Although academic courses in reconciliation studies have been gaining ground at universities around the world in recent years, “they are still relatively absent from the academic curricula of universities in the Middle East and North Africa,” according to Martin Leiner, a professor of theology at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.
Leiner is director of the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies, which last month inaugurated the Academic Alliance for Reconciliation in the Middle East and North Africa. The project—funded by a grant from the European Union’s Erasmus+ program—aims to enable joint multidisciplinary research and teaching in the field of reconciliation studies, with a focus on institutions in the Arab region.
The Arab American University of Palestine, in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, is the first higher-education institution in the region to join the project.
Reconciliation studies is a relatively new field, which began in the 1990s around the time of the transition of South Africa from an apartheid state into a democracy. At that time South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bear witness to and record human-rights violations committed during the apartheid period, and to initiate a process of social healing. A similar process, thought to have been mostly successful and the first of its kind of the Arab region, took place in Morocco in 2004–5. (See a related article, “New Book Outlines Power-Sharing Plans for Post-War Syria.”)
Leiner describes reconciliation as “the creation of normal and if possible good relationships after incidents such as wars, civil wars, genocides and other grave human-rights violations.” Reconciliation studies, he says, is a multidisciplinary subject that combines the perspectives of political science, diplomacy, theology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, journalism, government, nongovernmental organizations and education to create practical ways to achieve this goal.
There is a need to apply these ideas to the Arab region, where a number of civil conflicts continue to rage, Leiner says. In Alternative Approaches in Conflict Resolution, a book Leiner jointly edited with Christine Schliesser, he and Schliesser write:
“With traditional military interventions leading to the transformation of entire regions into zones of ongoing instability and violence (e.g., Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan), the study of alternative and less violent approaches to conflict resolution is gaining momentum.”
Reconciliation studies teaches that while the ideas of reconciliation, justice and peace are universal, the strategies needed to put them into practice must be uniquely designed to meet local conditions. This is the rationale for reconciliation studies as a course offering at universities in the Arab region: It can train students in employable skills they can use to make a valuable difference in their own societies, whether those societies are emerging from conflict or still involved in it.
Ayad Dajani, a doctoral candidate at Friedrich Schiller University who is coordinator of the Academic Alliance for Reconciliation in the Middle East and Northern Africa, said that an effective reconciliation process works from the bottom up—that is, from the grassroots of society. Reconciliation involves building trust between people, and this cannot be imposed from above, by a government or some other authority.
“Reconciliation is not a political process,” Dajani said. “It’s something that happens between the people themselves.” True reconciliation is solid and enduring, he added. It “cannot be destroyed from outside. It involves recognition of and empathy with the other.”
Similarly, in the continuing war in Syria, the forces of the regime use musalaha to describe the terms under which opposition fighters are compelled to lay down their weapons when defeated militarily. Reconciliation agreements achieved this way “were regarded from the very beginning as part of a war strategy rather than a genuine desire to move toward power-sharing,” write Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady in an article titled “Syria’s Reconciliation Agreements.”
“The term ‘reconciliation’ is often misused,” Martin Leiner says. “We have to struggle against this kind of misunderstanding.”
Dalal Iriqat, vice president for international relations and an assistant professor at the Arab American University of Palestine, says she is proud that her university is a founding member of the Academic Alliance for Reconciliation in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The West Bank institution already has a master’s degree program in conflict resolution and development; membership in the alliance will enable the university to participate in joint research and module development with scholars at other member universities, Iriqat said.
“We have a lot of ideas, and a lot of things could be tackled,” she said. She describes her department as “a think tank where we provide policy makers with advice.” Their work focuses on reconciliation of conflicts within Palestinian society as well as the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
The university—Palestine’s first private university, established in 2000—offers practical experience to the field of reconciliation studies. “In our master’s degree program, 60 percent of our course material is based on case studies,” Iriqat said. “These come from conflicts that arise in fields such as business, sports or personal relationships: any issue that requires reconciliation, negotiation or mediation.”
While the program in conflict resolution is a master’s degree course, the department’s seminars and workshops are open to all. “We have had guest lecturers from Ireland, Cyprus and other areas with experience of conflict,” Iriqat said. “We open the floor for all to take part and learn.”