The Arab world today is in an unstable transitional stage; a deep
chasm separates the political leaders from civil society wherever
it exists. Young Arabs (who comprise up to 75 percent of the
region>s population) are anxiously yearning for a better future,
but this looks increasingly dim. The Arabs are caught in an
identity crisis compounded by internal, regional and global
pressures and conflicts. Religion, the clan, the tribe, and the
family are the ultimate refuge.
Any peacemaking effort in the Middle East must frankly acknowledge
how much work remains to be done before a just and comprehensive
peace can prevail in the region. A peace which is perceived to be
punitive and blaming will not endure. The Arab-Israeli treaties, in
particular, are perceived by most Arabs as a sell-out of legitimate
Arab rights by an unenlightened leadership. Against this backdrop,
peace is perceived as a temporary, unauthentic and transitional
phenomenon that will be overtaken by historical changes. However,
this does not have to be the case.
Sulh (Settlement), Musalaha
The argument advanced here highlights an urgent need to understand
and internalize the deep cultural, historical, social and religious
factors underlying Arab understanding and reactions to processes of
conflict control and reduction. To do so, this essay advances the
idea that we ought to look at indigenous techniques and procedures
of conflict management such as the rituals of sulh
(settlement) and musalaha (reconciliation). The intent is
not to adopt the ritual as it is used today in some villages of
Lebanon and the Galilee or by the Bedouins in Jordan, but to take
its useful and constructive principles (particularly those
concerned with the related issues of justice and healing) and apply
them in intra- and inter-state peace efforts.
A related thesis advanced here is that, in order for peace to take
hold beyond a small elite in Israel and in the Arab countries,
policy makers and outside mediators have to prod Arabs, Israelis
and Palestinians to come to terms with their local histories and
grievances, which may be facilitated through indigenous rituals and
processes of reconciliation. The importance of perceptions and
misperceptions, as well as communal psychological "baggage," must
be taken into consideration too.
Mainstream public opinion in the Arab-Islamic world has accepted
that Israel is in the Middle East to stay, and most states and
individuals are willing to recognize Israel, provided that Israel
recognizes and compensates the Palestinians, and provided that
mediation between Arabs and Israelis is conducted on the basis of
values that all parties consider to be legitimate. For the US role
to be legitimized in Arab eyes, diplomats must adopt a more neutral
stance - one that guarantees the fundamental human needs and the
essential aspirations of all parties for self-determination,
security, and development.
Indigenous Rituals and Conflict Resolution
Recognition, appreciation and utilization of Arab-Islamic rituals
and/or cultural symbolism, accompanied by respect for the political
and historical claims of Arabs and Muslims, might contribute to the
empowerment of Arabs and Muslims to work for a just peace. An
initial step in this direction would be for the mediator to take on
the role of the impartial and trustworthy guarantor. This is the
role expected of the mediator in Arab-Islamic culture. Any sign of
bias that a mediator or "honest broker" demonstrates undermines
his/her credibility, especially when both parties feel they have
been victimized by crimes against humanity (i.e., Nazi genocide for
the Israelis, total or partial dispossession for the Palestinians,
Syrians, and Lebanese).
Secondly, indigenous values and practices could be used to open up
the peace process, admitting fresh perspectives, in light of which
governmental efforts could be evaluated, while also legitimizing
the direct participation of various social and religious groups in
dialogue. Adaptation of traditional approaches to contemporary
situations might also bridge the secular-religious gaps that exist
in Arab as well as Israeli cultures.
Thirdly, the utilization of traditional symbolic vocabularies might
assuage the most extreme fears of identity groups in conflict
(fears of annihilation and national extinction are shared by all of
Lebanon>s confessional sects, as well as by Palestinians and
Israelis), because of the mutual recognition and acknowledgment
implied by interaction premised on traditional peacemaking
False Western Panacea?
Over the past ten years, many Middle Eastern scholars and
practitioners trained in the United States have returned to their
countries of origin ready to impart what they have learned about
Western conflict resolution techniques. In Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt
and other countries of the Middle East, the teaching and practice
of conflict resolution is still a novel phenomenon. Conflict
resolution is viewed by many as a false Western panacea, a program
imposed from the outside and thus insensitive to indigenous
problems, needs and political processes. Indeed, some people in the
Middle East consider conflict resolution merely a scheme concocted
by the United States to facilitate and hasten the processes of
peace and normalization between Israel and its Arab
In assessing the applicability of Western-based conflict resolution
models in non-Western societies, theoreticians and practitioners
alike have begun to realize the importance of being sensitive to
indigenous attitudes, feelings, histories, and local rituals for
managing and reducing conflicts. Diplomacy does not take place
within a vacuum. In addition to empowering non-state actors (civil
society) to achieve a more participatory peace process, the
cultural values and traditions of Arab-Islamic societies might be
incorporated into state-to-state and intra-state diplomatic
efforts. This would help to facilitate a legitimate peace through a
process that respects cultural realities and previously
disempowered non-state actors.
Adapting Rituals to Arbitration
The rituals of sulh and musalaha are examples of
Arab-Islamic culture and values, and should be plumbed for insights
into how to approach conflict control and reduction in the Middle
East. The focus here is not to transfer the unreconstituted ritual
from the village to the national level, but to adopt useful and
constructive principles from it (i.e., the emphasis on
psychological dimensions and its transformational qualities) and
apply them in non-village contexts.
The Middle Eastern rituals of sulh and musalaha are
alternative and indigenous forms of conflict control and reduction.
In a sense, sulh and musalaha can be considered as
forms of arbitration supported by rituals. They comprise a
mediation-arbitration process for communally based societies. The
sulh ritual, which is an institutionalized form of conflict
management and control, has its origins in tribal and village
contexts. It is used today in the rural areas of Lebanon (the Bekaa
Valley, the Hermel area in eastern Lebanon and the Akkar region of
north Lebanon). In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the ritual of
sulh is officially recognized by the Jordanian government as
an acceptable tradition of the Bedouin tribes. In Israel, the
ritual is still in use among the Palestinian citizens of Israel
living in the villages of the Galilee.
Given the severity of life conditions in the semi-arid zones of the
Middle East, competing tribes long ago realized that sulh is
a better alternative to endless cycles of violence and vengeance.
In the event of a conflict, each of the tribes then initiates a
process of stocktaking of its losses in human and material terms.
The tribe with minimum losses compensates the tribe that suffered
most, and so on. Oral tradition notes that stringent conditions are
set to settle the tribal conflict definitively. The most famous of
these conditions is that the parties in conflict pledge to forget
everything that happened and initiate new and friendly
Here is a brief sketch of how the ritual of settlement and
reconciliation is used in the Middle East. Following a murder, the
family of the murderer, in order to thwart any attempt at blood
revenge, calls on a delegation of mediators comprised of village
elders and notables, usually called muslihs or jaha (those who have
gained the esteem of the community). The mediators initiate a
process of fact-finding and questioning of the parties involved in
the murder. As soon as the family of the guilty party calls for the
mediators' intervention, a hudna (truce) is declared. The task of
the muslihs or jaha is not to judge, punish or condemn the
offending party, "but rather, to preserve the good names of both
the families involved and to reaffirm the necessity of ongoing
relationships within the community. The sulh ritual is not a
Sulh Is between Groups
To many practitioners of sulh and musalaha, the
toughest cases to settle are usually those involving blood feuds.
Sometimes, a blood price is paid to the family of the victim that
usually involves an amount of money, diya, set by the mediators.
The diya (blood money) or an exchange of goods (sometimes the
exchange includes animals, food, etc.) substitutes for the exchange
of death. The ritual process of sulh usually ends in a
public ceremony of musalaha performed in the village square.
The families of both the victim and the guilty party line up on
both sides of the road and exchange greetings and accept apologies,
especially the aggrieved party. The ceremony includes four major
stages: 1) the act of reconciliation itself; 2) the two parties
shake hands under the supervision of the muslihs or jaha; 3) the
family of the murderer visits the home of the victim to drink a cup
of bitter coffee; and 4) the ritual concludes with a meal hosted by
the family of the offender. The specific form of the rituals varies
from Israel/Palestine to Lebanon and Jordan, but the basic
philosophy is based on sulh, musalaha, musafaha
(hand-shaking), and mumalaha ("partaking of salt and bread," i.e.,
breaking bread together).
While sulh resembles contemporary Western approaches to
mediation and arbitration, a key difference is the relationship of
the process to enduring communal relationships. Sulh does
not merely take place between individuals, but between groups.
While Western theorists are just beginning to experiment with the
re-introduction of non-legalistic community-based approaches to
settlement and reconciliation, Arab-Islamic culture has never
jettisoned such approaches, which provide a means of negotiating,
and achieving a practical transformation of relationships among
large numbers of people.
The United States as Reconciler
The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of competing claims to justice,
marked by competing needs, fears, and insecurities. Many Arab
Muslims and Christians feel that their claims have not been heard,
or have even been ignored. A recurring question in the Arab body
politic today is: "Who will guarantee the implementation of peace?"
This is a key question to answer in light of the fact that, for the
last twenty years, only one superpower, the United States of
America, has taken upon itself the role of "honest broker" and
"mediator." Unfortunately, the overall perception of public opinion
in the Arab Middle East is that the United States is not an
unbiased and fair broker in the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While Arabs appreciate the ideal of an unbiased, even-handed
mediator, their conception of the preferred third party emphasizes
the role of the principled guarantor who ensures a settlement based
on values of equity and just compensation.
The United States has an opportunity to reframe its role in the
Middle East. Rather than merely viewing itself as a force for
stability, the US could conceive of its role as active facilitation
- helping to empower other countries to evolve culturally relevant
models of reconciliation, democracy and development. This would
help to ameliorate perceived tensions between modernity and
tradition, as well as between secularism and religion.
The US should incorporate confidence-building between societies
into any agreement between Arabs and Israelis. Official
negotiations should facilitate the larger process of reconciliation
between peoples. It is therefore incumbent upon external sponsors
of peace in the Middle East to encourage the articulation of the
values, principles and acts of mutual recognition upon which a
future peace could be predicated.
In order to attain this status of muslih (reconciler), US
diplomats, headed by the Secretary of State, could encourage a
"walk through history" between Palestinians and Israelis. One
concrete example would be to encourage Israeli political leaders
(headed by current Prime Minister Ehud Barak) to visit sites of
Arab villages destroyed in 1948 and apologize for what was done to
the Palestinians. From an Arab-Palestinian perspective, a concrete
acknowledgment of the fundamental and searing role the Nazi
Holocaust plays in Jewish political psychology and memory ought to
be undertaken. A fundamental step would be for Palestinian
intellectuals and political leaders to visit Yad Vashem in
Jerusalem or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A
final concrete suggestion would be for the United States to
implement a process of "policing the past" that would include a
joint re-writing of Israeli-Palestinian history books.
The history of Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Palestinian agreements
is not encouraging as far as the transformative power of
reconciliation is concerned. Peace in these circumstances resulted
largely from military persuasion and economic enticements. At the
Arab grass-roots level, peace is perceived as an "alien deal"
imposed on the region, because of a superpower>s need to pacify
a part of the world whose culture and values are unfathomable
except through an orientalist perspective.
As long as Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians,
and other Arabs perceive that the "peace process" is being imposed
on the Middle East without addressing age-old grievances, the
harder the reconciliation with Israel will be. Traditional
practices offer a model to follow and adapt.
1. See Muhammad Abu-Nimer, "Conflict Resolution in an Islamic
Context: Some Conceptual Questions," Peace and Change, Vol. 21, No.
1 (January 1996), pp. 22-40. Abu-Nimer expresses the assumption of
many that the teaching of conflict resolution in the Middle East is
for "containing" the spread of "Islamic fundamentalism."
2. For further details on the rituals of sulh and musalaha see
Laurie E. King-Irani, "Rituals of Forgiveness and Processes of
Empowerment in Lebanon," in I. William Zartman, editor, Traditional
Cures for Modern Conflicts: African Conflict (Boulder, Colorado:
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000); see also George E. Irani and
Nathan C. Funk, "Rituals of Reconciliation: Arab-Islamic
Perspectives," Arab Studies Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 4, Fall
1998. Most of this author>s work on forgiveness and
reconciliation was initiated in Lebanon during a conference in 1994
on the topic funded by the US Institute of Peace. For further
details, see George E. Irani and Laurie E. King-Irani,
Acknowledgment, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: Lessons from
Lebanon (Beirut, Lebanon: Lebanese American University Press,