If the co-construction of the dominant narrative about the enemy is dooming us to a perpetual state of violent conflict, where might we discover alternative and life-giving narratives?

If the co-construction of the dominant narrative about the enemy is dooming us to a perpetual state of violent conflict, where might we discover alternative and life-giving narratives?

The Co-Construction of ‘The Enemy': ISIS, Hegemony and Self-Identity

This post was first published on the Peace and Collaborative Development Network.

“What joins men together…is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies”   —Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“When We Eat from a Common Dish, We Have No Enemies” African Proverb

It might well give us pause for reflection when world leaders and the major media coalesce around the dominant discourse that ISIS is our shared enemy. Alternative discourses about recent acts of violence are marginalized because any critique of the dominant discourse are frequently interpreted as a threat and treated with suspicion. However, it is possible to stand in compassionate solidarity with all those who are victims of recent violence while at the same time critically questioning the predominant narrative. Indeed, it is necessary to do so.

The real and perpetrated fear of ISIS has invaded the apparent security of living rooms far distant from the sites of recent acts of horrific violence. The war against ISIS has become a “living room war” (Ang, 2006). Caught between the competing claims of ISIS that Western civilizations are the Great Satan and Western claims that ISIS is the greatest threat facing our times, we have become very afraid. If we accept uncritically the predominant narrative about the enemy, we are participants in the co-construction of ISIS.

Is ISIS indeed the great enemy of Western civilization? The violence for which ISIS claims credit is very real and must be opposed. Yet, we can respond to that violence in life-giving and productive ways without accepting the assumption that a global war on ISIS will buy us peace or security.

The mantra of Western leaders is that we must destroy any ISIS-like organizations that “threaten our way of life.” Let us not succumb so readily to the fear of the enemy–personified as ISIS–and the presumption that this enemy can be eliminated through bombing raids. Before we hand to ISIS the power to speak fear into our lives, let us ask who the enemy is that we are to unite against.

The predominant culture promotes a bifurcation of our world into absolute oppositional categories of friends vs. enemies, good vs. evil, and us vs. them. It may be helpful to parse this dichotomy of friends and enemies before stepping into the dominant narrative about ISIS and global terrorism.

“O, my friends, there is no friend.” The great French philosopher Derrida (1997) in The Politics of Friendship explores the construct of the friend. We would do well to similarly explore the construct of the enemy.

The lens of social constructionism suggests that we co-construct our world through language and relationships (Gergen, 2009). The bifurcation of our world through the friend/enemy distinction in many ways defines the spirit of the times (zeitgeist) in which we live. Who is the friend and who is the enemy? “O, my friends, there is no friend.” In the face of the dominant discourse about ISIS, we might de-construct the predominant narrative about the enemy with the suggestion: “Oh my friend, there is no enemy.” Who is the enemy that we co-construct with such global unanimity?   What do we gain from our co-construction of ISIS as the enemy? Does the shared identification of ISIS as the enemy make us any safer?

ISIS does not represent the first time in history that we have co-constructed a compelling vision of the enemy. The construct of ISIS as the enemy perhaps serves more to define and embellish a shared self-identity than it does to keep us safe. Bloom (2015) suggests that “the creation and presence of enemies has played a fundamental role in forming and sustaining societies and collective identities across time and context” (p.1).

As some chorus of voices in the Western world seek to transform fear of ISIS into hatred of Muslims, the analysis of Bloom becomes relevant and salient. “The officially sanctioned hatred of a specific group and its members reinforces a secure, socially constructed ‘reality’ that ‘covers over’ deeper antagonisms and inequalities” (Bloom, 2015). Indeed, the enemy–or the ‘antagonistic other’ serves to support the self-interests inherent in defining and uniting communities and peoples around a shared way of life ( Campbell 1992, Silverstein 1992, Turner et al. 1987). It is significant that ISIS is often characterized in the public discourse as a force that is “seeking to destroy our way of life.”

The narrative that ISIS is the greatest threat that we face in our time may or may not have a basis in reality. The narrative may be maintained even in the face of contradictory analysis. It has been suggested that ” a threatening other must remain threatening despite changing circumstances or new information challenging such assumptions” (Bloom, 2015).

We can legitimately question these twin notions: 1) ISIS is predominantly the enemy that we must fear and 2) destroying ‘ISIS-like organizations’ will make us safer. It certainly merits questioning whether our participation in the identification of ISIS as the enemy is part of what Walsh (1992) describes as classic paranoid relationships.

The co-construction of ISIS as the shared common enemy may inform our understanding of how we perpetuate self-identity in a dominant culture. Lacan (2001) would invite us to go so far as to ask if the construct of ISIS as the enemy is an aspect of our fragmented psychic nature seeking to define some secure sense of self or defense of our way of life. What if the enemy is me, in so much as we are projecting our identity in relationship to this antagonistic other? Is the enemy that is ISIS “something rejected from which one does not part” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 4)?

Ang (1996) leads us to ask if the shared global construct of the enemy serves to maintain the dominance of a particular group or class. Is the construct of ISIS as the enemy a way of legitimizing dominance and enhancing hegemony?

The work of Gramsci (1971)–credited with articulating the notion of hegemony–suggests that the shared global co-construction of the enemy, is in fact, a tool for enhancing hegemony. Power and dominance is maintained and enhanced through the construct of the enemy. The construct of the enemy is necessary for sustaining the notion of American Exceptionalism (Madsen, 1998). Arguably, the very viability of ISIS is similarly dependent on the maintenance of the counter-narrative that the Western way-of-life is the great evil that must be destroyed.

Dueling narratives leave us in a perpetual state of conflict and frame the violent destruction of human life we are witnessing and experiencing today. These are the narratives by which people live and die in Paris, California, Colorado and also across the Middle East. There is no exceptionalism when it comes to the abjected narrative of violence and violent retribution in response to acts of terrorism.

It is the dominant world-view and the predominant discourse that clings most dearly to the construct of the enemy. Fiske (1987) suggests that hegemony is never complete and must constantly be perpetuated and propped up. “Hegemony is a constant struggle against a multitude of resistances to ideological domination, and any balance of forces that it achieves is always precarious, always in need of re-achievement. Hegemony’s ‘victories’ are never final, and any society will evidence numerous points where subordinate groups have resisted the total domination that is hegemony’s aim, and have withheld their consent to the system.” (p. 41).

We are currently witnessing how the construct of the enemy, as the perceived predominate threat to a way of life and value system, serves to unite nations. The dialogue about climate change and other significant global concerns is dwarfed by emerging unity around forming a coalition of nations willing to set aside differences to fight ISIS as the shared enemy of our identified way of life.

In his novel, Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (1985) writes: “What joins men together…is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies.”  In the unity of coalescing around fighting the enemy, there is no nuance, no complexity or even any need to understand who the enemy is. . If we are to maintain unity around our shared effort to destroy the enemy, this enemy must remain faceless. In public discourse, we expend little effort to understand who or what ISIS is and how it came to be a major player in our living room wars. We seldom ask what motivates the apparent rage that incites recruitment of terrorists to orchestrate horribly violent and seemingly random attacks. What should be a salient question is marginalized from the predominant discourse about terrorism.

The nuance of truly understanding the motivation or the social and historical context of the emergence of ISIS might even threaten to disrupt the unity of the coalition fighting the enemy. If McCarthy (1985) is correct that what joins us together “is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies” we are doomed to a violent and unsustainable future.

An African proverb provides a germinating seed for an alternative narrative about the enemy: “When we eat from a common dish, we have no enemies.” It is the wisdom of Africa that the world is never clearly black or white. There may be the friend ontologically nestled and residing within our construct of the enemy. In the presence of the enemy is the potential for the friend with whom we can break bread. The work of Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey (2014) in Host Leadership suggests that the notion of hosting or breaking bread together has historically served to disrupt the construct of the enemy. The one we share a meal with is no longer faceless.

If the co-construction of the dominant narrative about the enemy is dooming us to a perpetual state of violent conflict, where might we discover alternative and life-giving narratives? We turn again to Derrida who suggests in regard to the construct of the friend: “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you” (1997, p. 289).

Is it precisely in deconstructing the construct of the enemy that we open the possibility to escape from a cycle of perpetual violence? It is intuitive that the bifurcation of the world into the duality of friend/enemy does not serve the cause of deescalating violence. Meaningful dialogue about “the deeper antagonisms and inequalities” (Bloom, 2015) that lead to the recruitment of violent extremists is critical. History has shown us that violent ideologies cannot be destroyed through any number of bombing raids.

Eating from a common dish, as suggested in the African proverb, may be a salient metaphor for not only promoting dialogue but also just sharing of the world’s resources. The cause of peaceful engagement with those we have dismissed as the enemy may well require of us the surrendering of power-over and dominance. Our exceptionalism may otherwise be our un-doing. Moving from “discourses of empire” (Mabee, (2004) to discourses of planetary citizenship might be a first step. We might yet find unity, not in coalescing around fighting the enemy, but in breaking bread together.


In writing this essay, I share my deep appreciation to fellow-participants in The Journal Club at The Taos Institute for a rich dialogue about Derrida and French philosophers. The ideas expressed herein are my own. I invite your feedback and response so that in eating from the common dish of shared ideas and discovered meanings, we might together find new and life-giving ways of responding purposefully and positively to the violence erupting in our world. May all creatures find happiness and may peace prevail on earth.



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