From Conflict to Politics

Alastair Crooke

The Guardian, July 28, 2005

In the wake of the London bombings it is difficult to deal with issues of political violence; nonetheless, these need to be addressed from a perspective of critical thinking. This is nowhere more pertinent than in the Middle East, where this week I have been taking part in meetings to bring Americans and Europeans together to promote engagement with Hizbullah and Hamas.

It is axiomatic: as armed movements, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, find success at the ballot box, strident calls are heard for them to put aside their guns. “You can’t have it both ways,” the west argues. “You can’t be both democratic and violent.” For a few, these demands are intended to speed the transition of these groups into conventional politics, even if privately those making the calls may be sceptical that their message will be heeded. But for most, the call is based on a misunderstanding of the psychology of groups engaged in conflict. Yet history shows that more peace processes have been destroyed by premature attempts at disarmament than from any other cause.

On the face of it, the demand for those at the ballot to give up violence seems legitimate. For those of us living in stable societies it appears self-evident that politics and guns do not mix. We simply cannot understand why such groups, say in the disordered context of Palestine or Lebanon, fail to see why it is self-evidently in their best interest to give up violence. It often seems to us that owing to some mysterious personal defects, they somehow cannot seem to perceive their own self-interest correctly.

To those inside such societies, however, the reason is clear. Conflict and the experience of trauma and humiliation generate intense feelings that can be overwhelming. Here we could usefully differentiate between psychological and strategic motives.

During the last Palestinian intifada it was possible to see an entire community presenting the symptoms of trauma: an inability to sleep, deep depression, lack of motivation and loss of appetite. Psychologists tell us that humiliation and trauma typically generate feelings of violence that endure for years even among those living in stable societies.

Most of us have little experience of armed conflict, and so we do not appreciate how hard it is to make transitions under the bitter weight of anger and irreparable personal loss. If we wish to obtain our political goals we should factor this in.

Transitions from conflict to politics never occur in a moment. They take time. They require broad-based community support and a commitment to inclusiveness. Without a process that is inclusive, it is difficult for any community to overcome the feelings of anger that persist beyond any formal resolution of a conflict. Psychology also suggests that movements that see themselves as underdogs, as pursuing a just cause against overwhelming odds, are often trapped in a victim psychology – and so look to the stronger party for a gesture that will change the direction of events. This perception of victimhood leads to a deep mistrust, which makes it nearly impossible for them to disarm immediately, as it increases their sense of insecurity and thus the possibility of increased violence.

At a strategic level, this perception of the “asymmetry of power” – the conclusion of armed groups that disarmament is surrender – has its impact on the political processes. In this calculation, retention of arms is the one way of ensuring that, once a political process begins, it will be fair, because both sides will respect the other’s strength. This search for mutual respect underlies the Islamist approach to negotiations. Islamists do not believe that a durable or just solution can emerge from negotiation unless both sides bestow at least grudging respect on their adversary. “Unjust” solutions are inevitable if one side views the other with disdain or contempt for its weakness.

While largely secular movements such as Palestinian Fatah tend to look for international (and, particularly, American) support to right their asymmetric imbalance with Israel, Islamists insist that political independence is necessary if a durable solution is to be achieved.

Hizbullah provides one such model. Its resistance to Israel has gained it the grudging respect of the Israeli political establishment, thereby allowing it to successfully negotiate prisoner releases with the Sharon government. For Hizbullah, resistance and respect are closely linked – and the only means to achieve a political solution.

Our rhetoric, of “they can’t have it both ways” should be taken with a pinch of salt. History is replete with examples of negotiations that take place in parallel with continued resistance. The US negotiated with the Vietnamese in Paris without the need for a ceasefire. Likewise, US authorities are now engaging with the Sunni resistance in Iraq to persuade it to join a political process – though no voices are raised in Europe or America demanding its disarmament as a pre- condition of such talks.

Demilitarisation of a conflict cannot be ignored of course. We should, however, be cautious of allowing our desire to see this happen speedily become hostage to those who may use such good intentions to construct preconditions to engagement. They may do so in the certain expectation that such hurdles will never be surmounted.

What is important at the outset is not disarmament. The removal of weapons as a threat to others should be the first priority. Gradually this may lead to disarmament, but only as confidence and trust in a political process grows. This takes time. Transitions are always protracted and the path subject to reversals. We should expect this. But the path should not begin with an insurmountable hurdle.

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