Identity in Conflict and Reconciliation

FEBRUARY 6, 2017


In Musalaha’s second stage of reconciliation, Opening Up, the first thing we encounter is the issue of identity – both our own, and that of the other. Identity is a key component in relationship building and reconciliation, because it provides the basis of understanding and a foundation from which to build. If we do not understand ourselves and why we think and operate the way we do, we will have a hard time identifying these traits in others, especially those who do not share our social or personal identities.

What is Identity?

There are many varying definitions of identity, and scholars in different fields focus on different aspects. If you ask yourself, “Who am I?” the words that immediately come to mind reveal your concept of identity, and what parts of your identity you consider to be most important. Identity has been defined as several things, including:

1) how [a] person defines who he or she is, 2) people’s concepts of who they are, of what sort of people they are, and how they relate to others, 3) the way individuals and groups define themselves and are defined by others on the basis of race, ethnicity, language and culture, 4)and the relationship of the Other to oneself. (3)

In short, identity is comprised of social categories and is the source of an individual’s self-esteem. (4)

Identity requires awareness and identity formation is active, not passive. It is not simply your personality, whether you are bubbly and outgoing, or reserved and shy. Sometimes we are simply born into certain groups, and our identity is absorbed and formed by our culture and those around us. Other times, we choose to take on certain identities. If you convert to a certain religion, you choose that community, or religious identity, for yourself. If you decide to cheer for a certain sports team, you choose to identify with that specific team. In other cases, certain identities are thrust upon us. If you are part of a minority group, you may be treated poorly by the majority group and thus develop certain defensive attitudes and behavior. If you moved from one place to another involuntarily and are a refugee, or come from a family of refugees, this shapes your identity, and was not a choice. (5)

When we meet new people, we often want to know how they are similar or different from us. We ask questions like, “Who are you?” “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” The answers to these questions let us know how much we might have in common with this new individual, and whether we share some aspects of our identity. When we share aspects of our identity, we often feel a sense of familiarity and belonging. We often identify people like us through symbols such as language, clothing, the way they look, etc. If you have ever been in a foreign country where you do not understand the native language, if you suddenly hear your mother tongue being spoken, you feel a certain closeness to the strangers who share this identity with you. (6)

What are the Main Components of Identity?

Social Identity

One’s social identity, or social category, changes according to the context one is in. For example, if someone asks you who or what you are, your answer will be different based on who is asking. Sometimes we choose our social categories, and other times, they are chosen for us. Social categories are labels that are used commonly enough that people adjust their attitudes, actions or thoughts to fit the category; the social categories we are a part of give us a sense of belonging. Identity as a social category has two main features:

1) it is defined by rules of membership, and 2) it is understood by characteristics or content. (8)

Social categories have various elements, usually role or type identities. Some examples of roles are: mom, prime minister, student, etc. Some examples of types are: sexual identity, ethnic identity, or categories having to do with political affiliation. (9)

Because of our social categories, we have certain behaviors. Any group that we are a part of is called an in-group. Groups that we are not a part of are called out- groups. Our social identity naturally causes us to favor the in-group over the out- group, (10) and simply belonging to an in-group often results in favorable feelings to those in the in-group over the out-group. (11) To some degree, our in-group gains legitimacy through delegitimizing the out-group. (12)

Due to our dependence and inclusion in in-groups, part of our self-image comes from our participation in various social groups. We often assume that everyone who is part of our in-group is like us. Likewise, we believe that people in our in-group have generally positive characteristics, and are unique and interesting individuals, while people in out-groups have negative characteristics. Without sustained interaction with members of an out-group, members of an in-group often assume that all members of an out-group are the same, which leads to stereotyping. As we get to know members of an out-group, we begin to see the members as individuals.

Stereotyping can be negative if it becomes an obstacle to intergroup relations. Stereotyping can lead to “self- fulfilling prophecy behavior” in the out-group. For example, if you always accuse the other group of acting like violent, uncivilized animals, and you treat them as if they are violent and uncivilized, their behavior might begin to reflect that stereotype, even if it was not like that to begin with. Stereotyping leads to in-group ignorance and out- group suffering with no positive outcome for either side. It only results in a cycle of misunderstanding, anger, and in extreme cases, violence.

When competition between two different groups leads to conflict (generally because of incompatible goals), group members often take on a zero-sum mentality in which members of one group assume that in order to “win” the other group must “lose.” As a result of this, intergroup competition leads to intragroup cooperation, and intragroup differences are ignored for the good of the in- group. Many times, in intergroup conflict, the in-group will persist in its self-bias, even when such a bias will result in negative effects on the in-group.

Personal Identity

Personal identity is “that which distinguishes you as an individual from other individuals.”16 Like social identity, personal identity is greatly influenced by self- esteem, to the extent that self-esteem can form the foundation of our personal identity. Personal identity can be what makes up one’s dignity, honor, pride or self-respect. It can also include your moral principles (the framework through which you determine what you should or should not do), or your personal style (why you choose to dress a certain way—how you perhaps dress similarly or differently from people around you), etc. (17) To sum up all these different aspects of personal identity, one scholar provides the following definition:

“Personal identity is a set of attributes, beliefs, desires, or principles of action that a person thinks distinguish her in socially relevant ways and that (a) the person takes a special pride in; (b) the person takes no special pride in, but which orient her behavior that she would be at a loss about how to act and what to do without them; or (c) the person feels she could not change even if she wanted to.” (18)

Social vs. Personal Identity

There is an inverse relationship between your personal and social identities because when you are focusing on yourself as a unique individual, you are not focusing on yourself as part of a group. Inversely, when you are focusing on yourself as part of a group, you are not focusing on yourself as a unique individual. (19) Two individuals from two very different groups may have a lot in common on an interpersonal level—a Palestinian and Israeli might both like soccer, certain types of food and music, and may be studying the same subjects in school, however divisive social differences can remain. This does not mean that they cannot be friends—they can, and Musalaha’s method for reconciliation encourages these interpersonal relationships, but this is not reconciliation in and of itself. Reconciliation in our conflict has to do not only with interpersonal reconciliation, but intergroup reconciliation.

Why is it Important?

As a result of our personal and social identities, we act in certain ways. The way we act can often be attributed to whichever personal and social categories we belong.

The mental connection we make between certain actions and the social categories such actions belong to, show that we expect people in different categories to following certain social norms. Additionally, we sometimes categorize people according to their actions and understand these as social habits (which can be connected with stereotypes).

Identity can explain why we do what we do. We follow social norms for several reasons:

1)  We follow social norms because we believe it is the right thing to do (or because of our self-respect).

Example: You do not lie because you believe it is a sin.

2)  We follow social norms for others’ approval (for the approval of specific social or personal categories).

Example: You do not litter in your neighborhood so you do not offend your neighbors.

3)  We follow social norms to be rewarded; or, we follow social norms because we know if we do not, we will not be rewarded.

Example: If you do not show up at your place of employment and work for a certain number of hours, you will not receive your salary.

4)  We follow social norms because we do not know what else to do.21 Example: You might go to church on a weekly basis not because you necessarily believe in Christianity, but because your parents went to church every Sunday morning, and that is what Sunday mornings are for.

Identity Related to Preference

Just because you are part of a certain social category does not mean that you wish to perform all of the social norms expected of that category. Various aspects of our identity are always contradicting or competing with each other. For example, someone can be a professor without enjoying publishing articles on her research. However, this professor will publish articles on her research anyway for a number of reasons: to increase her salary, to increase her reputation among her colleagues, to maintain her sense of self-respect, or to get tenure. Whatever reasons this professor chooses for publishing articles reveal her preferences. This shows that preferences play an important role in our choices, and often reflect part of our identity, even if it is not obvious to others what aspects of our identity are reflected. If this professor who does not like to publish articles publishes articles anyway, we may not know if it is because she wishes to increase her salary or if she wishes to receive tenure to ensure that she cannot be fired from her job, etc. Regardless of whether or not we know her reasons, there are reasons or preferences behind her choices. Strategy and choice are inseparable parts of our construction of identity.22

Identity Challenged

When challenged, identity is a powerful motivator. For example, if someone says something negative about your ethnicity or culture, you are often deeply hurt and offended because what was said violated or threatened your identity, and thereby your sense of belonging, self-esteem, meaning, connectedness and recognition. The negative statement is viewed as hostile because it “undermine[s] a person’s basis for thinking well of himself or herself.”23 Ethnic conflicts often arise from situations like this. For example, if certain groups say and act negatively toward each other and threaten each other’s identity, strong emotional reactions will result, sometimes causing outbreaks of violence. Some scholars suggest that ethnic conflicts erupt “from the pursuit of a feeling of comparative self-worth.”24

Sometimes our identity can be challenged simply by a majority group’s relations to a minority group. When different groups with different cultures encounter one another, both groups change because of their experiences with each other. This is called acculturation. Minority groups often try to both maintain their separate culture while orienting itself toward the dominant majority culture.

It is important to understand what is going on inside of us when our identity is challenged or when certain acculturation strategies are implemented. It is helpful to identify the various causes and effects that have changed and shaped our identities, particularly in situations of conflict. Often during stages one or two, Palestinian and Israeli participants feel as if their identity has been threatened by the other party. In our encounters, we meet with people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and we encourage discussions on issues relating to the conflict. Oftentimes when we feel our own identity is challenged, we can lash out and challenge someone else’s identity by undermining their sense of self-worth and belonging to a people or a land.


Identity is a complicated and multi- faceted subject. We all have many different layers of identities within the broader designations of social identity and personal identity. To understand others, we need to understand ourselves, and we can never fully understand ourselves if we do not learn to understand others. We need to learn to see the differences between us without viewing this as something negative or threatening, and come to respect the differences themselves. It is important to accept the other person as they wish to be seen.

In our conflict, our Israeli and Palestinian national identities are constantly in competition, and many times we exclude one another, viewing ourselves as the in- group and the other as the out-group. Much of our identity is based on exclusion rather than inclusion, and shunning rather than embrace. But throughout the journey of reconciliation, your identity will develop and change as you realize more about yourself and others.

When we open up and explore these topics, we learn that identity does not need to be a means of exclusion, but can in fact be a vehicle of inclusion and unity amongst diversity. At Musalaha, we discuss identity to learn about ourselves and others in order to appreciate one another and root out the negative assumptions that can lead to division and conflict. This does not mean that we must abandon the core of who we are in order to embrace one another. We were all born to different peoples and cultures, and the diversity and uniqueness of our heritage is something to be preserved.

In Revelation 7:9-10, the apostle John records:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.””

Note how amid this wonderful unity of worship before God, we are all still represented in nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. Our uniqueness and distinctiveness is important to God, because it was created and given to us by God. In order to live in peace with one another, we need to learn how to respect and honor the differences and uniqueness of others. Then we can learn how to truly appreciate our unity by seeing the image of God in one who is not my image, and that is a beautiful thing.

Copyright Musalaha 2014 ©


Chryssochoou, Xenia. Cultural Diversity: Its Social Psychology. Malden/Oxford/Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Fearon, James D. “What Is Identity (As we now use the word)?” Paper submitted at Stanford University, Department of Political Science, November 3, 1999.

Kelman, Herbert C. “The Role of National Identity in Conflict Resolution: Experiences from Israeli-Palestinian Problem-Solving Workshops.” In Social Identity, Intergroup Conflict, and Conflict Resolution, edited by Richard D. Ashmore, Lee Jussim, & David Wilder, 187–212. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Munayer, Salim J. “The Ethnic Identity of Palestinian Arab Christian Adolescents in Israel,” PhD diss., University of Wales, 2000.

Open Learn Learning Space. “What is Identity: Questions of Identity.” Accessed April 11, 2011.§ion=1.1.

Stephan, Walter G. & Cookie W. Stephan. “Intergroup Relations.” In Social Psychology Series, edited by John Harvey. Madison: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1996.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.