The power of a Jewish-Muslim narrative

by Jan Hjärpe
Lund, Sweden - Crises in the Middle East are seen and interpreted differently depending on whom you ask. For example, Israel's perception of and reaction to Hamas and Hizbullah is coloured by the historical trauma that the Jewish people suffered over the centuries. Unfolding events there are perceived as part of the struggle against anti-Semitism, which continues to form an integral part of the Israeli contemporary worldview.

Another example of diverging interpretation would be the Muslim tendency to view conflicts through a dualistic worldview. In Muslim circles, and since the 1970s, tensions in the world have often been described as conflicts between the "arrogant ones" and the "disrespected ones". For some Muslim extremists in the 1970s and 1980s the United States and the USSR were arrogant devils, or even "the great Satan".

When the interpretive narratives between conflicting parties are so different, communication and ultimately the resolution of conflict suffers as a result.

A huge part of one's cognitive universe is shaped by narratives the stories told in one's family, among friends, in a history class lesson. These narratives constitute the "historiography" of the group, nation, religious community, or whatever circles the individual belongs to. History is always a selection of what is regarded as significant. Furthermore, very few historical events are preserved unless they relate to a group's identity. This has to do with belonging, identity and the "us" and "them".

The narratives of what has happened to "us" in the past affect our perception of events today. To us, these stories are true in the sense that they are formed by historical fact, and are seen as especially significant because they are perceived as having happened to "us", even if we were not born at that time. "They" people in the past have become "us"; in illo tempore "at that time" has become "now". This phenomenon to appropriate our ancestor's history as our own is especially pertinent to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I recently read a short book on Palestinian history written for youth. The book conveyed historical facts, but its main purpose was to create a feeling of belonging, the idea that "this is our history". Lacking were the narratives of "the other". Facts seen as significant in Jewish history were not there. Likewise, in Israeli historiography the Palestinian narrative of "the other" is also very much absent.

The "us" feeling is strengthened by ritual commemoration. Young Jewish people, born decades after World War II visit concentration camps. They experience a sense of belonging and feel that the Holocaust happened to "them".

In Palestinian history, the nakba, or catastrophe has a similar function: the trauma of those who were driven from their homes belongs to all Palestinians. Similarly, in Shi'a Islam, we know of the enormous role played by the commemoration of the Karbala tragedy (more than 13 centuries ago). Alternatively, the story of the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, functions as an interpretation of the tragedies in Iraq today.

So, what can be done to address these disparate perceptions of history?

First, in order to promote peace and good relations, it is necessary to be aware of and interested in the narratives of the "other". A healthy mental exercise in this respect is to identify the perception patterns in one's own brain, and then see if events could be seen through other interpretations.

Then we search for commonalities shared in past narratives, and act to reclaim them. We can see that dynamic present in the Barcelona Process a reconciliation project between the 26 countries of the Mediterranean which was inspired by Andalusian history when there was peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians under Arab rule for eight centuries.

And perhaps most important is making an effort to foster new narratives through mutual endeavours. We can see this played out in the story of conductor Daniel Barenboim's friendship with Edward Said, and their co-founding of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a symphony orchestra comprised of young Arab and Israeli musicians.

Hearing stories about what different groups have achieved together can create new patterns of perception and interpretation. Such cooperative narratives are alive and functioning today, and remain a vital part of peacemaking.


* Jan Hjärpe is professor emeritus of Islamic Studies at Lund University, Sweden. This article is part of a series on Jewish-Muslim relations written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 August 2008,
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Other articles in this series

Not just another interfaith parley by Rabbi David Rosen
Muslims and Jews: continuing the conversation by Mehnaz Afridi
Peace is hard work in the Middle East and beyond by Deanna Armbruster
A short walk between Jews and Muslims by Rabbi Burton Visotzky