2014_03_08_ARelating to otherness is crucial in the journey towards reconciliation: without a willingness to acknowledge and relate to the ‘other’ (person, idea, concept, way of believing) there can be no reconciliation.  This extract reflects on how one can reject the ‘other’ by rejecting the other’s right to be recognized as a human being.  In a similar way, the other’s way of thinking and believing can be rejected by regarding it as inferior.

An alcoholic was deeply moved by the support he was given by a Christian lady who was with him on his difficult journey from addiction.  As part of his new way of life, he decided to attend his local church.  When asked by the lady whether he felt at home in the church, he replied that they were kind and welcoming and  everybody wanted to help him but nobody wanted to be friends with him.   He was regarded as a person with a problem rather than a human being in his own right – seeing him as somebody to be helped meant that people would not have to engage with the otherness of his personality.  Before excluding a person or group from the world that we inhabit, we exclude them from the human race.  Those whom we want to reject we de-humanise and even demonise by calling them such names as ‘dirty’, ‘savages’, ‘terrorists,’ ‘perverts,’ ‘psychos.’  By de-humanising them, their otherness is being rejected.

Salim Munayer is founder and director of Musalaha (Arabic for reconciliation).  Musalaha was established to reconcile Israeli and Palestinian Christians.  Reflecting on his experiences of working to reconcile Israeli and Palestinian young people, Salim lists the following conduct which dehumanizes others.  Although developed in the context of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, they can be applied elsewhere.

First, there is a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  People tend to evaluate their own group in a positive light, but tend to gloss over the shortcomings of their group.  Such an approach helps distinguish between ‘us’ (who are right and good) and ‘them’ (who are wrong and bad).

Secondly, in dehumanisation, the other is seen as an enemy.  Thus, Palestinians will see Israelis as people who want to steal their land and remove them.  Israelis will see Palestinians as terrorists wanting to push them into the sea.

Thirdly, there is a failure to see complexity on the other side.  All of ‘them’ are the enemy and they all want to kill us.  This approach fails to recognise that there are some on the other side who will be working for peace and reconciliation.  It also fails to see the other as people created in the image of God.

Fourthly, there is a suspicion towards the other who are always considered to be acting with ulterior motives, especially when they do not behave in accordance with our mental picture of them.  A conspiracy theory develops whereby the other is suspected of being up to no good.

2014_03_08_BFifthly, a self-fulfilling prophecy evolves.  The other will be provoked into behaving in accordance with the image that is projected upon them and when they do, we say, ‘ What did I tell you? I knew all along that they would behave like this.’  Another element of this is that once there is division, we tend to remember our enemies as they were in the past and do not allow them to move on.  There develops a certainty that the other only understands power and so the language of communication is power and violence.

Sixthly, each side develops a sense of moral superiority and views with contempt those who have other values.  There is a fear of mixing with the other side because taking their moral values seriously by discussing them may undermine or challenge mine.

Seventhly, at some level or other both Israelis and Palestinians regard themselves as victims and therefore unable to recognize that they are a threat to the other.  If one side sees itself as victims, then they cannot be the victimizers which makes them blind to the others’ struggle, anguish and hopes. Their self understanding as the threatened and injured party justifies fear and hostility towards the other.  Some politicians prey on these fears to promote their own political agenda.

Finally, demonisation takes place.  Each side believes that God is with them and therefore the devil must be on the other side.  Often, religious language is used to rationalise this deeply-felt belief which, in turn, becomes the justification for violence. [1]

All these mechanisms of keeping the reality of the other at bay are obstacles to working towards reconciliation. They are based on reflections from the Israel-Palestine context, but they can be related to conflicts both within us and around us.

Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.

[1] Salim J. Munayer,‘On the Road to Reconciliation,’ in Salim Munayer (ed), In the Footsteps of our Father Abraham, Israel, Musalaha, 2002, p.84-6.