Volume 19 Number 5
Stranger in One's Own Land
01 October 2006

Often the strangers on the edge are the only people who can see the future as well as the past

A Southern Irish Catholic, I married a man from Northern Ireland whose family had been Protestant British settlers, and went to live there in the seventies. My husband's family business was blown up three times, once by loyalists and twice by republicans. In our immediate vicinity 30 people—Protestants, catholics, and British security forces—lost their lives. I began to think,
'There has to be a different way.' I studied conflict resolution and mediation and decided to teach as a way of learning more. It was such a new field that half of my first class on 'mediation' thought they were coming to a lesson on 'meditation'!

A tremendous tool as we go forth to do 'peacefare', as opposed to warfare, is the capacity not to simplify humans into enemy groups. A huge dilemma we have is that we like our wars to be simple. During the wars in the Balkans, as soon as it went beyond the Serbians as the bad guys, many of us didn't want to know. We like our enemies to be straightforward, and we don't like to recognise that our enemies are often as complex as we are. One of the big problems in working in peace processes is that leaders always believe their enemies are simpler, more united, and can deliver on compromises more easily than they can.

Many of us also like our beliefs to be simple. Essentially a fundamentalist is somebody who has narrowed down their belief to a particular perspective that explains the world in terms of enemies and us. This is true of most wars. In Northern Ireland, for instance, each side sees only one villain as being responsible for centuries of ills—the British if you are on one side and the Catholics or the IRA if you are on the other. There are similar tendencies in the way in which Islam is perceived, or the United States. All of us need to resist these simplifications, as they prevent us from attempting the conversations that need to happen.

Often in a conflict we need to look at the structural issues as well as the cultural issues. The structural issues are usually ones of inequity and exclusion, and of laws and constitutionality, and often have hard data that support them in terms of discrimination against minorities and so on. The cultural issues concern relationships and dialogue. There is often a clear pattern in terms of who will want to focus on which issue. In Israel, for example, the 20 per cent Arab-Israeli population are at the bottom of the social scale in terms of education, health and wealth. When I try to create dialogue between them and Israeli Jews, the Arabs will usually focus on the structures, and the Israelis will almost always focus on relationships and cultural factors.

Walking in others' shoes
There has been tension between the 'human rights field' and 'the conflict resolution field' in relation to the role of advocates. Once when I was going to Israel, to talk to the Security Council, one of my human rights colleagues said, 'Be sure to tell them how much we disapprove of what they're doing'. And I replied, 'No, my job is to be invited back again to take the conversation further'. It is the ability to hear from all groups, and to try and understand where they're coming from that is important. It can be difficult to step into the shoes of some, but it is only by being there that you can help them reach a wider perspective, which hopefully includes the other side.

The belief that we all want peace is not quite true. To think that peace suits everyone better than war is misguided. War is often what we call 'functional', particularly in the lives of young men.

Absence of war
When the war began to end in Northern Ireland I checked in with he 'squaddies' patrolling the streets at night. They were bored: 'We want to go to Kosovo where there's a real war. We want to fight—that's what we're trained for.' The paramilitaries were bored too. Some actually confessed to me that they had never felt more alive than when they were out on 'a night of action', that is killing 'the other'. Such people are troubled by the absence of war—and finding positive ways to deal with their need for excitement, or for meaning, is critical.

The need for leaders who can transcend the immediate needs of their own group is more important than ever. We eventually learned this lesson in Northern Ireland. The local councils (filled with hostile members from both sides) would be given European money only if they agreed to give to both communities. Each had to recognise the need of the other side, if they were to get funding for their own. This type of leadership is not easy. One may be seen to be colluding with 'the other' thus becoming a strainseir (Irish for stranger) in one's own land. Often, however, the strangers on the edge are the only people who can see the future as well as the past, the global as well as the local.

Mari Fitzduff is Professor and Director of the international MA programme in Coexistence and Conflict at Brandeis University, Boston, USA. This article is based on her Caux Lecture at the IofC centre in Switzerland.