Getting Past "Culture Clash"
Sources, Escalation and Interventions for Deep-Rooted Conflict

February 19, 2002

Lecture Series on Responses to Terrorism: An Analysis

University of Victoria

© Catherine Morris

Published as Catherine Morris. "Getting Past "Culture Clash": Sources, Escalation and Interventions for Deep-Rooted Conflict." In Responses to Terrorism: A Reader, edited by Brishkai Lund. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria Division of Continuing Studies, 2002. Ordering information. For further reading, see the Peacemakers Trust bibliography on International Crime and Terrorism (International Law)


This chapter proposes a framework for considering and responding to the current public discourse about the events of September 11, 2001, and about political activities defined as "terrorism." The chapter first considers and challenges several alternative stories about the definition and roots of "terrorism." Second, the chapter reframes "terrorism" as highly escalated moral conflict in which all parties to the violence claim the ethical high ground in the justification of force. Third, the chapter summarizes some ways conflict emerges and escalates toward intense violence. Finally, the chapter points to several basic approaches to conflict intervention, including power-based, rights-based, interest-based, and relational approaches. The chapter concludes that for a response to be stable over time, power-based approaches need to be nested within international human rights and founded in approaches that emphasize human flourishing and the building or restoration of relationships.


Since the events of September 11, 2001, we have probably all heard the word "terrorism" several times a day. The news has been almost continuously filled with commentary from politicians, academics, military analysts, journalists, religious leaders and civil society leaders.

Gordon Smith has said that Americans now see the world as a dangerous place where they and their values are threatened and vulnerable.(1) He suggested that George W. Bush's administration now sees itself driven into the role of a High Noon style "reluctant sheriff," with a single-minded mission(2) to eradicate black-hatted bad guys through the exercise of "full-spectrum dominance."(3) Not only is the US pulling the whole world further into its own political and economic orbit, but Gordon Smith pointed out that American lives also seem to be valued more than other lives. The rest of the world may not like this, he said, but there has been a surprising acquiescence to the attacks on Afghanistan, and so far we have not seen the feared popular uprisings in the Middle East against the United States. Nevertheless, he noted, "the virulence of anti-American sentiment in Palestine is at an all-time high."(4)

There is very high approval of George W. Bush in the United States and Canada. Many Americans, including young women and men, are as galvanized to join the "war on terrorism" as the president is. Here in Canada, at the end of January, 2002, more than 67 percent of Canadians supported expansion of the military "war on terrorism" into countries beyond Afghanistan.(5) A few Canadians have aimed blistering verbal salvos at the United States, calling it a "dangerous . . . global force" whose foreign policy is "soaked in blood."(6) Other Canadians privately agree, but decry such inflammatory rhetoric. Others repudiate both the polemical language and the sentiments, but uphold the right to speak out. Concerns have been expressed about seeming informal suppression of voices opposed to Western government responses.(7)

The clash of these voices all talking at once has been confusing. How can we make sense of it all?

In this chapter, I call attention to some ways we are talking about the events of September 11 and about terrorism. The ways we talk to one another tend to frame the ways we are invited to think and the ways we are then led to act. In trying to make sense of things, I want to address three questions. First, what are the roots of something we might call "terrorism?" Second, how does this kind of conflict emerge and escalate? Third, how do we evaluate the choices of interventions that are being carried out or proposed?

The events of September 11, the war, the threats and worries about extending the war, and the conflicted public discourse are not only confusing, but also arouse strong and mixed emotions of compassion, fear and anger. We have heard metaphors like "rooting out," "flushing out," "smoking out," "rounding up" of "evildoers."(8) We have heard terms like "evil" over and over again, to the point that the potency of this ancient word might be lost. We have also been hearing other moral language, including words like "justice." We have heard the language of power in the threat that there is no middle ground(9); one can only choose to be "with or against" the United States' actions.(10) We have also heard a lot of religious language. In the first shock of the events, people prayed and talked publicly of prayer, including in Canada where this is uncharacteristic. We witnessed or took part in a variety of worship services. Some invoked the Almighty in their causes. Religious language, like "crusade" and "holy war," was used on all sides. Military uniforms were prominent in religious services, particularly in the United States where religion and politics have been legally divorced but (as elsewhere) have never really stopped their pillow talk in aid of various agendas.

In the first days after September 11, the term "war on terrorism" sounded like a metaphor for addressing the roots of terrorism in a variety of ways that had long been called for - something like a "war on poverty" - including restraint and reasoned deliberation. It was not just about military options but also, according to then foreign minister, John Manley, "diplomatic, legal and financial measures."(11)

But in just a few weeks, war was a literal reality in Afghanistan. We quickly became accustomed to military words like "targets" and "casualties." This language removes the human faces of war. The public discourse hardened, with opposing voices calling for non-military options for seeking justice, including the use of methods and processes that stay conservatively within the bounds of international conventions on war, humanitarian law, and international human rights law. Still other voices have called for economic and social justice to address the sources of terrorism.

What are the sources of "terrorism"?

And what are the sources of violent acts that we might call "terrorism"? A key tension in the public discourse about the "war on terror" is in competing answers to the question about where the threat is coming from.(12)

      Bad actors

The voices with the most clout and money are saying that the enemies are individual "evildoers"- persons or networks of persons - currently personified as Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. These enemies can be found in specific places - foxholes, huts, villages, and caves - and can and will be tracked down and eliminated through a combination of good intelligence and strategically applied force. Certainly we have noticed that the United States and Canada are spending a lot of money fighting this enemy in these ways. More than US$1 billion dollars a month is spent by the US alone in the military "war on terrorism."(13)

But addressing terrorism this way isn't easy. Lloyd Axworthy, when he was minister of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that today's security threats come

increasingly from the international criminal, drug trafficker, political extremist, small arms vendor, warlord, or petty tyrant. These people are adept at using the modern tools of organization and intelligence gathering and know how to exploit global communications technology.(14)

Contemporary insurgency groups and organized crime networks are not patterned in ways that can be mapped in tidy organizational charts or military-style chains of command. Rather, they operate within small, interconnected, flexible cells that easily move, transmute, and reconfigure.(15) They are difficult to trace. Traditional policing, military ,and state structures and international legal structures developed during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. They do not suit twenty-first-century realities. International criminals and political insurgency movements do not operate neatly with the borders of states, nor within the boundaries of the rule of law. It is not possible to build military, political, or legal Maginot lines that will control the flow of information, environmental hazards, small arms, drugs, criminals, or political insurgents.

      Globalized social structures

Other voices call out that personifying this enemy will not defeat it. In this view, terrorism is found less in foxholes than it is in social systems.(16) The phenomenon of terrorism is part of the dark side of globalization which Lloyd Axworthy calls "global consumerism."(17) Stephen Owen calls it the "reverse thrust" of globalization, which is "linked to poverty, sickness, human rights abuses and autocratic governments that abuse their citizens."(18) Other critics from civil society call the enemy "Western domination."(19) Some name it "patriarchy."(20) What these voices have in common is their call to address inequalities and injustices as the way to attack terrorism at its roots.

This kind of voice is present within the Bush administration itself. In the wake of George W. Bush's hawkish statements in January, 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a commitment to fight poverty, pointing out that "terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair, and hopelessness."(21)

But is it really true that situations of poverty are breeding grounds for terrorists? This can be debated. If one looks at the profiles of famous insurgents and revolutionaries, including Osama bin Laden, many do not appear to have emerged from particularly impoverished backgrounds. Nevertheless, bin Laden's rhetoric and that of other insurgency movements does call attention to inequality of resources and opportunities as the raison d'être for their actions. I will come back to the issue of poverty.

It does seem important to acknowledge that particular acts occur and have their meaning within particular contexts, which in the case of September 11 include the contexts of deep-rooted historical conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. They also include the context of technological, economic, and political issues of globalization.

      Culture and religion

Others point to "cultures of violence" that seem to saturate both Western and non-Western societies. What are the cures in this diagnosis? Education(22) and dialogue are the main proposals. I will come back to these later.

Some scholars, like Samuel Huntington, might see the current battle lines as a symptom of what they call the "clash of civilizations."(23) Some scholars see the current world situation as part of a struggle between tribalism and globalization, Jihad vs McWorld, as Benjamin R. Barber puts it (although Barber is careful to explain that he is not referring to the Islamic principle of jihad as the spiritual struggle toward holiness and submission to God, but in the sense of "bloody holy war on behalf of participant identity . . . of a kind known to Christians no less than Muslims [and others]").(24)

Are cultural or religious differences really the cause of political violence? Certainly the current conflict invites us to look at fissures between groups with different religions and with cultural and ethnic differences. Differing cultural and religious values are apparent in the rhetoric on both sides. Certainly the sense of threat to ethnic identity and religious goals is sharply evident. But the situation also invites us to look at the differing religious values within religious traditions. As Elise Boulding points out, most religions have both war themes and peace themes,(25) and this seems to be so within Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and even Buddhism. There are also differences among co-religionists in what they believe, the fervency of their faith, and their levels of politicization. I have personally experienced heated discussions along these lines within churches and even around family dinner tables right here in Victoria! Fortunately, these conversations don't even become verbally violent because of the close and often long-standing relationships involved. We often love to hate one another's points of view! And we still continue to remember one another's birthdays. There seems to be very little one can do to coerce or persuade people to change their values or religious beliefs. Are we helpless, then, in the face of conflicts that seem to involve endless "dialogues of the deaf" between people who identify with religious beliefs that seem opposed to one another? (Please notice that I do not use the term "fundamentalism" to conflate religious conservatism and political authoritarianism or extremism. Accusing religious conservatives through the pejorative use of the term "fundamentalism" is one kind of stereotyping and discrimination. Political extremism, authoritarian belief structures, and willingness to use violence are what are dangerous, whether driven by religious or secular ideology.)

      Summary: Sources of political violence

Those who see the enemy as personified and in specific places tend to think in terms of individual accountability, often in military or legal terms. Some of these voices advocate military approaches, and these are the approaches that are currently dominant in the responses of governments. Others advocate legal approaches to accountability of individual terrorists through international and domestic law, emphasizing the rule of law. Both these approaches are actor-oriented. On the other hand, those who see the enemy as primarily in social structures want to aim at economic and social change. Those who see the problem as cultural may seek cultural change, but this approach runs into problems when deeply held moral and religious values seem to be at stake. I will return to this theme.

These three kinds of voices are often heard in opposition to one another, sometimes in pugilistic or patronizing monologues which are not only unpersuasive but also offensive to the other. The debate is heard as promoting either personal accountability of actors or addressing systemic causes, or addressing the cultural roots of violence. Each accuses the others of being unrealistic or worse. Resources are perceived as fixed, necessitating choices between spending either more time and money on defensive security or more on relief of global inequalities or more on education and dialogue for cultural change.

But why this "either/or" thinking? Can we not give equally serious priority to vigorous pursuit of accountability of perpetrators of atrocities and their supporters, and at the same time work on changing the social, economic, and cultural factors that perpetuate the causes of political instability, organized crime, and networks of violent political activists?(26) Taking the lead from peace researcher Johan Galtung, the actors, the social and political structures, and the cultural dimensions are all important factors in the problem of political violence.(27) I will come back to the question of priorities later.

Political violence and "moral conflict"(28)

One fact we seem to face in this world is the absence of universally accepted moral foundations. The so-called postmodern condition is one in which no one truth is accepted by all human beings as a universally legitimate moral foundation for law or public policy.(29) Many people have decried this, and we promote our own visions of truth and morality. (This is true even for those of us who fervently promote the vision of pluralism.) There are many public policy debates and human rights debates that rotate around the competing notions that, on the one hand, there ought to be universal standards, and, on the other hand, that particular norms should govern in the places they predominate. While there are many international conventions about humanitarian law and human rights, not all states have signed all of them, and there is no universal consensus about what they mean, even among those who have signed them. The current "debate," if we can dignify it with that word, between the truth claims of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are laden with such arguments. Bin Laden argues for a polity that is singularly devoted to the God and society of his imaginings, and George W. Bush singularly argues for devotion to the universal values of the "civilized world."

Some theorists within the field of conflict resolution have been suggesting that many deep-rooted conflicts are really moral conflicts.(30) My own experience is that virtually no serious conflict is free of moral claims, with disputants all staking their claims on the high ground of truth and morality. Of course, an individual's or group's morality is created through the social interaction that takes place within particular historical, cultural, and religious contexts. An example of intractable moral conflict in North America is the abortion debate, which has produced its own share of political violence. Both sides of this debate take the moral high road, accusing the other of moral deficiency. The debate is rarely well-mannered. Neutrality or uncertainty are not allowed; both sides demand "you are with us or against us."

Similarly, if you compare the rhetoric of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, you will see that each claims righteousness while accusing the other of evil. Both appear to be utterly sincere.

These moral conflicts are deeply enmeshed within entrenched global social and economic and political patterns in which there are many acknowledged inequities or injustices. With some exceptions, it is people in Europe and North America who are the main beneficiaries. Charges of inequality of economic and political power and advantage are almost always featured in the rhetoric of insurgency movements. It is the sense of profound injustice arising from inequality, exclusion, poverty, persistent humiliation, and a sense of victimhood and powerlessness - more than the poverty itself - that breed political violence. The sense of injustice breeds anger. Anger has been called the "judicial emotion", in that it asserts an "ought and expresses demands and [sometimes even] threatens retaliation."(31) Anger becomes dangerous when it is tied to a moral willingness to accept violence as legitimate.

If you look at the full text of Osama bin Laden's October speech, you will note the expression of anger about long-standing and persistent injustices and violence against millions of innocent people in places like Japan, Iraq, Palestine and other Islamic areas.(32) He personifies these evils as the "morally depraved" people of the United States.(33) We are aware from seeing demonstrations in several places in the world that many share Osama bin Laden's point of view and anger, even as they deplore his methods. Unless we read the full speech, we are likely to have seen only those parts of it that focus on bin Laden's chilling thanksgiving for the September 11 destruction and his threat that no one living in the United States "will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine."

On the other side of the power and wealth equation, it seems difficult for powerful and wealthy groups to share power and wealth. It is difficult for the privileged to look at those who are not and admit we have a part in unfairness, particularly when "they" express anger with "us." After all, we don't intend any harm. We don't understand the anger. The other's violence is always illegitimate, but we try to find ways to legitimate our own violence as "just."

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not justify any kind of violence or killing of other human beings. I do wish to point out that when we look at the various possible sources of violence, to blame something called "terrorism" on "evildoers" alone, or to excuse it because of "poverty" or "imperialism," is inadequate analysis. We must recognize that the events of September 11 and since that time are highly escalated manifestations of deeply rooted historical conflicts that will persist until they are addressed at their sources.

Some in the field of conflict studies have been exploring ways of understanding and addressing such conflicts through carefully facilitated public dialogue projects which focus less on argumentation and more on relationship building. What emerges during these public conversations is quite interesting - both sides begin to see their moral opponents as human beings much like themselves, with whom they share much in common.(34)

I suspect you have noticed that I have been shifting my terminology from "terrorism" to "conflict." This is deliberate. We have heard on the news that various international and state bodies have prepared documents or draft laws about "terrorism" without defining this word. This is because the definition of "terrorism" is really quite problematic and contested. It is really a matter of political perspective that particular groups are labelled as "dissidents" or "activists" or "freedom fighters" or "crusaders" or "holy warriors" or "terrorists." More than once in the past twenty-five years we have seen "terrorists" transformed into "statesmen," not through any personal conversions, but through changes in international perception over time and through changing events. We can likely all think of several examples. Possibly we even know someone who is or was a "freedom fighter" in one conflict or another over the past century. People do not generally label themselves as "terrorists." What we might be able to agree on is that whatever we label "terrorism" is a kind of conflict - very violently expressed conflict.

Conflict escalation

How do the seeds of violently expressed conflict take root and spread? Some research on ethnic conflict over the past decade suggests that ethnic and religious groups tend to mobilize when for a long time they have been frustrated and angry about injustice, discrimination and the exclusion of their groups.(35) It seems that the greater the discrimination, the greater the anger, the more things the members of the group have in common, the more cohesive the group, the stronger its leadership, and the more long-standing the injustice, the more likely the group is to mobilize. Interestingly, the more suppression and violence are used by political authorities against mobilized groups of dissidents, the greater the likelihood that challengers will respond with increased violence.(36) Thus, violence tends to beget retaliatory anger and violence. Conversely, the more tolerant a political environment is of a wide range of political participation, the more likely it is that ethno-political groups will voice their opposition non-violently.(37)

Conflict researchers have noted some stages of conflict escalation.(38) Conflict tends to move from incipient stages of discontent through to stages in which conflict becomes manifest and claims are made. At this stage, discussion or other peaceful resolution is possible. If negotiation or reform do not resolve things, it can become polarized. The conflicting groups may organize and mobilize. The groups may become segregated, exchanging no communication but escalating insults and threats. At this stage, conflict can easily be triggered or incited to out-of-control stages characterized by volleys of reciprocal and escalating destruction and violence. Sometimes conflict can escalate or be incited(39) further into "contagion," in which violence spreads uncontrollably. As conflict escalates, there is less direct contact, less communication, less trust, less respect. As conflict escalates, parties talk about the other in terms that are less respectful, more caricatured, and less human. More is known about conflict escalation than about de-escalation.

There were fears that the United States war in Afghanistan would trigger escalation of tensions and violence between Islamic and non-Islamic peoples in several parts of the world. Gordon Smith suggested that the feared escalation of conflict has not occurred. I am not so certain. We have seen an escalation of reciprocation of violence on the West Bank. We have all been alarmed about the buildup of arms and threats and a million soldiers at the borders of Pakistan and India. And we have seen an emboldened widening (and threatened widening) of the "war on terror" into other parts of the world. When George W. Bush accused North Korea of being part of an "axis of evil," North Korea's foreign ministry in Pyongyang counterattacked by accusing the US of "moral leprosy."(40) Will the current power-based approaches led by the United States settle the regions they see as sources of terrorism? I really don't know.

The earlier the intervention, the more chance there is of addressing conflict constructively before it escalates toward violence. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of early intervention in the case of the conflicts involving the Middle East. It is quite a few decades too late. But there are many other situations in the world where there are opportunities to address the roots of conflict before it escalates to the point of violence. What about right here in Canada? It was recently suggested that the anger of some frustrated Aboriginal youth means we have some dangerously brewing conflicts in Canada.(41) The bearer of this bad news, Stephen Owen, was publicly contradicted by the minister of Indian Affairs, but, alas, several organizations of Aboriginal people agreed with Mr. Owen. In world terms, Canada has been peaceful,(42) and the historical record indicates that Aboriginal people in Canada are unlikely to take up organized violence in a doctrinal way. But surely we are well-advised to prevent escalation by seriously addressing these protracted historical conflicts at their roots.

Choosing and evaluating interventions

This brings me to the question of how we choose and evaluate various options for intervention. First, intervention strategies may be different at different levels of escalation. Let me present a very general framework to help us think about the various interventions being implemented or proposed.

      Power-based interventions

We have been intervening militarily, and have discussed strengthening our military options and resources. We have talked about gaining more and better intelligence. There has been talk of financial resources to track the flow of money and other resources used in the international flow of international criminals, arms, drugs and money. There have been laws passed or proposed to strengthen law enforcement and security. In the language of conflict resolution, these are called "power-based" approaches, and we have already seen that most of the resources are being spent on the military "war on terrorism."

I think it may be fair to say that when the fire is raging, it may not be possible to get to its causes without first containing the blaze for the safety of those around. Also, it seems important to do careful conflict analysis before deciding on the best containment strategies. I really don't know what kind of conflict analysis was done before the United States decided on its present course of action. It seems to me that there is a need for careful and ongoing conflict analysis at a lot of different levels involving those who are familiar with historical and current relationships among people in several very different regions, from the Middle East to Central and South Asia to China to Korea to Southeast Asia. I hope some conflict resolution practitioners and scholars will be among those consulted.

      Rights-based interventions

We have also heard about several "rights-based" approaches. Examples include bringing perpetrators of international crimes to justice through the existing international and domestic legal system. We have seen a decree by President Bush about how foreign combatants and those charged with crimes are to be treated (this might also be seen as a power-based approach.)(43) The United States has been careful to prepare legal arguments as to why its military actions fit within international law related to entitlement of states to use military force. But many scholars(44) and civil society groups have mounted public critiques of and legal challenges to these justifications, including challenges to the United States' definition of "prisoners of war" as it has applied it to some of the people interned at Guantanamo Bay.(45) We can use rights-based analysis to evaluate military interventions, as well as the laws and methods by which people are arrested, detained, or tried, and the new domestic anti-terrorism laws that have been passed.(46) We can become part of civil society efforts that call upon states to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law principles, and with the international conventions their states have signed. Gordon Smith has stressed the importance of international civil society groups which collectively have become a powerful global movement. I want to underscore this.

      Interest-based interventions

Gordon Smith comments on the need to consider "interest-based" approaches, including interest-based conflict resolution. In this approach, there would be consideration of how to meet human aspirations and needs(47) of all parties. I might follow the lead of thinkers like Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen and move from the "basic needs approach" to a "capabilities approach" that asks instead how people might flourish, including "being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living."(48) Nussbaum and Sen also redefine poverty as "capability deprivation,"(49) which concept is better at getting to problems of inequality and lack of choice that diminish human capabilities to flourish.

Examples of interventions that work toward human flourishing include official overseas development assistance (ODA) and efforts to address global inequalities. We can use international agreements to evaluate proposals made for these interventions, and perhaps the time is ripe for civil society groups to apply more pressure to the Canadian and American governments to move toward the 1970 UN General Assembly agreed targets of 0.7 percent of a country's GNP instead of continually cutting back.(50) We can also get personally involved by donating to civil society groups that are working on practical development projects and global justice issues.

      Transformative relational approaches

I want to mention another approach called a "transformative" approach to conflict resolution. This involves working on ways to create, restore, and transform relationships, not just among allies, but among political enemies. These relational approaches are also being tried in intractable conflicts involving radically different world views and moral claims. At this point I can hear some of you thinking: "Surely you are not suggesting we negotiate with terrorists!?" I have often heard this challenge. It's true that direct negotiation between conflicting parties becomes less and less possible at the most severe levels of conflict escalation. A better time to negotiate political or moral conflict is before one of the parties decides to take up arms.(51) And of course, there are also many kinds of roles for negotiators and mediators to help de-escalate violent political conflict.

We are unlikely to achieve consensus on some universally accepted moral standards. But perhaps we can aim for better and more sustained dialogue about moral conflicts before they turn into warfare. With apologies to the famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose words I am rephrasing: ". . . progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other. . . Monologues are of little value . . . [and] because there are no agreements to be reached; there is merely a discussion to be maintained."(52) My own view is that the field of conflict resolution can make its most important contributions by fostering sustained dialogue in which we do not stop vexing one another with things we disagree on, but we do so in ways that allow us to keep on listening and talking.(53) Even without specific accords, sustained dialogue can itself prevent violence and save many lives. A number of scholar-practitioners in the field of conflict resolution are working to develop theory and practice strategies along these lines to help people navigate public ideological, cultural or moral conflicts through sustained dialogue.(54)

Power-based approaches are notoriously unstable. If force is the primary approach used to suppress grievances, it is likely that suppressed groups'grievances will live on until the next opportunity to raise them, particularly if the power-based approaches do not meet basic standards of internationally agreed morality and legitimacy. If the emphasis is primarily on building good relationships, there is a better foundation for addressing interests while respecting rights. In such a climate, power-based approaches are less necessary. The questions for us as individuals, and for our leaders, are "Where is the emphasis in the current 'war on terror'?" and "How effective is this in the long term to root out political violence?"