The Twelfth Biannual Meeting of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI) was held in Stockbridge, Massachusetts from October 30 to November 1, 2014. The IDI was hosted by the Erikson Institute of the Austen Riggs Center, which has long been the IDI’s administrative home. This was the IDI’s second meeting in Stockbridge.
The IDI spent a portion of its meeting addressing changes to the group’s corporate structure and public posture. These changes implicated, and therefore prompted a discussion of, the group’s methodology and task list. Time was also given to discussions of the rise of ISIS, the Kurdish region, the US-Iran nuclear negotiations, the Armenian diaspora and Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Because the IDI devoted significant portions of its meeting to internal group structure and methodology, no outside guests were invited to attend. The IDI did, however, present on its work to the Austen Riggs staff and Erikson Institute leadership, and hosted local and international guests at private dinners.
What follows herein is NOT a full report of IDI discussions, but rather a synopsis of key observations.
The IDI began its twelfth biannual meeting in its customary form, with members updating each other on their personal and professional activities over the preceding months. Members discussed conflict interventions, conferences and professional activities both past and upcoming. Two IDI members were unable to attend due to their being guest presenters at a domestic violence conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. Two others had professional obligations in Turkey that prevented them from attending, and two more were prevented from attending by illness. A total of fourteen members were present.
The IDI received a brief introduction to the Austen Riggs Center, a private psychiatric hospital at which the meeting was held. Several IDI members have longstanding professional relationships with Austen Riggs, including former CEO and Medical Director Edward Shapiro and former Director of the Erikson Institute, M. Gerard Fromm. IDI founder Vamik Volkan also has a long relationship with Austen Riggs as a Senior Erikson Scholar.
- Corporate Form
The IDI then took up the issue of the IDI’s corporate form, management and public persona as reflected on social media.
Since its inception, the IDI has been a private, independent and nonpartisan group meeting informally to discuss large-group psychology and conflict mediation. As the group’s methodology has refined, the group – or subsets thereof – has increased its participatory aspect; some members have engaged in consultations and interventions in a range of conflict areas. Concomitant with this increased activity, the IDI has refined its own corporate structure to better facilitate its mission. Thus, in 2014, the IDI began the process of incorporation as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in the United States, with a formal Board of Directors and a principal place of business in Maryland. U.S.-based IDI members Ford Rowan, Vamik Volkan, Gerard Fromm and Ed Shapiro, along with Lord John Alderdice and Robi Friedman, were named Directors of the IDI. Vamik Volkan was elected President of the IDI, John Alderdice and Robi Friedman were elected Vice Presidents, and Gerard Fromm was elected Secretary-Treasurer.
The IDI also unveiled a new website at www.internationaldialogueinitiative.com, which it intends to use as a repository for the group’s work, to communicate and disseminate material to the public and to assist with fundraising.
With a new corporate form and a new public portal, the IDI spent much of its first day discussing and refining its engagement methodology.
Historically, the IDI had operated as a gathering space for members to refresh themselves, broaden and deepen their thinking on the psychopolitical aspects of conflict in particular areas of the world and then take that new thinking back into their own arenas. Over time, the IDI has worked toward an analytical methodology and members have increasingly brought aspects of that methodology to bear on their individual projects. Thus, one member presented a working paper on rights-based frameworks for the Israeli-Palestinian future, and IDI members contributed psychopolitical analysis and process considerations to the paper’s development. Other IDI members met in smaller groups between meetings to intervene in particular conflict situations, or to host conferences on the psychopolitical underpinnings of such situations. Still other IDI members worked together to bridge critical negotiation impasses and to maintain lines of communication with policymakers in conflict situations.
The IDI, however, has not before acted as a group. It has not assigned itself specific tasks to undertake or specific products to generate. The decision not to do so has been a conscious one, as the IDI strives to protect its impartiality, to provide an atmosphere of learning and analysis and to respect the professional diversity of its members.
In the course of its first day, IDI members discussed whether this engagement posture still fit with the IDI’s mission, or whether the IDI should become a more activist organization. Some members pressed for more engagement, given the IDI’s potential to reach and explore issues with decision-makers in conflict situations. Others expressed caution that certain engagements might compromise not only the IDI’s identity as an impartial reflective space, but potentially have adverse impacts on the careers and personal lives of the members themselves. A series of possible engagements were discussed, including research projects and public diplomacy work. A commitment was made to identify issues and projects on which the group, or subsets thereof, could engage while preserving the animating operational ethos of the group. A request was made that members endeavor to create a methodology in which the conversation slowed down, in the hope that this attention to the group’s own process – which is a strength of the group – might give rise to a more informed, synthetic discussion. An observation was made that the group was perhaps caught up in its own dream of unity, and a discussion ensued as to what that dream was and what motivations it addressed.
This initial discussion framed and carried over to several of the substantive presentations that followed.
One IDI member framed the substantive discussions by observing that with the collapse of the “stable instability” of the Cold War and the waning of an ensuing decade of US unilateral power, a sense of world order was fragmenting and efforts at new order seemed chaotic and often violent. Foreign fighters were flocking to jihadist campaigns in Afghanistan and with ISIS. The twin pillars of western confidence – democracy and power (both economic and military) – appeared vulnerable and widely challenged. The Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions had given rise to democratically-elected Muslim governments, which were then overthrown by militaries. He feared that the world was slipping piecemeal into a third world war, in which perceptions of stability and moral right no longer obtained. He encouraged IDI members, in the course of their meeting, to see through illusions of rational action and confront the irrationality of the disenfranchised.
One area of great concern to members was the current situation in Jerusalem. As one IDI member familiar with the region put it, the city was boiling. Israeli Defense Forces were in Jerusalem for the first time since 1997. This IDI member described the entire Palestinian population as traumatized by the Gaza War, and posited that among Palestinians Hamas held its highest moral position ever.
An Israeli IDI member made similar observations. The city was the “most complex place on Earth.” Westerners couldn’t understand that complexity because it was not in their DNA, he observed. It was a complexity borne of thousands of years of history. Westerners who proposed technical or mechanical solutions to that complexity were bound to fail because they failed to penetrate, and often to even consider, the most basic of impediments, including issues of respect, existential concerns, and fundamental religious disagreements.
Other IDI members joined and augmented some of these observations. A discussion ensued on the position of Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, and on recent recognition of the State of Palestine by Sweden and, informally, the UK. Three IDI members discussed their difficulties in mediating negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the difficulties of getting negotiation participants to acknowledge their own narratives and the narratives of their adversaries. These negotiation participants could not address their own emotional states, and defaulted instead to politics. Did this avoidance contribute to the negotiations breaking down? “We don’t know how to say it,” one senior negotiation partner confided to IDI members when describing the absence of emotional awareness and speech in Middle East negotiations and in general.
The IDI spent a portion of its first day discussing the rise of the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. They watched a short video presentation on the origins of ISIS, and then engaged in a deep and enlightening conversation, which sought to separate the terrorist group from its semantic links to both Islam and a “State.” IDI members from the region encouraged the group to both think of and refer to the terrorists by the term Da’esh, rather than as “the Islamic State.” IDI members disputed some of the notions advanced by the film concerning the group’s reach and strength. As one IDI member noted, Da’esh controlled roads and checkpoints, but that did not translate to control of a region. This IDI member suggested that the Sunni-Shi’a divide among Muslims is more political than religious. Da’esh, he suggested, arose out of the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq, aligned itself with all marginalized groups in Iraq and grew in size and resources in the lawless mess of Syria, expecting to share in a post-Assad state.
The IDI discussed the remarkable quality of Da’esh’s social appeal and social media outreach to marginalized foreign youth, noting that some of Da’esh’s recruiting videos and materials contain the slogan “The Cure for Depression is Jihad.” The IDI noted the way in which Da’esh’s success seems to show how important glory and ‘chosen glory’ is in motivating young fighters to join a war. Nothing seems to appeal more strongly or successfully than the possibility of taking part in success itself, even in a Social Matrix in which Shame, Guilt and Empathy vanish.
This initial and brief discussion of Da’esh allowed IDI members to see certain historical events and images, such as the removal of the Caliphate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its consequences, as part of the context for the appeal of Da’esh to people outside of the Middle East.
The IDI engaged in a detailed conversation about Turkey, a conversation necessarily weighted by the professional and personal experiences of three present members, and by the professional capacities of two absent members. Turkey, as a nominally secular Muslim democracy, occupies a pivotal role in Middle East modeling. Policy positions by the governing AK Party and President Erdogan have created the perception in the West that Turkey is turning inward. One factor in this perceived turn has been the repeated rejection of Turkey by the European Union. The IDI discussed how Turkey could feel undermined by the EU’s repeated overtures, each of which has been revoked. The IDI wondered how such rejections must play out in Turkey, which is geopolitically situated in a critical spot for the EU but is viewed with distrust and prejudice.
One IDI member posited that Turkish leadership, and particularly President Erdogan, may feel that it is a prisoner of something, rather than a driver of something. What is that thing? A reaction to rejection by the West, a self-preservative need to assume a dominant place in an unstable Middle East? A need to unify and control a large and uneven population through reanimating historical mythology? Without understanding the underlying large-group motivations, Turkey and its neighbors risk missing important opportunities to communicate and cooperate.
- Northern Ireland
One IDI member briefed the group on mediation interventions in Northern Ireland subsequent to the 2013 intervention at Corrymeela in which IDI members had participated. Subsequent to the Corrymeela intervention, the American diplomat Richard Haas had led a U.S.-brokered intervention attempt. The Haas intervention had stalled in part because it focused on institutional and political instruments and failed to take into account the psychological relationships. The IDI member believed that there might be opportunities for an IDI team to return to Northern Ireland for follow-up interventions with either a large group of civic leaders or a smaller group from within one of the sectarian camps. A key, this IDI member noted, was to help the individual camps to see a way forward. In his efforts, he had found that the unionist camp in particular had difficulty seeing a way forward for itself, which made it impossible for them to participate in meaningful negotiations. Many unionists felt that a peace accord should never have been reached, and even those unionists who had a stake in the peace process and might be inclined to work on group identity issues suffered from burnout and a loss of hope in the process. He was concerned that if no progress was made in the next several months, Northern Ireland was likely to see an unstitching of the Peace Process.
The IDI member briefed the group on an initiative he had championed in Northern Ireland to address biases and violence against immigrants. It was an initiative that appealed to a broad swath of Northern Ireland’s population, was supported by data showing that, contrary to some perceptions, immigrants were beneficial to the Northern Irish economy and did not take work from natives, and was marketable via an active social media campaign. This IDI member also discussed the upcoming Corporation Tax decision in the UK, which should come by May 2015. If that ruling passes, it will be a significant political and civic win for Northern Ireland which might reinvigorate civic support for a sustainable peace process.
Day two of the IDI’s Twelfth Biannual Meeting began with a discussion of Iran and its current role in the development of the Middle East.
One member of the IDI framed the discussion as a meditation on why Iran had become a central figure in the Middle East conflict. This member posited that both Iran and the West bear the psychic scars of the Hostage Crisis, and those scars inform current perceptions. The Iranian Revolution unleashed competing forces, some of which promoted isolation. Those isolationist forces used wedges like the Rushdie Affair to push away Europe, a rejection facilitated by Western media portrayals and extremist politicians like former President Ahmedinejad.
This IDI member noted that in Iran, the middle class is diverse and widespread, embracing reformist agendas like that promoted by the Green Party. The Iranian society had moved away from reliance on government, expressing their will and their ideas outside of governmental channels. An adage in Iranian politics is that candidates run for office not to get elected but to express their views. President Rouhani did not expect to be elected, but was. There is a new dynamic at work in Iran that requires the state to take the society into account. According to one IDI member, the world can expect, and should support, movements within Iran to care about human rights, to support information technology and entrepreneurship and to facilitate business relationships. An irony of Western sanctions on Iran is that they have led to Iran developing its own high-level technology and manufacturing bases.
It was noted that Iran was surrounded by failing states and must necessarily be involved in the management of the region for stability. One IDI member posited that Rouhani is not empowering moderates in Iran, but that moderates are empowering Rouhani.
Other IDI members noted that Iran’s state media and the nuclear negotiation issue play into the politics of the Israeli right wing. The Israeli right wing is invested in the fantasy of the martyr, a Masada complex. Others pointed out a fundamental disconnect within Iranian politics: if 85% of Iranians participated in the elections, and the elected government is not running the country, what is going on? Who can be trusted as a manager, or a change agent?
- Israel and Palestine
The IDI engaged in a lengthy conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian relationship. One IDI member moderated the discussion and observed at the start that Palestinian stakeholders and interested parties were struggling to move forward, with events shifting beneath them. In the aftermath of the latest Gaza war, Palestinians find themselves sinking into despair. The sense, from a negotiation standpoint, is that Israel has no partner in the negotiations. This IDI member noted that Palestinian youth seem disconnected from their leadership in the Palestinian Authority while nonetheless seeming unified in response to the “War on Gaza.” She queried how the Palestinian leadership could transmit its messaging to the Palestinian people to build a dynamic for trust and productive negotiations.
An Israeli IDI member noted that within Israel there was a hope that the action in Gaza would give a possibility for reconciliation. In the end, however, neither side went for peace. Negotiations were instead solely about security. Israelis want Hamas to say that it doesn’t want to destroy Israel. Others pointed out that the PLO gained nothing by recognizing Israel, leading Hamas to conclude that its only leverage was military.
Another IDI member added that Israel and the Palestinians would never sort their conflicts out on their own. They require third parties to participate. He noted that pro-Israel Britons report feeling betrayed by Israel, and that there was little point in talking about terrorism and rockets while settlements continued to expand. He noted that Jerusalem is a sacred space for Israelis, but also for Muslims and Christians, and that Israelis must acknowledge that others feel betrayed by the actions of their government. He suggested that a permanent defensive political position of “Never again” ultimately invites a similar result, and that engaging with political leaders within Israel was unlikely to produce results. Israel and the Palestinians, he suggested, were not ready for a conversation, and that only external pressures could change their positions. He queried how to reorient Jewish Israel to a place of negotiation.
One IDI member remarked that one cannot achieve what one cannot imagine, and asked the group what a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians might look like. IDI members seemed to agree that the most difficult piece of such a deal was the refugee issue, hand-in-hand with the settlements. How could refugees be allowed to return and settlers moved or evicted in a way that preserved a sustainable peace? Another IDI member suggested that a one-state reality was inevitable if the sides ceased dealing with issues of independence and political solutions, thus energy should be put into what a one-state reality would mean. This suggestion was augmented by another IDI member who pointed out that if Israel continued to control the borders, a one-state solution would not work because the Palestinian economy would continue to suffer. She added that Palestinians, for their part, don’t consider themselves hedged in by a delineation of Gaza, the West Bank and the Occupied Territories; rather, Palestinians consider the whole of Israel to be an occupied land.
- Armenia and Turkey
The IDI received a report on one IDI member’s work within the Armenian diaspora community in Los Angeles. This member had spent the past 18 months interviewing Armenian diaspora members in Los Angeles. She reported that the diaspora community identified Armenia as a “fatherland” and Turkey/Anatolia as a “motherland.” The community got its news from Turkish sources, which resulted in politicization of information and a reconstruction of old systems and ideologies.
Another IDI member pointed out that diasporas often use the home population to preserve identity mythologies – that is, the diaspora creates a fantasy of identity and then requires the home populations to preserve that fantasy. Change within the home community undermines the identity of the diaspora. Indeed, “home” is often a fantasy location for emigrants and exiles, who require a subset of people to carry the hopes and dreams of home. These hopes and dreams, as constructed, cannot be realized because to do so would be to shatter the identity of the diaspora.
The IDI noted that 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian tragedy.
- The Kurdish Region
Finally, the IDI took up the issue of the Kurdish region, and of the shifting political and economic climates facing the Kurds. One IDI member noted that until 10 years ago, the Iranian Kurdistan region was underdeveloped, but had now become highly developed. Iranian Kurds sell goods throughout Iran. He questioned whether those Kurds would risk losing access to the large Iranian market to emigrate to a new “Kurdistan” carved out of northern Iraq, when they currently have access to both Iran and the Kurdish region in Iraq. Another IDI member noted that it is not clear on what bases the Kurds will make such decisions, because certain values might apply that a population would deem sacred – such as a desire for reunion and homeland.
The Kurdish position in countering Da’esh was also discussed.
NEXT IDI MEETING:
In connection with its corporate reorganization, the IDI Board determined to hold full-group meetings once per year going forward, with smaller intra-group projects carried on throughout the year. The 13th Meeting of the IDI will take place September 30, 2015 through October 2, 2015, at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University. This will be the IDI’s second meeting at Oxford.
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