A time for reconciliation

by Brian Cox and Daniel Philpott

Brian Cox is Vice President for Dispute Resolution Training of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. Daniel Philpott is assistant professor of government and international studies and faculty fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Even as our Special Forces ferret out Osama bin-Laden and his henchmen from the rugged terrain of Central Asia, it is not too early for the United States to take a mountaintop perspective of the vast political terrain in which the war is situated.

From this perch, we would see that although bin Laden, his al-Qaeda network and the Taliban are only Islam’s murderous extreme, hostility to the United States and the West is widespread among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. This long view would reveal that our security will require the success of our Special Forces to be sure, but also far more: a moral vision that would construct an isthmus between great religious civilizations.

Where might we find such a vision? It is indeed within the very Abrahamic religious traditions that now divide so much of the globe that we find a common, ancient, and now auspicious idea: reconciliation — the restoration of right relationship between divided people.

Arabic Islam calls participants in conflict to practice rituals of sulh (settlement) and musahala (reconciliation). In the Jewish Torah, the concept of tikkun olam, meaning “to heal, to repair or transform,” is ethically central. And in the Christian tradition, reconciliation is fully manifested in the life, teaching and atonement of Jesus of Nazareth.

Skeptics may doubt reconciliation: Is now not the time for lex talionis, the logic of retaliation? In fact, the reconciliation of faith traditions does not replace or deny, but instead enfolds, justice. In the absence of accountability for evil, relationships would not be authentically restored; reconciliation would be cheap and hollow.

In their common social ideal of shalom (salem, saalam), the Abrahamic faiths propose a peace that is not merely the absence of war, but the presence of justice, a justice that affirms the respect for life that was so outrageously and colossally violated on Sept. 11, and that defends the just use of force by proper authorities on behalf of self defense, punishment and the enforcement of justice.

But accountability is only a portion of reconciliation. Faiths whose God is not merely one of justice, but is even more so one of mercy, seeking always to restore the people of his covenant unto himself and calling them to a similar restoration among one another, demand that we address the sources of hostility between Islam and the West.

Muslim hostility is wide: It extends far beyond caves into 35 million living rooms, where Al Jazeera blares its thinly veiled sympathy with al-Qaeda’s cause, into natal units where Osama is rumored to be the second most common name of Muslims newborns, and into Muslim newspapers around the world, where hostility toward the West is almost rote.

And long: It arises from a long history of perceived injustices, extending from America’s mistaken bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, to America’s unqualified support for Israel, to U.S. participation in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadegh in 1953, even back to the crusades of the Middle Ages. And deep: The offended sensibilities are profoundly religious ones, those of a people who live in submission to Allah.

Muslims must also come to terms with their own injusticeswith a history of protection of Christian and Jewish minorities that has at times been shaky, with more recent persecution of Christians in Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and elsewhere, and, most of all, with the several Islamic states and organizations that have abetted, sponsored, and committed acts of terrorism.

Reconciliation’s vital labor is to begin attending to these historical wounds. It is from within the faiths themselves that the most dramatic progress is likely to occur. Under the auspices of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, we have developed friendships and conversed at length about reconciliation with Muslims in Kashmir, many of whom have fought and seen loved ones die in their long war against the government of India. One young Muslim man, whose brother had been killed and whose own face was scarred by a bullet wound, responded to the call to reconciliation by forgiving his killer, whom he had vowed to kill in revenge.

Such changes of heart may seem scattered and feint against the collective ire of civilizations. But a remark by Elie Wiesel explains their importance: “That which is forgotten cannot be healed, and that which is not healed becomes the cause of greater evil.” Unsalved historical wounds are the culture in which the virus of terrorism thrives. Those who wish for security in the world after Sept. 11 must look beyond ordinary policy measures and even justice and rediscover the ancient idea of reconciliation.

January 11, 2002

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