be seen.
Narratives that promote peace processes arise when there are explicit
connections made between culturally available references and events on
the ground. These connections are seen in changes in discourse “ for
example, when white South Africans foresaw the inevitability of majority
rule and many began to work toward its achievement. Changing the
narrative frame can also facilitate deescalation when it helps people
caught in con¬‚ict to envision alternatives to ongoing confrontation. In
order for this to happen, each side must appreciate the perspective of the
other, and learn that there is someone to talk to on the other side and
something to talk about (Kelman 1987; 1995).
Because narratives contain and evoke emotionally meaningful images,
we must examine their symbols and rituals. Some rituals involve very
dramatic symbolic gestures, such as for example Egyptian President
Anwar Sadat™s 1977 trip to Jerusalem and his address to the Israeli
Knesset, or Nelson Mandela donning a Springboks jersey after they won

We have little good data on public opinion and its dynamics in con¬‚ict zones. However,
surveys from Northern Ireland and the Middle East in recent years suggest that people
are often ˜˜inconsistent™™ in that many express strong distrust of the other side and its
leaders while supporting a peaceful settlement of the con¬‚ict. There is also some evidence
that opinion is very volatile and there are strong reactions to recent events, such as
movements toward peace or violent incidents, that can overwhelm long-held positions.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

the 1995 World Cup.11 Powerful narratives often include ritual behaviors
such as reenactments of historical events, the construction of memorials,
or sacred holidays when the narratives are retold and passed to succeeding
generations. When rituals include previously disputing groups, they can
serve to support new narratives of coexistence and even reconciliation. In
Northern Ireland, for example, a Protestant cultural organization in
Derry (the region™s second-largest city) recently recast its annual cele-
bratory parade in the context of a more inclusive city festival, which is
open to Catholics as well as Protestants (discussed in Chapter 4). Both in
South Africa and in southern US cities such as Richmond, Virginia, the
sacred landscape that was once the exclusive province of one group is now
more inclusive and offers both physical and emotional space for more
inclusive narratives and politics (discussed in Chapters 8 through 10).12
Narratives can and do change, but not necessarily when they are
directly confronted. Simply telling people that their version of events is
wrong is rarely successful, because there is often great emotional
attachment to an account, which is defended from such frontal assaults. It
is the images and organization of narratives, not the facts alone, that give
narratives their power. A strategy to develop more inclusive narratives
needs to be part of an effort to address the causes of con¬‚icts, but it has to
be one in which the parties fully participate “ not simply one imposed
from outside. To develop inclusive narratives as part of the peace process,
former foes need to incorporate new experiences and emotional con-
nections that alter the salience of elements in the existing exclusive nar-
ratives and invite new and/or revised linkages among their key elements.
Given the iterative and interactive nature of narrative accounts, the
development of more inclusive narratives is not a one-step process, and it
can proceed only if events on the ground change as well. For example,
when institutions and practices come to embody civic, as opposed to
Springboks is a rugby team that for many epitomized white supremacy during the
apartheid regime. Mandela™s action, and the overwhelmingly positive response to it,
clearly signaled a new relationship among all racial groups and especially blacks and
One strategy Volkan has developed for achieving greater acknowledgment is visiting ˜˜hot
spots™™ “ speci¬c places where deep differences are evoked. In Estonia, for example,
Estonians and Russians met at the site of a former Soviet nuclear submarine base, and the
Estonians articulated how the Russian use of the base was humiliating to them (Neu and
Volkan 1999). Montville (1993) developed a ˜˜walk though history™™ which involves
members from different groups visiting contested places from the past and explaining to
each other the emotional importance of the site and events that took place there for their

The political psychology of competing narratives

ethnic, nationalism, they, and the narratives associated with them, are
more inclusive (Snyder 2000).
New narratives are not always suf¬cient even when they appear more
inclusive. Several decades after the American Civil War there was sig-
ni¬cant reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans that even
included joint reunions. In this process, white northerners and southerners
developed a shared narrative that the war was fought over constitutional
differences and that the North had won because they possessed greater
resources. What was missing from this narrative of reconciliation accord-
ing to Blight (2001) and other historians is that it failed to address either the
role of slavery as a cause of the war or the plight of African Americans after
it. As a result, while the narrative was inclusive in terms of both northern
and southern whites, there was very little acknowledgment of the probably
300,000 black soldiers in the war and the thousands of black deaths. When
thousands of Civil War monuments were built in both parts of the country,
prior to 1900 only three contained any images of black soldiers at all
(Savage 1997). These white narratives permitted some healing between
white northerners and southerners in the short term; but the price of a
narrative that excluded the former slaves and successive generations is the
racial divisions that remain far from resolved 150 years later.
The goal of peacemaking and peacebuilding is not to develop con-
sensus around a single widely accepted narrative. This would be a denial
of real differences found in all long-term con¬‚icts. It would be na±ve to ¨
think that differences in culture, historical experiences, and politics could
be bridged so easily. The goal, rather, is to ¬nd suf¬cient common ground
and tolerance to allow the groups not to feel threatened by differences in
how they see the world. Paradoxically, doing this successfully often
requires that these differences be acknowledged and explored rather than
swept under the rug. In the Israeli“Palestinian con¬‚ict discussed in the
following pages, there have been some moments when such acknowl-
edgment and exploration have occurred and peacemaking has advanced,
and others where the acknowledgment process has stalled and violence
has increased. When acknowledgment occurs, more inclusive, less
threatening, and partially overlapping narratives and identities can arise
from mutual listening and acknowledgment, and a politics that empha-
sizes possible bene¬ts arising from respect and cooperation develops.
Reconciliation in this context includes ritual acknowledgment and
behaviors that expand shared space, as has taken place in post-Franco
Spain and post-apartheid South Africa.
Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

Competing narratives in the Israeli“Palestinian con¬‚ict13
Hostile narratives do not directly cause the escalatory sequences in
long-term con¬‚icts. Narratives about long-standing con¬‚icts contain the
culturally rooted aspirations, challenges, and deepest fears of ethnic
communities. One particularly poignant kind of narrative that is promi-
nent in the Israeli“Palestinian con¬‚ict is what Volkan calls a ˜˜chosen
trauma,™™ referring to speci¬c psychocultural experiences which symbolize
a group™s deepest perceived threats and fears and are ¬lled with feelings of
helplessness and victimization (Volkan 1988; 1997).
[C]hosen trauma describe[s] the collective memory of a calamity that once befell a
group™s ancestors. It is, of course, more than a simple recollection; it is a shared
mental representation of the event, which includes realistic information, fantasized
expectations, intense feelings, and defenses against unacceptable thoughts.
(Volkan 1997: 48)14

Volkan provides many examples of such events including the Turkish
slaughter of Armenians, the Nazi holocaust, the experience of slavery and
Jim Crow for African Americans, and the Serbian defeat at Kosovo by the
Turks in 1389 (Volkan 1997).
When a group experiences traumatic, overwhelming losses, normal
grief and mourning processes cannot take place, as the group feels too
humiliated, angry, or helpless to fully mourn them. In these situations,
Volkan argues, the group then incorporates the emotional meaning of the
traumatic event into its identity, transmitting it from generation to gen-
eration. He suggests that in such situations complex memorial activities
may occur for many years as each generation expects the succeeding one
never to forget the unresolved humiliation and loss. Sometimes, however,
in the face of overwhelming feelings people shut them out of their con-
sciousness and engage in symbolic expressions that convey them indir-
ectly or even in concealed ways. For example, Volkan (1997: 49) suggests
present-day Mexican folk dances sometimes act out the defeat of the

Although it is easiest to describe con¬‚icts as involving two sides, complex con¬‚icts include
many more parties, each with its own distinct interests and interpretations of the situation
(Raiffa 1982).
Some have suggested that the word chosen is not necessarily appropriate here since a
group does not choose to be victimized. Volkan argues, however, ˜˜that the word chosen
¬ttingly re¬‚ects a large group™s unconsciously de¬ning its identity by the transgenera-
tional transmission of injured selves infused with the memory of the ancestor™s trauma™™
(1997: 48)

The political psychology of competing narratives

Spanish conquistadors. In this way, group traumas come to be associated
with symbolic and ritual action.
In identity-rooted con¬‚icts, group emotions link recent events to
older, collective memories of unresolved losses in ways that make them
dif¬cult to settle. Vulnerability and fear mobilize followers and they can
make groups especially wary of agreements. ˜˜Adopting a chosen trauma
can enhance ethnic pride, reinforce a sense of victimization, and even spur
a group to avenge its ancestors™ hurts. The memory of the chosen trauma
is used to justify ethnic aggression™™ (Volkan 1997: 78).15 It is interesting
how often disastrous defeats celebrated as heroic are also traumatic for
many groups. Among the examples of this are Custer™s defeat at Little
Bighorn, the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492, and
Crusader massacres of Muslims in Constantinople and Jerusalem. While
chosen traumas arise within groups, it is clear that their content and their
salience at any one time is tied to the interpretation of their experiences
with out-groups.
The ¬‚ip side of the chosen trauma is the chosen glory in which a
group celebrates triumph over an enemy in a way that brings honor and
enhances a group™s pride (Volkan 1997: 82“83). A common example is
the celebration of national independence days. The Jews™ escape from
Egypt, a narrative of freedom and triumph, is a good example of a chosen
glory that many groups have used as inspiration (Akenson 1992). Chosen
glories include the stories of military victories and heroic ¬gures, although
the particular successes may be quite varied. In Uzbekistan, for example,
Timur (Tamerlane) is venerated for his military conquests and the reli-
gious monuments he built, while his grandson Uleg Beg is celebrated as a
wise ruler and outstanding mathematician and astronomer.

Israel“Palestine: an illustration
The Israeli“Palestinian con¬‚ict, further explored in Chapter 7, offers two
competing psychocultural narratives which illustrate the nine features of
competing narratives listed above. Each narrative is built around a chosen
trauma that informs each side™s understanding of the con¬‚ict. What is
presented here are brief historical accounts that capture key images and

The word ˜˜chosen™™ does not imply a conscious deliberate or manipulative decision
people make but deeper emotional choices about which they are often unaware.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

events in each side™s narrative. No effort is made to mediate between the
two or to judge which account of claims is more warranted; rather, I have
sought to offer each narrative in its own voice. (To navigate the narratives,
readers not familiar with the details about con¬‚ict might ¬nd Figure 6.3,
page 171 helpful.) Reading the divergent Israeli and Palestinian narra-
tives, it is not hard to see how each account presents its version of his-
torical events, justi¬es its own motivations and actions while denigrating
the other side™s, and understands its own intra-group differences. Relating
a narrative raises many terminological issues that illustrate the complexity
of identity. ˜˜Israeli™™ and ˜˜Palestinian™™ are national identities that are also
linked to, but not fully coterminous with, religious identities in that about
20 percent of Israeli™s citizens are non-Jews and perhaps 5 percent of
Palestinians are Christian, not Muslim. Furthermore, the term Arab refers
to the indigenous people in the region and is also a political identity. In
what follows, I employ these terms somewhat interchangeably, trying to
take into account context, local usage, and the perspective of the people
I describe.

The Israeli-Jewish narrative At the core of the Israeli-Jewish
narrative is the desire of Jews to return to their homeland after almost
2000 years of exile, persecution, and the Nazi Holocaust. Independence in
1948 is a story of liberation, and the triumph of Zionist hard work and
incredible determination. Exile, which began with the Roman destruction
of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, was, and is, a traumatic experience in
Jewish collective memory, kept alive in part through persecution of
European Jewry over the centuries culminating in the Holocaust. That
Jews survived in such hostile settings is a miracle, and the establishment
of their own state in their ancient homeland was a just reward for their
patience, faith, and tenacity. Arab refusal to accept this state was, and is,
an illegitimate denial of Jewish rights, which has resulted in years of
unnecessary bloodshed, and prevented the economic ¬‚owering of the
Zionism, the political movement that spearheaded the creation of a
modern Jewish state, encompassed a wide range of social, political, and
religious views. The common ground across these viewpoints was the
perceived ˜˜need to promote some form of revival of Jewish national life as
experienced in Antiquity™™ (Zerubavel 1995: 14) with emphasis on the
connections among Jews across time and space. Zionists advocating a
return to the ancient Jewish homeland rejected the lifestyle and values

The political psychology of competing narratives

represented by the long exile period. They called for a return to the land,
the dignity of labor, self-reliance, and the development of the New
Hebrew Man (Zerubavel 1995). Obtaining their own national state was
the Zionist goal, and even secular Jews saw Ancient Israel of the First and
Second Temple periods as a Golden Age and its leaders as heroes for their
wisdom and for defending their people in a region ¬lled with enemies.
Zionist immigration to Palestine began in the 1880s and many Jews
bought land and settled in small agricultural communities outside the
cities, such as Jerusalem and Safed, where small numbers of religious Jews
had lived for centuries.
Early twentieth-century Zionists drew inspiration and contemporary
lessons from accounts of ancient Israel as well as from contemporary
European nationalist movements (Zerubavel 1995). Physical links to the
past such as the remains of buildings and archeological ¬ndings provided
clear evidence of connections to the ancient struggles for self-rule and
resistance that quickly made their way into narrative accounts, school
texts, and holiday celebrations. Soon new myths and rituals merged with
older ones, reinforcing notions of a seamless continuity across the cen-
turies. The battle of Masada in 73 CE became enshrined as courageous
resistance even though it ended in mass death. Celebrations of Chanukah
emphasized the Macabee revolt against Syrian rule and downplayed the
˜˜miracle™™ of one day™s oil burning for eight days, which had been the
story™s central lesson during the Exile period. Zerubavel (1995) adds that
following the Nazi Holocaust, the lesson of ˜˜Never Again™™ further
reinforced the meaning of ancient revolts of Bar Kokhba and Masada.
Zionism™s call to bring together Jews from all parts of the world
meant that immigrants arrived in Israel with little in common other
than their religious/ethnic identity16 and a belief that Israel was their
ancient homeland, although for some people this was a religiously
motivated understanding and for others it was far more political. Thus,
the development of a common language (one that had disappeared as a
lingua franca), shared institutions, and a national narrative became a

At times, this has been contested and has produced con¬‚icts over who is Jewish and who
can decide this question. For many, the most dramatic con¬‚ict occurred over the status of
Ethiopian immigrants. Although there was widespread agreement that they were Jews and
thereby eligible to migrate to Israel under its law of return, orthodox religious authorities
insisted that differences in their ritual practices required that they undergo conversion in
Israel (including ritual male circumcision) before they could be fully accepted as Jewish

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

central part of the task of acquiring ˜˜a land without people for a people
without a land.™™17 A few made an effort to learn Arabic and build rela-
tionships with Arabs but most of these failed, and there was a growing
self-reliance, a pride in new skills that Jewish settlers learned, and an
emphasis on self-help as it became clear that the local Arab population
viewed the Jews with hostility.
The small Jewish population of Palestine grew as Jewish migration,
mainly from Europe, increased signi¬cantly after 1880, and in 1897 the
World Zionist Congress was created to work for the establishment of a
Jewish state. In 1917, toward the end of World War I, the British
Cabinet approved the declaration by Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour,
provided in a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, that ˜˜the British viewed
with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish
people™™ (Morris 2001: 75).18 The Balfour Declaration along with the
dissolution of the Ottoman Empire gave great hope to Jews (Kimmerling
and Migdal 1993: 27). However, one result was that Arab verbal and
physical attacks on Jews increased in the following two decades.
Jerusalem™s Grand Mufti, Amin al-Husseini, was particularly aggressive in
his attacks, protesting against Jewish religious activity in and around the
Western Wall, Judaism™s holiest site, and rallying followers around the
charge that Jews were planning to expel Muslims from the Temple
Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In August 1929, there were rallying cries to
protect the al-Aqsa Mosque, and Arab attacks on Jews in Jerusalem, Safad,
Tiberias, and Hebron; in the latter sixty-four Jewish men, women, and
children were killed. ˜˜The massacre of Hebron was a traumatic event in
Arab-Jewish relations that exacerbated suspicions, mutual anxieties, and
stereotypes™™ (Kimmerling and Migdal 1993: 87). Hostility continued to
grow, and in 1936 a three-year Arab revolt against the British began,
featuring many attacks against Jews, especially in isolated settlements
where self-defense proved to be the best protection. When the British

Note that this phrase re¬‚ected and reinforced a narrative which presumed that Palestine
had been ˜˜empty™™ for 2000 years, and that the Arabs living there were mere visitors. The
same image is one that the British used in describing East Africa when they ¬rst arrived
and that Stalin used to characterize Central Asia.
Morris adds that it is important to see the declaration as part of the British strategic
interest in protecting the Suez canal, gaining control over the Arab population of the
region, making sure American and Russian Jews did not support the Central powers
during the war, and providing some cover for British imperial designs. Though the British
position was not simply an ideological commitment to the idea of a Jewish state, the fact is
that Zionist leaders were delighted with it (2001: 72“75).

The political psychology of competing narratives

proposed partition in the late 1930s, Jews were generally quite pleased
even though some of the arrangements were not ideal.19
In Europe, Jews were increasingly vulnerable as the Nazis came to
power in Germany. Despite the clarity of Nazi practices and intentions,
few countries took concrete steps to protect Jews or to help them escape
to safer lands. Following World War II and the Holocaust, the case for a
Jewish state was stronger than ever but Jewish leaders had to ¬ght the
British to allow concentration camp survivors and war refugees to enter
Palestine. As the British lost the will to retain control over the region, the
United Nations endorsed a partition plan that Jews more or less accepted;
the Arabs rejected it. War broke out and at ¬rst the Arabs seemed to have
the upper hand, but after a few months, superior Jewish military orga-
nization proved dominant in the ¬ghting and Arab civilians ¬‚ed their
homes. David Ben-Gurion announced Israel™s independence in May 1948,
and the 1949 armistice agreement gave the new Jewish state more terri-
tory than the UN partition plan had granted.
The surrounding Arab states allowed Israel no peace, and the only
Arab leader who tried to make peace, Jordan™s King Abdullah, was
assassinated. Israel struggled to defend itself and to integrate new arrivals,
including at least 750,000 from Arab countries. Arabs denied Israel™s right
to exist and a period of violence against Israel began that has continued on
and off until the present. During the 1950s, the country™s ability to
quickly build new institutions and its economy was crucial to survival.
First, Egypt supported guerrilla activity inside Israel in the 1950s. There
followed a war with Egypt in 1956 in which Britain and France supported
Israel. A decade later, in 1967, three neighboring states, Egypt, Jordan,
and Syria, went to war with Israel and were quickly defeated in the Six
Day War; Israel captured the Sinai, the West Bank including East
Jerusalem and Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Jerusalem, which had been
divided from 1948 to 1967, was reunited and became Israel™s capitol. Israeli
Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, hoping for a long-term solution, moved
quickly to allow the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious communities
to control their own religious sites in the city, and the Jewish quarter that
had been destroyed under Jordanian rule was rebuilt. Nevertheless, on
Yom Kippur in 1973 the Arabs attacked Israel, crossing the Suez Canal

Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders were willing to take what they could get at that
point and they accepted the British proposal even though it would have given Jews only
20% of Palestine and did not include Jerusalem.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

from Egypt in the south and attacking from Syria in the north. Although
Israel was at ¬rst unprepared, it eventually prevailed in the ¬ghting. In the
aftermath of these wars Arab violence continued with the rise of the
Palestine Liberation Organization, its increased use of terror tactics
against Israelis, including civilians, and the bloody Black September
attack at the 1972 Olympics.
After 1967 many Israelis talked about ˜˜land for peace,™™ meaning that
the areas captured in the war might be returned to the Arab countries in
return for normalization of relations and acceptance of Israel™s right to
exist. At the same time, some advocated establishing Jewish settlements
in the occupied territories to increase Arab incentives to make a deal.
However, other Israelis spoke of the settlements in more religious terms,
as part of the right of Jews to all the land of Ancient Israel and these
differences remain at the heart of the strong tensions between religious
and secular Israelis today. In the wake of the 1973 war US-brokered
diplomatic efforts led to a disengagement agreement, and within a few
years Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Israel. In 1978, the two
countries, assisted by President Jimmy Carter and attracted by American
aid, then negotiated the Camp David Agreement, and Egypt became the
¬rst Arab country to recognize Israel.
In the agreement, Israel agreed to return the Sinai lands captured in
1967 in return for formal Egyptian recognition, hoping that this outcome
would be the foundation for a lasting peace. However, this did not lead
either to more peace treaties with other Arab countries or to a settlement
with the Palestinians. Rather, there were a number of dramatic PLO and
other terrorist attacks that made strong Israeli responses necessary. In
1982, Israel, under attack from groups in southern Lebanon, invaded the
country with the goal of removing PLO guerrillas in the south. Deter-
mined to deliver a knockout punch to the PLO, the army, supported by
some Lebanese Christians, continued to Beirut where they routed the
Palestinians. The PLO leadership then moved to Tunis.20 In 1987,
organized Palestinian resistance became rampant in the West Bank and
Gaza as youths spearheaded the home-grown Intifada, or uprising. The
result was many deaths on both sides and a crippling of the economy.
Then, following the Gulf War, the US initiated another peace process
beginning with a conference in Madrid in 1991, which was the ¬rst time

The 1982 Lebanon war was highly controversial within Israel and the focus of many
protests over the years. Israeli troops were not withdrawn from Lebanon until 2000.

The political psychology of competing narratives

Israel met of¬cially with Arab states other than Egypt. Soon, secret
negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began in Norway, lead-
ing to the Oslo Agreement signed at the White House in September 1993
that brought great hope for peace to the region.
As part of the agreement, Israel allowed the PLO under Yasser Arafat
to return from exile to the West Bank and Gaza, and they set up a
provisional Palestinian Authority. Despite the good faith shown by the
Israelis, negotiations between the two sides proceeded slowly and tensions
mounted within and between both Israel and the Palestinians. Many
Israelis felt that the PLO were not living up to the Oslo Agreement. In
1995 a Jewish extremist totally opposed to any peace agreement assassi-
nated Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin; Hamas and other Palestinian
groups resumed terror attacks; and right-wing Likud leader Benjamin
Netanyahu returned to power.21 Relations between the two sides wor-
sened despite yet another summit held at Camp David under the auspices
of Bill Clinton in 2000 with the goal of reaching a ¬nal status agreement.
Palestinians had already signaled a possible return to violence, and a
second Intifada erupted after Likud leader Ariel Sharon, accompanied by
a large security contingent, visited the Temple Mount in September 2000.
Palestinian suicide bombers attacked civilians inside Israel and settlers in
the West Bank and Gaza. Israel responded by reoccupying these terri-
tories and began building a wall/fence to separate the Palestinian terri-
tories in the West Bank from Israel.22 Negotiations ended despite several
American led efforts to get the peace process back on track when it was
clear that Arafat was not a partner for peace. With Yasser Arafat™s death in
November 2004, there were again hopes for a diplomatic initiative, but
for this to occur, Israel insisted that the Palestinian Authority rein in
terrorist groups. When this did not happen, Prime Minister Sharon
moved to act more unilaterally and to disengage Israel and the Palesti-
nians. In 2005 with strong public support for withdrawal, Israel withdrew
from its settlements in Gaza. In early 2006 Hamas scored a victory in the

A tit-for-tat pattern developed in which Israel would target Palestinian terrorists in Gaza
or the West Bank and in response the group whose member was killed would launch a
suicide attack against Israel. The cycle would continue with each side citing the latest
incident by the other as the reason why it needed to respond.
The wall, or fence, was controversial for several reasons. The main reason was that it
often ranged far inside the west bank and expropriated signi¬cant amounts of Palestinian
land. Earlier a fence was built separating Gaza and Israel and has proved to be an effective
barrier against in¬ltration.

Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict

Palestinian elections and Israel said it would have nothing to do with the
Palestinian Authority although it would continue to deal with Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinian narrative The trauma at the core of the
Palestinian national narrative is 1948. Al-Nakba, the catastrophe, is seared
in their collective memory as a time of exile, humiliation, and catastrophic
loss when families, and even entire villages, were uprooted and lost the
land and olive groves where they had lived for generations (Khalidi 1997;
Sa™di 2002). To solve the consciences of the countries across the world
who had mistreated the Jews, thousands of Palestinians became refugees
in camps in Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, although the Palestinian
leaders and Arab governments promised that they would one day return
to their homes.
Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, see themselves as descendants
of the Arab peoples, including the ancient Canaanites, who have lived in
the region for centuries. They also recognize their common origin with
Jews as descendants of Abraham, and their common history as victims of
Christian oppression. Palestine™s borders have often been unmarked,
however its center in the Judean Mountains has always been clear
(Kimmerling and Migdal 1993:3). Often nominally ruled by outsiders
including the Jews, Romans, and Ottomans, the Palestinian population is
descended from nomadic Bedouins and hill farmers. For most of this
period, however, local groups were largely autonomous as political power
and land ownership rested in the hands of local families. Palestinian
society was rural and the few cities and towns in the region such as
Nablus, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, were the centers of commerce and religious
life with strong ties to the hinterlands. Palestinian political identity
emerged as part of a larger process of political change and the emergence
of states following World War I; it was not simply a response to Jewish
immigration (Khalidi 1997: 20).
Zionist claims and Jewish immigration were, however, signi¬cant
factors in strengthening Palestinian national identity. For many Palesti-
nians, Zionist demands for a homeland and access to Jerusalem™s holy
sites recalled the Crusades and earlier European efforts to dominate the
region. The increasing European interest in Palestine and the establish-
ment of consulates toward the end of the Ottoman period reinforced
their vulnerability, as they were increasingly made pawns in a much larger

The political psychology of competing narratives

political game.23 With the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising the Jews
a homeland in Palestine, the continuing in¬‚ux of immigrants, land
sales, and the establishment of the British League of Nations mandate
Palestinian fears rose rapidly.
In response to these threats, the Palestinians developed various forms
of resistance that in the next three decades had two targets “ the British
rulers and the expanding Jewish community “ as they sought to defend
their villages, their land, their way of life, and their emotionally important
sites such as Jerusalem.24 Palestinian resistance focused on two forms of
Zionist encroachment: on the Jewish acquisition of land, often from
absentee landlords, and on Jerusalem (Kimmerling and Migdal 1993:
64“95). There was a signi¬cant Muslim campaign in the 1920s to restore
the city™s Muslim holy sites and to resist regular Jewish attempts to
modify the Ottoman status quo regulations regarding Jewish prayer at the
Western Wall, which represented a growing encroachment on their
holiest site in Palestine. In 1928“29, when the Jews made changes
including placing a divider to separate men and women who had come to
pray and storing religious materials at the wall, Muslims rallied to for-


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