Does Focusing on Victimhood Perpetuate Conflict?

memorials for victims of terrorism
Dozens of mourning people captured during civil service in remembrance of November 2015 Paris attacks victims. Mstyslav Chernov

In creating an international day for victims of terrorism, the United Nations emphasizes “the important role of victims in countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism.” But what if its emphasis on the word victim and the notion of victimhood only serves to deepen conflict and make peace less likely?

That is the premise of a paper by political psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal and colleagues. The authors write about “collective victimhood” in which

“societies may choose to internalize past harms and to ‘transform them into powerful cultural narratives which become an integral part of the social identity.’”

According to the authors, narratives of victimization can make conflicts more intractable because they

  • increase “negative emotions such as anger, fear or self-pity,”
  • magnify differences between groups,
  • promote a sense of vulnerability, and
  • encourage a more militaristic attitude.

OEFR researcher Alex Amling has written about conditions in Colombia, noting one of the great challenges to full reconciliation and peace:

“If parties to a conflict cannot get beyond a sense of victimization and see their role in the conflict, they can transmit their sense of trauma to their children. . . . This trauma can become part of a group’s identity making reconciliation that much harder.”

On an individual level, former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, acknowledges that it is a challenge to be a victim and yet not see yourself as one. But for people who want to support them, he writes,

“…the most important thing we can do is help them recover their sense of agency. This is never easy, but is essential if they are not to drown in their own learned helplessness. No one should ever blame a victim. But neither should any of us encourage a victim to stay a victim.”

We see examples in history of groups and people who have certainly been victims but have shunned that notion. Instead they look to the future. Agency and victimhood stand as opposite poles in a spectrum of responses to hardship. Nelson Mandela is one of the best examples of someone who chose agency. Somehow, he emerged from 27 years in prison—and a lifetime living under apartheid—not as a victim but as the future leader of a democratic nation.

We see examples of this sort of heroism in the Middle East as well. A group of Israeli and Palestinian parents whose loved ones have been murdered have come together to form the Bereaved Families Forum. The group is political in that it works for the end of the Israeli occupation, but it does so through human-to-human contact. Their mourning hasn’t turned into hatred; rather, it has empowered them to find connection with those who have lost loved ones on the other side.

In Somalia, one of the countries hardest hit by terrorism, another person who refused victimhood is Ahmed Jama Mohamed. He left a comfortable life in London to rebuild his country in the way he knew how—by opening restaurants and trying to start a foodie culture in Mogadishu. Since arriving home in 2008 he has opened five restaurants and a hotel—each called The Village. On September 20, 2012, two men detonated suicide vests in the restaurant, killing 14 people and injuring 20 others. But Mohamed did not respond with anger or dreams of retaliation. He told an NPR reporter,

“I showed them I’m not going to give up. I showed them I’m still wanting to stay here.”

The restaurant reopened soon after (with heightened security), inspiring other Somali expats to return home and start businesses as well.

The people who participate in these kinds of peacebuilding activities have somehow overcome their sense of victimhood. They should be supported and empowered by the UN, by countries, and by citizens. But how? How can we empower these peacemakers and hold them up as role models in conflict?

Too often, those of us—outsiders to a conflict—armed with little information, choose to support one side and demonize the other. We affirm and embolden a victimhood narrative among our chosen side. Somehow, we do not realize that this “support” fans the flames of hatred and makes conflicts more intractable.

There are certainly victims of terrorism and violence in this world, and we shouldn’t discount that or diminish anyone’s experiences with violence or persecution. But the best way to help people or nations recover may also be in helping them feel their agency so that they can respond in a way that calms rather than promotes the cycle of violence.

On this international day of remembrance of the victims of terrorism, let us think about the best way to support people who have suffered from violence so that they can lead full and healthy lives and so they can stop the cycles of violence to create peace.