Constructivism is an approach to IR that focuses on the mutual constitution of structures and agents, or, in other words, the constitutive effects of intersubjective understandings. Its focus on the socially constructed nature of the world around us claims to provide valuable insights of change in the international system: “For constructivists, stability is not presumed …” (Jackson and Jones 2012: 111). In the wake of recent violence in the Middle East, and its representation of what seems to be a repetitive conflict between values of free speech and respect for religious belief, I thought it would be interesting to think about this along constructivist lines. I think it is particularly interesting because of the ‘stability’ of the conflict, by which I mean not only its persistence, but the way its iterance’s seem to repeat in much the same way.
First, no matter its seemingly intractable nature, the relationship of enmity between extremists in both the US (especially) and the Muslim world (especially predominantly Islamic countries), from a constructivist perspective at least, is not a necessarily fixed and stable fact. It is instead a result of ongoing, albeit mediated, interactions between the two groups. While these interactions may reinforce the relation of enmity, or they may change it, it seems so far that they keep being reinforced (perhaps giving credence to the Clash of Civilizations thesis?). At this point it should be noted that the antagonists in these two groups both exist in broader social structures, which in turn interact at an even broader level. Thus there is a real difficulty in using a constructivist approach for this issue, considering their interactions with each other are significantly mediated. However, it may still be fruitful to look at the issue through the norms involved.
Thus, I think, there are at least two ways to look at this issue from a constructivist perspective. First, and probably most ‘traditionally’ you could look at the way states contribute to making the institutions and norms of international life, which in turn to contribute to defining, socializing and influencing states. From this perspective we would look at the way the conflict in question is mediated by states, and other significant international actors, of which I would include some Islamic leaders who, while not being heads of states, nonetheless influence international relations. The right of ‘free speech’, in this respect, becomes something either defended or attacked, generating flow-on effects that may or may not influence and change the next iteration of what seems a perennial issue.
The second perspective would bypass statist mediation (although it would, of course, not be completely removed) and try focus on how the conflict manifests as a direct confrontation. It would thus look at the way the different social contexts involved responded to the stimuli of information which reflects upon specific groups’ appreciation of their respective values. I’m not sure how much constructivism works like this, ‘below’ the statist level, as it seems it still focuses on ‘state identity.’ (I make this presumption from reading about constructivism in the recommended texts published respectively by Oxford and Cambridge). But it seems to me that we have two relatively distinct sub-national groups in conflict over normative ideas, the ramifications of which are felt in international relations.
From this second perspective, we might like to think about why large groups in a number of Islamic countries resort to violence when their prophet is denigrated by individuals and groups from Western countries, who then resort to their right to ‘free speech.’ While accepting that conflicts are often manipulated by political entrepreneurs, it can be pointed out that conflicts about values are more prone to violence than conflict over resources (Hasenclever & Rittberger 2000). There are three reasons for this. Firstly, values are about group identity, thus threatened values represent an existential threat. Secondly, the use of violence is therefore morally justified. The defence of a framework that determines right and wrong, just and unjust, is part of the groups identity; those who attack it appear outside this framework and thus forfeit their right to non-violent treatment. Thirdly, value-based conflicts become violent because protagonists believe that compromises are impossible (Hasenclever & Rittberger 2000: 652-653). Having noted the centrality of values to groups, and their seemingly intractable nature, the question then becomes, is constructivism a helpful approach to studying value-based conflict? After all, these values are unlikely to change, and thus conflict is likely to persist. But then again, we shouldn’t expect their values to change, but just how they respond to others insulting their values, right?
So perhaps ultimately we are talking about state identities, in particular whether states are democratic or not. Crawford (in Jackson and Jones 2012: 109-110) argues that there is a relationship between norms of violence and (deep) democratic norms: “Democracy is an institutional arrangement and a set of attitudes and beliefs that create the opportunity to deliberate, to argue. And if we are to argue fairly, with some hope of coming to an un-coerced understanding with one another, we must renounce violence and threat of violence…” While the example I am referring to is not a dispute to be resolved, the inference is that if democratic norms were established in Islamic society it would be less likely that residents there would resort to violence. Take the example of the response to the video in Australia. While there was still some violence, it was considerably less than in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, Crawford states that “the renunciation of violence as a means to any ends except defence is as much a cornerstone of democratic institutions as its widely recognized counterpart, freedom of expression…” Accordingly, without democracy, Islamic groups, not just fundamentalists (although they may be mobilized by Islamic elites who are also fundamentalist), are always likely to respond to denigration of their beliefs with violence.
I would just like to finish off with some final questions, and then an idea (which I think I’ve been trying to get to through these rather winding thoughts). Are these interactions between devout Islam and the freedom loving West ever likely to change the fundamentalism of (especially) the US’s claim to the freedom of speech? Does the violence surrounding these interactions have the potential to change Western people’s perspectives on their right to unconditional free speech? The fact that there are plenty of people in the West who claim that free speech shouldn’t be unconditional is perhaps a part of this constructivist movement. Perhaps we could actually see a constructive movement towards democratic ideals in Muslim countries if the West comes in a little bit from its own form of fundamentalism? Because if neither the West nor Islamic societies change their stances then this conflict is likely to persist.
If I were to speculate about such a dynamic, it might look like this. If the West, the US in particular, moved in from its unconditional defence of free-speech, then Islamic societies would have less of a need to resort to violence. Having to resort to violence less often would help reduce familiarity to violent recourse. Resorting to violence less often would then help with the project of strengthening democratic norms. The strengthening of democratic norms would include the right to free speech, and once this is established in Islamic countries, well then the US can have its precious right to say whatever it wants.
Hasenclever, Andreas, and Volker Rittberger. “Does Religion Make a Difference? Theoretical Approaches to the Impact of Faith on Political Conflict.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, no. 3 (2000): 641-74.
Hurd, Ian. “Constructivism.” In The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal, 298-316. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, and Joshua S. Jones. “Constructivism.” In An Introduction to International Relations, edited by Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke and Jim George, 103-18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.