Monday, 23 May 2011

Psychology of occupation and the potential of religious leaders to make a difference

Dialogue between religious leaders as a source for change?

“Is there any justification for an occupation of a land in any religion? How is occupation defined religiously in the first place and where lies the responsibility of religious leaders in a political situation, which clearly involves oppression of a less powerful people? What can we do?”

There are laws and regulations, national and international politics and negotiations. And there is religion. Could it be a source for change? Is it giving people strength and consolation or is it even a source to nurture contradiction, oppression and/or moral superiority?

As a psychologist, I am interested in experiences and behaviour of people, both, on the individual and societal level. Individuals are influenced by their personal experience, their immediate context and - naturally - the society they live in.

The military occupation in the Palestinian territories exerts control over political, economic, cultural and ideological structures. The mechanisms of control are manifested on the macro, meso and micro levels of society and over the decades have cemented oppressive social conditions. Any development on the personal, communal and sociopolitical level is severely impaired by the occupation.

Both, the Palestinian as well as the Israeli society deal with the negative impact of these conditions – just on different sides of the coin.

The impact on psychological functioning happens in the form of internalizing oppression. On the side of the oppressor it leads to the need for constant justification of the necessity to exert control and the need for the recognition of this necessity. Arthur Neslen[1] speaks about a “…national psyche that has become scarred by mental security barriers, emotional checkpoints and displaced outposts of self-righteousness and aggression”. The inherited trauma in the Israeli society contributes to a collective identity as former victims, who are taking action to stand up for themselves – justifying the occupation as a protective measure.

On the side of the oppressed it leads to a feeling of inferiority; the ongoing loss of land increases the feeling of helplessness and inability to influence their environment and living circumstances. Traumatization as a consequence of the occupation is vividly observable on all levels of society. The Naqba as a central part in collective memory is of increasing importance for the Palestinian identity. Many negative patterns have their origins in oppressive social conditions.[2] The victimization is forming a major part of identity on this side as well, it feeds into a victim identity, which is very visual again on all levels and repeatedly presented as a justification for negative action as well as for a rejection of responsibility for such action and the rejection of criticism in general.

And what is “talking” going to change?

Well, dialogue is the start of taking action in the frame of very limited options in order to broaden the scope of options.

Options on the personal level

Taking action recreates self – confidence and strength, it increases the sense of control over life. Personal development requires strong role models and positive images. Especially in a highly exhausting and seemingly endless conflict people are seeking positive messages, to give them hope and consolation. So here religion plays an important role on the individual level. People on both sides refer to religious authorities for advice and hold on to their respective religion to give their life structure and meaning. All religious leaders are in the position of being advisors within their communities. This is where dialogue with people of other religions can increase knowledge, experience and a change of perception on the very personal, individual level, which will be reproduced in daily life and therefore have an impact on change on all levels.

Options on the interpersonal level

On an interpersonal level dialogue can evoke support and encouragement by the group. The potential in a bilateral, multi-religious dialogue is a positive development both, within the “own” group as well as the “other” groups. This is feeding into creating a sense of belonging, of solidarity - which may be true especially for the Christians and Muslims who share the Palestinian identity to a certain degree and who can contribute to cultivating a stronger sense of community in spite of religious differences.

Diversity can be perceived as a value and not as a contradiction, especially when a connection between the groups is created through identifying common values. This is a chance to raise awareness for the obstacles people face in their societal and spiritual lives. Awareness on both sides, for the diversity of religious beliefs, the diversity of personalities and within societies. A sense of solidarity as people of faith, with shared values, moral and ethic guidelines can evoke a mutual interest in political change and therefore convert fear into a sense of solidarity. Once a real connection is established, it will feed into understanding that a fundamental and lasting change of the situation with new structures based on common values and equality can only be achieved in spiritually (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, academic and intellectual freedom) and physically free societies with a viable economy.

Options on the sociopolitical level

A broadened understanding is the basis for developing a strategy and vision, reorganizing sociopolitical structures. A social confrontation of group interests can also mean to explore options to develop a different (shared?) group interest. Religion plays a very important role in both societies and their respective policies. Where religion is used as a justification for negative actions, it also presents a resource for positive interaction; policies guided by positive values, by one moral, not bendable to this side or the other, a moral, which is the same for both peoples. On the Palestinian side religion is playing an enormous role in society as for example the image of various legal systems applied under occupation has led to distrust in official legal systems and other structures, which are required in establishing a democracy. The increasing frustration about the failure to improve their situation, disappointment in politicians, lack of trust in secular structures among other facts, leads to a trend towards religious conservatism. On the Israeli side, the state is secular in structure, but very much based on a Jewish identity and nationality, which is undividable from religion, especially religious justifications for the legitimacy of the state and its actions, in which the occupation of the Palestinian territories plays a dominant role. Religion is the source for exclusiveness as a group and as a state. So religion plays a role in conflict resolution within the societies as well as in conflict resolution between the societies.

Option to change

Real change requires the feeling of empowerment in order to enable people to believe they can, not only initiate, but also shape change. Therefore, reflecting and interlinking development on the three levels is destined to become a powerful part of the dynamic of change. Here lies the challenge, the chance and the responsibility of religious leaders on both sides. Once people of faith act on the common values they have identified, they will be inclined to demand change towards a society which knows no good reason for an occupation.

[1] “Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli Psyche”, Arthur Neslen, Pluto Press 2006

[2] “Bridging the Personal and the Political: Practices for a Liberation Psychology”, Geraldine Moane, American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol 31, No. 1/2, March 2003 p. 100


  1. The question you pose in the opening paragraph is a difficult one, because the answer is not the one you might hope for. Islam and Judaism both have religious basis for approving of an occupation. The whole period of the Islamic conquest, when Spain was under Muslim rule, was basically a Muslim occupation, religiously approved. The occupied peoples had the status of dhimmi, which is definitely a second class status, and they were subjected to taxes the Muslim population was not. Judaism does not have exactly the same idea as they never conquered territory that wasn't considered part of the area God gave them, but non-Jews in the area at best had the status of ger toshav, resident alien, which is also a sort of second class status, although there was not supposed to be any discrimination against the ger toshav.

    That's why religious leaders on both sides need to find new paradigms, not historical ones. I believe we can find teachings in the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran that can help bring us together. If we can focus on the teachings we share, that we are all created "b'tselem Elohim," in God's image, that we are all God's children, we are all cousins, I believe that can help to arouse the compassion for the other that is necessary to bring about peace and reconciliation. Your closing paragraph is accurate: we need to act on our common values, focus on the things that unite us, not the things that divide us.

  2. Dear Barry, while I appreciate your comment and the time you took to read and reflect on it, I am unsure how you relate the opening question to a request to find a historical basis for the deligitimization of occupation. What I mean is, that this is questions arising when thinking about the potential of religion as a positive source opposing oppression. Religion has been used in various political settings to justify injustice by various religions, there is no doubt about that. Whether there is a legitimization in the book sources or not is a theological debate I will not lead as a secular academic. Maybe it needs rephrasing, in any way I would gladly discuss with you how you got this impression. However I am happy that you can agree on the last paragraph which in my perception is the future we should focus on...

  3. Indeed. Let's use religion as a force for good!

  4. I believe Susanne is referring to the core common values of most religions, centering on humanist and Universalist approaches of common good.
    Sadly, the application of religion has led to bloodshed across man’s history, can we forget the Inquisition? the Saint Barthelemy night? the Nakba ? the mess in India / Pakistan? Tibet ?
    In our part of the world, with a state, Israel, that claims divine right, the space of action for dialogue around religion is quite limited. Being a fervent secularist, despite all my attempts, I have difficulty perceiving and understanding this concept, where God, with all respect, allows himself to promise to a people a land, disregarding the actual feelings of the inhabitants!
    On the other hand, Islamist and Christian conservatives are leading us towards disastrous positions, some speaking of the return of a caliphate, others leaving the country because they feel it is not “theirs”!
    It would be ideal, under my hippie flower power vision of life, to see the reality of the five groups getting together and re-valorizing the core beliefs, finding common ground of humanity.
    I say five groups, referring to Samaritans, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Seculars but this can then be declined into infinity of sub-groups.
    And I still don’t understand how a rabbi, an imam, a priest can actually accept seeing any form of violence perpetrated in the name of his beliefs. I may have a very naïve and simplistic view of what a man of morals should be, maybe a smoky vision of beatific saddhus on the Ganges, chanting Shanti Om lingers in my chaotic mind and is confronted with men of religion that are too entrenched in the realities of their histories and their domination games ?

  5. Dear Susanne , I think you have succeeded in your attempt to analyze the psychological factors wich stand behind the constant military occupation to the Palestinian land , At the same time you were creative by internalizing the psychic of those who suffer from long-term occupation ,But as much as I agree with what Fadi pose above ,I diagree with what Barry pose about Islam and I,ll detail that soon .

  6. For being one of the religious muslim leaders and possessing a good knowledge of the Islamic resources I would like to mention some facts:
    1-There is a big difference between the religion of Islam and the history of muslims
    ,between the sacred texts in the QURAN and the SUNNA(prophet speech and deeds) and between the acts of some muslims after the prophet wich in many cases did not fit with the core teachings of the texts ,so we do a great mistake when we judge Islam by the deeds of some muslims - no matter how large their status was, because we believe no one is impeccable except the prohets.
    2- The example of the muslim rule of Spain occured after 91 years of the prophet's death in the period of the Umawee dynasty who violated many principles of Islamic values and no muslim jurist thinks that this period represents Islam , and if we say that we should logically say that the acts of the crusader invasion represents christianity and so on!
    3-Islam considers non-muslims in his society as brothers and neighbors ,(not aliens or second - class citizens) and they have equal rights like other muslims , and the concept of (Al-dimme) was not divine one , but historicall one ,because when the prophet Muhammad established his state in AL-Madeena he treated the none muslims as citizens and impose the same tax on the all in order to defend the country from the outside invasions wich was exposed to ,so this is the paradigm of the muslims and not what happened after that in the backwardness periods wich passed to all nations in the history .