I recently attended a conference hosted by BIMA (Belief in Mediation and Arbitration) at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. The venue itself is a powerful symbol: a twelfth century church in the city of London significantly destroyed by an IRA bomb in the early nineties, it now exists to host events themed around peace and ideologue between different groups.
The focus of the conference was ‘bridging extreme differences’ and featured some awesome panellists at least one of whom journeyed from the posture of an actively committed jihadist to a wider place of engagement and a commitment to pursuing understanding across religious and ideological divides. All of the panellists carried first-hand experiences of life amid political and religious extremists bogged down in mutually reinforcing demonization of one another. Needless to say, with apparent intractable conflict raging in Egypt and elsewhere and polarised conversations about same-sex marriage and (in the Church of England) female bishops filling the news, the conference was particularly resonant.
It is difficult enough bridging differences with a neighbour over building work on their property never mind some of the issues mentioned above. I left the conference in a ponderous mood yet somehow inspired. After all, ‘what exists is possible.’ We can take experiences of bridge building in South Africa, Northern Ireland and other places (however much a work in progress some of these situations remain) as hopeful signs. Some of the common factors around successful bridge building in extreme conflict situations have been:
1. Trust building: the process of trust building takes time. In South Africa conversations between the ANC and the white minority government had been going on for many years. Thabo Mbeke led the ANC delegation meeting secretly with the South African government from 1985. It was touching to hear Henry Brown, a barrister from South Africa, relay a story from this period. The head of the security services for the South African government, who took part in these early talks, was asked by his superiors whether Mbeke could be trusted. He commented, ‘I would trust him with my life.’ It took a long time to get to this place. But it bore fruit in the end when transition to a majority led government happened without the horrible bloodshed many had anticipated.
2. Patience: this quality enables people to stick with long processes of trust building, cycles of rehashing old ground and the ‘two steps forward, several steps backward’ that may happen at stages in the process. Senator Mitchell commented on the challenge he faced chairing the talks leading to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and participants returned over and over again to their sense of being wronged over the long history of the troubles and their outrage at one another. It took enormous patience to stay with that energy while it expended itself and much wisdom in gradually redirecting the focus so that progress can be made. Today Northern Ireland is a very different place than it was at the end of the last century, however much work remains to be accomplished.
3. A will to engage in positive ways and resolve the conflict: Participants themselves must ultimately take responsibility for the conflict and find ways of processing the memories of hurt and overcome these with gestures of toward peace and reconciliation. In the wake of the recent grisly murder of a serving member of the armed services in North Woolwich, the right wing EDL (English Defence League) organised marches on mosques (which clearly framed the issue in terms of religion rather than political extremism). These were potentially violent and volatile situations for all involved. At one mosque in Harrow, the young Imam, Ajmal Masroor, told the congregation not to react. Instead they adopted the risky strategy of opening up the mosque to visitors. Ajmal went out and met the leader of the mob gathering outside and invited him into the mosque to talk. He said ‘I will bring you in, protect and hug you, feed you and we can talk.’ The EDL leader said, ‘Give me five minutes’, left and did not return. The gesture was not wasted even if the invitation was not taken up. (At another mosque the congregation and leaders came out with tea and biscuits and a massive conversation opened up with protesters.) One is also reminded of the gestures offered by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi that eventually wore down the moral will of their opposition and created space for dialogue and change.
4. Finally, reframing conflict situations may also help to bridge extreme differences: In the story above there were those attempting to wrongly frame a conflict in terms of ‘Islam vs. Everyone else’ rather than in terms of ideological extremism. But even here a further step must be taken to reframe conflicts in terms of human well-being in order to heighten the possibilities for common ground to emerge. (Other issues do not go away but by enlarging the human space where people can be heard with some compassion, they may be engaged with more fruitfully.) Ajmal attempted such a reframing at the mosque in Harrow.
I do not intend to reduce the daunting prospect of bridging extreme differences to a formula .What I have written just a hint in the direction of tools and qualities required for such a task. All of us share responsibility for bridge building in our own situations regardless of whether we regard ourselves as the aggrieved or the perpetrator. The conflicts in our communities, workplaces or homes may not be extreme cases. But change is possible.
We were asked at the end of the conference to write down one thing that we would be willing to do to make a difference. The cumulative energy of that will to make a difference can be an awesome force. While I cannot take responsibility for what others may or may not do, Gandhi’s words resonate for me: ‘You must be the change you want to see in the world.’