Beyond enemy images: politics and the Other – a retrospective

Jeffrey Stevenson Murer reflects on openSecurity's collection of articles, which have explored the creation of the other as 'enemy', externally and in ourselves.

This series, exploring the images of the enemy-other, began last year in the aftermath of the mass shooting by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse, France. Since then more than 80 articles have explored the presentation of enemy images to understand the events in Toulouse, the analysis of the Utøya shootings in Norway on the one-year anniversary, the French response to the Mali insurgency and the Algerian hostage crisis, up to Cameron McGrath’s piece on the Boston Marathon bombing which explores the assumptions of enemies and the social costs of indifference toward those seen as the ‘other’. 

But more than chronicling these important security events, the contributing authors explored the ways such events are depicted, how power and politics figure in those presentations, and how publics receive these images and narratives. For example, Omer Harari ends the series with a thoughtful examination of narrative constructions of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, following the fallout from the Toulouse shootings, Brigitte Beauzamy and Ruth Wodak each explored the security turns in European politics, restructuring the narratives of belonging and normalcy. These pieces examine how fear can be manufactured, reinforced, or countered, and how in each instance assumptions and expectations of normative behavior are altered.

The series also presented a number of pieces examining the rise and appeal of far-right political groups all across Europe, ranging from Anton Shekhovstov’s exploration of the Ukrainian far-right movements to Salomi Boukhala and Aristotle Kallis’ pieces on the Golden Dawn, and the shifting narratives of responsibility for the financial and social crises in Greece. Kristina Boréus and Tobias Hübinette examined a longer history of hate speech and violent right-wing extremism in Scandinavia, and Jon Burnett’s sobering account of the attraction of far-right politics across Europe also explored the “geographies of hate” in the UK.

Tony McKenna recounted Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that contemporary Islamophobia emanates from a fascist imaginary that continues to haunt Europe, while Marie Baniff, Sara McDowell and Jonny Byrne explored the relationship between violence and the lack of a shared, common memory in Northern Ireland. It is in this connection between memory, the imaginary and violence that the series plumbed the rarely explored depths of the role of anxiety in conflict. The lack of a shared memory in Northern Ireland, just as in Israel and Palestine, makes it difficult to find common ground as the basis of negotiation, both at an institutional level but also at an immediately social and communal level.

This division of memory and imagination is not merely a disagreement about the interpretation of historical events; rather, social history marks the manner by which sense is made of events. Different events have differing social meaning, but are also linked to other events differently. Receiving and retransmitting these narratives of group history are the performances of belonging, and thus it can be difficult for groups in conflict to reconcile their competing narratives into a common framework, because it can be seen as compromising key performances of identity.

Perhaps one of the more uplifting and inspiring pieces in the series is Mohammed Suliman’s story of man nicknamed “Awsaj”— the Arabic equivalent for Lycium – living in Gaza. In recounting Awsaj’s story, Suliman points to the work that is required to make peace: a critical introspection of one’s own group self, as well as that of the other. He asks us to think of the other’s history and social journey as well as our own. The path to peace is not about changing the other, but reconciling the competing images of self and other, and transforming the self to live peacefully with another party. Recognising the humanity of the other is not enough, nor is seeing resemblances of the self. Awsaj, like Julia Kristeva [1], entreats us to find the other in ourselves. If we ask the other to change, to conform to our desires of peace, surely we – the group self – must do the same. In that we must not only recognise that “they” are like “us”, but perhaps more difficultly for “us” to see how “we” are like “them”.

The series has provided a number of critical insights into the means by which the enemy other is created, made sense of through the construction of narratives, and given a face: the image of the other. To transcend these devices that naturalise the division between a group-self, often depicted as all good, and an enemy other, often depicted as all bad or evil, it is necessary to analyse beyond the image of the enemy other and to find common humanity. This series has been an excellent collection of work that provides insight into doing just that.


[1] Kristeva, Julie (1992) Strangers in Ourselves (New York; Columbia University Press).

About the author

Jeffrey Stevenson Murer is the Lecturer on Collective Violence at the University of St Andrews.  He was recently the Principal Investigator of the British Council-funded European Study of Youth Mobilisation, which examined the motivations of young people involved in radical political and social movements.