The Executive Director of the Center for Conflict Relief and Reconstruction describes how a non-governmental organization led by a trusted individual who understands Middle Eastern culture has facilitated religious reconciliation in Iraq and thereby contributed to the recent sharp decline in sectarian violence there. Diplomats and soldiers can also profit from the focus on techniques described in the article. Contrib. Ed.
As the conflict in Iraq drags into its fifth year, many Americans have come to believe that reconciliation in Iraq will not begin and that the incremental improvements from last year's troop surge will not have a lasting impact until the Iraqi government takes several legislative steps commonly known as "benchmarks." From personal experience working with the Center for Conflict and Relief and Reconstruction I can testify that reconciliation has already begun, though often in less formal and bureaucratic ways.
Religion is a fundamental element of Middle Eastern society, and Westerners unfortunately underestimate its importance to the peace process. What I propose here is an alternative methodology to peacemaking in the Middle East, one that incorporates the religious and tribal nature of Asian culture at the highest levels in order to make an impact. I am not naïve enough to assume that there are not other current religious and tribal reconciliation efforts in Iraq. In fact, in the last few years, there has been an explosion of efforts to reach out to those groups. All these efforts have undoubtedly helped turn the situation around in Iraq. What I offer below is my firsthand experience in working in a private organization presently enjoying very high-level support but built upon the unique methodology I will later describe.
Though originally funded by the British Foreign Office following the 2003 invasion, FRRME's reconciliation work with religious and tribal leaders had no long-term funding, and the process ended after one year. The general lack of support or understanding for religious and tribal engagement undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent flare-up of violence in Iraq that exploded into sectarian conflict along religious lines.
The results have been electric. In June 2007 at the inaugural meeting of this process in Baghdad, more than 60 religious and tribal leaders attended from every corner of Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra, Tikrit, Sulimaniyah, Fallujah, and other regions, some traveling several hours with intensive security. Participants varied from across all Iraqi religious divides Sunni and Shia as well as minority groups such as Christian, Yazidee, and Mandean in what became the most diverse gathering for a reconciliation initiative in Iraq in over six decades. With transport and access facilitated by the U.S. military, the delegates met in the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad for several days to begin discussions on how to reduce religiously motivated violence in Iraq. The Minister of Human Rights, members of the Iraqi Reconciliation Committee, representatives of the National Security Council of Iraq, and various Iraqi Parliament members attended the sessions. All delegates showed tremendous courage amidst threats of violence and regular power outages on days in which the temperature rarely dropped below 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite the exciting developments in Baghdad, a single meeting even with substantial achievements does very little in the long term. Moreover, due to the nature of the situation in Iraq the most senior representatives could not attend because many lived outside of Iraq and were either involved in the former regime or at serious odds with the current Iraqi government and its U.S. supporters. In order to gain legitimacy and maintain momentum, engagement with the senior leadership was essential. Therefore, in August 2007 a highly select group of the most senior Iraqi religious leaders met in Cairo, Egypt, to build upon the gains made by the meeting in Baghdad in June. Participants included Saddam Hussein's former personal imam and current head of one of the largest Sunni clerical networks in Iraq; the head of the Najaf office of Grand Ayatollah al Sistani; and other highly influential personalities of the Iraqi Sunni and Shia communities.
The meeting in Cairo proved highly successful, with major objectives reached. Most of those attending had never before met and harbored deep levels of distrust. Most seriously opposed U.S. occupation and had adamantly refused to meet with the U.S. military. Not only did the delegates meet and engage with the U.S. Command Chaplain; they also acknowledged and ratified the statement drafted in June 2007 and even drafted their own addendum strengthening the previous agreement for ending violence in Iraq. Though gaining senior religious legitimacy was pivotal, the major breakthrough occurred when all agreed to form an implementation committee to meet regularly and gradually expand to include other influential and active senior Sunni and Shia religious leaders in working to reduce violence. Crucially, they have agreed to work with existing efforts such as the Mecca Committee, which is involved in screening illegitimate/overtly pro-violence fatwas, or Islamic rulings with the force of law. They have also agreed to take forward the process of establishing a network of the top Iraqi religious figures capable of issuing senior level joint Sunni-Shia fatwas an idea both completely innovative and previously unattainable.
The process continues, and the U.S. Department of Defense has committed to support another year of work. Currently, the Danish Foreign Ministry has also gotten on board by hosting a meeting in February bringing together in Copenhagen senior Iraqi politicians and the senior Iraqi religious leaders for discussions on whether religion should play an advisory or supervisory role in the developing Iraqi government. Most of those attending were from the implementation committee established in 2007 in Cairo, and this core group is now committed to working at the very highest of levels towards a reduction in violence. In the first major engagement since Cairo in August, religious leaders strengthened and expanded working relationships beyond the highly select circle of religious leaders to include the Danish government and Iraqi political leadership. The role of religion in government was openly discussed, with major attention focused on the impact of violence on Iraq's religious minorities such as the Christian, Yazidee, and Mandean communities. With high-level Iraqi government involvement, several government recommendations were put forth and the stage was set for major discussions in March in Cairo.
Reconciliation Produces Results
What Must Be Done?
When the Western world turns its eyes towards the Middle East, it seems perpetually blindsided with a maelstrom of intractable problems and a dearth of solid, permanent solutions. A region rich in ancient customs plagued by modern dilemmas, the Middle East is a complex blend of competing influences. Discerning the most appropriate solution for some of the more common problems such as religiously motivated violence, poverty, and corrupt governance is a daunting and difficult task to say the least.
Even though I worked for several years as a Center for Conflict Relief and Reconstruction Project Officer and Director of Operations assisting negotiations on religious reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraqi conflict, I cannot even pretend to know the answer. Through my work for the London-based Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, I was able to see much of the inner workings of some of the more titanic problems in our world today. There is much more to be learned, but from my experience, a basic understanding of religion and culture is critical to success in the region.
To move ahead with long-term effectiveness and influence, Western definitions of diplomacy must be made flexible according to the region it hopes to influence. It must incorporate the core values that the society in question deems relevant. This seems basic enough, right? Enter here the role of religion. In the United States we have enshrined the idea of separation of church and state and for good cause. For many, religion in the driver's seat seems a bit like allowing the blind to lead the blind. Yet in the Middle East, this is a part of most people's common identity from a very young age. Islamic history and tradition are among the few common denominators that bind together the rural Iraqi tribal leader with the sophisticated Kuwaiti oil sheikh. When partnered with the Asian values of hierarchy, family background, and respect for age and authority, senior religious leaders have a high level of influence, which trickles down with surprising authority to their disciples and wider following. Though all have their variations in sect and level of devotion, Islam is a common and deeply rooted identity which must be accommodated.
And religious leaders have more than just religious influence. I will never forget speaking with some of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani's people about how they felt things were progressing and what they thought about the new Iraqi government. Their reply was very matter of fact: We are the government. As the truth of the concept slowly dawned on me, it sent a slight shiver down my spine when I realized what was being communicated. With a revered status amongst the newly empowered majority Shia population in Iraq, millions of dollars in annual revenue due to zakat (the mandatory tithe all Muslims pay), and a vast and influential network of disciples in Iraq and Iran, who would not agree that this translates into real political and social influence?
Regrettably, there has been a very slow recognition or willingness within the secular governments of the West to understand the power and influence religious leaders possess in this part of the world and little eagerness to engage with these sources of real influence. One does not have to look very hard to see why. For all the common identity it brings, keeping a stable and reliable partnership with religion can be like trying to grasp deadly quicksilver. So many major conflicts of our time are rooted in religion gone wrong Kosovo, Lebanon, Sudan, Nigeria, and now Iraq.
My mentor and one of the premier experts in this field, Canon Andrew White, always says, When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong. This seems so true. Religion often appears irrational and unpredictably savage. Yet as Canon White says, If religion is part of the problem, it must be part of the solution. One of the mistakes of the Oslo Accords was a failure to comprehend or reconcile the religious dynamics of the holy sites of Judaism and Islam. Equally so, part of the success in resolving the riots in northern Nigeria between Muslims and Christians in 2004 was rooted in the ability to work with religious leaders on both sides to broker a ceasefire. Madeline Albright actually recognized the crucial role that religion can play in statesmanship in her book The Mighty and the Almighty. Why then, if religion has an acknowledged role to play for good or for bad, is it so challenging to even begin engaging with it? To shed some light on this, I offer a few insights and recommendations gleaned from my own personal experience in this area.
The School of Experience: Religious Peacemaking 101
Identification of Key Players and Bridge Builders
Upon identifying the key players, the only proven way to work in this area of the Middle East is through trust and established relationships. Finding a widely trusted person who knows the key personalities and their particularities in the conflict is absolutely critical. Once identified, finding and accessing the few top leaders who possess real, tangible authority is difficult. Access to these senior figures typically can be granted only if:
Risk-Taking, Flexibility, and Realistic Expectations
Expectations must be tempered by reality. Reduction in violence is never instant and must be done in the Middle Eastern way, which may seem circuitous and ineffectual to most. Middle Eastern culture seriously moderates deliverables by measuring them in incremental gains revolving around relationships built over numerous cups of tea and discussions of family history. In this landscape, nothing is accomplished by emails or telephone. These meetings must happen face to face, must be regular, and must keep the hot issues on the table to ensure implementation of agreements. Personal demands for attention, giving of regular gifts, and respect during this process often seem unreasonable and irrational to a Western mind. Yet for real long term solutions and change involving religious leaders this is all very necessary. A significant amount of trust must be gained before serious negotiation on hard line issues can commence this can take years. Therefore once secured, support must be ongoing or else the majority of hard won gains will be lost.
Once relationships are secured and a process starts moving, a role for religion must be made in partnership with the government involved in the conflict. So many of the problems are based on the Theory of Loss. This can be loss of position/prestige, loss of land, loss of money. It all must be taken into consideration and incorporated into the process of finding a solution. This is not easy because many in opposition to the government view the ruling authority with a high level of suspicion. Once again, building relationships is the key. A special government liaison person must communicate the opinions of the council, or a special body within government must be fitted to work with the recommendations of the process. This is often easier said than done. In Iraq, the Ministry of Dialogue and Reconciliation initiated under Akram al Hakim is woefully understaffed and under-funded with very little local or political support. Creating an independent religious high council or working body is a positive way of maintaining relationships and keeping the issues on the table while restoring some of the loss of prestige and position. As we discussed earlier, part of the initial challenge was the lack of understanding of the role of religion. The concept of working long term is especially important here. A role for religion must be created and a mechanism for feedback from the religious leaders must be integrated into the solution.
Consistent Long Term Support