Dialogue is the only way to end the cycle of violence

Dialogue is the only way to end the cycle of violence was an article I wrote for the Guardian after the 7/7 London bombings. It suggests a need for a dialogue between Islamic and non-Islamic British citizens, using the method of Socrates to examine our disagreements, and to explore how far we could find agreement and to think about ways of living together in peace despite remaining deep disagreements.

This article provoked floods of emails. Most were supportive, but there was a substantial minority (mainly from the United States and Canada) which were often angrily hostile. Many of the hostile ones, often mentioning Chamberlain, seemed unaware of the differences between Socratic debate with someone and "appeasing" them. Socrates did not try to persuade people by giving in to demands they made. And obviously it is unlikely that, at Munich, Chamberlain put Hitler on the defensive by his challenging questions.

A minority of the critical e-mails made an important point that should be mentioned here. (Some made it helpfully in the spirit of warning me about a probable mistake. Others made the point with the anger that is sadly common to supporters of one side or the other in a conflict.)

In my article I wrote about how, in conflicts between groups, an act of violence on one side is often followed by one on the other side, and about how each side will later have a much clearer memory of the horrible act on the other side than the one on its own side. I gave as an illustration the case of a crouching Palestinian boy shot by Israeli soldiers, followed days later by an Israeli soldier being torn to death by a Palestinian crowd. Some critical correspondents made the point (which I had not known when I wrote the article) that an investigation by an Austrian television company had concluded that the shooting of the boy was not by the Israeli soldiers. I had simply adopted what at the time was the conventional view, as presented in television news all over the world. I am not in a position to adjudicate the issue of what happened. But, if I had known that the investigation had either refuted the conventional view, or at least had cast serious doubt on it, I would not have taken this pair of events as an example. Sadly, in many conflicts, including the one between Israelis and Palestinians, there are only too many alternative examples of a horror perpetrated by one side soon followed by one on the other side. In order not to whitewash my article retrospectively I leave it here in its original form, but flag up here what a bad choice of example this one proved to be. The general point it was supposed to illustrate still stands.

One message came from an Imam of a London mosque, taking up the offer of dialogue. We had a public dialogue at King’s College, entitled “After the Bombs” (referring both to the bombs dropped on Iraq and to the bombs used against the transport system here).

The occasion showed that friendly discussion is possible across huge ideological divisions and we shared a preference for that over violence. But it also showed how hard it would be for us to move toward any diminishing of our disagreements.

The London bombings pose a dilemma. It is hard to believe that the right response to terrorism is to make concessions. But the terrorism also seems part of a cycle of violence in which we too are involved, a cycle of potential war between Islam and the West that threatens to spin out of control. Should we do nothing, leaving the violence to accelerate? Or should we make concessions that may encourage terrorism?

Political violence is often a resentful backlash to a group’s sense of being insulted or humiliated. The rhetoric of 1990s nationalism in former Yugoslavia was filled with remembered defeats and humiliations by rival groups. The anger that blazes through Mein Kampf was a resentful backlash against the humiliations of the 1918 defeat and subsequent peace. Al Qaeda rhetoric before 9-11 has the same tone: “the people of Islam have suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustices… Muslims’ blood has become the cheapest in the eyes of the world”. 9-11 was fuelled by this resentment, as the horrifying pictures of cheering Palestinians showed.

The terrorist attacks appall us because of the loss of life, but even more because the killing is deliberate. In London traffic kills far more people than bombs. But we are outraged by what the bombings express. The bombers want us –any of us- dead, or at least are prepared to kill us to make a political point. It is this that arouses the resentful backlash. In the climate after 9-11, and with 3,000 murdered in the symbolic heart of America, any President might have found retaliation imperative. Some of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan carried the initials of the New York Police Department. But the 20,000 killed in Afghanistan fed Islamic resentment in turn. So too did the attack on Iraq. (Some rightly say Iraq was not the cause of the London bombings. But surely it was a cause?)

The Al Qaeda response to Iraq, in Madrid and now in London, propels the war on terror. And so it all goes on. We have seen these cycles before. The Israeli and Palestinian responses to each others’ violence are a pilot study in entrapment. Each killing is defended as retaliation for the last. Now the West and the Islamic world may repeat the same cycle on a huge scale. There is a dangerous gulf here. It is heartening that, according to a YouGov poll a few days ago, 88% of British Muslims condemn the bombings. But we should be very worried by the 32% who think “Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end”. 32% is over half a million people.

As the assassination at Sarajevo and the response to it triggered the twentieth century World Wars, so 9-11 and the response to it could ruin our century. So much depends on whether we can break out of the cycle of violence. This requires a serious dialogue between the overlapping worlds of the West and Islam before irreversible mutual hatred sets in. We need such dialogue internationally, between Western and Islamic leaders. We also need it in this country, between those who are not Islamic and those who are –especially the half million who live here and think our society should be brought to an end.

“Dialogue” may sound vacuous, but that is misleading. In our own country we need not just any old talk, but some quite deep and sustained discussion of particular issues. It could be one of the great projects of mutual education of our time. Two topics would be central. One would be the different systems of belief on each side. The other would be our different narratives of recent history.

What would dialogue about beliefs be like? It would be a very un-technical form of philosophy. Different systems of belief, especially over religion, are often thought impossible to discuss. But the history of philosophy has been a sustained investigation into the difference between good and bad reasons for holding beliefs. Teaching philosophy involves questioning people together. “You think this while she thinks that. Do either of you have reasons that should convince me that your view is the right one?” Notoriously, philosophers disagree, so there is no set of “right” answers to learn from the teacher. Students end up with different beliefs. But, if things go well, they hold their final beliefs more tentatively, aware of how precarious the foundations of any beliefs are. In religious and ideological conflicts, this sense of precariousness is the antidote to fanaticism.

The other topic of the dialogue should be narratives of recent history. This is because of their role in conflict. Several years ago, there were two episodes between Israelis and Palestinians. Pictures went round the world showing a Palestinian boy of about nine or ten, crouching behind his father trying to avoid the Israeli bullets that killed him. A week or two later two young Israeli men crossed a boundary into Palestinian territory. They were killed, torn apart by an angry crowd. We feel the horror and the tragedy of these events. But the tragedy has an extra dimension. The Palestinian narrative will remember the first episode and the Israeli one the second. The stories reinforce the stereotypes that maintain the conflict. (“They deliberately kill our children.” “They are savages.”) Tackling the deep psychology of conflict involves persuading groups to listen to each other’s stories and to look for the possibility of a narrative that does justice to the truths in both. Sometimes this happens after conflicts, with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The urgent need is for it to happen before further conflict between the Islamic and “Western” views in Britain.

What is needed is not a one-sided dialogue, in which “we” undermine “their” fanaticism. There are indeed questions to ask about settling political issues by murder or about settling moral issues by appeals to the supposed authority of texts claimed to be the word of God. But there are also questions about “our” morality. We allowed Falluja to be destroyed like Guernica. And there are questions about the supposed moral difference between bombs in the underground and cluster bombing civilians in an illegal war. In genuine dialogue, both sides have positions at risk. Paradoxically, this can start a virtuous circle. One side admitting intellectual vulnerability may make the other side less defensive too.

We should not reward terrorists by capitulating to their demands. We do not know exactly what they want. And some possible demands are unacceptable: forcing Israelis or Spaniards to live in some totally Islamic Caliphate. But the alternative is not passivity. It is talk. “Never talk to terrorists” is a bad slogan. Talk will not stop the killing tomorrow. But we need long term thinking too. The right kind of talk opens chinks that let in doubts. And in religion and politics doubts about beliefs save lives.