Addressing and perceiving conflicting parties in a one-sided manner impairs our ability as people, politicians, and societies to engage in dialogue and peaceful negotiation. If we perceive other groups or countries as inherently irrational or evil, we create an external Other, which – as History has shown – in many cases legitimates violent acts against this perceived Other. This article examines the anthropological concept of ‘the Other’ in relation to international conflicts and conflict resolution.

By Louise Southwell

Fatal perceptions

Twenty years ago, the international community passively observed the slaughtering of up to 800.000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The world witnessed a mortal manhunt on the country’s Tutsi, and within 100 days, 80 per cent of the Tutsi population was killed. In the years leading up to, and especially during, the genocide, the radicalisation within extremist Hutu groups increased, and the perception of Tutsi as dangerous and polluting gained strength within the Hutu population. The Hutu propaganda essentially portrayed the Tutsi as a group, which posed a threat to the future and glory of Rwanda. The radical depictions of Tutsi as evil were met with almost no official resistance within the population, and the international community failed to react to the extremist statements that flourished in the country. In other words, no real effort was made to nuance or criticise the radical perception of the Tutsi as a dangerous group, which strengthened the extremist Hutu projection of them as evil. And when the first persecutions and killings of Tutsi occurred, it was too late. The perceptions had radicalised an approach towards the Tutsi as an internal enemy within the country, which the Hutu had to eliminate.

Never again! – Did we mean it?

The cruelty that witness reports from survivors in Rwanda contained made the outside world express a unanimous ‘never again!’. Never again shall one group suffer under other people’s perception of them. However, recent developments in international conflicts indicate that we have not succeeded in creating a well-informed and critical debate concerning the perceptions that surround old and new images of enemies. Images of the Other in the conflict of Palestine subsists, Israel portrays Iran as a mad state, the U.S. and the West projects radical, Muslim groups as terrorists, and Muslim groups portray at the U.S. as imperialist. The conflict in Ukraine has (re-)launched old Cold War animosities and discourses between the West and Russia. All these projections of “the Other” share the idea that power can only be met by power, and dialogue is seen as unnecessary and unrealistic: NATO is rearming against Russian aggression, the U.S. is bombing Islamic groups, and Israel will isolate itself from, and maybe even attack, Iran. All these conflicts have claimed thousands of civilian lives, which make one wonder if we really meant it 20 years ago, when we once again agreed on ‘never again’.

The Other

Within anthropology, one group’s perception of another group is conceptualised through the notion of ‘the Other’. It offers an analytical scope to understand how one group internally creates an opposition-group: ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The notion of the Other is always a social construction, created in the light of different groups’ perceptions of each other. It is therefore a useful notion in understanding how the extremist Hutu perceived – and acted violently towards – the Tutsi as the radical Other. The perception of the Tutsi as evil was in no way a reflection of reality, but it was nonetheless very real in its consequences. The genocide in Rwanda is merely one out of many examples of how real the consequences can get for the perceived Other. It is essential that the perception of the Other is challenged in every conflict, otherwise we are acting on ideas rather than thorough, well-documented information. It is a task we still have not been able to perform satisfactorily – if at all.

Adding fuel to a burning fire

Jørn Boye Nielsen, the Chair of RIKO, emphasised in last month’s edition of the Newsletter that, ‘There is a strong tendency to support one of the parties in a conflict, and therefore only see the conflict from that side’ (red.). This is not only problematic in regard to peaceful conflict resolution like mediation and dialogue; it also blocks a varied and impartial debate on the different perceptions and beliefs of the conflicting parties. It is highly problematic when third parties choose sides in a conflict, as it increases the risk of third parties participating in the demonisation of ‘those’, who are against ‘us’, instead of remaining neutral and focusing on mediation. When people choose sides in a conflict and refrain from confronting the perceptions surrounding the enemy, fuel is added to a burning fire. Not challenging the perceptions of the Other in conflicts legitimises them. It is therefore incredibly crucial in conflict resolution for third parties to focus on identifying and challenging conflicting parties perceptions of each other.

The Other in conflict resolution

Being impartial brings about an actual understanding of conflicting parties’ actions and beliefs. Dividing people into good and evil, rational or irrational challenges this essential understanding. We have to aspire to understand that all actions derive from a meaningful foundation – even if the foundation is destructive to other people’s existence. ‘Meaning’ does not necessarily imply good or right. We must put an end to the perception of the Other as acting out of pure evil, in order to conduct a meaningful debate about international conflicts. Danish media and research in international conflicts must participate in creating these nuanced debates, and challenge the polarisation of the images of the Other. This will ensure that our politicians will make foreign political decisions on an enlightened and impartial ground.

Islamic State – our Other?

We cannot let perceptions of the Other be the underlying basis for our actions as seen previously in History. Denmark must play a role in challenging these perceptions between conflicting parties around the world. First and foremost we have to challenge the demonisation of people, who are initially against ‘us’. The ongoing extreme violence perpetrated by IS in Syria and Iraq massively hampers our ability to challenge the perception of our own immediate Other: The Terrorist. It is truly tempting to explain the actions of IS with words like ‘evil’ and ‘meaninglessness’. But by limiting ourselves to these explanations, our sole solution becomes a violent reaction, which accepts their violent premise: A premise we to a great extent accepted when we sent F-16’s to Iraq to join the coalition against IS. In order for Denmark to play a critical role in the long-term conflict resolution, we must actively divorce IS’s actions from our perceptions of them as being purely evil and acting without meaning. We will not be able to deal with the conflict accurately, if we act against IS on an uninformed and imagined basis – it will only impair the conflict. One thing is certain: If we divide the world in good and evil, we will not be able to understand the nuances in conflicts, which are essential for long-term, peaceful conflict resolution. We must challenge our own and others perceptions of the Other in national and international conflicts, in order to get a clearer understanding of the world, which is already so complex.

Louise Southwell holds a BA in anthropology. Her bachelor thesis offers an analysis on the genocide in Rwanda focusing on images of evil, the division of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and how fear can assemble and dissemble people.

Translated by Jonathan Otto