The 7th Biannual Meeting

The 7th Biannual Meeting

Ankara, Turkey - September 22 2011 - September 24 2011

The seventh biannual conference of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI) was held in Ankara, Turkey from Thursday, September 22 to Saturday, September 24, 2011. This was the IDI’s third meeting in the Turkish capital. IDI’s aim was to discuss the events of the “Arab Spring,” especially from a psychopolitical view. Prior to the Ankara meeting, however, tensions in the region escalated due to Mavi Marmama flotilla incident of May 2010. The Mavi Marmara flotilla incident occurred when a Turkish-based humanitarian aid flotilla refused to obey orders from the Israeli Defense Forces and respect the IDF’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. As a result of that refusal, on May 31, 2010, the IDF boarded the Mavi Marmara – the largest vessel in the flotilla – and engaged in a battle with the activists on board, in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Following the incident, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdoğan expelled the Israeli ambassador and requested an apology from Israel, a request which Israel has refused. The incident and its fallout upended what had been a long-standing alliance between Turkey and Israel, adding new wrinkles to the balance of power in the region. Thus, when the IDI meeting began, the IDI members’ attention initially turned to this issue which, of course, is very closely related to the “Arab Spring” topic.

Reflection on Current Events in Respective IDI Countries as of September 2011:

When IDI members gathered in Turkey in September 2011 they noted how the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s ascendance and the pride he was attempting to instill in the Turkish population was palpable. Just prior the IDI meeting, in mid-September 2011, Erdoğan had visited Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. However, the “Kurdish issue” in Turkey was continuing to be a most difficult problem for that country. Two days before the arrival of most IDI members to Ankara, terrorists detonated a bomb along a crowded market street in the city, not far away from the meeting location, killing three individuals and wounded many others. A Kurdish separatist splinter group claimed responsibility. Unlike what would happen if such an event had taken place in Washington, DC, for example, people in Ankara went about their daily lives.

In neighboring Syria, daily tragedies were continuing. In another neighboring country, Iran, the current regime, for the first time, had completely rejected reformist groups from participation in government. There was also now a rift within the ruling conservative party, with the Front for Resistance, responsible for actually crushing the Green Movement, exercising more extremist leadership. Formerly supportive of President Ahmadinejad (who wanted his son to succeed him), the Front had now abandoned him. The Green Movement seemed over, weakened by its failure to connect with ordinary people on social issues. The move to create an Iranian Islam faced tension between religious and national identities because the clergy, trained mainly in Iraq, were excluded. For all of these reasons, especially the brutal and highly publicized suppression of the Green Movement, Iran had lost the immediate battle with Turkey for regional influence. Erdoğan seemed to replace Ahmadinejad as the face of Middle Eastern leadership, and Turkey’s economy and its integration of Islam and democracy have given him credibility and appeal.

The role of technology and social media in the Arab Spring was one of its remarkable features, and before the IDI members met in Ankara demonstrations had arisen in Israel as well, inspired by those in the Arab countries and protesting the economic oligarchy. In Israel, the motto was: “Walk like an Egyptian!” The demonstrations, large and clearly inspired by the Arab Spring, focused only on domestic issues. For a month, there was no violence and constant talk. The government’s tactic was to ignore it and expect the energy to dissipate, but the Labor Party was energized (with its own female leader) and the possibility of a new coalition existed. But generally there was anxiety in Israel about the anti-Israel actions coming from the Arab Spring, particularly those of Egypt and Turkey.

Europe, too, has turned inward as it struggles with its own economic crisis and the tenuousness of the European Union. Germany resents having to bail out profligate neighbors to the South and laments not being appreciated for the work it does on behalf of Europe. Germany’s citizens, especially its older ones, fear a devolution in what it means to be “German.” In Great Britain, the recent riots horrified citizens at the ease with which ordinary people joined the lawlessness without knowing why; they also led, however, to a degree of ethnic pride in the way groups came together to protect their own communities. Britain seems to be dealing with its economy realistically, and there have been recent examples of working across bitterly divided boundaries, the most powerful being the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland, during which she paid her respects to those who died in the Irish Rebellion. This was a transformational event, and 89% of the Irish population expressed their wish that she return.

When the IDI meeting was taking place in Ankara, most members expressed the opinion that the European Union may not survive if Greece dropped out. This would be an irony for Turkey, whose economy is thriving, but to whom it is increasingly clear that EU membership is an empty promise because some EU nations will never allow a Muslim country to join. The EU may have lost sight of its founding mission; it seems to be trying to create a community, rather than simply a free market, and forgetting its original goal of ensuring no more war in Europe (primarily through the containment of Germany). How much the fear of Germany should be relegated to the past is not clear; in this context, how should Germany’s refusal to take up military responsibility for Europe be understood? As the US looks to China and is strained by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why should it shoulder the costs of NATO, especially in the absence of a threat from Russia? And if it reduces its support of NATO, why should Britain and France continue to pay for Germany’s defense or for UN supported operations, like that in Libya?

In the United States, the protest energy (until recent post-conference events on Wall Street) seemed bewilderingly in the direction of supporting the oligarchical forces that were instrumental in creating the recession from which people are suffering. Politics seemed reduced to an increasingly nasty entertainment, and a resurgent xenophobia had come into in play; politicians in 29 states have introduced anti-Sharia laws into the legislature. Fear, ignorance, job frustration and perhaps a tenacious underlying racism are powerful emotional currents, available for manipulation, and President Obama, with whom many are disillusioned, may be vulnerable to these forces in the next election. The deadlock in Congress has led many to despair that the country can act at all on its own behalf.

The Turkish-Israeli Relationship:

During the most recent Turkish elections, the Erdoğan administration had received 54% of the vote. The Turkish members of the IDI spoke about how, despite the Erdoğan administration’s initial foreign policy paradigm of “no problems with neighbors,” the Arab Spring has created a paradigm shift in which all of Turkey’s existing relationships were changing. Turkey had a long relationship with Qaddafi in Libya which had now collapsed. The historic friendship between Turkey and Israel had been undermined by the flotilla incident and Turkey’s ascendance in the region. In Turkey, the issue was described as “the first time Jews killed Turks.” A psychological shift had occurred in the relationship, and Israel’s actions were considered a near-assault on the Turkish state itself. Not surprisingly, then, 70% of Turks approve of Erdoğan’s request for an apology from Israel.

It was suggested that Turkey had reverted to the “first principle in “Muslim geography””: to have problems with Israel and Jews. It was suggested that Erdoğan wanted to “create a show” for Turks with his demand for an apology – the flotilla was a “trap” for Israel that Netanyahu fell for. Erdoğan’s problems – Turkey’s problems, it was suggested, were with Netanyahu and hard-liners, not Israel itself. Meanwhile, issues over Cyprus continued to bedevil Greek/Turkish relations.

One Turkish IDI member, contemplating the region’s recent events, observed that all new capitalist markets need new territories — Latin America in the 80’s, the former Soviet Union in the 90’s – and the Middle East is one such territory. The bourgeoisie and women could form a potential consumer base. Liberal economies need democracies, and vice versa. The IDI member noted that Turkey was being seen as a role model for a liberal economic and a democratic Islamic state. The West needed Turkey in this role: the Arab Spring could represent an “axis shift” – in which Turkey was moving with the shift, and Israel was not. This member suggested that every state transitioning into a new model needed a fight within government, a changing of the guard. Where was this fight in Turkey? Where was Erdoğan’s opposition? Was this “changing of the guard” model was applicable to the larger Middle East dynamic.
One Israeli member stated that for the Middle East to truly transition to a more liberal economy, it would need to come to terms with the region’s “working economies” versus its nonworking economies – states flush with petrodollars which nonetheless did not produce things outside of oil (Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, e.g.). Israel, he said, was different: it produced, it was “a self-made man.” This member walked the conference through Israel’s history surrounding the blockade of Gaza, from 1994 and problems with Arafat and Iran, through 2005, after Sharon, and the transfer of weaponry through tunnels and by sea into Gaza. Faced with rocket warfare from Gaza and the West Bank, Israel had to declare a blockade. This member suggested that if Turkey did the same to the Kurds, the decision would be “received by an orchestra.” Israel, he said, had no fight with Turkey. No sovereign state would have allowed the violations Israel was seeking to prevent. Israel’s only problem with Erdoğan, he suggested, was that Israel expected him to be “an honest broker” with Syria, but Erdoğan could not be. Thus, Israel felt betrayed by Erdoğan.

An Israeli member of the IDI, Ambassador (Ret.) Reuven Merhav, was a member of the Turkel Commission, which was charged with examining the Mavi Marmara incident. While he was active on this commission Ambassador Merhav did not attend the IDI meetings. He now joined the other members in Ankara. He was still a member of the commission, but the commission had prepared its report. The report, entitled “The Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010,” was distributed to the IDI members. During the Ankara meeting discussion of this report – and especially a dialogue between Ambassador Merhav and a Turkish member of the IDI, Professor Deniz Ülke Arıbogan – illustrated clearly the psychological obstacles for finding an easy solution to tame the tension between Israel and Turkey.

Ambassador Merhav agreed that operational mistakes by the IDF in connection with the flotilla incident resulted in the violence on the ship, although, he stated, there was no humanitarian aid on board. He instructed the conference to “go back to history,” and look at the Arab League Charter, which mandates opposition to Israel. He noted that Israel was governed by coalitions and that until that changes Israel must endure it. Professor Arıbogan responded that “perception is reality,” and that in Turkey the perception was that Israel overreacted. In short, the Ambassador hewed to facts, the record, demanding that the discussion be grounded in “truth” about the incident – truth about the location, the flotilla contents, the activists’ intentions, the events as they transpired. Prof. Arıbogan resisted attending only to the Ambassador’s facts, both because she seemed to dispute them and because they were in a way beside the point she was making – that, in psychopolitical terms, the perception was what mattered.

Other members joined this discussion. A co-chair person of the IDI, Dr. Robi Friedman, noted that apologies would not help Turkey or Israel directly, or really help relations between the two. Forcing an apology might help Turkey’s international standing, or its standing within the Muslim world – thus Turkey was playing a sort of double game with Israel. But Israel could play that game as well, of course, and use a hard position to apologize as it wishes, strategically. Dr. Friedman noted that when you begin such a game, you can lose sight of the larger picture. The only thing you see is the game, and everyone sees the same game differently. Dr. Friedman spoke about his father, who bore the scars of 18 injuries from the first World War, saying that nothing would happen to the Jews of Germany because they had fought in the war. “Then they took his sister-in-law away.” Certainty of positions, he pointed out, is dangerous. How could Israel be so clever, he wondered, and still treat the Mavi Marmara in such an inflammatory way? No matter what the “facts” were, Israel could have foreseen the conflicts between facts and “felt truths” within the Arab world in which it exists.

Dr. Gerard Fromm from the US used this discussion to point out the “painful humiliation of being seduced into wanting something you are never going to get.” Was Erdoğan, on behalf of Turkey, responding to decades of hollow Western promises? Dr. Fromm noted that the Israeli members of the IDI could be seen as grounding themselves in data because it pushed against the “interpretive grandiosity of professionals.” He also pointed out Dr. Friedman’s observation that the failure of a position of certainty (e.g. Dr. Friedman’s father’s certainty that the Jews of Germany would be fine) could lead to “an opposite certainty” (e.g., that Jews will never be safe). Israel might be seen as coalescing around this opposite certainty. Still, Dr. Fromm wondered if there was an apology stance Israel could adopt that could be grounded in policy? To Dr. Fromm’s ears, the Israelis seemed post-traumatic and having great difficulty changing their patterns, much like the current US government’s paralysis. How does one move past being post-traumatic?

Another co-chair person of the IDI, Lord John Alderdice, Convenor of the Liberal Democrat Peers in Great Britain’s House of Lords, noted that the particulars offer scapegoats, but that it remained necessary to look at the wider picture psychologically. He informed the IDI membership that he had been invited to be on board the Mavi Marmara. He also informed the members that he asked Hamas leadership, “if there is a way to address conflict that is not immediately violent, do you want it?” and was told “yes.” He noted, in response to skepticism about Turkey’s request for apology, that states do apologize – such as when British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized in June 2010 for the events of the Northern Ireland Bloody Sunday conflict in 1972. With regard to Israel and the Middle East, Lord Alderdice’s fear was that a people who say (and live an ethic of) “never again” are those people most likely to suffer just what they fear. Being haunted by the fear of horrible things happening, he suggested, precipitates horrible things happening. The United Kingdom, he suggested, fears that the situation in the Middle East is hopeless, and that the US government had “trapped” Israeli leadership in a position from whence it cannot move.
The IDI members also discussed what it would mean to Israel if Palestine became a legal state.

The Arab Spring

The IDI hosted two guest speakers in Ankara.

From Tunisia: The first guest was a lady from Tunisia who was temporarily working in Ankara and spoke in an informal capacity about her country’s revolution. This is a summary of information she gave to the IDI members:

She preferred to call the “Arab Spring” the “Arab Honor,” because for her the revolutions were an example of the region retaking its “honor.” She noted that Tunisia, while a small country, had started a ripple that created great benefit to other peoples throughout the Middle East. Dignity had been lost in Tunisia before the revolution. Since winning independence many years ago, Tunisia had had only had two presidents. It had never elected a president, and had never had a functioning democracy. The population couldn’t react, couldn’t have any personal openness. Interestingly, the protesters in Tunisia were not demanding milk and bread – necessities – they were demanding jobs, technology, infrastructure. They were not hungry, but angry. The unrest was not in the streets, not with the common people. The streets were fine. The unrest fomented behind the walls of the universities, with the intellectuals. They were frustrated, humiliated. “Universities were curtains in Tunisia,” behind which dissent coalesced. She said her father cautioned her against joining the protests, but she defied him and went to the streets.

Our guest from Tunisia discussed the use of religion in Tunisia as “a club, a tool.” Political parties claimed piety and religion to win elections. Women occupied a place of prominence in the revolution, whose mobs were mixes of creeds, religions, sexes – melting pots. In the post-revolution confusion, however, political parties began to appear, and with them, identities formed. She also told the IDI members a moving story about how the oppressive regime in Tunis had affected her family directly.

Lord Alderdice, joining other members of the IDI in thanking our Tunisian guest, stated that he felt more optimism about the future of the Tunisian revolution than he did about Egypt or Libya. Tunisia benefits from greater homogeneity, fewer tribes and religions; it is closer to Europe, smaller, and frankly less strategically important to outside interests which might undermine the democratic process. As an aside, Dr. Friedman recounted that when he was coaching the Israeli men’s basketball team in pan-Arab tournaments, the Tunisians were the only Arab team that spoke to the Israelis.

From Egypt: The second guest was a gentleman from Egypt with significant information about Egyptian societal/political processes.

He began by noting that since January 2011, Egypt (and he) has felt out of stride, out of touch. Many in Egypt expected change, but did not expect it in the form in which it arrived, that fast or that forceful, or from the direction of the youth. “Those who were the least organized politically did the revolution,” he remarked.

He was quick to note that there was not one Arab Spring, but several, each different. In Egypt, the street was calling for the Army to take over and intervene, which it eventually did. He clarified that Egypt had not seen a military coup, and indeed that the Army had promised to ensure elections within 6 months. He described the current state of affairs in Egypt as “a pause to redraw and re-evaluate the system.”

Our guest from Egypt spoke about the role of institutions in the Egyptian election, noting that the judiciary would hold trials rather than allow unpopular military courts. Trade unions went on organized strikes. Al Azar University provided “enlightened leadership” and a national dialogue prior to the revolution on secularism versus Sharia/Political Islam. The revolution itself was thus “organized,” rather than chaotic.

He acknowledged that, while Islam has been Egypt’s official religion since 1923, religion itself was not a part of civic life. Egypt has seen “a genuine effort to develop a civil law via Sharia and other religious laws.” He praised the efforts of Al Azar University in reconciling Sharia with a civil society by, for example, turning mosques and Islamic religious centers into cultural centers. An effort was afoot to turn religion into a positive force for change, a civilizational force.

With regard to the Arab/Israeli issue, our guest stated that Egypt agrees with the prevailing wisdom about a return to 1967 borders with mutually-agreed upon territory swaps. He felt that this would lead to a secure Israel. He said that Egypt wanted Israel to help court the moderate Muslim, and that other avenues had failed to produce peace. Indeed, he suggested, the recent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo would not have happened if the recent Israel/Palestinian negotiations had produced more and better results. “Whenever peaceful negotiations are unsuccessful,” he said, “the radicals jump in to ignite problems.” He said that there was great disappointment in Egypt that international intervention has not produced better results, and called for more international and regional intervention. Moderates must be empowered, he said, or the Arab Spring could wind up being a negative and unconstructive event. The Palestinian issue continues to fuel protests in the Arab world, he cautioned – indeed, the revolutionary streets of Cairo were objecting to (a) few jobs and low salaries in Egypt and (b) the issue of Palestine.

Our Egyptian guest’s description of the Egyptian model of Sharia laws explained why during Erdoğan’s recent visit to Egypt, the only time there was silence in the audience was when he suggested that Egyptians accept secularism.

During the question and answer period the Egyptian guest was asked about economic approaches to post-revolution stabilization as well as the Mavi Marmara incident and the ability of Palestinians, particularly Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, to move about freely. He noted that the problems of the Egyptian street and the problems of Israel and Palestine were human problems, not holy ones, and that the source of authority must be the people, not the religion. What Sadat did (during his famous visit to the Knesset in 1979) was to say that the main barrier between the Jews and Arabs was psychological. If the people can get rid of that psychological barrier, they can work on the substance. Egypt, this very knowledgeable man suggested, could lead the Arabs into democratic transition. The recent revolutions represent an opportunity for progress on Arab/Israeli issues, and when opportunities arise, they must be seized.

He conceded that elections in Egypt might get pushed back because the revolutionary groups were only now coalescing into political groups, and would not do well in an early election because they were not organized. The Muslim Brotherhood and some of the older political parties, by contrast, wanted early elections because they will win seats.

Our guest noted that a key part of the Egyptian revolution was the discrediting of the police force. But now, with no reliable police force, Egypt was finding it hard to create security and stability. Thus, the military had imposed an emergency law in an effort to provide security during the transition. The military-economic nexus in Egypt was key to peace and stability, he argued. Military personnel in Egypt were routinely enlisted in domestic reconstruction and domestic/civil developments. With regard to the role of women in post-revolution Egypt, he suggested that there was an ongoing debate about the role of women, polygamy and inheritance laws, and lauded the role of women in the days up to and through the revolution.

Meeting with the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister:

During the IDI Ankara meeting, Lord Alderdice and Vamık Volkan, founder and one of the co-chairs of the IDI, spent more than an hour with His Excellency Beșir Atalay, a Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey responsible for issues of security and policing. During the meeting, Mr. Atalay expressed thoughts along the same lines as the IDI in terms of viewing conflict through a psychopolitical lens. The discussion was primarily centered on Turkey’s ongoing conflict with the PKK. The IDI members also described to the Deputy Prime Minister the types of political dialogues (official and unofficial) they had been involved with in the course of past attempts to find peaceful solutions to large-group conflicts. Overall, this meeting was a very positive one.

Large-Group Identity:

During the last day of the Ankara meeting the IDI members once more discussed large-group (i.e, ethnic, national, religious, ideological) psychology in order to examine its theoretical and practical implications to areas of the world under discussion The group asked Dr. Volkan, also co-chair, to review his observations on the signs of large-group regression that occurs after revolutions, losing a leader, a historical event that stimulate large-group identity issues or other major shared changes and traumas.

The following is Dr. Volkan’s summary:

The term “large-group regression” requires some explanation. Individuals are capable of individuating adaptively and moving up to levels where they utilize sophisticated psychological capabilities that keep their less-sophisticated ones in the shadows and harmless. In individual regression we say that a “normal” person, due to an external trauma or an internal one such as an anxiety-creating nightmare, psychologically goes back and utilizes more “primitive” mental mechanisms. On the other hand, large groups, even in “normal” times, extensively utilize primitive mechanisms such as externalization of their unwanted aspects onto the “other” or internalization of ideas that aim to increase the shared narcissism. For example, large groups are always ready to hold on to prejudicial conceptions about other large groups and “swallow” propaganda about their own superiority. In other words, when a large group “goes back,” its regression starts from an already regressed position. For this reason, some of us are searching for a better term to describe societal regression. “Societal disorganization” and “societal incohesion” have been suggested. More important than finding the proper term, however, is coming to an understanding of what this concept describes.

We need to go beyond stating that regressed large groups experience narcissistic or paranoid reorganization. We need to be more specific if we want to contribute to the understanding of a particular international conflict. When individuals regress, they “go back” and repeat their childhood experiences, now contaminated with unconscious fantasies and mental defenses. The things they repeat are specific to them. When a large group regresses, the large group also “goes back,” reactivates and inflames certain mental representations of its ancestors’ history, events that may have occurred decades or centuries ago. Such shared mental representations of history might be called “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories.”

The personality of the political leader assumes great importance at such times. Rallying around the leader in regressed groups has been examined since Freud’s time. But, often, after a drastic societal change, there will be a severe splitting, or even fragmentation, within the same large group if the (new) leader cannot maintains “basic trust” within the society.

The large group may turn to magical thinking that includes exaggerated religious fundamentalism. They also return to specific old, societal, religious, cultural customs instead of trying new, more “democratic” ways. The large group focuses on minor differences between itself and the external “enemy” (and, if a splitting or fragmentation occurs within the large group, between the subgroups).

The large group experiences legal and even geographical boundaries as a “second skin.” Meanwhile the large groups’ shared symbols become “proto-symbols” that stand for large-group identity.The large group then psychologically becomes prepared to do anything, tolerate shared sadism and masochism, in order to maintain and protect its large-group identity.The large-group may become involved in non-dangerous (and sometimes very dangerous) “purification” rituals (getting rid of items, from words to people, that are perceived as not belonging to the large group).

For a more detailed discussion of large group regression, see Dr. Volkan’s papers, collected at:

The IDI members each noted how certain forms of group discussions were clearly helpful in improving human behavior individually as members of large groups as well as large group political processes themselves. The IDI members will continue to examine large-group identity issues in the Middle East.

Ankara University’s New Political Psychology Institute’s First Annual Meeting:

On September 21, 2011, the day before the IDI meeting started Ankara University’s new Center for the Study and Research of Political Psychology (POLPAUM) held its first meeting at the University of Ankara. IDI member Professor Abdülkadir Çevik, (also the Chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry at University of Ankara) is the director of this Center. (More detailed information can be found here: In addition to a professor of international relations, IDI member Vamık Volkan and the IDI member representing Iran were speakers at this gathering, which was attended by, among other dignitaries, the Rector of the University of Ankara, a former Turkish Minister of Interior, Iranian and Yemeni ambassadors to Turkey, a representative from the Egyptian Embassy in Ankara, and leaders of various civic organizations.

This center is the second such interdisciplinary institution organized under the auspices of a medical school that expands the concept of “preventive medicine” to include psychological understanding of large-group conflicts and methods of taming their destructive consequences. The first such institution was the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI), founded in 1989 at the University of Virginia Medical School by Vamık Volkan. CSMHI was closed in 2005 after Dr. Volkan’s retirement.

The IDI’s link to Ankara University’s Center for the Study and Research of Political Psychology, through Professor Çevik, is a major development.