Along the highway in the municipality of Datu Salibo, Maguindanao province, Philippines, on the island of Mindanao, an old man sits on his chair, watching the cars, people, and cows slowly pass by. Small swamps lie next to him and around his house, and children are playing in them, swimming and throwing water at each other. Teenagers wearing fake NBA shirts of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant are playing basketball with improvised rules and baskets on the road. At the close-by market, loosely veiled women wearing colorful headscarves are selling bread, while their proud husbands, some with baseball caps, others with a traditional taquiyah, are loading chickens and goats into small carts. Small cafeterias along the road offer steamed rice with soy sauce, beef, and fresh cooked vegetables to the hungry villagers. Soon enough, the muezzin will call for prayer. One might feel that the land of the “people of the flooded plains” is a peaceful idyll. Yet just some days ago the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivered food assistance to the municipality, rice was badly needed in the wake of the previous events.

Over the last few months, several bombing incidents, skirmishes and raids by rebel groups have taken place in Mindanao.  These events have awoken the prior sentiments of an island set on fire by the concentric circles of war, low-scale insurgency, terroristic acts, kidnappings and even beheadings. There is no war in Mindanao now like before – but the closer peace comes, the more desperate and violent the spoilers are. The reality is – despite incidents of violence over the last weeks and months – that the past few years have been relatively quiet and some progress has been achieved. The government and the main insurgency group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are negotiating and trying to provide flesh to a skeletal peace agreement – the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. This will happen via the drafting of four separate annex, which will elaborate further on the peace architecture and multifold provisions to give the Bangsamoro people substantive autonomy. Two annexes have been signed so far, yet the 41st round of Peace Talks between government and MILF ended on October 13th without a significant outcome. Both peace panels need to continue negotiating and experts say it is just a matter of time before a comprehensive agreement will come.

Maguindanaon village with typical houses and kids

To an extent, the MILF is already acting as current de-facto government and police force. It chooses handpicked candidates to run for village elections in order to prevent shoot-outs between rival politicians, their bodyguards, or private armies.  It is statebuilding on the micro-level. In fragile democracies and in contested post-conflict spaces, the void of governance is often filled by non-state actors and a non-state actor such as the MILF who has firm support in communities, a solid ideological base and means to enforce its version of “statehood” is thus always trying to bridge its former status as revolutionary movement to that of legitimate actor, especially during the critical time of peace talks.

But there is another side. Rival guerrilla commanders feud over small pieces of land, honor, or political positions. The MILF has to prove unity and dedication to the government – yet what can it do about fractures and fringes of the movement? During the last round of peace talks, a clan war or rido in a village has resulted in the displacement of more than a thousand of families from three villages. Both conflicting parties are connected to the MILF and their weaponry and re-enforcements are linked to different units or “Base Commands”. After two days of intense fighting the conflict has calmed down, but the larger malaise of commanders getting involved in local politics and the escalation/potential of clan feuds remains high. Centripetal and centrifugal moments within the movement are deciding about the movement’s capacity and opportunity as the potential governing force in Muslim Mindanao a few years from now.


The conflict in the Southern Philippines is of peculiar kind. Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are the epicenters of a century-old struggle and home of at least three-and-a-half insurgencies in the last three decades.  The wide green plains of Central Mindanao are full of rice fields and marsh, they conceal an even more localized system of violence.  In particular the heartland of the Bangsamoro struggle deserves a thorough look. The swampy green of Maguindanaon landscapes carries a dark melancholy when you look at it, hiding many skeletons underground. It is one of the hot spots of violent conflict in the Southern Philippines in the last four decades and its political structures reveal almost everything that is wrong with the modern Philippine and neocolonial state.

There are still those areas around the world that are, as the writer William Burroughs wrote, ambiguous zones where worlds and spheres collide along fluid borders. They are not hearts of darkness in as much they are “hearts out of synch,” conundrums between Westphalia and Hobbes.  Interzones where the stream of time is not flowing in a regular pattern but where outliers of war and conflict have created a whole new zone of time. The names of these zones do not reveal much except to those who mutter them with fear and to the scholars of their borders.  Maguindanao, Manipur, Sabah, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel are not the “fault-lines of civilizations” proposed by Samuel Huntington, features repeatedly (and falsely) invoked to establish the  “bloody borders of Islam”, but rather rifts in communal fabrics, categories that are difficult to grasp using the traditional modes of social science.  Their complete history is unwritten, their darkness isn’t infinite and their future depends on how we policymakers, scholars, travelers, writers see them – as lakes of fire or new shores of hope.

Maguindanao is just one province of the entity known as the “Autonomous Region on Muslim Mindanao” which was created in 1989 to give Filipino Muslims in the South an autonomous region. Their powers were supposedly newly renegotiated and strengthened in 1996 after the Final Peace Agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – the first Moro rebel group – and government. But a newer peace document, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) describes this entity as “failed political experiment.”

Maguindanao tragically occupied the headlines in 2010, when a powerful political family, the Ampatuans, had orchestrated a large-scale political killing of its rival clan and innocent bystanders, including journalists, altogether 57 people killed.  This is in addition to the all-out-wars between governments and MILF in 2000, 2003 and 2008.  The Ampatuans have long been allies of the government in confronting the insurgency but this “pact with the devil” reached its tragic climax in this infamous “Maguindanao massacre.”  The scourge of politics hangs loose over the province and the region. “Politics is business”, says Jamal, a tricycle driver from Shariff Aguak, the former capital of Maguindanao and main turf of the Ampatuans.  And politics is also the necessary outcome of the contextual evolution of a society. Everything from land disputes over governance failures to justified grievances of the Muslims in the Philippines evolves around thickets of history and the constitution of Mindanao as a trajectory/outlier of the country.

Even today, the province lives in a peculiar symbiosis with a variety of armed actors, the recent conflicts are the tip of an iceberg that reaches back centuries. Resources are subject to everyday theft and corruption and the population is oppressed and exploited. Maguindanao could be the agricultural powerhouse of the country but it is rather the target of plunder, nepotism and ignorance. The structures daring to change the status quo are only semi-nascent, not quite ready to replace the rotten state-like structures. Small steps are necessary. In a world where hope comes literally both from a gun and the holy book, our eyes should be focused on Maguindanao as a laboratory of ideas, political (d)evolution and the specters of conflict.

Past Perfect Progressive

The old man is not the only person sitting on a chair and watching. One kilometer away, further up the highway, is a group of soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Five young men are staring at the cars passing the road and watching their colleagues at newly installed roadblock checkpoints. Sipping on ice tea or Coca-Cola, these modern-day jungle GIs are manning a defense post in one of the most critical areas of Maguindanao. Right now, the security challenge is coming from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the MILF.  The MILF claims to be the legitimate representative of the Bangsamoro people, 13 ethno-linguistic, Muslim tribes from the Southern Philippines. Colonized by the Americans, Spaniards, and for a brief but disastrous interlude the Japanese, the Bangsamoro have resisted foreign occupation for centuries.

The Bangsamoro

The mainstream MILF is currently talking peace with the Philippine Government, whereas the radicalized splinter group BIFF still demands independence from the “oppressive and imperialist occupation force”, waging “jihad” against the government and military. The former MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato is BIFF’s leader. The rebels are not many, between 600 and 800 fighters according to estimates. Yet they harass the AFP on some occasions, delivering both a poisonous tickle and a reminder to the government of their existence. Those hit-and-run attacks on detachments or sporadic fire on military camps are followed by more massive guerrilla activities like coordinated attacks in one concentrated area or an intense assault on one particular position. The BIFF is a temporarily guerrilla entity running on trial-and-error concerning tactics and goals. But so far the ability of BIFF to draw on the surplus value of fringe armed actors in Central Mindanao has been remarkable. Short-term alliances and individual commanders’ support offering rifles, passages and men have proven successful and the military has not fully understood this new challenge.  For the army, the “Freedom Fighters” are just bandits who want attention and who plan to derail the peace talks.

Miles after the military checkpoint, passing Datu Saudi Ampatuan, one can stumble upon silent remnants of the past. A red flag is being waved, symbol of the first Bangsamoro resistance movement, aforementioned MNLF. Founded by the intellectual Professor Nur Misuari, this group has now been overshadowed by the MILF. After fighting in the 1970s and 1980s, the secular identity of MNLF was challenged by a more Islamic perspective of some guerrillas which broke away and founded the MILF (the same pattern has now repeated itself with the BIFF split). Now, the latter group is negotiating in Kuala Lumpur. And the original is deeply divided into factions that are both simultaneously co-opted and frustrated. This frustration translates into a concrete form of violent aggression.

In October 2013, rogue MNLF elements allegedly funded and commanded by Misuari’s men besieged Zamboanga City, a predominantly Christian seaport in Western Mindanao. The once beautiful “Latin City of Asia” became a battlefield for three weeks and displaced over 100 000 persons.  Many of the Muslims in the outskirt village-ships also suffered from a wave of flash floods after the conflict. During the stand-off, heavy firefights took place around the city at all times of the day, grey ash and smoke marking the once peaceful city with the everlasting color of war, sapping it of its former joie de vivre. For the self-perceived Tausug warriors and government-branded “terrorists” the fight until the end paved the road to heroic self-sacrifice without giving victory to the martyr’s cause. The attempted invasion of Zamboanga City slid into oblivion and the young angry men ended up dead or in jail.

Far from the AFP checkpoint and still along the highway in the municipality of Datu Odin Sinsuat, named after a great Maguindanaon “datu” or “leader”, a framed sign on a small building’s porch reads, “Arab Bakeshop.”  The blazing sun mirrors off the flashy tricycles and jeepney graffiti giving those vehicles such original names as “Scorpio” or “Datu Ali.”  Bikers and tricycle drivers slow down the traffic more than usual, for it is market day here.  Still the tree patterns, scents, and road landscapes are purely Maguindanaon. So are the timid smiles of the population and the farmers along the road. The market is a primary means of survival in an atmosphere where bleakness and grey matter reside, where a potential tropical paradise is trapped in a perpetual groundhog’s day of guns, goons and greed.

I am eating pan de mongo, small bread with a sweet bean filling inside. Most of the villagers are too hurried to pay attention to a foreigner standing at the side of the road. A fully veiled woman rushes by holding her small daughter by the hand heading toward the Islamic School. A vendor carries mudfish. A thirtyish man with a New York baseball cap and army jacket munches on a pineapple slice, a 45-caliber pistol in his pocket sticking out.  Acknowledging my presence, he grins and nods.

Dream a Little Dream of Peace

Under the Buco tree (a coconut variation) he slept and dreamt. Nineteen years old, a M-16 hanging over his shoulder, and happy Bugs Bunny smile on his face. He is a member of the Taskforce Ittihad, sent by the Central Committee of the MILF to secure the area, protect civilians, and act as a buffer force between feuding MILF commanders, feuding clans, the BIFF and the army. He joined the force one and a half years ago when he was seventeen. This is generally considered as the recruitment of child soldiers, but the MILF claims that this practice is now forbidden and the regulation strictly enforced. For a Maguindanaon like Bugs to feed his family, the barrel of a gun and not only farming works best, at least for now.

The irony of the current situation is that the MILF perceives itself as the embodiment of Bangsamoro interest.  In reality the political actor MILF and its large number of political, communal, and military components is only the biggest concentric circle in Maguindanao. Other rings of power involve disgruntled guerrillas, group and factions of MILF and MNLF, individual big men and datus (tribal chiefs), the provincial government and criminal groups. At the same time, external electrons moving on those rings are the Armed Forces, the Christian settler communities, and Imperial Manila. And this is only the topography of Maguindanao. The upper regions of Lanao (including the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur) and the islands of the Tausug and Yakan tribes – Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi – are just other small overlapping worlds in the big picture.

Mindanao is affected both by conflict and poverty. Would the conflict still persist and loom at the same scale if the vast resources of this island were distributed in an equal way and the  “land of promise” was indeed a place where everyone got his or her share?  Perhaps.  However, it is it difficult to imagine that a peace agreement would trigger a boost in the region, opening up space for investments, development, and growth if it does not address other historical issues, specifically around the question of land. Many claim that land lies at the origin of the Mindanao wars.  The settlement of Christians in Muslim areas, initiated by the American colonizers and happily carried out by the first independent Filipino presidents, is viewed as the root cause of the conflict. Land is crucial and on the local level it may be the greatest factor in triggering a village war.  Yet efforts to allocate or reallocate land without giving the Bangsamoro sub-state fabric the chance to get rid of the strongman legacy and bossism or building up a class and civil society consciousness for the rule of law – a manifestation of Sharia? – is not the ultimate solution.

Peace is not merely the absence of war. According to Baruch Spinoza, it is also a virtue and a disposition for benevolence and justice. Peace is something inherent to mankind, something which is closely related to “human security”, and which concerns us all. Peace between government and guerrilla, between clans and communities, require time and effort. So what will the Framework Agreement and the Annexes bring? Great expectations lie ahead. The 1996 Peace Agreement of government and MNLF remains a cautionary tale – it teaches about the value of inclusion, the necessity of proper implementation, the need for full disarmament of all armed groups, eradication of structural root causes of the conflict, transitional justice, bigotry of spoilers and hubris of all-too-ambitious state-builders and fallibility of revolutionaries.

I do wonder what the old men in Camp Darapanan, the base of the MILF leadership and headquarters of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) – the armed wing of MILF – are planning and thinking.  They are stern faced when dealing with all types of decisions, from the deployment of a platoon to secure rice harvest in a remote village to issuing a directive for Islamic education in a school, and recite suras of the Qu’ran, relying on the will of the Almighty to guide them and at the same time knowing the urgency of their own human agency to act and make a change for their people. Factions within compete, sometimes more, sometimes less vocal, and it is contest of patience against risk, bleak and pragmatic optimism of the visionaries or the intellectual pessimism of the old warriors.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Under the full moon of Datu Piang, I am sitting on the naked wet ground of a small field, not far from a narrow road leading to a small part of the town. If you walk it for some kilometers, you’ll enter farmland that is heavily contested between two local commanders, caught up in weeks long warfare to control the space. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to understand if the combatants are genuinely half-maddened by the will to revenge or merely subconsciously bored by the prospects of the jungle’s lack of opportunities for livelihood, education and health. I decide to walk back to the main square of the small town.

Although Islam doesn’t believe in ghosts, folk beliefs in manifestations of djinns or other creatures may be common. I wonder if the lost souls of thousands of men killed here over the centuries are leaving some sort of impact on that soil. It seems that phantoms of history will haunt me even in my dreams. Shaking my head under the nocturnal sphere, I know it better. The real ghosts of Maguindanao are peculiar manifestations of space-and-time-cracks in a context which defies time, because this time zone is not singular, it’s rather a conundrum. Everything comes together, the bitter past, the tumultuous yet slightly better present, and an unknown future. But there are no boundaries here, time just flows and breaks. It never goes straight. To understand this is the key to understanding violence and war, this has dawned on me now. The moment of truth in Mindanao seems like one never-ending, eternal minute; an incessant pause which hides the possible outbreak of noise as much as it fosters the blissful silence of nothingness. Infinitesimal moments have become a vicious time loop.

The roots of rebellion could be very well the seeds of its destruction, if only the government knew. But as in most conflicts around the world, the powerful are often too blind to see.  A political practice completely unwilling and incapable to transform the power structures and to eradicate the twin conditions of exploitation and poverty will continue to attract local resistance. On the other hand, the sub-national concept of the Bangsamoro as institution and state-building exercise will be only as strong as its ruling clans in their various disguises are weakened as autonomous and absolute holders of authority and ammo.

Still, the government can take many wrong steps, one more divisive than the other. Ignoring the ground realities is only one of which within the realm of possibility. Racketeering, kidnapping outfits and criminals are as much political actors as the insurgents or the political and civilian state representatives. Those “Hobsbawmian guerrillas” are other elements of the complex system of Maguindanao and intertwined with the primary systems of coercion and violence. Taking the fuel out of structural violence which makes these minimal movements thrive is an essential long-term task of peace-building. Transforming the layered violence inherent in small villages and weak-governed spaces is the task. Government and MILF can be in the driving seat –but they shouldn’t be alone in the car.

What are the lessons from Maguindanao? First, conflict almost always stems from local complexities catalyzed by history and second, conflict could be transformative under the precondition of a genuine will for inclusion and careful analysis. The actors committed to resolving it should go with the flow and be ready to accept changing paradigms of conflict resolution according to new and unexpected situations, yet not losing the big picture and critical challenges either. Otherwise, the gates for the known and still unknown spoilers will be truly open, right next to the gate of meaningful autonomy, and will take everyone by surprise. Small waves of violence might not become tsunamis, but still flood the environment and take lives. How long more can one endure this condition?

Only the sound of mosquitoes and rain pervades the silent night in Datu Piang. Moonlight falls down on the mosque. I look to a graffiti painted on the side of a small restaurant opposite the house of God – guns and an Anime-like character screaming victory. Maybe it’s time to sleep after all.

Hope is both a powerful potion and illusion for a people. It dies last.

Optimistic kids walking in the front of semi-destroyed school from the 2008 war. It has not yet been rebuilt.



Editor’s Note:  Irakli originally sent us this essay right after the Boston Marathon Bombing.  Unfortunately, it fell at a time when we were between issues.  That we are running it now as part of Issue Nine is perhaps more important.  The media fixation on Chechnya and the Caucasus region has certainly diminished in the months following the events in Boston even if the problems in the region remain.  The incident’s disappearance from the media cycle and policy debate are telling of our current political climate.  One cannot tell a simple narrative about Chechnya or the struggles of people who live in and/or flee zones of conflict.  Yet the story of the Tsarnayev brothers is the very reason we must confront the complexities of these experiences and not look away when the story becomes too difficult to tell or does not fit our policy objectives.     

A Brief History of Deprivation and Structural Violence in the Caucasus

Today, Chechnya and Dagestan represent one of the most tragic cases in the Global South even though located in northern country.  Russia is a northern country in all senses – it has a very harsh climate in winter and perhaps more importantly, it has been a member of the G8 industrial countries club for the past 20 years.  It became part of the Neoliberal world after Perestroika and Russian capitalists are some of the richest people in the entire world today.

The Northern Caucasus was annexed by Russia in 18th century by force. The mostly Muslim populated areas that lie north of the Greater Caucasus Range were incorporated into Russia in an effort to enlarge the Empire’s reach to the waters of the Indian Ocean.  People who resisted the occupation were expelled to Turkey, Bulgaria and the Middle East.

The region is located between the Azov Sea and Caspian Sea on the northern slope of Caucasus Major mountain range.  It is very diverse area, where many languages are spoken and different religions practiced, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Caucasian Neopaganism, etc… Worship in pagan religions remain very strong to this day in the North Caucasus revealing much about its autonomous culture. Various Christian and Muslim occupations did manage to change the faith(s) of the majority, but there are still sizable minorities that have preserved their pre-Christian faith. While in the Krasnodar and Stavropol Regions, as well as, North Ossetia-Alania, Adygea republics, Christianity is the majority religion, Sunni Muslim faith is predominant in autonomous republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia.

Russian occupation was met with predictable resistance by North Caucasians and Muslims. These populations sought to be allied with Ottoman Empire, not the Russian Orthodoxy. Chechen leader Sheikh al-Mansur led the first, among many to follow, campaigns against Russian rule. In 1794 he was defeated by Russian Imperial forces under Catherine the Great and died in prison. To this day he remains a national hero for the Chechen people.

Chechnya has been fighting for its independence from the Russian Empire for centuries, not just the past 19 years. There have been long struggles for independence under different Sheikhs, most notably under Imam Shamil in 1834-1859.  Shamil, who was ethnic Avar, found Chechens had not fully adopted the new religions; a majority of Chechen and Ingush were still loyal to their traditional Vainakh religion. Islam was politicized and mainly used to organize against the threat of Russian encroachment.  It became a unifying force after the Sheikh Mansur rebellions in the 1780s and 1790s, and even during Imam Shamil’s time in the mid-19th century.  Chechens were still not especially religious even if engaged in a rebellions organized around religious identity. Their ethnic identity was much stronger than their religious. Paganism remained strong in Chechnya up until recent centuries. Shamil found he was distrusted by Chechens even though they shared his contempt for the Russian Empire.

Caucasian Albania located in Southern Dagestan became a center for Islamic studies for the Muslim states of Lezghia, Lakia and others. Dagestan has many different ethnic groups and speaks many different languages. Today, this location finds itself drawn into the fierce intra-religious contest between traditional Sufi Muslims and the new Wahhabi Salafist forces, which are heavily influenced and funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

In the 20th century, Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin deported the majority of Chechens and Ingush from their homeland.  He suspected Chechens would back the German invasion against Russia given their history of resistance.  Only during the de-Stalinization process started by Nikita Khruschev were they allowed to return back to their land.

The Recent Chechen Wars with Russia

Dzokhar was the name of the first Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, whose name is pronounced in English as Jokhar. It is the same name as young Dzokhar Tsarnayev, the man who along with his brother Tamelan, was responsible for the bombings in Boston in 2013. Dudayev was a secular politician; he did not have fundamentalist ideas. His goal was independence for his country. Dudayev was a decorated general in the Soviet Army.  His people loved him as a great patriot who returned to his country after years of distinguished service to help lead its independence movement.  Dudayev declared independence for Chechnya from the Russian Federation in the early 1990s. Yet then president Boris Yeltsin refused to recognize the declaration. In 1994, Yeltsin began a war that continues to this day, although most of the Chechen independence fighters have been killed or exiled.

Second Chechnyan War

The figure of Dudayev is the reason why many children born in 1990s were called Dzokhar. His name was greatly respected in these years. He was against terrorism, a military man who fought with honor and a sense of ethics. The Russians could not defeat him for 2 years. Yet in the end, he was killed in April 1996 by laser-guided missiles while using a satellite phone. Much like today’s drone attacks, this was a technological genocide of the South by the North. The plane approaches, fires, and leaves many people dead in its aftermath, few Islamic leaders amongst them.

Other secular leaders were also killed and starting in 1997 Wahhabi Fundamentalists funded by Saudi money started to dominate Chechnya. Sufi Islam was attacked by Wahhabis. Some of the military commanders, like Shamil Basayev, became fundamentalist warriors viewing the struggle as primarily religious. Fundamentalist groups brought with them new tactics and started to organize terrorist attacks against the civilian population in Russia. A major shift from Dudayev’s military code of ethics. Emir Khattab from Saudi Arabia became one of the leaders of the militant fundamentalists and was responsible for carrying out a number of attacks. After his death he was succeeded by fellow Saudi Abu al-Walid and others.

Fundamentalism was not a factor before and during first presidencies of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Jokhar (Dzokhar Dudayev) and Aslan Maskhadov (3rd President of Chechnya 1997-2005).  Its emergence was largely foreign in origin and  sold with mostly Saudi funding. Secular leaders like Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev would become increasingly isolated and marginalized.  The second president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev (1996-1997) was heavily influenced by Islamists after his rift with Maskhadov in 1998, in which he fled to Qatar. From there he traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and started to raise funds in Arab states for the Islamic cause rather than Chechen independence. Together with Emir Khattab, Yandarbiyev claimed to be an accomplice of Bin Laden. He was killed 2004 in Qatar by Russian special services. But after the beginning of the second Chechen war it became obvious that the leaders needed to find allies and they were found in fundamentalist Gulf States and in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan when Yandarbiyev traveled there. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was based in Pakistan. The links between Chechen Islamist leaders and Al Qaida were established.

It is important to recognize that most of these Saudi Wahhabis were trained to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan by the West. Like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, these fighters were raised by the Western powers to repel the Soviets, but turned against the West after the demise of the Soviet Empire. The West needed the fundamentalists to wage their war against Communism, but never considered the blowback that would follow should the Cold War end.

During the second Chechen war the Wahhabis increased their influence in the region beyond Chechnya. The neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan also proved susceptible to the message and money of Wahhabism. Fundamentalists started to fight traditional North Caucasian Sufi Imams and push them out of their Mosques.

Maskhadov died in 2005 and the 4th President of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Abdul-Halim Sadulayev was already a spiritual leader. He was Imam by profession – even though many credit him personally for being peaceful – the trend was obvious. The secular state gave way to religious unity. Sadulayev became first Chechen leader to unify all Caucasian Islamic rebel forces against Kremlin. At the first stage this was called Caucasian Front. Sadulayev was killed by the Russians on June 17, 2006 and Doku (Dokka) Umarov succeeded him as the 5th and last president of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Shortly after assuming power on June 17, 2006 he was proclaimed to be “Russia’s Osama Bin Laden”. He made it clear that his actions would not be limited to the internal borders of Chechcnya.

By the time of the second war, the European, secular idea of “Nation-State” was already totally discredited in North Caucasus. It no longer served as a unifying factor given that the goal seemed to represent a situation and mindset that had changed due to the wars and outside influence.   Umarov started to think about trans-national unity – and the unifying factor became political Islam. Secular religion suffered a defeat in North Caucasus – and there are many reasons: corruption, nepotism, direct violence, incompetence of Russian secular authorities. This is not an isolated trend; secular ideas are in crisis around the world and this has been clear for the past 30 years. We have witnessed many real or attempted ‘Spiritual Revolutions’ as Michel Foucault would put it. When people are upset about the moral state of liberal elites, they resort to fundamentalism. Doku Umarov abolished the Chechen ‘Nation-State’ on October 7, 2007 and declared himself an Emir of Imarat Kavkaz or Caucasus Emirate.

In his video declaration in 2007, Dokka (Doku) Umarov said that the North Caucasian rebels,

“are an indivisible part of the Mulism Umma.  I am unhappy with the position of those Muslims who call enemies only those infidels who attack them directly.  At the same time, such Muslims look for support and sympathy from other infidels, forgetting the fact that all infidels are one nation.  Today our brothers are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somali, Palestine.  Our enemy is not only Russia, but also America, England, and Israel;  all those who conduct war against Islam and Muslims.  They are all our enemies, because they are enemies of Allah.”

This declaration speaks for itself.  The Caucasian war has moved from Chechnya to Dagestan and other North Caucasus republics.  The fighting now is concentrated around religious superiority.  Wahhabi ideologues and fighters are attacking traditional North Caucasian Sufi Islam and its Mosques.  Russian imperial subjects are also targets in this struggle.  But everyone else is also an enemy for Caucasian Emirate, who is not Muslim and possibly who is not Wahhabi.  Their relationship with Shia Muslims is also a problem.

In May, 2009 as a head of supra-national unity, Dokka Umarov established his Majlis al Shura, a military government body ruled by Sharia laws. It includes all the regions of North Caucasus.  The military branch of Caucasus Emirate is called Caucasian Front.  The Supreme Sharia Court is a highest judicial branch Caucasus Emirate and the court is currently headed by Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani. Considering that Imam Shamil was Avar, one of the Dagestani tribesmen, it is easy to understand that the center of gravity for this Jihad moved slowly towards Dagestan. This is where most of the terrorist acts happen now and where the highest concentration of Wahhabi extremists is.

To understand the origins of Caucasian Terrorism we need to look at underlying causes of violence in the North Caucasus and see what happened there and what caused the radicalization of this secular national-independence movement.

Did Russian Politics Contribute to Radicalization of Chechens?

The Russian military incursion in Chechnya was a major factor in radicalizing Chechens. For the Yeltsin government, the first Chechen war was a disaster and caused severe damage to Chechnya.  Yet the second Chechen war worse and the military brutality of the Russian forces further radicalized the secular independence movement. Further, Russian military intelligence was responsible for raising at least one of the fundamentalist leaders of Chechen uprising, Shamil Basyev. It is widely rumored that Basayev was heavily supported by Russian forces when his Chechen unit was fighting in Abkhazia in 1992-93 while he was fighting Georgian forces. During this period (1990s) the Russian military was very disorganized.  When one branch was fighting Chechens another was selling arms to them.  Additionally,  different Russian ‘business people’ were providing arms to separatist fighters during 1st and 2nd wars. Boris Berezovksy is mentioned most among them.

First Chechen War

According to sources, “although there are no accurate figures for the number of Chechen militants killed, various estimates put the number at about 3,000 to over 15,000 deaths. Various figures estimate the number of civilian deaths at between 30,000 and 100,000 killed and possibly over 200,000 injured, while more than 500,000 people were displaced from Chechnya.” The First Chechen war has alienated many young people from secular causes and created a large distaste for Yeltsin’s version of democracy. Democracy became associated with engagement in corrupt wars where everyone sells arms to each other and the only supreme value is money – an American Dollar. Economic deprivation in the region was also blamed on democracy. Yeltsin’s regime was widely criticized even in Russia for the lack of economic opportunities for people and this also spilled into Chechnya, where the economic problems were coupled with the horrible forms of direct violence.  The peace treaty signed in 1997 did not deal with underlying causes of violence, particularly the structural issues. Chechens received more political autonomy, but their economic situation remained dire.

After the first Chechen war the radicalization of Chechen youth played into the hands of radical paramilitary commanders such as Shamil Basayev and Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab, who was at the same time commander of the Caucasian Mujahideen.  These fighters were indoctrinated into Wahhabi philosophy and by 1998 there was already significant growth of  fundamentalist militias.  These militias started to penetrate the territories of other regions, like Dagestan, Krasnodar and Stavropol regions.  The 1999 invasion of Dagestan became a trigger for the next war.

The bombings of Moscow apartment buildings coupled with incursions into Dagestani by Basayev and al-Khattab became the official reason for starting a second Chechen war; a war that turned into an all-Caucasian war since it spilled well beyond the territories of Chechnya.  The fundamentalist army under the command of Basyaev and Khattab had at least 2,000 Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and other international mujahideen and Wahhabi militants.  Yeltsin’s then prime minister Vladimir Putin, decided a counterattack was necessary to deal with the situation. Yeltsin would soon resign and hand over his powers to Putin.

The losses were high on both sides.  The Russian Defense Ministry reported that as least 1,500 hundred separatist fighters were killed during the siege of Grosny.  According to pro-Moscow government sources, 160,000 combatants and non-combatants died or have gone missing in two wars, including 30,000 – 40,000 Chechens and about 100,000 Russians.  While Chechen side reported that at least 200,000 ethnic Chechens were killed by Russians.  According to the Russian human rights group Memorial in 2007, up to 25,000 civilians have died or disappeared since 1999.  Amnesty International reports that 25,000 civilians have been killed since 1999 and another 5,000 went missing.  Russian-Chechen Friendship Society puts the death toll in the two wars between 150,000 to 200,000.  In 2003 the United Nations called Chechen capital Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth.

It is not difficult to imagine that these wars would  produced extreme hatred and resentment within the Chechen society.  This feeling was shared not just by ethnic Chechens, but by the majority of Muslim Caucasians.  These two military campaigns by Russia created optimal conditions for Wahhabi extremists to recruit more followers and money.  North Caucasian Wahhabis were quite successful in attracting funds from Gulf States as well as other Sunni Muslim communities.  Because of the Russian “infidel’ aggression, the war was undoubtedly considered a ‘Jihad’ among most of the Muslim nations.  In fact, well-known 9/11 implementers first went to Chechnya to fight a ‘Holy War’ against Russia, but were denied access to Chechnya by the Georgian border guards.  They were eventually recruited by Bin Laden himself.   The links between Chechen rebels and Wahhabi affiliates of ‘Al Qaida’ increased every year and in the end this led to the abolition of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in favor of Caucasus Emirate, which is a strictly religious unity of different North Caucasian ethnicities.

Besides the heavy casualties inflicted by Russian military forces, the state had long engaged in forms of cultural imperialism, specifically the imposition of secular ideology .  First, the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, which were brought there by force starting 1921.  And after the end of Cold War, we witnessed imposition of ‘liberal-democratic’ capitalism with many ‘losers’ and few ‘winners’.  This concept was alien to Muslim (as well as other) communities in the North Caucasus.  Their concept of ‘Umma” was not close to the ‘nation-statism’ and was even more foreign to Western principle of competition and the fight ‘of all against all’.  These concepts that Russians advocated as part of ‘civilizing’ North Caucasus were met with protest and oftentimes resentment.

What was the role of the West?

It is common knowledge that after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US and other Western countries openly supported the Mujahideen in their struggle against Soviets.  However, this struggle took on sharply ideological colors, since the West needed anti-secular ideas to contradict Soviet propaganda of ‘Heaven of the Earth.”  The unintended result of this ideological struggle was the West of giving tacit support to the fundamentalist opposition to counter Soviet propaganda, the consequences of which are clearly visible today.


Prior to Soviet invasion in Afghanistan the West brought many Islamic scholars and students to study in its educational system and indoctrinate them in the advantages of liberal-democratic system over ‘Atheist, Soviet totalitarianism’.  In some cases it worked, but in others it did not.  For the founders of modern Islamic radicalism like Sayyid Qutb, Western liberalism was as bad as Soviet Atheism.  Qutb and his followers were quickly able to note materialism, the abuses of individual freedoms, social injustice, economic inequality, racism, brutal sports like boxing and football, superficial conversations and friendships, ‘animal-like’ mixing of sexes, etc.   That the fundamentalists did not side with Soviets did not indicate that the ideological battle was a success for the West within the Islamic Countries.  Michel Foucault’s characterized this third ideology after the events in Iran as ‘Spiritual Revolution.’

At the beginning of Soviet war in Afghanistan Zbigniev Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor and ardent opponent of Soviet Communism, formulated the policy that would guide United States and Western Europe in their new approach to containment.  For the first time the West started to provide covert military assistance to resistance fighters in addition to the supporting ideological assaults.  The ideological struggle was formally led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States that were officially propagating their own Wahhabi brand of Islam.  After Carter, the “Reagan Doctrine’ with the help of conservative Heritage Foundation continued to support the Wahhabi branch of Islam in its fight with the ‘infidel Soviets’.

In the post-Soviet era, the West held found itself in a bind.  On the one hand it supported its ally in Russia, Boris Yeltsin, in the fight against separatism to build a democratic capitalism in his country.  On the other hand there were the old allies from the war in Afghanistan – between CIA and Mujahideen.  Ibn al-Khattab was one of those who fought both wars (Afghanistan and Caucasus) and there were many other Arab fighters who participated in both “Jihads’ against Russians.   It became more and more difficult to dissociate completely with former allies.  As we have seen, some of them turned violently against the West – ones like Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but there were others who continued to collaborate with the West, especially where anti-Russian propaganda was concerned.

Possible Funding Sources of Caucasian Jihad

It is a known fact that the late Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky was helping Chechen rebels since the 1990s.  Pankisi George in neighboring Georgia was considered a safe havens for Chechen fighters up until 2002, when Georgian troops with the leadership of Irakli Alasania have cleared the area from militants.  But funding from Gulf States kept coming.  Among one of the main funders of Caucasus Emirate informed sources in intelligence community name Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan from Abu Dhabi.   Also, US State Department believes the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (IIPB) is one of the main funders for Islamic militants in the Caucasus.  All these funders are also Al Qaida-related. Majority of funding goes to Chechnya either through central Asian Republics through Caspian Sea and Via Dagestan or through Turkey and Georgia via Akhaltsikhe and Pankisi George.  Although it is not clear how operational Pankisi George was through last 10 years.

The Press and the Representation of Allied and Enemy Terrorist Groups

The Western press has been quite selective about addressing the issue of Caucasian Terror.  While big terrorist acts are reported in major newspapers, they are not treated to the same spin as the demonstrated toward Arab Terrorists or Iranian funded “Hezbollah”.  Anti-Russian terrorists fell under a different category, they were classified as fighters.  They were not glorified as the Afghan mujahideen was, but they were not portrayed as villains either.  It was more or less neutral position that the Western Press took towards North Caucasus terrorists, even though State Department listed Caucasus Emirate as a dangerous terrorist organization.  This ambivalence was evident after the Boston Bombing as the West struggled to understand the link between terrorism and the Caucasus region.

It could be asserted that anti-Russian Chechens were not considered ‘enemy terrorists” before Boston attack.  Even though it was widely known fact that Bin Laden often relied on Chechen fighters in most fierce battles with Americans.   One of the legends talks about Chechen fighters helping Bin Laden escape American encirclement at Tora-Bora at Afghani-Pakistani border in 2001, where they defeated well-trained American marines trying to capture the leader of Al-Qaida.  Still, the spin in America media did not portray Chechens or North Caucasians as “enemy combatants.”  April 2013 changed this perception and the Brothers Tsarnayev brought the same kind of feeling to the US that Russians have developed toward North Caucasians for almost 20 years.

 Reviewing the Underlying Causes of Caucasian Terrorism

One of the underlying causes of Caucasian Terrorism is structural and cultural violence that North and South Caucasians went through last 200+ years as part of Russian Empire.  The North Caucasus remained especially poor and backward compared to major metropolitan areas of the Russian Empire.  Economic deprivation is also one of the factors that has affected Russian relationship with North Caucasus and has remained unresolved.  Cultural imperialism never achieved hegemony in the region – the language of secular republic, whether Soviet or Neoliberal Russian Federation was entirely alien and the concept of UMMA became much more influential and attractive in response.  Inhabitants of the region were forced to choose between bourgeois individualism or support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Many of those who emigrated to the West did not feel fulfilled and either returned home or re-immigrated to other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.  Western lifestyle did not prove to be attractive to most of the residents of North Caucasus.  Many of them share Qutb’s criticism of the materialist West.

Just like Afghan Mujahideen, North Caucasian fighters fought against Soviet materialism and then turned against Western materialism.  This seems to indicate something about the role of ontological basic human needs.  The need for bonding as well as the need for sacred meaning could have been determinants in this case.  At the same time it should not be forgotten that the basic human need for respect and recognition was also not satisfied within the North Caucasus.  This is something that they share with South Caucasians too.  Caucasians do not appreciate Russian attitude toward them as second class citizens and being called ‘black behinds’.  These derogatory statements exacerbate the feelings in North Caucasian community that Russians do not care about their well being.

 What could remedy this situation?

The world now realizes that Caucasian Terrorism is a potent threat to entire planet – not just to this small region between the Black and Caspian Seas.  Yet what to do about the threat of global terrorism remains incredibly complicated.  Perhaps a short term solution is for international community is to be vigilant about the threat coming from North Caucasus.  The West needs to monitor activities in North Caucasus closer and collaborate with Russian federation on these issues more closely.  But this is only a short term strategy and one with its own complicated relational problems between the West and Russia. A longer term approach must focus on development.  A comprehensive development strategy needs to be elaborated together with Russians on the issues of Northern Caucasus.  Only comprehensive development strategy coupled with ‘living secular ideology’ can salvage the situation, yet addressing ideology remains extremely complicated and difficult.…

Unrest Magazine began its insurrection in the halls of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (now the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution) in the fall of 2009.  Our first communiqué declared the need for a Critical Conflict Resolution (CCR) to address systems of violence inherent in our present moment.  As the vanguard for this new movement, we proselytized, organized, and agitated.  We may have been unsure of the specific form CCR should take, but we knew it began by demanding that conflict resolution reexamine its relationship to the State, the liberal peace agenda, and the ways in which militarism continued to undermine our efforts.  We were emboldened and set out to reshape the future of conflict resolution as the world wrestled with the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Conflict resolution had a duty to confront the crises of capitalism, but how should it go about doing this?

Then a little more than a year later came Tunisia.  Egypt.  Madison.  The Arab Spring.  The Indignants in Spain.  Occupy Wall Street.  Global revolt was in full swing.  It was clear that neoliberalism and American imperialism were contributing factors to these conflicts and that Unrest was waiting at the site where these events converged with conflict resolution.  At that time, the role the field of conflict resolution could play in relation to these systemic events was unclear. Unrest recognized a need for the field to engage at a systems level, yet we were often confronted with the opposite impulse from our well-meaning colleagues who did not understand what we were advocating.  They asked, shouldn’t conflict resolution practitioners address Occupy Wall Street by mediating or facilitating within the occupations or proposing dialogue between the police and the protestors?  In the case of Syria, many sided with the opposition and demanded regime change.  The United States Institute of Peace began facilitating workshops to help prepare for a post-Assad Syria.  Conflict resolution was acceptable for working through issues with the opposition, but deemed unsuitable for creating an inclusive process in the pre-civil war period to address the situation.  And it was in this moment that we began to realize that while our impulse to push for a Critical Conflict Resolution had been correct, we needed to articulate a convincing alternative approach that would help the field move beyond its own limitations and consider the impact of particular systems on the way we analyzed conflicts and practiced conflict resolution.

Critical Conflict

Conflict resolution has a role to play in these struggles, but we need to rethink how we investigate and engage with them.  It is from this recognition that the search for a Critical Conflict Resolution has moved from a stage of agitation to one of reflection.  For the past two years we have worked to build a foundation from which CCR could develop new forms of theory and practice while appreciating the insights of our traditional approaches.  Even though Unrest Magazine serves as the vehicle for the ideas and associations we think should inhabit the CCR universe, we have not put forth anything codifying our views as to what Critical Conflict Resolution is or could be.  The brief essay that follows is our attempt to provide an overview of the project as it currently exists and where it might go in the future.  As CCR continues to grow and develop, part of our objective becomes to provide clarity on its lexicon and to distinguish the ways in which it offers a substantive difference from other forms of practice and analysis.  This essay will attempt to clarify a number of key terms and concepts as they relate to that objective.

While the authors are responsible for the version outlined below, these ideas have developed as part of a collaborative effort involving many people.  Much of our thinking emerges out of conversations with our comrades at Unrest Magazine and as part of lecture, film, and readings groups hosted by Unrest on related topics.  For the past two years, we have also taught Critical Conflict Resolution, a graduate level course developed to explore these impulses in a more traditional academic setting. We have been extremely grateful for the insights and contributions of our students who have helped push this endeavor to the next level.  We have also been blessed to have the encouragement and guidance of Richard Rubenstein, whose scholarship and ideas are integral to this project.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the faculty of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and former Dean Andrea Bartoli who have graciously supported (or in some cases, politely tolerated) our insurrection.  Parts of the material covered within were recently presented at the 2013 Association for Conflict Resolution conference under the title, “Critical Conflict Resolution:  Practice in the new normal.”

Why CRITICAL Conflict Resolution?

One of the first difficulties we encountered related to a lack of clarity about the nature of the word critical in Critical Conflict Resolution.  What makes conflict resolution critical and how is this different than non-critical conflict resolution?  Our hope is that one day there will be no difference; the field will evolve to the point where critical work is part of what it means to do conflict resolution.  However, at this juncture a distinction is necessary between what we refer to as “traditional conflict resolution” from more contemporary forms, including those grounded in complementary approaches such as narrative and insight.  We see critical work as something unique from both narrative and insight, but we also find much overlap and inspiration in these strains.

Our starting point requires a distinction between critical thinking and critical theory.  When CCR invokes the term critical, many assume that we are using it in a generic sense.  There are two common misunderstandings that result as a consequence:  we are either critical of conflict resolution or we are simply promoting critical thinking.  The first assumes that by critical we are positioning ourselves as negatively criticizing the field.  This would be incorrect.  We are highly supportive of the efforts of conflict resolution and view our work as a contribution to its growth and development.  Our goal is to improve conflict resolution so that it remains relevant, not to tear it apart.

The second understanding of critical, as in critical thinking, is also incorrect.  While there are many ideas about what it means to think critically, critical is often a signal meant to imply that the person doing the thinking is somehow required to perform extra cognitive activity.  Not only must they think, they must think critically!  This sometimes translates into the idea that to think critically is to be skeptical of any presentation of information or to perform hard, time consuming, or difficult mental work.  All of those are healthy attitudes and abilities to possess in a world churning with ideas and competing claims to the truth.  While we support the development of critical thinking skills, the manner in which we understand the objective of critical thinking is more particular and emerges from a relationship with what we will describe below as critical theory.  Critical thinking in CCR is one component of the critical approach.  Following Freire and hooks, we see it as a dialectical process of interacting with the world and reflecting on those experiences.  This is a specific activity through which individuals evaluate and process information about the world they live in in order to draw their own conclusions about their place in it and the ways in which the world might be transformed.  Critical thinking is important, yet alone it is not sufficient as a foundation for CCR.

In the same way that critical thinking is more than just skepticism, critical theory is more than just theories that cast doubt on a particular way of knowing or understanding.  The critical in CCR is a reference to a specific critical theoretical tradition in philosophy and social science most commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Much has been written about the Frankfurt School, so in lieu of an introduction to their work we will quickly cover the key points that we feel connect this project with that tradition.  To adopt a critical position is to acknowledge that our project builds from categories initially identified by Marx and extends forward in conversation with scholarship broadly categorized as Marxist.  This means we accept the basic tenets described by Marx and Engels as to the emergence of the class struggle, the class character of the State apparatus, the globalizing nature of Capital, and the tendency of the market economy towards crises. These basic insights are not enough to explain the critical approach, however.

Two dimensions of the distinction between traditional and critical theory elucidated by Max Horkheimer are necessary here.  In Traditional and Critical Theory, Horkheimer builds from Kant and Marx the idea that critical theory is first that which attempts to understand the totality of society. Critical theory is not the theory of universal social laws, but the analysis of how a social formation appears as it does at a specific moment in time.  Critical theory sets about this task by trying to integrate all areas of social knowledge and philosophy, and is therefore, inter-, multi-, trans-, and perhaps even anti-disciplinary at its core, while also being tied to the specific history of the moment.

Horkheimer’s second distinction relates to the normative orientation of theory.  While traditional theory seeks what it construes to be objective understanding, critical theory must go beyond this “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” CCR begins from an assumption that those involved in CCR are engaged in a normative practice, which is likely true of most conflict resolution practitioners and scholars.  For CCR the normative assumption is that conflict resolution should not further systems of oppression and domination and, where possible, should work to change those systems.  A critical practice is focused on understanding and explaining how systemic issues are translated into material conditions that produce different forms of violence and how those conditions are maintained to reproduce the desired relationships within the system.  As a result, its interventions must be practical and not instrumental.

What is Critical Conflict Resolution?

Critical Conflict Resolution is an emerging branch of conflict resolution theory, research, and practice concerned with systemic conflicts. It is made up of three separate functions of intellectual work and practice all focused on systemic conflicts, situations where political, social, and economic inequalities are transformed into antagonistic, asymmetric power relationships that are sustained and reproduced through violence. Two of these functions focus on practice, but it is easiest to understand CCR by looking first at the scholarly activities that make up its empirical and theoretical component.

What is Critical Conflict Resolution?

CCR research and theory is focused on conflict reproduction, systemic violence, and system reflexivity.  Although conflict can be seen in many different situations, CCR begins its analysis by looking specifically for conflict reproduction, by which we mean the performance of political, social, and economic inequalities in what appear to be mundane conflicts.  These conflicts are mundane in that they are experienced as part of daily life and as such, mask contradictions at the system level that produce and sustain them.  To identify systemic conflict is not to focus on unique or one-off incidents; instead, we concentrate on problems that persist over time and/or spread from neighborhood to neighborhood or county to county, as well as, the way seemingly unrelated conflicts are actually related.  While the manifestation of these conflicts is often seen case-by-case, the recognition that they are reproducing systemic inequality allows us to step beyond the immediate conflict to view the larger, more obscure systemic one that connects them.

Understanding and addressing manifestations of violence underlies the practice developed from CCR, but what CCR research and theory focuses on is systemic violence.  Drawing from Johan Galtung’s distinction of direct, structural and cultural violence, CCR sees a further distinction between systemic and non-systemic violence. Systemic violence occurs in three forms: repressive, oppressive, and hegemonic.  In each of these the violence serves the purpose of perpetuating an existing, unjust system.  Repressive violence is direct (physical) violence serving this function.  This type of violence is most visible when committed by agents of the State (the police, the military) or groups that support a particular ideology (lynch mobs, extremist political groups).  Its visibility makes it the easiest to identify.

We recognize that not all structural violence is system-perpetuating, and view oppressive violence as structural violence built into the organization of a system to conserve the distribution of power and resources.  This type of violence is clearest when seen as discriminatory policies, a lack of access to or within the justice system, or the exclusion of groups from political participation.  It is also evident in persistent “social problems” such as poverty or crime.

As Galtung sees direct and structural violence being supported through the meaning systems of cultural violence, we recognize that there is a strong meaning component to the maintenance of oppressive systems. This recognition allows us to identify the resonance of Galtung’s approach and Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. [10]   As such, CCR sees hegemonic violence as the beliefs and practices that legitimatize the system and the violence it produces.  This is closely entwined with the concept of ideology.  Ideology in this context is the mediated understanding of individuals in the system, in the form of “common sense,” as evidenced by their actions.  The important element in both of these cases is that the system is naturalized and experienced as ahistorical.

While looking for repressive, oppressive, and hegemonic violence in the context of conflict reproduction, CCR must recognize that the systems that it studies (as well as those within which it operates) are not static.  Instead, they contain system reflexivity.  Systems exist in a paradox; they are both dynamic and resistant to change.  Dynamic systems are adaptive and respond to challenges emanating from outside and within.  The movement of these systems is toward stability.  Yet once established, they are difficult to transform.  For CCR, the tension between resilience and adaptation is situated in a broader conversation about the possibility for system transformation.  How do we begin to engage systems that are violent, oppressive, or exploitative and to what degree can these systems be altered?

Critical Conflict Resolution Practice

We see the process of CCR as a cycle of practice and theory/research, as illustrated in Figure 1.  This is not the two-step relationship between theory and practice most commonly envisioned in conflict resolution, but a multi-step process characterized by three distinct stages of work aimed at addressing the different levels at which systemic conflicts operate.    The three movements in the cycle are emergent practice, research and theory development, and evolutionary practice, all of which will be explored briefly below.  Although the general flow of the cycle is from emergent practice to research and theory to evolutionary practice, this should not be taken as absolute.  Information can flow between any of the three.  Additionally, while we explicate unique roles for practitioners in each of these categories, the categories themselves are not defined by hard lines of inclusion and exclusion.  Instead, the categorical distinctions reflect what we consider to be the primary focus of the roles in that area.  There is no reason to presume that a single actor must be limited to only one component of CCR.

Critical Conflict Resolution Cycle

The starting point for the cycle is always the manifestation of systemic conflicts in daily life.  Emergent practice responds to direct manifestations of conflict occurring within the system.  In this sense, these practitioners are first responds who tend to operate in traditional third party roles and deal with what appear to be mundane cases.  However, what separates emergent practice from traditional practice is that the emergent practitioner engages in critical observation.  By this we mean a process that is a step beyond what some describe as reflective practice; in addition to personal reflection, the emergent practitioner also incorporates an awareness of system level issues into their work.  They see beyond the immediate case and look for instances of systemic reproduction.  While they might not be able to directly address these systemic issues from their current position, it is the knowledge of multiple cases and the transfer of these insights gained from confronting them that grounds CCR theory in the actual lived experiences of people.

Emergent practitioners communicate their knowledge/insights to and work closely with CCR theorists and researchers.  This second stage plays a crucial role in the practice cycle since it facilitates the dispersion of information from a specific to a more general audience interested in these issues.  CCR theorists and researchers have a number of tasks typical of traditional academic work.  They gather, analyze, and make available empirical data.  They formulate new models and theories for understanding the structure and function of relevant systems.   CCR theorists and researchers are specifically interested in three areas – systemic contradictions, the intersection of multiple systems, and systemic reproduction, all within the context of contemporary experience.  Each of these areas focuses on a unique aspect that contributes to the production of manifest conflicts.  Finally, these individuals serve as a bridge between emergent practice and evolutionary practice.

Evolutionary practice attempts to intervene at the system level to reduce systemic violence and produce positive change.  We imagine evolutionary practice as a diverse set of roles united by the intent of their intervention.  The four primary modes are defined as the public intellectual, the agitator, the educator, and the artist.  The public intellectual intervenes at the level of the public discourse and “common sense.”  This work is largely aimed at elites and the policy making crowd who play a major part in developing these discourses and shaping them for public consumption.  Classic figures that have played this role are C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse.  The agitator supports those most harmed by systemic violence and is the most vocal in calling for systemic change.  The agitator is a mixture of social activist, organic intellectual, and prophet.  Examples of this role can best be seen in the figures of Angela Davis, Cornell West, and Saul Alinsky.  The educator teaches against violent systems.  Peace education and critical pedagogy are part of this tradition and best exemplified in the work Maria Montessori, bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Henry Giroux.  Finally, the artist intervenes at the level of representation.  This role concerns itself with destabilizing the normalization of violence, challenging the representation of subjects within the system, and creating new representations for those impacted by systemic violence through art, music, literature, and journalism.  Comics journalist Joe Sacco, novelist Arundhati Roy, playwright Bertolt Brecht, street artists like Banksy and JR, feminist electro-punk musicians Le Tigre, graphic novelist Sue Coe, and hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy all represent models of this work.

The Future of Critical Conflict Resolution

It should be clear that while this essay provides an outline of one approach to systemic analysis and practice, it is in no way a complete guide. Given the increasing interest in critical theory and its potential for conflict resolution, we thought it important to document our project as it currently stands as both a marker of work done and as an invitation to join us on the development of CCR.  We look forward to working with others, both within Unrest and in the larger conflict resolution community, to further cultivate these concepts, fill in open spaces, and to make positive change to the systems in which we live.…

Many of my colleagues have been intrigued with the publication of my new book, The Eclipse of Equality. They wonder how it fits within this ado­lescent field of conflict resolution; after all it is a book about the United States, it focuses on the media, and it is isolated within the discursive space of Beltway influentials. This is a far cry form our intuitive focus on exotic locales, battlefields in the bush, and suffering of those held in the margins of the Washington consensus on liberal peace building around the world. But as you know, what makes this field so exciting is that conflict happens everywhere: among couples, in corporations, and also in the cloakrooms of the Nation’s Capitol. Now that we have seen the street eruptions of Occupy Wall Street and the silliness of the government shutdown, it has been easier for me to sell my standpoint to our community, but even now it is hard for us to see our own location in the escalating domestic conflict. Why are things so crazy in this richest country in the world? My answer is simple: class politics.

Let me be clear, I don’t mean by this the kinds of philosophical radicalism that inspired European socialism in the 19th century. Even the most enraged critics of our new world order like the “celebrity philosopher,” Slavoj Žižek, are less than sanguine about a return to the bad old days of Stalinism or even the Second International. What lies ahead for us is some kind of artful theoretical consideration of how to square the circle of lib­eral democracy and unfair economic advantage. Luckily we are not the first generation in history to confront this problem. Consider the following quotation from the greatest speech of the most successful American class warrior, William Jennings Bryan, who was active in the last big wave of globalization in the 1890s.

“We say to you that you have made the defini­tion of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in the spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a busi­ness man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.”

Business Man

Bryan was daft on economic theory, but as a mythographer of the American class imaginary he was unmatched. He understood that after John Locke, there was no going back to Marxist communalism and state centralization. Modern society would be organized in terms of businesses providing goods and services in a liberal economy, but we moderns would have to recognize that as we all become businesses in an interconnected global economy (think only of the invention of the concepts of human and social capital), we, “the Many,” would have to become attentive to the ten­dency for competitive advantages in capitalism to accrue and concentrate in the hands of “the Few.” If you remember that movie from the mid-80s, Highlander, you get the major problem of capitalist accumulation: “there can be only one.” As economies develop, there is a tendency for those who have been success­ful to hold on to their competitive advantages and to perpetuate them at the expense of others who contribute in meaningful ways to the overall value of the goods and services produced. This is a no-brainer idea, but we seem not to be able to admit what all implicitly know: the capitalist game has a tendency to rig itself unless carefully cultivated by custodians of the public good. Ironically, even the winners lose this game in the end because they undermine the stability of the economic system as a whole. These are obvious problems and we will invent new progressive narratives to manage them eventually as we did over a century ago, but one wonders how much damage will have been done in the interim.

You see, you don’t need to side with Rosa Luxemburg to speak cogently about class con­flict; all you need is the capacity to start seeing abusive power in ordinary business dealings. I describe it as being like that catchy slogan, “start seeing bicycles.” We need to start seeing abusive eco­nomic power as such, not as some stand-in for a bad conscience as even intersectional theories of racism and sexism often do. By this I don’t mean we lose our focus on identity politics, but that we recognize that cultural power and class power are logically separable, even when they are rarely separate. Our problem is not that we care too little but rather that we have lost our class imaginary over the course of the American Century, and in the era of globalization, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. Why this emaciation of the class imaginary has happened is the story of my book and I encourage you to seek my answer there, but let me use the remainder of this space to channel my inner Luxemburg and advocate for a local revolution in conflict resolution terminology that embraces the idea of class conflict over its more anodyne representations.

The most anodyne is that proposed by our most celebrated con­flict theorist, Johan Galtung. Consider these powerful lines from his seminal 1969 article coining the term “structural violence.”

“In order not to overwork the word violence we shall sometimes refer to the condi­tion of structural violence as social injustice. The term ‘exploitation’ will not be used, for several reasons. First, it belongs to a political vocabulary, and has so many political and emotional overtones that the use of this term will hardly facilitate communication.”


When I asked Johan a few years back about this admission and his obvious debt to Marx, he confirmed my suspicions. His debt was deep, but he covered it up in cunning language that has fooled only us. To be a conflict resolver in the late 1960s, with the concrete threat of totalitar­ian alternatives to capitalism on offer in something like half of the world, it was too dangerous to speak about the role that “exploitation” played in generating conflict. This was because everyone knew back then that exploitation was a Marxist keyword. It implied class politics and no one wanted to touch that hot potato in the era of the Cold War. This was true of John Burton as well. Our field was born as desperate attempt to triangu­late the era of global class struggle and our vehicle has been to substitute an ascriptive imaginary for a class mythology. It was far easier for us back then to speak about the power of the “top­dogs” who always had the flavor of some ethnic hegemon than to speak about the power of the capitalist. Our villains now are genocidaires rather than plutophiles and our stories of the root causes of conflict have become impoverished as a result. Burton wrote,

“They [the ethnic underdogs] are deprived because the struc­ture deprives them of chances to organize and bring their power to bear against the topdogs, as voting power, bargain­ing power, striking power, violent power – partly because they are atomized and disintegrated, partly because they are overawed by all the authority the topdogs present.”


Galtung knew what he was doing, but we have forgot­ten. He knew that culture and capitalism had conspired to produce a world riven by complex inequalities that would require careful critique of class structure in addition to what Fanon called cultural imposition, but we have forgotten. A typical conflict resolution student today is baffled when confronted with the proposition that people would terrorize one another only for profit, even when no hatred was present over who counted as a true prophet. We see religious and ethnic tensions as root causes of conflict, but we fail to see how these are often playthings of those in power where the real game in global economic integration: in short, class structuration.

Oddly enough, in a world in which we are all closet Fukuyamans, as Žižek has suggested, when no one seriously considers any grand eco­nomic projects that embrace even most modest socialist elements, we in the field of conflict resolution still consider class to be the most danger­ous word in our lexicon. In a thoroughly capitalist word, we are inclined to cite Marx on his head, “the history of all existing society is the history of ascriptive struggles.” Our mythology of modern conflict is one of struggles between primordial identity groups vying for sovereignty over territory in the spirit of an ancient hatred, most productively augmented by their common enemy in the West. What we fail to recognize is that, in the end, the Western project had more to do with commodification and making the world safe for business than it did with cultural hegemony, per se, even when it was promoted in the spirit of the “white man’s burden.” The coming Asian Century will prove this to us and the most helpful tool we will be able to employ as we decode these coming conflicts is the con­cept of class. Time to get busy.…

Schwerte, Germany: Ladies and Gentlemen, Weltinnenpolitik–a term linked to the great Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker–global domestic policy, needs concretization to move from policy to politics.  We live in a world still to a large extent a state system, based on the work of diplomats to “negotiate ratifiable agreements”, in Sir Harold Nicholson’s admirably short formulation.  The idea is to find some equilibrium balancing national interests–meaning those of the dominant nation in states–against each other, in a world anarchy.  The countless wars give testimony to the failure.  Today the wars among states, like the revolts against colonialism, are decreasing.  The state system, surviving in the biggest states, is fading out, as did the colonial system, even if surviving so far in the biggest empire, the US empire.  Also fading out.

But nations, cultures built around shared world views including religion, shared language, shared vision of time–past, present, history, and space, with a geographical attachment–are increasing in salience.  They challenge the states in which they are located, and they challenge each other; like right now in Iraq and Afghanistan (WASPs against Taliban).  Nor is class fading out: the world upper classes enrich themselves in the financial system, greatly aided by the International Monetary Fund–and the world lower classes use the drug system for similar purposes, as acted out in Rio de Janeiro.  Two perverse systems coming out of the absurdity of world hyper capitalism, supported by a fading empire.

We need and deserve something better, nothing perfect, but much better.  We cannot build globalization on such absurdities.  And yet some kind of globalization is inevitable, built into new global modes created by means of transportation and communication.  The basic key to global domestic politics is conflict resolution.

Which means respecting legitimate interests of all parties.  And they are essentially two: humans, us, and the nature on which we depend.  States, nations, classes, races are constructions.

If we want one nation, humanity; in one state, the world, then it has to rest culturally on some kind of world civilization and structurally on something combining unity and diversity.

The world culture has to based on what humans have in common: body, mind and spirit.  And not on any one existing civilization, but on picking the best from all of them, in a process of mutual learning, giving top priority to the basic human needs, for:

  • survival through empathic-nonviolent-creative conflict solution;
  • well-being, like through a minimum living allowance for all;
  • identity, respecting all world views that respect the others;
  • freedom, having options in choice of cultures and structures.

The first two cater to the body, the third to the mind as a depository of what we have learnt and experienced, and the fourth to the spirit, to the unlimited creativity of the human species in reflecting on how it is programmed and can change the programs.

Based on the meta-right in Article 28 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration to live in domestic and world structures that make the realization of human rights possible, conflict resolution becomes a human right and duty.  So does an economy where basic somatic needs are guaranteed–hence turn the bailout (of banks) versus stimulus (of a basic needs oriented economy) around, 10:90, not 90:10.  So do mutual respect, curiosity and learning through dialogues of civilizations.  And so does a world federation, maybe of regions and big states.  A unitary world state would impose the unity of one civilization on the rest, or a never-ending process to arrive at an acceptable combination.  A world confederation or cooperative system has too little unity.  Federation is the key.

Universal Human Rights

Who are the people who would be capable of realizing a world culture based on basic human somatic, mental and spiritual needs within a world federation?  Thanks to Wikileaks the writing on the wall is clear: not the current brand of diplomats.  US diplomacy is revealed, most of it known or predictable as parts of imperial policies even in friendly countries, fed by the narcissism of seeing itself as an “Indispensable Nation”, and the paranoia of sensing revolt and lack of servility everywhere.  Pushing one’s own “national interest”, in the US case hegemony, at the expense of anybody else’s and, of course, of truly global domestic policy.

The emperor unclothed.  But not only the US would-be emperor, also the Diplomacy emperor.  What kind of ridiculous discourse is this, so focused on the pathology of mainline media discourse:  negative, about actors, usually elite persons, in elite countries?  Gossip, puerile characterizations, the kind of “analysis” of power typical of puberty, or immaturity not to compare adolescents to diplomats.  Where is the analysis of culture and structure, light years more important than actors who come and go?  Nowhere, they are incapable.  Where are positive ideas?  Where are ideas about how to convert the challenges from climate change into cooperation for mutual and equal benefit?  Like water distillation projects at Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Palestine, fueled by parabolic mirrors?  Like positive US-Iran cooperation on alternative energy?

These diplomats belong to a state system era we have to put behind us.  Retrain or retire them and train thousands of civil servants for world domestic policy.  Drop the ridiculous secrecy and confidentiality of how they are playing cards with us, humans and nature.  They have no right to hide their incompetence behind veils of secrecy.  Democracy means transparency, not feudal games.