by Luke Wilcox | February 25, 2009 • Iraq can seem far from Minnesota, both geographically and culturally. While nearly six years of military operations in Iraq have brought images of war and its consequences into American homes, the culture and people of Iraq have rarely followed. Many Americans support peace with Iraq, but know little about Iraqis and wonder how much impact one person can realistically have in a violent world. For a group of Minnesotans and Iraqis, the answer is, “more than you think.” For the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP) and the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), interpersonal and local community connections – rather than strategic agreements between national governments – are exactly what is needed to sustain an enduring process of reconciliation and peacebuilding.
Based in Minneapolis and Najaf, Iraq, IARP and MPT work as partners to build stronger connections between Iraqis and Americans through education, art, and humanitarian aid. Their programs include exchanging handwritten letters between Iraqi and Minnesotan students, showcasing Iraqi art in Minnesota, and finding Minnesotan communities, businesses, and other groups to sponsor water filtration systems for Iraqi schools with no access to safe drinking water. In January, IARP and MPT installed filtration systems at three schools in Najaf, with more schools planned for February and March.
Besides providing clean drinking water for students, the partnership between MPT and IARP is a concrete example of Iraqi and American citizens promoting “reconciliation.” More than resolution of a dispute, reconciliation within the framework of conflict transformation seeks to repair broken relationships and establish “right relationships” of justice, peace and equality. As John Paul Lederach notes, reconciliation “is built on and oriented toward the relational aspects of a conflict… and create(s) an encounter where people can focus on their relationship.” As the U.S. military slowly draws down its presence in Iraq over the coming months and years, it will be important for Americans and Iraqis to engage in sustained, deliberate and creative efforts to promote reconciliation.
Despite significant (yet fragile) progress in the security and political situation in Iraq, the wounds of war remain in both Iraq and the U.S. Consider the following numbers:
• 151,000 violent Iraqi deaths from March, 2003 through June, 2006.
• 2 out of 3 Iraqi children without access to safe drinking water and 4 million Iraqis considered food insecure and in need of food assistance (November, 2007). Only 17 percent of Iraq’s sewage treated before entering the country’s rivers and waterways (March 2008).
• 4.2 million Iraqis displaced from their homes – 1.8 million refugees outside of Iraq and 2.4 million inside Iraq. Four out of 5 Iraqi refugees report having witnessed a shooting and 3 out of 4 report having had someone close to them killed or murdered (March, 2008).
• More than 4,100 U.S. military casualties in Iraq (February, 2009). About 20 percent of Iraq war veterans report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression (October, 2008).
• Approximately $650 billion spent on Iraq war operations by the U.S. (July 2008).
The last six years have bound the histories of Iraq and the U.S. together. If a real partnership between the two countries is to emerge from these six years, local and community connections that promote reconciliation and build grassroots support for peaceful and just foreign policies will be critical.
Such connections will be important, in part, because we live in a globalized and interconnected world. While nation-states (like Iraq and the U.S.) remain the most visible actors on the world stage, the effects of globalization have increased the importance of international corporations, international organizations, and direct, “people to people” dialogue and interaction. Increasingly, the world is tied together through the environment, the global economy, global security, and global communication. With a focus on human rather than national security, many international NGOs and individual actors recognize that, in the 21st century, the future well-being of all people is increasingly interconnected.
While some argue that international peace and reconciliation are unrealistic or even irresponsible goals for nation-states to pursue in a chaotic and dangerous world, too often this argument misperceives reconciliation as an all-or-nothing, ideal end state. Instead, reconciliation is an imperfect, practical process with concrete and achievable steps that can support national (as well as global) interests and security. For example, a process of reconciliation could help alleviate the current, widespread anti-Americanism among Arab populations. Anti-Americanism harms U.S. interests in the Middle East in several ways: government allies in the region find it harder to cooperate with the U.S.; greater instability follows a greater disconnect between repressive, pro-American governments and anti-American populations; anti-American movements find it easier to recruit new followers; and the U.S. has less “soft power” (everything “American” – values, culture, and policy – is less attractive). By taking steps to address grievances and change policies that are perceived as unjust, anti-Americanism can be reduced and foreign policy goals made easier to realize. President Obama took one such step on January 26 when he gave a television interview to the Arabic news station al-Arabiya. In the interview, he asserted his commitment to listen to the Arab world and the Muslim world and his readiness “to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest.”
Of course, words must be followed by actions in order to demonstrate sincerity. One initial action that Americans can take is to acknowledge the truth, a common first step in processes of reconciliation. The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, for example, begins with an acknowledgment that the U.S. invasion of Iraq caused widespread suffering among Iraqis (and among all those affected by the war, including U.S. military personnel and their families). Because this truth – or any “truth” – about history depends on one’s perspective in history, it is important to listen to multiple perspectives (in this case, to Iraqis and to others around the world), and especially to victims. Then, after listening and acknowledging, it is important to apologize for past wrongdoing and admit guilt or responsibility. The corresponding step of forgiveness occurs in some processes of reconciliation but not all, and cannot be imposed.
Acknowledging truth and accepting responsibility usually must be followed by concrete action to redress past wrongs. Such action usually takes the form of retributive justice (perpetrators held accountable and punished), restorative justice (perpetrators, victims, and their communities undergo a process to repair and rebuild their relationships), or distributive justice (goods in a society are redistributed in a more just manner), or a combination of these three. Restorative and distributive justice generally entail some form of reparations, or compensation offered to victims. Besides economic reparations, social and political reparations (e.g., greater political rights) are possible. While not exactly reparations, the water filtration systems installed by IARP and MPT offer aid to victims of the conflict in Iraq with the goal of transforming relationships between Americans and Iraqis.
In order for a process of reconciliation to endure, it is important to build trust and create assurances that past grievances will not reoccur. At the interpersonal level, cultural exchanges can develop shared values and increase mutual understanding and respect, thereby decreasing support for future use of force or violence that could harm the other. For example, IARP’s Iraq Art Project brings art from Iraq to local Minnesota communities with the aim of building “on the transformative power of art (to) personalize relationships with Iraqis.” Local galleries, coffee-shops and businesses host art shows of paintings by Iraqi artists and expose Minnesotans to the people and land of Iraq. IARP then sells the paintings, giving part of the proceeds to the artists and part to MPT to support its reconciliation efforts in Iraq. Similarly, IARP’s Letters for Peace program facilitates exchanges of letters between Iraqi and American students in order to create personal relationships and plant seeds of understanding and respect.
Such programs offer creative ways to decrease the distance between Americans and Iraqis at a critical juncture in the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq (and between the U.S. and the world). Nearly six years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Americans and Iraqis have been bound together by war. Now is the time to turn those ties into a more peaceful, shared future. As organizations like IARP and MPT recognize, this can only happen in local communities – one personal connection at a time.
Luke Wilcox recently graduated from Boston University with a Masters degree in International Relations and now works at the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at St. Thomas University.