The Destructive Impact of Collective Nightmares

Understanding how narratives shape and colour ethical judgements is crucial to explaining the slide into modern forms of ‘barbarism’ which, as Eric Hobsbawm correctly points out, are not a pathology of individuals or ‘evil folks’, but of situations where actors believe that there is too much at stake for one to bother about rules (Hobsbawm, 2008). The question that raises itself is therefore: Under what conditions do people become seduced by narratives which make exceptional acts of brutality not only natural, but imperative? When and how does the ‘ethics of urgency’ trump every other ethical consideration?

An insight into this question can be found in the way the construction of narratives in action films and other fictional genres renders extreme action natural, even necessary. In most action films, especially in crime thrillers, the villain is painted in such stark terms that the audience would not just expect a dismal and very cruel end for him, but demand it. ‘Death will be too good for him’.

Such narratives have been deployed to justify or incite all sorts of mass violence and terrorism, with different, and often conflicting, cultural symbols being combined with political rhetoric and a sense of moral outrage to strengthen the message. No less important are the conditions (political climate, prevailing cultural attitudes, political skills, etc.) which make these narratives plausible, and enable extremist groups, by nature marginal and prone to infighting, to gain a (fleeting) popularity for their views. Similar narratives are also used to underpin limitations on civil liberties and even advocate torture and prolonged war. Here, the urgency of the situation demands that ‘normal’ ethical concerns should be disregarded. Why have qualms about the rights of a single individual when the lives of millions are at stake?

Narratives of insecurity are also behind the less-than-democratic conduct of US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan (El-Affendi, forthcoming; El-Affendi, 2005; El-Affendi, 2004), as well as Israeli reluctance to trust neighbours in a region which, many never tire of repeating, ‘is not Switzerland or Sweden’, but a brutal one where losers ‘will never get a second chance’ (Barak, 1999). These narratives are self-reinforcing, since they induce actors to brutality which is in turn reciprocated.

An analysis of how fiction narratives incite such sadistic expectations in audiences might shed important light on how insecurity narratives and the composite image of the world underpinning them convince people, especially the normally idealist youth, to join a terror enterprise. If an evil picture of the world is painted, then the imperative of action to ‘put things right’ becomes urgent and comprehensible.

Taking as its starting point this sense of urgency characteristic of narratives attempting to justify extreme action, this conference seeks to explore the narratives of insecurity promoted by actors engaged in mass violence. Drawing insights from literary criticism, political sociology, philosophy and critical theory, it attempts to cast some light on the socio-political processes which make mass murder appear palatable, even noble. Undertaking a comparative exploration of narratives of insecurity and their impact in a number of different contexts, could reveal how narratives of identity and insecurity are constructed and promoted by political entrepreneurs and activists become politically effective and make engagement in violent conflict appear ‘rational’. In this way, we bridge the gap between the rationalist and culturalist approaches by showing the contingent nature of these narratives (and the possibility of ‘rational’ intervention to influence them).

Key questions when dealing with narratives of insecurity include: How do these narratives shape the ethical perspectives of actors and make them accept mass murder, torture, even genocide? It is not enough to argue with Richard Rorty (1989) that ‘anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed,’ just as it is difficult to accept the facile invocation of the concept of spin to argue that US or British leaders are misleading the public on the war on terror or Iraq through skilful professional mass deception (Rampton and Stauber, 2003; Miller and Dinan, 2008; Mailer, 2003). This is like saying that anything can be sold to anyone if the salesman is skilful enough. What we need to ask is, rather, under what conditions can narratives of insecurity be sold and made plausible? How much depends on skilful construction and salesmanship, how much on the appropriation and deployment of shared cultural symbols, including religious or national symbols? In particular, how doe specific identity narratives interact with and reinforce narratives of insecurity? Given the insights provided by exploring the interrelationship between fiction and identity (Anderson, 1991; Bhabha, 2004), what light can the examination of the construction of narratives of insecurity in fiction shed on similar processes in real life? What is common to narratives of insecurity across contexts? And when and how does the acceptance of these narratives provoke action?

Participants will explore in depth selected case studies which illustrate and shed lights on these urgent questions. The comparative analysis of the deployment of narratives in different cases, with special attention to how identity narratives have relied on cultural symbols, historical experience and the demonization of the other in order to mobilise support for mass violence, will hopefully generate some new and important insights. The disentanglement and deconstruction of these competing narratives might prove as important to conflict resolution as those narratives were instrumental in provoking the conflict.


09:00-09:30 Registration

09:30-11:00 Welcoming Remarks: Professor Simon Joss,

Research Director, School of Social Science, Humanities and Languages, University of Westminster.

Session 1, Chair: Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh

“Exploring the genesis, mechanisms and impact of ‘Killer Narratives’”

Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi, University of Westminster

“Lessons of Darfur: Human Rights Activism and Africa”

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia University

11:00-11:15 Coffee Break

11:15-13:00 Session 2

Chair: Professor David Chandler, University of Westminster


Collective Imagination and Organised Violence: Anti-Minority Violence in India

Prof Dibyesh Anand

Through the Looking Glass: Portrayal of Islamic Terrorism in Hindi  Cinema

Dr Rajesh Kumar, PPN College, Kanpur, India

13:00-14:00 Lunch

14:00-15:30 Session 3

Chair: Prof. Ali Paya, University of Westminster

The Absence of Narrative and Narratives of Absence: Israeli Views of Palestinian “non-presence”

Professor Saree Makdisi, University of California, Los Angeles

Regime Insecurity versus People(s) Insecurity: From Saddam to Sectarianism

Professor Ali Allawi, Harvard University

15:30- 15:45 Coffee Break

15:45- 17:15 Session 4

Chair: Dr Maria Holt, University of Westminster

The (un)bearable but expected lightness of overlapping consensus between  Karadzic and the West or on „arguments from Muslims”: the case of war in Bosnia”

Asim Jusic the Centre for EU Enlargement in Budapest

Copying with Historical Memory: Serbia between 1980and 2000

Slobodan Markovic, University of Belgrade

Islamophobia as a Narrative of Insecurity

Yahya Birt, the Islamic Foundation, Leicester

17:15- 18:00 Session 5

Chair: Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi, University of Westminster

Tentative Conclusions and the Way Ahead

Speakers: Mahmood Mamdani, Slobodan Markovic, Dibyesh Anand, Ali Allawi.