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To Make Peace is to Forgive

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Photo courtesy of Daily Utah Chronicle

Mohammed Abu-Nimer is the Founder of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice and a professor of international peace and conflict resolution at the American University in Washington, D.C. The Salam Institute is a DC-based nonprofit organization for research, education, and practice on issues related to conflict resolution, nonviolence, human rights and development with a focus on bridging differencesbetween Muslim and non Muslim communities.

For this year’s International Day of Peace, September 21st, we hope you ask yourself “who will I make peace with next.” Perhaps, you will then wonder “how will I make peace next?” At that point, it may not take long before you run into the idea of forgiveness, a word that is vaguely defined in the popular lexicon and oft-overlooked by both practitioners and academia. At the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice, we have been busying ourselves with the fundamental questions of what forgiveness is and how to intentionally put it into the service of peacebuilding. Through our research, it is clear that forgiveness can be cultivated and is a critical element to making a true and lasting peace, whether it is on the personal, community, or national level.

Consider the question of how forgiveness is related to the events in the Arab world. Countries like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Tunisia have started a transitional period from dictatorship to a more open political system. Their citizens do not yet enjoy the kind of democratic system we see in other countries and the transition has undoubtedly been marred by untold injury, death, torture, trauma, and victimhood. Indeed, there will be no peaceful transition that leads to security and economic stability without addressing this pain and suffering, and the deep-rooted differences that from which they stem. For the Muslim Brotherhood clashing with the secular and military communities in Egypt, for example, a transitional period will require reconciling the different factions, political parties, and ideologies that exist. Not surprisingly, we find that forgiveness is essential to any such process of reconciliation.

Salam’s “Forgiveness Project” is an educational program that focuses on school environments in five Arab societies, namely Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and Iraq. Through surveys of over 550 teachers and interviews with over 90 teachers, our study aims to shed light on what forgiveness means in an Arab context; what cultural values, beliefs, resources, influence, and other factors influence the understanding of forgiveness and the willingness to forgive; and the role that educators play in teaching and promoting forgiveness in Arab culture. Building on the important notion that forgiveness is a learned behavior, the newest phase of the project uses the stories about forgiveness collected during the study to develop a research-based curriculum for teaching forgiveness, alongside emotions control, creative problem solving, and conflict resolution, in the classroom.

Our project is a promising entry point for making peace and reconciliation between rivals – those who have caused harm and their victims. We hope to provide teachers with the skills and concepts to build a capacity for forgiveness at a young age. Violence will only bring more violence. Hatred will only breed more hatred. It is crucial for our children to be socialized into the value and practice of forgiveness as early as possible. They will be the generation who will carry on the difficult task of creating true peace, growth, and stability out of the shambles of our current world, and this cannot be achieved through the barrel of a gun.

As an annual day of reflection on the cost of war to the human family, we hope this September 21 inspires all of us to consider the important role of forgiveness. Families, schools, NGOs, policymakers, and donors can all make their unique contribution to building a culture and skills of forgiveness in the furtherance of true and lasting peace. Just as Peace Day agreements by all parties to conflict in Afghanistan since 2007 resulted in the immunization of 4.5 million children against polio in areas hitherto unreachable or hard to reach due to conflict, let us see a commitment to fostering forgiveness.

For Peace Day 2013, the Salam Institute and its partners – International Relief and Development, Search for Common Ground, and Equal Access – in the USAID-funded Peace through Development II project, is synchronizing a variety of activities to coincide with and publicize the international day of peace.