Sunday, May 4, 2008

Reconciliation: One Word, Two Meanings

Reconciliation is the buzzword in Iraq these days. Almost everyone is trying to reconcile almost everyone to almost everyone. Government leaders, military generals, Sunni tribal shaykhs, and Shia insurgents are all involved.

Last year an Anglican bishop from Rwanda visited a church in California. He spoke about the reconciliation process taking place between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes there where a 1994 uprising resulted in the deaths of close to a million people. In order to be reconciled, a person had to first publicly acknowledge what he had done. He next had to express sincere sorrow for his actions to the family or families he had harmed. The final step was to find out from them if there was anything he could do to compensate for or repay the damage he had caused. Only after doing all this would an individual be considered reconciled.

This is a far cry from the meaning of reconciliation in Iraq. It's hard to even imagine someone there going through that process. The Arabic word for reconciliation "musalahah" is closely related to the word for self-interest "masalih". As far as I can tell, the meaning of reconciliation in Iraq is to protect one's self-interests while trying to reach an agreement with an enemy that will prevent his attacking you. In practical terms, this means that American military officers are telling Iraqi tribal shaykhs, "I'll give you lots of money and weapons if you stop killing my people and start killing my enemies." More than one soldier and journalist have reported on the strange feeling they have giving money and weapons to former enemies who have now become "friends".

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