'Us' and 'Them': Terrorism, Conflict and (O)ther Discursive Formations

by Steven Talbot
Defence Science and Technology Organisation

Sociological Research Online 13(1)17

Received: 20 Mar 2007     Accepted: 15 Mar 2008    Published: 21 Mar 2008


Research into terrorism has traditionally examined the relationship between terrorist activity and a variety of economic, religious, and geopolitical issues associated with modernity and globalisation, in an attempt to understand and explain this global phenomenon. This paper extends this inquiry further by exploring the extent to which the construction of Self and Other dichotomies are used as instruments for domination, self actualisation, and mobilisation within discourses of terrorism and security.

The paper proposes that issues of Otherness are a vital and often missing component in understanding terrorism and counter-terrorist activity. In doing so, it argues that the construction of 'polarised collective identities' which accentuate perceived (cultural) differences between terrorists and their intended targets (and their respective host nations) play an integral role in shaping how we identify and respond to emerging threats. Furthermore, it is suggested that the construction and maintenance of these identities not only has a tendency to homogenise populations, but also creates antagonistic and conflict-orientated relationships resistant to resolution.

Keywords: Identity; Self/Other; Discourse; Terrorism; Conflict; Security


1.1 Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Its origins can be traced back almost two thousand years ago when the Jewish Sicarians and Zealots employed it as a tactic against the Romans, through to more recent occurrences of insurrectional terrorism of a national/separatist character employed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Chechens (Hess, 2003). But terrorism, from the relatively comfortable geographic isolation enjoyed by Australia was always something that happened ‘out there,’ somewhere in the Third World, or the former USSR and parts of the Middle East. However, the events of September 11 and the subsequent bombings in Bali have altered this view.

1.2 These events have also triggered an avalanche of commentaries from various sources trying to come to terms with, or explain the significance of these attacks. Most prevalent have been psychologically inspired analyses of terrorism which seek to explain motivations for attacks in terms of personality types, and mental illness or psychological deviance (Borum, 2004; Horgan, 2005; Silke, 2001). Demographic, religious, and socio-economic factors have also been employed as a lens through which to explain terrorism (Bendle, 2002; Ehrlich and Liu, 2002; Kibble, 2002). In this context, fundamentalist religious ideology (on both sides), socioeconomic and political inequalities, and perceived structural imbalances associated with a capitalist world-system are highlighted. While others, like Armitage (2003), Johnson (2002), Kellner (2002) and Norris and Inglehart (2002) have interrogated Huntington’s (1996) ‘clash of civilisations’ framework which concentrates on the world-scale polarising effects of globalisation and expansionism, and its implications for understanding identity in essentialist ways. The ensuing ‘wash-up’ from this commentary is that terrorism is the result of multiple psychological, sociological, and geopolitical ‘causal factors,’ and the corresponding consequences of modernity and increased globalisation. The authors highlighted above are concerned with not only identifying existing structural (pre)conditions for terrorist activity, but also the individual, cultural, national and strategic identities of agents.

1.3 As a point of departure, this paper aims to explore the significance of identity1formation and negotiation as it pertains to various representations of terrorism. Particularly, this paper examines the ways in which adversarial identities are socially constructed according to notions of difference which simultaneously encourages a comparison to, and rejection of, [O]thers. Drawing upon the notion of the Other, this paper examines some of the ways in which identity is constructed through a variety of social and historical processes, and articulated within a range of discourses evoking different and often mutually exclusive combinations of sameness and difference. Using a social constructionist lens, I argue that representations of terrorism are constructed from within specific discourses which accentuate difference. My analysis therefore positions identity formation within a dynamic and relational context where discursive representation, ways of knowing, power and language intertwine.

1.4 Consequently, the following discussion explores identity formation and terrorism through an interpretive, constitutive and discursive lens. I start my discussion with an overview of the socially constructed or constituted nature of identity. This is followed by an exploration of the roles various discursive frameworks play in shaping representations of identity. I then examine some of the implications for viewing terrorism and identities within dichotomous frameworks, particularly within notions of Self and Other, and consequently, the discursive practice of ‘Othering.’ Finally, I interrogate the relational and discursive context of identity further by exploring the relationship between the above theoretical concerns as they pertain to polarised collective identities and intractable conflicts.

Socially constituted identities

2.1 Identity construction pertains to the creation, maintenance and articulation of social identities by individuals or groups. Rummens (2001), draws a distinction between personal and social identities. Personal identity usually refers to the result of an identification of self, by self, or in other words the self-identification on the part of the individual. Social identity in contrast refers to the outcome of an identification of self by others, or the identity that is assigned an individual by another (p.3). Both of these concepts differ from self-identity, the individual self which is reflexively understood and worked upon by the individual through self-monitoring and self reflection (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991).

2.2 Sociological research into identity tends to focus on issues concerning the ascribed nature of identity, and the social construction and negotiation of group differences, whereas psychological approaches are more inclined to look at identity development and formation within the individual (i.e. identity searching, self concept and identity crisis). However it is important to remember that identities are not just ascribed or ‘achieved’ through socialisation processes, but are also socially constructed and negotiated between social actors. Through a sociological lens, identities by definition are socially constituted phenomena. In this sense, an individual’s or group’s identity is created, negotiated, and actively recreated through interaction with others. Identity can therefore be viewed as being a verb – it is something that one does, or is accomplished through social interaction (West and Zimmerman, 1987).

2.3 Identity underscores how humans organise and therefore understand their social world. The notion of collective identity has been examined in classic sociological constructs like Marx’s (1977) ‘class consciousness,’ Durkheim’s (1960) ‘collective conscience’ and Weber’s (1922) Verstehen (meaningful understanding). The commonality between these works is found in their emphasis on shared attributes, similarities, or the ‘We-ness’ of groups (Cerulo, 1997, p.386). Thus, the construction of group identities often involves a normative component, or in other words, individuals need to be able to recognise themselves in certain qualities, characteristic or behaviours associated with their group (Schulte-Tenckhoff, 2001, p.6). This recognition of ‘we-ness’ is important given the origins of the term identity. Identity finds its linguistic roots in the Latin noun identitas, with titas being a derivation of the Latin adjective idem meaning the same. Thus, the term is comparative in nature in relation to sharing a degree of sameness with others (Rummens, 2001, p.3). Identity is therefore a relational construct, or as Connolly astutely asserts, ‘[t]here is no identity without difference’ (1995, p.xx).

2.4 More significantly, identity constructions often emerge in response to the types of political systems governing that society. Political systems are extensions of societal identity. For example, liberal democracy is a political structure that forms and reflects a part of a societal identity construction in that it proscribes certain ideals and practices which inform members of liberal democratic societies how to live together and treat others. In turn, the pursuit of political goals is also linked to the pursuit of identity (superpower identities inform superpower interests). Consequently, a political system can also be viewed as a source of threat to societal identity (Hughes, 2004, p.26). As Hughes observes, for those societies who draw their identity from non-liberal democratic (Western) traditions, the liberal democratic structure, and the values contained within this structure, may be perceived as a threat to group identity. The rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden is an example of this, with its emphasis on acts of violence against the Western, liberal democratic influences and their perceived threat to Islamic identity.

2.5 Political structures and associated organising principles exert influence on political agendas, policy and collective self-definition. Moreover, political elites create, manipulate and dismantle identities of nations and thus shape the subsequent construction of allies and enemies (Corse, 1996; Gillis, 1994; Zerubavel, 1995 cited in Cerulo, 1997 p.390). Identity shifts can therefore also occur based on changing socio-political factors, for example, as a result of changing policy, increased ethnic politics, and political activism. Constructivists would contend that identities, norms, and culture play an integral role for understanding world politics (and related policy) and international relations, particularly with its emphasis on those processes through which behaviour and identity construction is conceptualised and legitimated by various political agencies. The roles knowledge construction and discourse plays in facilitating this process will be explored in the following discussion.

Discourse and identity

3.1 Cultural constructions of identity are shaped by ‘a series of specific dialogues, impositions, and inventions’ (Clifford, 2004, p.14). Such a position invariably requires a closer examination of the relationship between identity construction, language, power, knowledge creation and associated discursive practices.

3.2 For Hall, a discourse:

‘defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others’ (1997, p.44).

3.3 The same discourse (which characterises a way of thinking or the given state of knowledge at one time) can appear throughout a range of texts, across numerous sites. When these discursive events refer to the same object, say terrorism for example, and share a similar style and support a strategy, they are said to belong to the same discursive formation (Hall, 1997, p.44). It is through these discursive formations that things/practices acquire their meaning. However, discursive representation is not a benign practice, for it is often those in positions of power and authority who are able to construct ‘reality’ and thus knowledge itself. As Klein (1994) explains:

‘[a] discourse, then, is not a way of learning ‘about’ something out there in the ‘real world’; it is rather a way of producing that something as real, as identifiable, classifiable, knowable, and therefore, meaningful. Discourse creates the conditions of knowing’ (cited in George, 1994, p.30).

3.4 Foucault contends that knowledge is a form of power, and that power is present or exercised within decisions regarding what circumstances knowledge is applied or not. Moreover, Foucault argues that knowledge (when linked to power) assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ and has the power to make itself true through a variety of regulatory and disciplining practices (Hall, 1997, p.49). Knowledge (ways of knowing about others through discursive representations) therefore is constructed by humans through their interactions with the world around them and is a reflection of existing social, historical and political factors, and as such, is never neutral.

3.5 In his analysis of the socially constructed nature of knowledge, Foucault explores the production of knowledge through discourse, and particularly how knowledge about the social, the individual, and associated shared meanings are produced in specific periods. In Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1988) and The History of Sexuality Volume One (1981), Foucault provides examples of the shifting historical significance of sexuality and mental illness and the emergence of deviant identities. In this respect, mental illness and sexuality did not exist as independent objects, which remained the same and meant the same thing throughout all periods. Rather, it was through distinct discursive formations that the objects ‘madness’ or ‘heterosexuality’ emerged and appeared as meaningful constructs. Sexual relations and desires have always been present, but the constructs ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were produced through moral, legal, and medical discourses and practices. Through these discourses and practices, behaviours and acts were aligned with the construction of ‘types of’ people or identities - identities which were subject to medical treatment and legal constraints designed to regulate behaviour. In this respect, social and self identities are a consequence of power reflected in historically and institutionally specific systems/sites of discourse.

3.6 As social constructs, it is important therefore to view knowledge and discourse production through the socio-historical conditions in which they are produced. In this respect, discourses concerning terrorism, security dilemmas and threat, and world order, are produced within specific historical, geographical and socio-political contexts as well as within social relations of power. Furthermore, the controlling and legitimising aspects of discourse are such that proponents of violence are not likely to construct a narrative that is contrary to their values. For instance, Al Qaeda is unlikely to construct a narrative that posits them in a contrary manner to their own moral values by engaging in ‘terrorist’ activities. Rather, they would position themselves as acting morally, and as victims of oppression or humiliation (Cobb, 2004). Similarly, the US and her coalition allies are also likely to construct a narrative which posits their involvement in a ‘fight against terror’ within a discursive framework of liberty and democracy, rather than expansionist or imperialist terms.

3.7 This paper now turns its attention to some of the ways in which identities are constituted through discursive practices which accentuate difference or sameness through the use of binaries.

Dichotomous logic and identity construction

Self/Other binaries

4.1 Notions of self and other and their implications for identity formation have been explored through psychoanalytical and postcolonial inquiry. In his book The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders (1971), the founder of the psychology of the self Heinz Kohut extends Freud’s theory of narcissism (which has a dual orientation) in his examination of narcissistic rage and accompanying desires for revenge, and introduces the idea of ‘self-object relationships and transferences’ associated with mirroring and idealisation. Lacan (2002) also draws upon the notion of mirroring in regard to the identity formation of infants. Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ occurs when the infant recognises its reflection and begins to view itself as being separate from its mother, or observes its mirrored image as viewed by the mother. The mirror stage represents the initial recognition of self as a unified subject, apart from external world and the ‘Other.’ This ‘Other’ (the first ‘big Other’ in an infant’s life being the mother) is fundamental to the constitution of self, as well as sexual identity.

4.2 In his foundational work Orientalism (1978), Edward Said examines the historical construction of the East (Them/Other) and West (Us/Self) as essentially different entities through discursive practices. Drawing upon Foucault’s notion of discourse, Said contends that Orientalism is a discourse:

by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period (p. 3).

4.3 Such a discourse draws upon assumptions that are imperialist by design, privilege European sensibilities and representations of the Other, and reinforce ideas concerning the fixed nature of states of being and difference (McDowell, 2003). Said argues that Orientalist ideas can be found in current representations of ‘Arab’ cultures as backward, lacking democracy, threatening and anti-Western (2003). Similarly, Occidentalism2 can be found in stereotypical representations of an “imperialist, corrupting, decadent and alienating West” (Nadje Al-Ali cited in Freund, 2001). As I suggest later, these representations have become a feature of the current Western perceptions of terrorism.

4.4 As a practice, Othering is not solely a province of East versus West relations, but also exists as a strategy within other non-Westerns nations. For example, Shah (2004), Kennedy-Pipe and Welch (2005) and Baev (2007) note how the ‘war on international terrorism’ discourse has been used by Russia to legitimate it actions against former Soviet republics like Chechnya.

4.5 Within a sociological context, identity discourse is often characterised by issues concerning essentialising and marginalising social groups, as well as totalising and categorising individuals and groups (Gaudelli, 2001, p.60). Categorisation results as a response to diversity, wherein categorisation assists with making the diversity (of people) more understandable. As a consequence of this, people become viewed as being more typical of certain categories (eg. a Muslim from Iraq is stereotypically viewed as being ‘Muslim’ in comparison to an Australian Muslim in Cronulla within some discursive frameworks). Following the construction and application of these categories, is a tendency to essentialise (belief in essence) as is evident in notions of ‘the laconic Aussie,’ ‘the whingeing Pom,’ and the ‘fanatical terrorist.’ In this sense, the act of ‘naming’ is akin to ‘knowing.’

4.6 Dividing practices evident in the categorisation and essentialising processes which inform the production of binaries reflect power struggles, as they primarily entail an external authority imposing a ‘condition of life upon people’ (Gaudelli, 2001, p.74) that are supposed to have certain essences. These power relations become evident in the abilities of claim-makers or particular agents to make certain discourses, categories and labels acceptable and make them ‘stick’ as it were. In turn, essentialism results in reifying culture by viewing cultural systems as being discrete and homogeneous units (nationally, ethnically and ideologically), which are ‘naturally given’ and fixed in locality (Jones, 1999). Here it is important to remember, that it is not culture that is ‘found’ or ‘discovered’ out in the field, but individuals who act and interact and express their views of culture (Schulte-Tenckhoff, 2001, p.5). This paper contends that it is the relations between groups and related boundary making practices (insider/outsider, Self/Other) rather than ‘traits’ which are important indicators and producers of identity. As discussed above, binaries such as those of Self/Other have a tendency to convey world views in concrete, simplified and often imperialist ways (Berry, 2006). The process of ‘Othering’ is commensurate with identification (as culture, community, or nation) which further entails an act of differentiation, authentication, and at times, exclusion – creating boundaries between members of the ‘in’ group and outsiders. In this sense the:

‘Self/Other relation induces comparisons used by social actors to describe themselves or to describe others, depending on their location. In locking a given group into a substantially transformed identity, one constructs and immobilises this relation so that it operates in favour of those to whose advantage it is’ (Schulte-Tenckhoff, 2001, p.11).

4.7 Self/Other relations are therefore ‘matters of power and rhetoric rather than of essence’ (Clifford, 2004, p.14). Within this context, boundary-making practices are a way of ‘locking’ ‘imagined communities’ into strategically informed ontological states of being. Moreover, these boundaries are inter-subjectively determined, that is, they are constructed through an emphasis on only a subset of many identity labels that apply (eg. religion). President George Bush has described his war on terror as a ‘crusade’ and a ‘divine plan’ guided by God. These sentiments are similar to Islamic calls for Jihad, with religious terrorists viewing themselves as God’s people and their enemies as God’s enemies, ‘infidels’, or sinners. As a consequence, for both sides, the conflict takes on the form of a ‘spiritual battle.’ Thus religious doctrine acts as fuel for Islamic-based terrorism as it does for the US led ‘war on terror’. Inside this discursive framework, both would contend that each party’s religion is the only meaningful one (Berry, 2006 p.4). Indeed, the construction of identity plays a key role in relation to the prospect for religious and political violence. Hence, identity claims invariably informs interests. The call by fundamentalist Islamists for a Jihad on Western nations for example is a realisation of both interests and identities simultaneously. In this sense, identities and interests are mutually reinforcing concepts and incapable of being pursued separately (Hughes, 2004, p.7).

4.8 Identity negotiation highlights the political nature of social identifications of Self and Others within and between groups. Contestation arises out of those ascribed social or collective identities that do not align with an individual’s or group’s self-definition, highlighting global and national tensions, as well as power dynamics which frequently underplay such identification processes. Hence Self/Other struggles are ultimately struggles of legitimacy and meaning, frequently enacting and fuelling conflict. Indeed, it is in the creation of Self and an all-threatening Other that the state, or prominent figures within terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, use their power and available resources for legitimated violence (Grondin, 2004).

Enemies and Others

4.9 Identity boundaries are functional in that they allow us to distinguish humans from animals, culture from nature, as well as differences between classes and nations. Using identity to distinguish in this way is the foundation for insecurity and conflict. Such boundaries allow the demarcation of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ and ‘domestic’ versus ‘foreign.’ Without the creation of these distinctions, the ‘enemy’ could not be identified (Campbell, 1998 cited in Hughes 2004).

4.10 Sociology of the enemy examines the social process of constructing enemies, and within the context of identity politics and negotiation, creating Others for advantageous reasons. Politicians, other charismatic leaders, social elites, and the military alike, are in prime positions to construct particular representations of the enemy. In turn, these representations are also influenced by a host of other actors (academics and intellectuals, advisors), and array of sources and representations at their disposal. The proliferation of these representations through the internet, media reports, government documents, books, articles, and film has led to an expansion of an enemy discourse (as part of a deliberate and incidental public diplomacy3), assisting the articulation of a dualistic collective moral righteousness which attempts to legitimate the destruction of the Other (Aho, 1994; cited in Cerulo 1997; Berry, 2006; Hansen, 2004).

4.11 Orientalist and occidentalist inspired representations of ‘enemies’ can be seen at work within the current terrorism discourse. The Australian and US national security ideology for example frames the terrorism discourse within a system of representations that defines Australian and US national identities through their reference to the Un-Australian, Un-American, Un-Western Other, usually confined to a Muslim/Islamic centre located in the Middle East, but also extending by association to Muslim/Islamist global diasporas. Similarly, representations of the Un-Eastern, Un-Muslim or Non-Islamic Other are employed by some Islamic fundamentalist groups to assert their identity and cause. Both parties construct an enemy that reflect and fuel ideological strains within the American/Australian body politic and Islamist terrorist networks (Grondin, 2004, pp.15-16). The use of dichotomous logic in these representations fails to account for degrees of ‘Otherness’ and ‘Usness,’ or diversity, within both populations. In this sense, the homogenising effects of such a discourse fails to acknowledge an ‘other – Other,’ namely, a more moderate Muslim population located within an Islamic centre and its periphery. Similarly, distinctions can be drawn between an Australian ‘Us’ and her United States counterpart. In either case, the discursive construction of a homogenous West and ‘Rest’ has the effect of silencing dissenting voices residing within both camps.

4.12 Using simple dichotomies like ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ or ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ ignore the multidimensionality of identity and fail to recognise the interconnectedness and complexity of modern life. The use of such terms also highlights the emotional underpinnings for issues of security. With their use of an enemy discourse which incorporates notions of religiosity, good versus evil, and right and wrong, both the Taliban and US led ‘coalition of the willing’ appeal to beliefs over empiricism (what is knowable, measurable and debatable) – belief systems grounded in notions of faith where it is important to believe things to be true, rather than actually being true (Berry, 2006, p.5). Similarly, claim making of this nature appeals to emotions (like hatred, revenge and fear) in contrast to logic in the sense that they encourage communities to feel in particular ways which are less likely to be challenged than appeals to think in particular ways (Loseke, 2003, p.76). Hence, Berry (2006) contends, that because definitions of enemies are often not empirically based, they can fluctuate according to the needs of the definers.

4.13 With the creation of ‘identifiable’ enemies, defining ‘Us’ automatically entails defining ‘Them,’ with ‘Them’ being the social foe or ‘evil’ (Huntington, 1996). As Burman and MacLure (2005) remind us, ‘there is always a hierarchy in these oppositions’ for there is an essence of a higher principle or ideal articulated in one, and something lesser, or subordinate in the other (p.284). Thus, within this hierarchical value system of prioritised logic, good is seen as coming before evil, positive before negative, Us before Them, and real over the written. Moreover, to label a population as evil is to render the other ‘sub-human.’ We are told of the ‘Evil doers,’ Axis of evil,’ Osama Bin Laden the evil, America the evil, capitalism the evil, and terrorism the evil, and evil acts (Davetian, 2001). The ensuing pursuit and eradication of this evil within the context of calls for jihad and a corresponding ‘war on terror’ also implies a ‘promotion of war more willingly than accommodation’ (Armitage, 2003, p.202). However, as is the case with dichotomous logic, good and evil are two sides of the same coin, or mutually sustaining concepts. Thus, to speak of eradicating evil in this context is a nonsensical pursuit. As Baudrillard explains:

‘We believe naively that the progress of the Good, its advance in all fields (the sciences, technology, democracy, human rights), corresponds to a defeat of Evil. No one seems to have understood that Good and Evil advance together, as part of the same movement…Good does not conquer Evil, nor indeed does the reverse happen: they are once both irreducible to each other and inextricably interrelated’ (2002, p.13).
Dichotomous logic can be applied to an examination of security and associated threat discourses.

Threats and (in)security

4.14 Stern defines terrorism as ‘an act or threat of violence against non-combatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidation, or otherwise influencing an audience’ (2003, p.xx). One of the aims of this act of violence is to instil fear in the target audience. However, to better understand this notion of terrorism and threat, one also needs to understand the discursive power of claim makers, and those in positions of authority (whether they be political parties, clerics and other elites or the military for that matter) in shaping or co-constituting them so. As Campbell (1998) alludes:

‘[d]anger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat…nothing is a risk in itself;…it all depends on how one analyses the danger, considers the event’ (pp.1-2).

4.15 To this end, the securitization school of thought developed by the Copenhagen School examines the socially constructed dimension of security threats by looking at the ways in which processes like social interaction form as well as alter interests, and in the process, construct or constitute security. By using an inter-subjective lens to look at security, proponents of this school explore the extent to which power relationships and language as expressed through discourse shape understandings of threats and subsequent security responses. They argue that by labelling something a security issue or threat, actors invoke the right to use whatever means to stop that threat. Here language is akin to a ‘speech act,’ or in other words, relates to the act of speaking in a way that gets someone else to act (Hughes, 2004, p.14).

4.16 Labelling something as a security issue, or some group or community as a threat can therefore be seen as a powerful political tool in terms of the behaviour of governments and other interest groups. Indeed, to label a problem a ‘security’ issue or a ‘threat’ gives this problem a special status, and one which can legitimate extraordinary measures to tackle it. Within the current climate of terrorism, threats to security are often characterised as emanating from Others who view their global neighbours rapaciously and are ready to pounce at first sign of weakness.

4.17 The following discussion examines the relational and socially constructed nature of identity and its relevance to various discursive representations of terrorism through its analysis of polarised collective identities and intractable conflict.

Polarised collective identities and conflict

5.1 Protracted conflicts have dominated the international arena and have resulted in much of the violence and terrorism witnessed today. These types of conflict usually centre on deep-rooted issues such as struggles over material, human needs, or an historical grievance. The relationships which feature in these forms of conflict comprise of self-perpetuating spiral of violent interactions in which each party develops a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict. They also characteristically entail ‘polarised perceptions of hostility and enmity’ (Bercovitch, 2003).

5.2 In the case of polarised collective identities and protracted conflict, conflict invariably centres on identity struggles, categorisation, and perceived difference (and related issues concerning values and beliefs). Social and collective identity construction is by nature a source of indirect and direct threat. As Hughes explains:

‘[i]ndirectly, identity construction contains the possibility for identity threat since the adoption and practice of one identity necessarily precludes the fulfilment of another by the same audience’ (2004, p.24).

5.3 Direct threats are expressed in terms of an identity’s stance toward the existence and identification of ‘others.’ These stances can occur along a continuum ranging from accepting to eliminating (Hughes, 2004, p.24). It is important to note, however that identity contains the potential for, rather than the inevitability of conflict. Nevertheless, an examination of the literature and theories concerning identity, Self-Other differentiation, highlights the extent to which individuals not only display a tendency for assigning people with whom they interact into a class of Self/Other, but also show how individuals treat more favourably other individuals whom they consider Self, than those who they regard as Other. ‘Inclusive fitness’ and social identity theories for example have shown how sharing ‘genetic material,’ or having similar observable characteristics such as looks, religion, ethnicity (markers of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ status) informs behaviour between groups/others (Ben-ner, McCall, Stephane, and Wang, 2006).

5.4 The concept collective identity refers to a ‘shared place’ in the social world, or the ‘we’ aspect of identity that develops through a process of self-categorization, identification and social interaction. Moreover, whilst these identities can be chosen freely by individuals, they can also be imposed by others who have the resources and authority to do so (as is the case with labelling Others evil, a threat, or enemies through the discursive practices highlighted above). Collective identities serve many symbolic, practical and normative functions such as fulfilling needs for belonging, distinctiveness, respect, unity and status. They also provide a justification for claims and a focus for the maintenance of a distinctive culture or way of life (Coleman, 2004). Such a position presumes or utilises a sense of ‘we-ness,’ or group homogeneity, which discounts levels of heterogeneity that may exist.

5.5 As stated above, protracted conflicts are rooted in the perceived threat to basic human needs and values, as well as concerns over group dignity, recognition, security and distributive justice. When these aspects of collective identities are denied or threatened in some way, intractable conflict occurs. As the conflict intensifies, antagonistic groups become increasingly polarised through an in-group discourse and out-group hostilities focussed on the negation, defamation and vilification of the out-group (Druckman, 2001; Fordham and Ogbu, 1984; Hicks, 1999; Kelman, 1999 cited in Coleman, 2004).

5.6 In his review of the literature, Coleman (2004) highlights a series of conditions, processes and structural issues that are conducive to the development and maintenance of polarised collective identities and related conflict. Eight of these conditions include:

5.7 During his speech to the National Guard in February 2006, President George Bush talks of the ongoing nature and progress of the War on Terror:

…On September the 11th, 2001, our nation saw that vast oceans and great distances could no longer keep us safe. I made a decision that day -- that America will not wait to be attacked again. (Applause.) And since that day, we've taken decisive action to protect our citizens against new dangers. We're hunting down the terrorists using every element of our national power -- military, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, and financial. We're clarifying the choice facing every nation: In this struggle between freedom and terror, every nation has responsibilities -- and no one can remain neutral…

5.8 Implied within this discourse is the notion that if you are not with us, then you are against us, and thus a potential enemy. The discussion also makes it clear that there is no room for negotiation with, or accommodation to, the enemy. The view that terrorists are also locked into a zero-sum battle has also been reported. R. James Woolsey has been quoted in the National Commission of terrorism as saying, “today’s terrorists don’t want a seat at the table, they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it” (Morgan, 2004, pp.30-31).

5.9 The representation of the Muslim/Islamic Other with its emphasis on radically different values systems, becomes evident in references to religious motivations for terrorist attacks – religious ideals which are positioned in opposition to more ‘moderate’ Christian values. As argued above, both often use religious justifications as part of their claims making and their respective calls for a ‘Jihad’ on the US and her Allies, and the US led ‘War on Terror.’ Similarly, Esmer (2002) and Norris and Inglehart (2002) note how hallmarks of Western democracies which are built upon principles of rights (the ‘Land of the Free’), gender equality, sexual liberation pose a threat to traditional values extant in some Islamic cultures. Representations of this kind accentuate perceived cultural differences. In this sense, culture can be viewed as having three components: an empirical aspect (culture understood as communities with their own sets of identifiable, observable, and transferable cultural traits); an analytical aspect (culture used as a conceptual tool) and more significantly a strategic aspect (instrumentalisation of culture/religion to advance identity claims) (LCC, 2001, p.4).

5.10 There will be in most issues concerning security, a structure of two basic discourses, which articulate radically differing representations of identity (whether they be the humiliated other, the freedom fighting champion, or fanatical terrorist). Many ethnic and religious conflicts that cover the globe are fuelled by stories of humiliation, which in turn, are the basis for stories of revenge. Authors like Hassan (2004), Bendle (2002), Cobb, (2004) and Davetian (2001) have noted how (suicide) terrorist attacks offer self empowerment in the face of powerlessness, redemption in the face of damnation and honour in the face of humiliation.

5.11 Group boundaries are also often delineated according to symbolic, spatial, religious and social referents, ensuring collective identification within, while simultaneously ensuring the exclusion of outsiders. In this respect, the symbolic attacks on the Pentagon, Twin Towers, and the planned attack on the Whitehouse, represent an attack on the pillars of Western democracy and capitalism, and as such, threats to ‘ways of life’ and identity.

5.12 Humphrey argues that the impact of September 11th as reported by real time coverage on international television networks, “was seductive in conjuring up the sense that we are living in an era of ubiquitous and even world-ending violence” (2004: 3). The fear of apocalyptic violence posed by WMD was a major justification for pursuing a pre-emptive war against Afghanistan and Iraq. In turn, a ‘death-related anxiety’ was felt by Western nations with the prospect of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) falling into the hands of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda terrorist networks. These fears were not alleviated when George W. Bush for example asserted the ‘terrorist groups’ would use WMD ‘without a hint of conscience’ (Bullimer 2002). By linking these two issues (terrorism and WMD) political discourses of this kind reified terrorism and WMD, setting into action a series of actions designed to control their proliferation.

5.13 Structural issues which act to reinforce and maintain polarised collective identities include:

5.14 This, according to Coleman is the ‘fundamental aspect of the in-group’s identity’ (17). Identity creation through negation entails making a statement of in-group’ identity with reference to what it is not, or does not consist of, for example ‘I am a Christian, not a Muslim.’ Strategies employed in the negation of the Other also include: marginalisation of ethnic and religious groups through naming; racialisation; criminalisation; and stigmatisation. Response strategies of the ‘out-group’ include: collective resistance to ascribed identities; group empowerment; demands for collective group rights (territorial claims) in an attempt to secure greater autonomy, legitimisation and social control (Rummens, 2001, p.18).

5.15 Implicit within ‘Us/Them,’ ‘East/West,’ ‘Good/Bad’ and ‘Self/Other’ binaries is the notion that opposing identities are relatively homogenous. The use of these non-specific yet all-inclusive tags also serves to dehumanise and depersonalise a highly abstracted Other. In turn, depersonalisation allows social stereotyping, group cohesiveness and collective action to occur. The construction of absolutist discourses of this kind are an important vehicle for understanding conflict:

‘[a]lthough generally described as integrated and homogenous, communities as loci of production, transmission, and evolution of group membership foster conflict through the negotiation and manipulation of social representations’ (LCC, 2001, p.6).

5.16 Here, the demarcation of the common enemy/Other assists with the mobilisation of one group against another (Aho, 1994). Identity demarcation of this kind further allows the mobilisation of audiences to carry out conflict. President Bush for example has made many references to ‘evil doers’. He has been quoted as saying ‘we're on the hunt...got the evildoers on the run...we're bringing them to justice’ and ‘they kill without mercy because they hate our freedoms...’ (Sample, 2006, The White House, 2001). The emotive language used in ‘speech acts’ of this kind are designed to elicit ‘in-group’ distinctiveness and cohesion through the negation and disparagement of the ‘out-group’ (terrorist organisations). The use of terms ‘evil doers,’ ‘them,’ and ‘they’ are interesting however in the sense that they refer to an enemy that extends beyond the confines of terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda.

5.17 By framing their conflict within a discourse which accentuates a struggle between good and evil, both religious terrorist groups and their Western-led protagonists, view non-members of either camp to be ‘infidels’ or ‘apostates’ (Cronin, 2003) and ‘immoral’ or ‘fanatical’ respectively. The maintenance of such a discourse can be seen as serving a dual purpose; namely, to dehumanise the respective victims on both sides of the conflict, and sustain in-group and out-group identities.

5.18 Martyrdom is a well documented motivation for engaging in terrorist activity. From 1996-1999, Nasra Hassan, a United Nations relief worker in Gaza interviewed 250 aspiring suicide bombers. In one interview, the late spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yasin, told her that martyrdom was a way of redemption, "[l]ove of martyrdom is something deep inside the heart. But these rewards are not in themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah's satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah. And it is Allah who selects martyrs" (Hassan, 2004, p.1).


6.1 This paper has explored some of the issues concerned with identity formation, construction and negotiation. In doing so, this paper has focussed on the socially constructed aspects of identity, and in particular, the extent to which social identities are subjectively constructed according to perceived differences in comparison to others. Hansen contends, identity is “always a relational concept, and it is constructed within discourses, not given by the thing itself” (2004, p.4).

6.2 Meaning is therefore also relational, for the identification of/with difference between imagined communities like the East and West denotes, or holds meaning. Consequently, identity construction involves a degree of ‘Othering’, and within this context, social identities can be constructed and understood as being more or less threatening and different. Issues of Otherness are central to understanding terrorist activity, and are a feature of security discourses girding the current ‘war on terror.’ To this end, this paper has examined the relationship between power and the formation, emergence, and mobilisation of culturally-based collective identities and their expression through representation, narratives, discourse and language.

6.3 Using a social constructionist and a somewhat postcolonialist inspired analysis, this paper questions the utility of dichotomies like Self/Other, insider/outsider, Us/Them, Good/Evil used within terrorist discourses. The ensuing discursive formation shapes the ways in which terrorism can be meaningfully talked about, understood, and tackled. In the process of defining and establishing difference, the discourse of the Other is also highlighted, since such definitions invariably allude to an object in terms of what it is not. Such a practice entails the social construction of some other person, group, culture or nation as being different and deficient from one’s own. Hence as Simon Dalby (1997) observes, “specifying difference is a linguistic, epistemological and, most importantly, a political act; it constructs a space for the other distanced and inferior from the vantage point of the person specifying the difference” (cited in Grondin, 2004, p.5-6). For Said, accentuating difference in this way is central to dichotomous representations of the Self and Other, and through the lens of Orientalism, the creation of a self serving discourse which privileges the world-view of the West.

6.4 When examining issues concerning what is terrorism, who practices it and why, as well as appropriate responses to this activity, this paper contends that such issues are often clouded by a rhetoric (discourse) that has deflected attention away from political and moral concerns underlying political violence. This paper has also argued that utilising dichotomous logic in the construction of an enemy is a counterproductive strategy for grappling with terrorism. The use of binaries like Good/Evil and Us/Them assist with the construction of a dehumanised Other who cannot be reasoned with, thus repudiating calls for negotiation, and in the process, reducing incentives to understand difference. Demonising the enemy in such a manner, amplifies fear and alarm, and perpetuates cycles of revenge and retaliation which necessitate more violent responses to perceived injustices. In this sense, the production and maintenance of a West and Rest dichotomy, a dichotomy which characterises current terrorist and security discourses, has also lead to the creation of mutually sustaining antagonisms ensuring further conflict.

6.5 Consequently, it is important to rethink the binary oppositions employed within the social constructions of other socio-cultural groups, enemies or threats, and national identities. When employed within a national security context, these dichotomies not only serve to reify imagined differences between communities, but also may inflame hostilities through the continuation of oppositional identities and relations which are viewed as being fixed, and thus resistant to change. A way around this binary impasse is the construction of counter-discourses which contain dual positions for both parties as victims and as agents of conflict. As long as both sides represent themselves as being victims, rather than perpetrators of violence, more violence will ensue. Moreover, another way to challenge the legitimacy of dichotomous logic is to create a counter-discourse highlighting the diversity extant within ‘so-called’ homogenous populations.


1 Given that there are numerous identities that are ascribed to, and or assumed by individuals and groups, this paper limits its discussion to social and cultural identities (of which racial, ethnic and religious identities are a part).

2 Occidentalism here refers to constructions of the West by Westerners and Easterners alike. Deconstructing notions of the ‘East’ has been a feature of postcolonial inquiry/critique.

3 In a ‘Background Briefing’ interview with Stan Correy on Radio National, John Brown describes public diplomacy as one which focuses on ‘communication to wide audiences’ as a supplement to more traditional diplomacy conducted by government officials and departments. Public diplomacy, or ‘soft power,’ becomes dangerous when the issues it seeks to address or promulgate are simplified in order to create propaganda (2006, p.4).


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