Arab-Islamic Rituals of Conflict Resolution and Long- Term Peace ill the Middle East
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 (Reconciliation)

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 approaches.

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 neighbors.1
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 relations.
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 zero-sum game."2

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, 1996).