The Political Psychology of Competing Narratives: September 11 and Beyond

Many Americans are deeply troubled by the often tepid reactions from the Muslim world to the September 11 attacks and by the images of street protests in Muslim countries against U. S. military actions in Afghanistan. These reactions have led to a spate of stories in the popular press and television asking, “Why do they hate us?” and for some they signal the existence of a clearly defined enemy who, by not signaling that they were with us, must be against us. Isn’t this the clash of civilizations that Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington described almost a decade ago pitting Islam against the west?

As a political psychologist I have been particularly interested in how people make sense of complex, emotionally powerful events and why different, seemingly contradictory, accounts of what seems to be the same event co-exist. These different accounts, often referred to as narratives, matter for at least three different reasons that I explore in this short article. 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. Second, they can reveal deep fears, perceived threats, and past grievances that drive a conflict. Third, narratives are important because they sanction certain kinds of action and not others. For example, defining the September 11 attacks as an act of war provided support for different kinds of responses than defining them as a criminal act would have done. By focusing on narratives I am not dismissing the importance of the structural features of the contemporary international system or of the competing interests of different actors. Rather, they are not my focus in this short article.

First let me say something about what a psychocultural narrative is and how this concept can help us understand and manage conflict. Narratives are explanations for events (large and small) in the form of short, common sense accounts (stories) that often seem simple. However, the powerful images they contain and the judgments they make about the motivations and actions of their own group, and others, are emotionally significant for groups and individuals. Narratives are not always internally consistent. For example, they often alternate between portraying one’s own group, as well as an opponent, as strong and portraying them as vulnerable. Narratives meet a number of different needs people have. They are especially relevant in times of high uncertainty and high stress. Just at the moments when people are most disoriented, such as the period following September 11, we struggle to make sense of events, and shared narratives which are reinforced within groups help people find reassurance and to cope with high anxiety. Groups with divergent beliefs and experiences construct different narratives of the same event. However, it is crucial to understand that narratives are not made from whole cloth but are grounded in selectively remembered and interpreted experiences and projections from them. Finally it is important to understand that all cultural traditions have access to multiple pre-existing narratives that provide support for diverse actions in times of stress, as we can see in the many varied citations from the Koran and the Bible to justify responses to September 11.

Within communities, high social stress and anxiety produce pressures towards conformity once a narrative emerges, although as new events unfold there can be questioning and conflict around, and change in, a narrative. Political leaders intuitively know that building consensus using the key elements in a narrative is crucial in mustering support for their actions, which they present as “naturally” following from shared understandings. In short, we can understand agreement on narratives as public opinion formation that is both an effort by individuals to reduce uncertainty and the stress accompanying it, and by leaders to mobilize public support.

Deep threats to identity are among the strongest feelings people have in bitter conflicts. Usually these involve perceived denigration and humiliation. In violent conflicts, the fears also include concern for physical security and fears of extinction of self, family, and the group and its culture, including its sacred icons and sites. In times of high stress, narratives connect individual and group identity producing a sense of linked fate among people that is likely to inhibit social and political dissent. Disagreement quickly becomes disloyalty and often those holding dissenting views are careful not to express them in public settings or even in private ones.

Consider two accounts, the first of which resonates for most of the American public and the second of which baffles many Americans:

Two huge commercial jetliners smash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Soon after, the buildings collapse. Fires rage for days; eyewitnesses tell of the horrors they saw or experienced. Thousands die as the public learns that terrorists willing to commit suicide hijacked four planes and turned them into weapons of mass destruction in the name of their political/religious beliefs. This is an evil act and an act of war—a sneak attack like Pearl Harbor. It is perhaps a new kind of war, but a war nonetheless and the only response to being attacked is to attack back both to punish those responsible for the carnage and to prevent future attacks. Defending civilization against terrorism requires hunting down the supporters and perpetrators of terror and the regimes that support them.

For many the truth of this narrative is self-evident. Anyone denying or even questioning it is either an enemy or delusional (or both). The link between the events themselves and the conclusions is seamless to those who accept it. But a different narrative also exists:

Two huge commercial jetliners smash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Soon after, the buildings collapse. Fires rage for days; eyewitnesses tell of the horrors they saw or experienced. Thousands die as the public learns that terrorists willing to commit suicide hijacked four planes and turned them into weapons of mass destruction in the name of their political/religious beliefs. This may have been an evil act, but now the suffering Americans know what it is like to live in physical terror. It is an experience Palestinians and Iraqis and others in the Middle East have known for years. This will lead, once again, to attacks on Muslims, this time in Afghanistan, and perhaps in other countries. Once again, innocent civilians will bear the brunt of the suffering from the attacks from the western powers while corrupt regimes give tacit support to the US. As bombs fall from 30,000 feet and civilians die, new refugees will be created in a land that has already suffered from more than 20 years of on-going war.

The two narratives start in the same place, but then head in different directions which evoke far different images. Where the first emphasizes the reassurance a strong, military response can offer, the second expresses fears that this strong response will quickly become a vengeful attack on a vulnerable religious community. Whereas the first invokes images of justice, the second predicts uncontrolled revenge and more of the injustice that has long characterized the relationship between the west and Islam. It asks, if Americans claim that justice is so important, why have Palestinians been neglected for so long and subjected to frequent attacks using American-made sophisticated weapons? Why are Iraqi children unable to meet their basic nutritional needs while its leaders literally live in palaces? In short, the second narrative expresses the deepest vulnerabilities, humiliation, rage at both the west and the leaders of Muslim countries, and fears of annihilation.

The second narrative is connected to the anger and resentment against the US in many parts of the Islamic world, but it doesn’t mean that all Muslims agree with it or hate the US. The power of the narrative is its plausibility, meaning that it resonates with how many Muslims understand historical conflicts with the Christian world as well as more recent events in their own lifetimes. At least four events are especially relevant here: (1) American support for the Shah of Iran and complete opposition to the Iranian revolution; (2) unconditional support for Israel despite their refusal to take significant steps towards the achievement of a Palestinian state; (3) the Gulf War, which was justified in the west in terms of turning back Iraqi aggression but which was widely understood by Muslims as propping up autocratic, unpopular and corrupt regimes upon whom American oil supplies depended; and (4) threats to Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem resulting from not only American presence in the region but the more diffuse forces of modernization and globalization which threaten Muslim cultures. A psychocultural analysis points towards the deep fears and humiliations these events have unleashed and links them to parallel past experiences.

One could view the two narratives as support for the view that the world can be neatly dichotomized into two groups—those who are for us and those who are against us and that therefore further explosive and escalating conflict is inevitable. It is further possible to attribute the attitudes and behaviors of those involved solely to their culture and religion. However, to do so would be a serious oversimplification with policy implications whose consequences are likely to exacerbate, rather than ease, future problems. Instead, the complexity and ambiguity of the narratives themselves, as well as the experiences underlying them, have significant implications for future American policy in the region and for thinking about bridging what seem like two completely incompatible worldviews.

There are times when conditions move a group to apparent unity, but many others where internal differences are highly significant. Often our language implies that opposing parties are unified, while in fact, when we speak about virtually any conflict, we should recognize the considerable diversity within each side. Many Americans are struggling to articulate a narrative that recognizes the horrific inexcusable nature of the attacks, the injustices of previous western actions against Islamic peoples, and the risks of defining the situation as war. Similarly, many Muslims are puzzling about how to balance their disgust at the attacks with their equally strong rejection of American policies which support corrupt, authoritarian regimes in the region, and their opposition to high-tech military action which threatens Muslim civilian populations. Also worth noting is that the two narratives described above have some important points of agreement and other areas where there are differences of focus (the recent attacks versus past injustices) but not necessarily explicit disagreements. Recognizing this complexity, as well as the diversity of opinions and complexity of feelings within each side, is a first step in finding ways to emphasize common concerns or to articulate areas of possible congruence.

By revealing emotional “hot spots,” narratives not only promote understanding of the deeper roots of complex conflicts; they also point towards opportunities for strategic intervention and identify barriers to change. Narratives can change but not necessarily when they are directly confronted. Simply telling people their story of events is wrong is rarely successful because there is often great emotional attachment to an account that is defended from such frontal assaults. It is the images and organization of most narratives that explains their power, not the facts in them.

A psychocultural change strategy requires the introduction of new experiences and/or the introduction of new emotional connections that alter the salience of elements in the narrative of key actors in a conflict and invite new and/or revised linkages among their key elements. This understanding of narratives has significant implications for future American policy towards the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. Let me suggest the following constructive steps that follow from this analysis. These suggestions are based on the hypothesis that narratives are produced interactively and that change in how one group experiences an opponent alters their own narratives and subsequent behavior.

Better listening and learning. The US needs to better understand the roots of anger, and even rage, directed towards it from parts of the Muslim world. It is easy to point the finger at demagogic figures, such as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, but the question should focus not just on the hate and propaganda they are distributing but also on why their audience seems so receptive. It is far easier to understand the motives of sellers than buyers. However, it is necessary to understand the deeply rooted vulnerabilities, fears, and humiliations so many Muslims feel towards the west in general and the US in particular and to recognize the importance of past experiences and perceptions in current reactions.

Acknowledgment. There is a long and bitter history of relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and the Muslims still have vivid, bitter cultural memories of the massacres and desecration of their holy sites during the Crusades, the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, and European colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pope John Paul II’s visit to a mosque in Damascus in 2001 (the first ever by a pope) was a small effort to acknowledge this past. It might easily be contrasted with President Bush’s reference to the war against terrorism as a Crusade in the first days after September 11. Acknowledgment can be both verbal and symbolic. It involves empathy without necessarily communicating apology or agreement. What are acknowledged are the deep feelings and threats a group feels. This can be painful for all sides but it can result in a lowered intensity of feelings or even, when accompanied by meaningful actions, a rearrangement of connection among elements in a narrative.

New policies, actions and labels. The US administration has worked hard to define its response as an attack on terrorists and their supporters, not one against the Muslim world. It is not yet clear how successful this definition has been in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran given the deep distrust of the US. Actions are needed which communicate this message more fully. It is also important that the US make a major effort towards a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and change its policy towards Iraq, which both is ineffective in achieving its key goals, and also puts the US in a completely untenable humanitarian position. Probably the most difficult challenge will be to stop turning a blind eye to oppressive, corrupt regimes just because they happen to be aligned with the US or supply needed resources. Making social justice and democratization in the region a high priority is long overdue and the US has to recognize that some of the strongest voices for democratization and egalitarian development are sometimes Islamist. If the US continues to support regimes throughout the region which suppress all dissent, especially when it speaks with an Islamic voice, the US will continue to be the target of increased anger that arises from hopelessness and gives rise to extremist and terrorist groups.

When asked at a press conference on October 11, 2001 why people in the Muslim world hate the US, George Bush expressed amazement and replied, “That’s because they don’t know us.” Some might respond that “they know us all too well.” The answer I have offered here doesn’t deny that knowing an opponent can sometimes improve a relationship; rather it draws attention to the role that structural relationships, specific policies, and deep emotions play in complicated, deep conflicts. In no way is it a justification for the horrible acts perpetrated on innocent people on September 11; my effort at explanation is aimed at understanding some of the underlying dynamics at work to make such future actions less likely. The US military action may well achieve a number of its immediate goals. However, only when the deepest fears of each side are both understood and addressed, and the narratives of all parties become more complex and nuanced, will events such as September 11 become less likely. Where the clash of civilizations argument (offered by both Huntington and bin Laden) presents the conflict between Islam and the west as inevitable and enduring, the perspective here suggests that despite the deeply rooted historical nature of this conflict, there is much that can be done in the coming years to transform the conflict in more constructive directions and to lower its salience and intensity.