Find Mediators Near You:

Islamic Mediation Techniques for Middle East Conflicts

Many Middle Eastern scholars and practitioners trained in the United States have returned to their countries of origin ready to impart what they learned about Western conflict resolution techniques. In Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and other countries in the region, 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 outside and thus insensitive to indigenous problems, needs, and political processes.

Indeed, many people in the Middle East view conflict resolution as a scheme concocted by the United States meant primarily 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 ways of thinking and feeling, as well as to local rituals for managing and reducing conflicts.

Middle East peacemaking has been a rather superficial phenomenon in the sense that diplomatic agreements have not “trickled down” to the grassroots. Peace treaties based solely on economic and political enticements, coercion or purely strategic considerations cannot last if they are not accompanied by a sincere, profound exploration of the underlying, emotional legacies of fear, hatred, sorrow, and mistrust resulting from decades of warfare and unending cycles of victimization and vengeance. In order to bring peace to the Middle East, policymakers must foster and encourage a dialogue that take s into consideration indigenous rituals and processes of reconciliation.

The purpose of this essay is to explore and analyze non-Western modes and rituals of conflict reduction in Arab-Islamic societies. The necessity for such a study also stems from the dearth of available works relating conflict management and resolution processes to indigenous rituals of reconciliation. There is a need to fathom the deep cultural, social, and religious roots that underlie the way Arabs behave when it comes to conflict reduction and reconciliation.

Thus, this article discusses the socio-economic, cultural, and anthropological background in which conflicts erupt and are managed in the Middle East. Issues such as the importance of patrilineal families; the question of ethnicity; the relevance of identity; the nature of tribal and clan solidarity; the key role of patron-client relationships; and the salience of norms concerning honor and shame need to be explored in their geographical and socio-cultural context.

Religious beliefs and traditions are also relevant to conflict control and reduction, including the relevant resources in Islamic law and tradition? Different causes and types of conflicts (family, community, and state conflicts) need to be considered, as do indigenous techniques and procedures, such as wasta (patronage-mediation) and tahkeem (arbitration). The rituals of sulh (settlement) and musalaha (reconciliation) are examples of Arab-Islamic culture and values and should be looked at for insight into how to approach conflict resolution in the Middle East. Finally, there is the need to consider the implications of these issues and insights for practitioners and policymakers. To what extent is an integration of Western and non-Western models of conflict reduction and reconciliation possible?
This paper looks first at Western and non-Western approaches to conflict “resolution” and points to important cultural differences in approaching conflict management, including the role of the individual in society; attitudes towards conflict; styles of communication; expectations of mediators, understandings concerning “victimization” and “forgiveness,” and the usefulness of governmental (and/or non-governmental) programs and institutions–such as truth commissions–for “national reconciliation.”
The second section considers the geographical, sociological, and cultural influences on the Arab Middle East. It highlights the importance of relation ships based on family, patriarchy and gender, kinship, and clientism, and points to the continuing underlying code of honor (and its counterpart, shame) in conflict and conflict management.

The third part considers the concept of ritual and its role in conflict “control and reduction” (as opposed to conflict “resolution”) and focuses on the rituals of sulh and musalaha as examples of indigenous Arab modes of settling disputes. The final section considers the implications for policymakers and practitioners and suggests an alternative approach to national reconciliation in Lebanon.


Although conflict is a human universal, the nature of conflicts and the met hods of resolving conflict differ from one socio-cultural context to another. For instance, in contemporary North American contexts, conflict is commonly perceived to occur between two or more individuals acting as individuals, i.e., as free agents pursuing their own interests in various domains of life. Conflict is often perceived as a symptom of the need for change. While conflict can lead to separation, hostility, civil strife, terrorism and war, it can also stimulate dialogue, fairer and more socially just solutions. It can lead to stronger relationships and peace. [2]

The basic assumption made by Western conflict resolution theorists is that conflict can and should be fully resolved.[3] This philosophy, whereby virtually every conflict can be managed or resolved, clashes with other cultural approaches to conflict.[4] Many conflicts, regardless of their nature, may be intractable, and can evolve through phases of escalation and confrontation a s well as phases of calm and a return to the status quo ante. This is why this essay adopts the idea of conflict control and reduction to depict the processes of settlement and reconciliation in the Arab-Islamic tradition.

The third basic assumption in U.S.-based conflict resolution is that conflict usually erupts because of different interpretations regarding data, issues, values, interests and relationships.[5] According to the prominent anthropologist Laura Nader:
“Conflict results from competition between at least two parties. A party may be a person, a family, a lineage, or a whole community; or it may be a class of ideas, a political organization, a tribe, or a religion. Conflict is occasioned by incompatible desires or aims and by its duration may be distinguished from strife or angry disputes arising from momentary aggravations.”[6]

Conflict in Western perspectives is also viewed as having a positive dimension, acting as a catharsis to redefine relationships between individuals, groups, and nations and makes it easier to find adequate settlements or possible resolutions. During the last ten years, more and more voices within the field of conflict resolution have been calling attention to the importance of acknowledgment and forgiveness in achieving lasting reconciliation among conflicting parties. Many of the world’s most intractable conflicts involve age-old cycles of oppression, victimization and revenge. These conflicts, which can have dangerous and long-lasting political repercussions, are rooted in a psychological dynamic of victimization. Racism and “ethnic clean sing” are only the most dramatic manifestations of such cycles of victimization and vengeance.

One of the guiding principles of U.S.-inspired conflict management and resolution is to help individuals or groups embroiled in conflict to acknowledge one another’s psychological concerns and needs so that they will be able to overcome their historic sense of victimization.[7] Victimization is a crucial concept to grasp when dealing with protracted conflicts, whether personal or political. Overcoming feelings of victimization, which, unfortunately, are endemic to the human condition, is the most important step towards healing. Usually, acts of violence (whether inflicted on an individual or a group), are the results of deep feelings of being victimized, regardless of who is the victim or victimizer.

In the case of nations and ethnic groups embroiled in conflict, acknowledgment of unhealed wounds from pain inflicted in the past facilitates the resolution of conflicts. From a Western psychological perspective, conflict usually erupts because some basic needs have not been fulfilled, such as needs for shelter, food, self-esteem, love, knowledge, and self-actualization.[8] The non-fulfillment of these needs, exacerbated by acute feelings of victimization, inevitably leads to conflict and may eventually lead to war. A first step in the process of healing, then, is the mutual acknowledgment by all parties of their emotions, viewpoints and needs. Thus, the first and most crucial skill which conflicting parties must develop is that of actively listening to each other.

Communication skills are fundamental to conflict resolution. In many cultures, the art of listening is drowned out by arguments and the never-ending struggle to get one’s point across first. The opposite of listening is not ignoring; rather, it is preparing to respond. Mediators are trained to listen carefully to all parties involved in a dispute. Active listening is a met hod that ensures that the whole meaning of what was said is understood.

Mediation is another skill used by Western practitioners in conflict resolution. The mediator confronts two basic tasks when involved in settling a dispute. First, he or she has to encourage people to negotiate in such a way that there is an equitable outcome. Second, the mediator has to be completely neutral and place the expertise and power of decision-making in the hands of the conflicting individuals or groups themselves. In addition to mediation in conflict resolution, negotiation is another important tool in Western conflict resolution processes. “Interest-based” negotiation focuses on people’s long-term interests, rather than on short-term perspectives, and does not encourage hard or soft types of bargaining (this is the case when one of the parties has to give in or compromise) which usually lead to unsatisfactory “positional” compromises.[9]

Following the collapse of various dictatorial regimes in Latin America and Central Europe (e.g., Chile, Argentina, Brazil, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland), truth and justice commissions were formed to “police the past”, i.e., to investigate the extent of human rights violations committed against civilians by the former military juntas and Communist parties in these countries. These efforts encouraged a healing process of atonement and remorse for past crimes which, in turn, helped citizens and governments alike to rebuild democratic institutions A similar process recently began in South Africa following the dismantling of the apartheid regime and the election of Nelson Mandela as President of the new Republic of South Africa.

Lebanon shares some of the problems affecting societies in transition, though the country has not fully regained control of its sovereignty. In April 1994, as a contribution to the ongoing efforts at intercommunal reconciliation in post-war Lebanon, the Lebanese American University assembled on its Byblos campus a group of government officials, NGO activists, students, and lawyers, for a three-day conference entitled “Acknowledgment, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: Alternative Approaches to Conflict Resolution in Post- War Lebanon.”[10] The conference focused primarily on the psychological and interpersonal aspects of the Lebanese War, especially the politics of identity and the vicious circle of victimization and vengeance that fueled the long conflict.

Conference participants were initially uncomfortable with and suspicious of the theory and techniques of Western conflict resolution. Mixed feelings were expressed about the applicability of conflict resolution in the Lebanese social context. A Christian banker who was educated in the United States noted that conflict resolution theory was initially forged in labor management relations in the United States and that later it was applied to business and then to community relations and academia. He raised an important methodological question: “How can a theory which is supposed to be dealing with definite, programmed, institutionalized relationships deal with the unprogrammed, informal, and random relationships characteristic of social and political contexts in a totally different society?”
A Muslim academic and social activist declared that a better concept would be “conflict management”, because “it is impossible completely to solve conflicts; the existence of conflicts goes together with human existence.” He raised the related point that conflicts were interrelated, the resolution of one conflict was contingent upon the resolution of other conflicts. “The crisis of Lebanon and the Middle East are the best proof of what I am saying,” he concluded. [11]

The conference also revealed interesting insights into Lebanese conversational culture. The National Director of the Young Women’s Christian Association-Lebanon (YWCA) commented that in Lebanon, when individuals are engaged in “heart-to-heart” conversations, they often interrupt with expressions of empathy and support. “It is not like interrupting rudely. The process of the discussion shows our concern because we are a very emotional people. That is the problem: we usually talk all together. We are active talkers and active listeners!”

A further area of difficulty came to light when participants discussed the necessity, in active listening, of remaining silent when the other person is talking, especially in cases of intense argumentation. In Lebanon, remaining silent is sometimes interpreted as meek acquiescence or agreement. A government representative from the Ministry of Education stated that “in the rural areas of Lebanon, if you do not talk, it means you are dull; the more you talk, the more it is assumed you know. People want to show that they know, especially those who go to town and come back to the village. They always talk.”
The key role of third parties or mediators in disputes was also addressed. In Lebanese culture, as in Arab culture in general, the mediator is perceived as someone having all the answers and solutions. He therefore has a great deal of power and responsibility. As one participant put it: “If [the third party] does not provide the answers, he or she is not really respected or considered to be legitimate.”[12] Finally, a number of conference participants expressed their expectations that conference organizers and facilitators would provide ready-made solutions to Lebanon’s woes. This expectation was not unusual in the context of Lebanese culture and politics.

For several centuries, politics in Lebanon have been repeatedly penetrated by outside powers, either to foment strife or to impose solutions. The phenomenon of relying on outsiders for answers and solutions reveal some of the fundamental blind spots in Lebanese political thought: a lack of responsibility for one’s actions and behaviors. At a more practical level, many Lebanese have opted to forget about the war and get on with their lives, even if the wounds and consequences of the war are still very much alive in the collective and individual Lebanese psyches.

Denial seems to be the defense mechanism of choice for many traumatized Lebanese in the wake of the long and damaging war. This behavior is not unique to the Lebanese situation.
Victimization is a crucial concept to grasp when dealing with protracted conflicts, whether personal or political. Overcoming feelings of victimization (which, unfortunately, may be said to be endemic to the human condition), is the most important step towards healing.

Participants reacted to this new approach by exploring the sources of Lebanon’s conflict through the psychological scars of victimization. A Lebanese woman educator, while acknowledging the value of this approach,pointed out that these conflict resolution tools in the Lebanese context are hindered by the paradox that Lebanon is a “very individualistic society, but unfortunately, we do not have individuals.” She went on to explain that “in order to have conflict management or conflict resolution, you have to recognize t he other. But, you do not have the other if you do not have the individual. That is why there is no reconciliation, forgiveness, and conflict resolution [in Lebanon]. The existence of the individual is essential in this process.”

This trenchant observation neatly summarizes the state of society in post-war Lebanon. Rather than a cohesive group of individuals bound together by a n agreed-upon set of rights and obligations, (i.e., citizens), the Lebanese instead comprise an agglomeration of competing communities, each of which requires absolute allegiance and obedience from its members. Every one of these communities feels that the others have victimized it, so the process o f acknowledgment, forgiveness, and reconciliation has to begin at the community level, rather than at the individual level.

These new and challenging concepts of conflict resolution–acknowledgment, victimization, communication skills, interest-based negotiation–elicited many reactions from conference participants. The most poignant reaction came from a Lebanese woman whose husband was “disappeared” during the war and who founded the Committee of Families of Kidnapped People.[13] Commenting on victimization and how to overcome it in negotiations, she used two examples to emphasize her point:
“The first example concerns the Israeli occupation of my country. If my country began negotiations with Israel, it means that there is an intention to solve the conflict. But I do not understand why Israel is insisting on keeping me a victim because after each negotiation session, there are more dead people in the villages of South Lebanon. I cannot understand how I will emerge from a sense of victimization if I am negotiating and paying in victims every day. It is no longer a matter of common interests, but of recognition of rights. Someone is refusing to recognize these rights to the party we are calling the victim.”

The second example she gave was personal and related to the issue of the 17,000 kidnapped Lebanese whose fates are still unknown. “The kidnapped person is a victim and so are his family members. These people have to stop being victims and maybe they even have to fight not to be victimized. But when the obstacles are still there and the kidnapper does not acknowledge any of my rights, what will my position be as a victim? How can we reach a solution if I have a right and he has an interest?”

Finally, many Lebanese participants at the conference raised the issue of government accountability for crimes committed during the Lebanese War. In t he case of Lebanon, the state’s apparatus was noticeably absent during the long civil war. Thus, the central government and its institutions bear little, if any, direct responsibility for the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1990. Instituting war tribunals or truth and justice commissions in post-war Lebanon without some form of external, third-party intervention would undoubtedly be perceived as an affront by one community against another.[14]


Geography has an impact on the ways people interact and behave for the protection of their honor and their scarce resources. The Arab Middle East is distinguished geographically by a variety of landscapes. The Arabian Peninsula is characterized by a large desert and other arid landscapes, and a scarcity of water.

In the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan), environmental conditions are more clement. Jordan and some areas of Palestine are semi-arid and poor in water while Lebanon and Syria are blessed with milder climates and numerous springs and rivers. Lebanon, has a rugged mountainous terrain but also a fertile valley (the Bekaa Valley) and self-sufficiency in water.

Ecological realities in the Middle East have given rise to three key modes of subsistence: nomadic, village, and urban. Although communities of pastor al nomads, village farmers, and city-dwelling merchants and artisans were historically distinct from one another, they were nonetheless economically interdependent. Their lives and interests were always in actual or potential contact, and quite often in conflict. Although pastoral nomadism has become increasingly rare as a viable mode of subsistence, due to the advent of nation-states with closed borders and the rapid, dramatic urbanization and o f the region’s population, nomadic peoples and their traditions have nonetheless left a very deep imprint on Middle Eastern culture, society, and politics. One anthropologist hypothesizes that the characteristic form of pastoral nomadism that developed in this semi-arid zone accounts for the strikingly similar cultural orientations found throughout the vast area of the Middle East:

“In the Near East today we find a remarkable similarity among the traditions of many peoples throughout a large region….Islamization, the spread of a religious faith, is often offered as an explanation for this uniformity. But could Islam by itself have become so deeply-rooted among the diverse peoples of such a vast area, unless it was somehow a response to a life experience which all of these people shared in common?…Extreme arid conditions resulted in independent little herding groups dispersed across the desert and steppe….This situation is reflected in the atomistic form which political alliances tended to take.”[15]

Sociologically, the peoples of the Middle East remain famous for their loyal attachment to their families, distinctive rituals of hospitality and conflict mediation, and effective and flexible kin-based collectivities, such as the lineage and the tribe, which until quite recently performed most of t he social, economic, and political functions of communities in the absence of centralized state governments.[16]

Family in the Middle East is dominated by the powerful role patriarchy play s in decision-making.[17] The father’s authority in his family is an integral part of the more general authority system. Patriarchal authority maintains not only the genealogical cohesiveness of the family but also the cohesiveness of social life. This patriarchal pattern of power is made concrete and takes shape in the primacy of the zaim (leader) of the family. The zaim controls and defends the cohesiveness of the family inside the group as well as in the relationships between the family and other families. The zaim acts as the family referee and sanctions conflicts that erupt within his family, while controlling the solidarity and support within and between family members. He acts as the family’s ambassador towards outsiders. Given that every village is made up of many families, each family is headed by a zaim. The heads of each family form the assembly of the village zuama’.[18]

A related element in understanding social and political behavior in the Middle East is kinship systems. Despite the creation of modern states following the collapse of colonial rule, the basic unit of identification for the individual is not the state, the ethnic group, or the professional association, but the family.

Several writers on the Arab Middle East have underlined the fact that the only nation-state in the contemporary Arab Middle East is Egypt.[19] Egypt has a homogeneous population that identifies itself first and foremost as Egyptian. The only sizeable “minority”, the Copts, who number around 6 million members, consider themselves as the descendants of the original population of Egypt from pharaonic times. Their allegiance is to Egypt as both government and country.

In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, it is a family–the House of Saud–that dominates the body politic. The same applies to the various sheikdoms of the Arabian Gulf. In other countries of the Levant, namely Syria and Iraq, families from minority communities rule their respective societies.[20] Since Lebanon obtained independence in 1943, it has been ruled by a few prominent families–both Christian and Muslim–such as the Maronite Catholic Gemayel and Chamoun families, the Sunni Es-Solh and Salam families, and the Druze Jumblatt family.

As a strategy for survival, the patrilineal kinship system of the Middle East has certainly proved flexible and effective over many centuries under a variety of social, economic, and political conditions. The distinctive kinship systems and practices of the Middle East are part of the region’s civilizational heritage. Kinship is implicated in nearly every aspect of life and most social institutions, including religion and morality.

Michael Meeker, a prominent anthropologist, speculates that the cultural uniformity which we now find in the arid zone does not reflect the traditions of a people bent on violence. “On the contrary, it reflects…a moral response to the threat of political turmoil. The process of Islamization itself can be viewed in part as a moral reaction to the problems that arose from t he circumstances of Near Eastern pastoral nomadism….All over the arid zone, popular traditions can be described in terms of three cultural themes: 1) agonistic rhetoric of political association, 2) humanistic religious values which center on conceptions of exemplary personal behavior, and 3) social norms of personal integrity and familial propriety which often take the form of concepts of honor.”[21]

Religion also plays a very important role in affecting the individual’s life in both private and public interactions. Birthplace of the three monotheistic faiths–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–the Middle East is a part of the world where religion plays a crucial symbiotic role in the individual’s and community’s life. The socio-cultural and historic environment that saw the birth and spread of these three religions encouraged a close relations hip between the private and public in the individual’s life in the Middle East.

In Judaism, the land (eretz), the people (ha’am), and the book (torah) cannot be separated. The same applies to Islam, which is a code of conduct, both temporal and spiritual. The Qur’an dictates the faithful’s relations with God and people of other faith living within the framework of the Islamic umma (nation). Christianity in the Arab world is also very similar to Judaism and Islam. For example, for some Christians in Lebanon religious values a re superseded by the fight for survival. Religion is used in an ethnic sense.[22]

Middle Eastern societies are defined by a variety of ethnic identities. Armenians, Kurds, Jews, Copts, Circassians, Maronites, these are but some of t he minorities that dwell in the contemporary Middle East. The existence of ethnic and ethno-religious groups pre-dates the rise of Islam and the creation of modern states in the Middle East. In the Qur’an, “Peoples of the Book” (Christians and Jews) are treated as “protected peoples,” dhimmis, which literally means those on the conscience (dhimma) of the Islamic community. In order to be protected, non-Muslims had to pay a tax, jizya.[23]

Under Ottoman rule, individuals living in the empire did not identify as Ottomans, Turks, Persians, or Arabs, but rather, as Muslims, Christians, Jews , and Druze. The Ottoman administration was controlled in its majority by Sunni Muslims and converts from other religions. In the Ottoman Empire, Islamic tolerance of Christians and Jews was defined by the millet (nations) system. Under the system local communities of a particular sect were autonomous in the conduct of their spiritual affairs and civil affairs relating closely to religion and community, such as church administration, marriage, inheritance, property, and education.[24]

Ethnic groups thus identified with their religious leaders more so than with any abstract notion of the state. The millet system estranged Arab Christians from political life and deepened suspicions between them and Muslims. Christians were treated as foreigners and suspected of being agents of foreign powers; their loyalty was often in doubt. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and in reaction to their plight, Middle Eastern Christians were at the forefront of the new movement for Arab nationalism, the secular movement in the Arab world, and some among them founded socialist parties, such as the Baath (renaissance) Party now in power in Syria and Iraq.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the pervasive impact of economic globalization have had a negative impact on individuals in the Middle East. Lacking strong and legitimate governments, they have turned to their nuclear and extended families for support and mutual assistance. In addition to reactivating kinship networks, religious and ethnic affiliations, and patronage relationships, Middle Easterners have also embraced the latest inventions of modern technology such as compact discs, satellite dishes, and the World Wide Web.

A perceptive observer of Arab society, Halim Barakat, writes that “the contemporary Arab economic order is a peculiar cluster of different modes of production, all operating at once, which renders it simultaneously semi-feudal, semi-socialist, and semi-capitalist.”[25] This schizophrenic nature of Middle Eastern society is also illustrated by the coexistence of religious fundamentalists and secular intellectuals, agrarian forms of production and subsi


George E. Irani

George E. Irani is Visiting Assistant Professor in Political Science at Washington College. Between 1993 and 1997, he was a faculty member in Political Science at the Lebanese American University (formerly Beirut University College, where he taught courses on conflict resolution, and was one of the founders of the Lebanese… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


The State of Gender Equity in ADR

JAMS ADR Blog by Chris PooleIn a recent opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, writer Stephanie Coontz assessed the state of gender equity in the legal profession....

By Carol Cope

Are Your Organization’s Conflict Management Practices an Integrated Conflict Management System?

In this article we will provide a checklist that will help you assess the gaps between your organization's conflict management practices and an Integrated Conflict Management System. As the trend...

By Jennifer Lynch

Mirror Neurons: Some Resources

From Stephanie West Allen's blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution . Mirror neurons with their role in perceiving intent and emotions are important to the processes of conflict resolution, so...

By Stephanie West Allen