Panelists Alma Jadallah and Amr Abdullah Explore Ties Between
Culture and Conflict at Al-Hewar Center Discussion

On January 27, Al-Hewar Center hosted a discussion with conflict resolution specialists Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah and Amr Abdullah, about "Conflict Resolution: the Culture Conflict Nexus." Ms. Jadallah provided a theoretical overview of cultural and conflict paradigms an their relationship. Mr. Abdallah provided examples and suggestions for resolution methods from his recent trips to Africa.

Alma Jadallah is the director of Cultural Connections, Inc., a privately-owned consulting company that offers training in conflict resolution skills and models. Her work focuses primarily on training, mediation, facilitation, problem assessment and process design, intervention, curricular development, and consulting on the role of culture in conflict analysis and cross-cultural communication. In the field of education, Ms. Jadallah helped develop and design a conflict resolution academic program at Bethlehem University in Palestine, in collaboration with the Institution for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Virginia. She has also initiated the first conflict resolution course-work for future military chaplains in the U.S. Army at the School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia. The following is her presentation:

By Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah

Let me share with you a model that was presented by the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. The first paradigm deals with rational choice where we look at the parties' interests and positions. The second is the cultural paradigm where we address the values and worldviews of the parties and finally, there is the biogenetic paradigm which addresses the basic need for existence – the need for security, love, food (modeled after the Maslow hierarchy of needs). Our presentation focuses on the cultural paradigm and even though it is not necessarily in isolation from the others, we continue to witness more and more attention given to this topic.
    First let me use the working definitions of conflict and culture. For the purpose of this presentation I will use the definition of conflict, as defined by Neil Katz, "…as a strong emotion resulting from a perceived difference in needs or values." For example, a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his international transcendental meditation movement are fighting a bitter battle with their neighbors in a European village over the St. Ludwig monastery, which is considered a historical national monument for the villagers. The battle arose because the guru plans to demolish the historic Franciscan monastery partly because it doesn't face due east. According to the Maharishi's architectural theories, building entrances should face east so they can gather their energy from the rising sun. The monastery is 29 degrees off. Bad architecture, according to one of the group's many glossy pamphlets, promotes anxiety, bad luck and even criminal tendencies.
    Second, even though we are aware that there are more than 150 definitions, culture can be defined "…as the deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving" (Samovar, p. 11). Or we can use Avruch and Black’s metaphor of culture as the perception-shaping lens or grammar for the production and structuring of meaningful action.
    For us to understand culture is to understand its characteristics: it is not innate, but learned; it is transmissible through symbols (language); it is dynamic for it is ongoing and subject to fluctuation; it is selective for it represents a limited choice of behavior from the infinite patterns of human experience and it is ethnocentric for it allows people to put their own culture and society in a central position of priority and worth. According to Samovar, ethnocentrism leads to a subjective evaluation of how another culture conducts its daily business (Samovar, p. 13).
    Having defined both terms, what is the relationship of culture and conflict? We learn through research that the culture conflict nexus needs to be considered when we try to understand conflict and its resolution. If we accept Avruch and Black's preposition that to understand the behavior of parties to a conflict is to understand the "grammar" they are using to render that behavior meaningful, then we need to educate ourselves about that grammar.
    A recent example comes from our own Arab American community about an Iraqi family who was deprived of their two daughters by the authorities in Detroit. The article in The Washington Post was titled: "Arab family feels cultural crunch as state removes children." The article states that the children were placed in foster care because the father is being accused of laying his hands on his daughters. The father believes that the episode was simply a misunderstanding and that it would be resolved in due time. We learn as we read more details about the incident that the conflict escalated when the parents were allowed to visit their daughters at the foster care agency and one of the teenage girls walked into the waiting room wearing a cross. The conflict escalated to include the Muslim community in Detroit and highlighted the cultural conflicts surrounding attitudes towards immigrant communities, interpretations of parent-child relationships in different cultural settings and issues surrounding freedom of religion. As a temporary solution to the conflict between the authorities and the community, the Imam of the local mosque will act as foster parent to the two girls. Regardless of the very minute details, one can argue that there is not only a conflict about what constitutes the private and public spheres for the Iraqi family, but it has escalated into a conflict over perceived cultural values, interpersonal relationships, debate about what constitutes acceptable behavior, and the role of outside intervention in a conflict –what we refer to in the field of conflict analysis and resolution as a third party role. In this particular case, the intervention by the state and the Imam is perceived differently by the diverse communities in which they serve. The author of the article writes: "the case is a political and legal tightrope that illustrates the tension inherent in America's experiment with balancing individual freedoms against standards of right or wrong in an increasingly diverse nation."
    Conflict resolution research encourages us to understand conflict behavior by attending to the indigenous understandings of "being" and "action" which people use in the production and interpretation of social action. Understanding what the conflict situation means to the people involved becomes crucial in how we approach the conflict. Therefore we can start by asking ourselves the following questions: what is the parties' understanding of the conflict; what are the contributing factors affecting their perceptions and shaping their assumptions about the situation; have they had the opportunity to check these assumptions and, if yes, was their interpretation impacted by their cultural understanding of what constitutes right from wrong? If the situation requires assistance from others who are not party to the conflict, how can we identify them and what is the criteria of their selection? As we mentioned in the example of the Iraqi family, were the police the appropriate intervenors or should it have been someone from the Arab community in which the parents have a high level of trust and confidence? Or should the state have requested assistance from someone familiar to the culture to act as cultural interpreter of the situation?
    These questions may serve as tools to help us navigate our way into our understanding of conflict and our design of models to help us assist those in conflict situations. It may not be an exaggeration to say that all conflicts need a cultural analysis of the parties and the context in which they take place. This should assist us in the design of a process that makes sense and helps create meaning for all those party to the conflict.
    What sorts of suggestions and solutions do we need to help us deal with issues surrounding culture and conflict?
    Benjamin Broom suggests that we aim to achieve what he calls "relational empathy." It is a relational approach that goes beyond individual psychology and focuses on the creation of shared meaning during the interpersonal encounter (Sandole, p. 98). He adds that because understanding involves processes by which the participants collectively determine the contextual values which structure their conversations, they must seek to understand (a) the context underlying the other's expressions and (b) the context in which the encounter itself is embedded. Broom elaborates by adding that a third culture is developed in which understanding does not necessarily mean disregarding oneself in order to stand in the place of the other, but rather working towards a shared meaning that is a product of the meeting between two cultures. It is a third culture that can only develop through interaction in which the participants are willing to open themselves up to new meanings, to engage in genuine dialogue, and to constantly respond to the new demands emanating from the situation.
    Mary Clark writes in an essay titled "Symptoms of Cultural Pathologies" about the work of John Dewey, who according to Clark, understood that for deep cultural change to occur, there needs to be a participatory society, where everyone is trained in the skills of becoming informed, organizing her or his thoughts, and dialoguing patiently and repeatedly with others. According to Clark, Dewey and others, this is the only way that meaningful, uncoerced change can occur.
    Let us acknowledge that we are only scratching the surface in relation to our understanding of the culture/conflict nexus, but also acknowledge that cultures – and the social institutions that emerge from them – are not metaphorically equivalent to a set of clothes, "to be put on and off" at will as Mary Clark warns us. For me personally, as I move forward in this area of research, I constantly remind myself both of my limitations and potential limitations concerning my ability to place myself in the assumptive world of another person, while maintaining faith in my potential to stop placing value judgments as I reach out an understanding of the dynamics at work (Sandole, p. 53).


* Avruch, Kevin et al. Conflict Resolution: Cross Cultural Perspectives. Connecticut, Greenwood Press. 1991.
* Corder, Mike. "Dutch Monastery Won’t Fall Without a Fight." New York Times.
* Jeter, Jon. "Arab Family Feels Cultural Crunch as State Removes Children." Washington Post. January 20, 1999: A3.
* Katz, N. and John Lawyer. Communication and Conflict Management. Hennebery Hill Publishing Company. 1983.
* Ojito, Mirta. "Danish Mother is Reunited with Baby." New York Times. May 15, 1997: A1.
* Sandole, Dennis and Hugo van der Merwe. Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice. Manchester. Manchester University Press. 1993.
* Samovar, Larry and Richard Porter, Intercultural Communication: A Reader. 7th Edition. U.S. International Thomason Publishing. 1994.
* Wilmont, William and Joyce Hocker. Interpersonal Conflict. 5th Edition. Boston. McGraw Hill. 1998.

by Amr Abdullah

Amr Abdullah is the Research and Evaluation Director at the Center for the Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University. He earned a law degree in Egypt where he practiced as a prosecuting attorney from 1978-87, when he emigrated to the United States. He earned his Masters degree in sociology in 1992 when he began his career as a social researcher. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in conflict resolution at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where he also teaches graduate classes. He has also conducted training and evaluation of conflict resolution programs in Egypt and Burundi, and has been an active figure in promoting healthy prevention and cross-cultural messages in the Arabic-speaking community in Washington, D.C. through TV and radio presentations and community education. His presentation was as follows:

Thank you, Alma, for providing a very good theoretical background to the issues of culture and how they relate to conflict and some very good examples. I thought I would share some of my recent experiences which I think will reflect greatly what Alma has been talking about.
    As Alma was speaking, I was making notes of some of the words and phrases, such as "meaningful action," "understanding the grammar" of other people, "relational empathy," "participatorial society" and as I heard those words, I thought about some experiences I had over the last few weeks when I went to Burundi, Africa, on a consulting job with an organization in Washington, D.C. Even though I am from Egypt, I thought of this as my first trip to Africa. This made me realize that even though Egypt is a part of Africa, Egyptians tend to think of themselves as Middle Easterners, rather than Africans, mainly, I think, due to cultural reasons.
    I found Burundi to be unbelievably beautiful. This was astonishing to me, because it wasn't like anything I had been hearing or seeing on TV whenever they talk about Africa. As I started my work, which was an evaluation of the work of some projects that are being run by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in Burundi and Rwanda, it was the month of Ramadan. I noticed that there were many Muslims in Burundi and Rwanda, and I was very curious about them. I asked them whether they were the majority, but they said that they were in fact a minority, accounting for up to 20% of the population in Rwanda, and an estimated 10% in Burundi. So I asked them where they were during the genocide between the Hutus and Tutsis – were they also Hutus and Tutsis? They replied that indeed they were Hutus and Tutsis, but because they are Muslims, they could no longer accept to fight each other, because their Islamic identity transcends all of their other identities. I asked them if they took sides during the war, and they said that they were very clear that the Muslim community was not part of this war. That they would neither fight each other nor take sides against anybody else. Actually, the Muslim neighborhoods were the safe havens for those who wanted to escape the genocide.
    Being a Muslim myself, I've always been interested in religion and how it relates to conflict. I found their experience to be fascinating and to be important as a conflict resolution mechanism. I couldn't help bringing up this issue whenever we met with people from NGO's or from the different UN agencies, and I discovered that everyone was aware that the Muslim community had remained out of the conflict, but nobody was interested in doing anything about this, or to consider it as a serious mechanism to deal with this conflict. This explained to me why the Western groups that are there to promote peace do not want, or cannot see, how religion could be used as a means of peace.
    Those of us who are studying in the field of conflict resolution analysis realize that it has only been recently that we have started to recognize religion as a force for peace, and not necessarily the traditional way of thinking of religion as a source for dividing people or causing wars. I felt that something should be done about this, because we cannot ignore that this conflict has killed millions of people. And if religion is helping to do something about this, then we should be able to let go of our assumptions about what works, and what types of intervention would work, and try to embrace what the people have and try to work through it. And I thought that we, as conflict analysts and conflict intervenors and conflict resolvers would be the ones who would have to work the hardest on our cultural assumptions, and understand that what we have learned over the years would work or not work in one part of the world, will not necessarily work or not work in another part of the world.
    It seems to me that when we think of conflict resolution in relation to culture, we are thinking more in terms of an art, not a science. We are thinking that every case is unique, and the elements that will help us solve or reduce a conflict will look different from one place to another. In the case of Rwanda and Burundi, as I have seen it, it seems that religion could be a force that needs to be explored further. I hope that the groups that are there for the purpose of promoting peace and establishing peace will be able to see that sometime. Nobody at all refuted the peaceful nature of the Muslim community in these regions, and as I mentioned earlier, even the officials of the NGO's and the UN acknowledged it. I hope that they will get to the point of learning how to deal with it and how to use it for the benefit of the people.
    Another observation I made was about the role of the NGO's. I took my first trip with an NGO to Egypt about seven months ago. I was so excited to go back to Egypt in the capacity of doing something that I learned in the United States, but to my surprise, I found that the people in Egypt were not too excited about the role of NGO's in their country. I found the same messages when I went to Rwanda and Burundi from the natives. In Rwanda, one person called it the "new colonization," which I later read in an article as well. This is the perception.
    It is very helpful to recognize that in the three countries to which I've been, at least, there seems to be a suspicion about the role of NGO's that are being sponsored by Western organizations or Western governments. Again, this goes back to Alma's discussion about "meaningful action." I know many of the people who go out to many parts of the world to do work within NGO's and other groups, and I have seen the sincere attitude and the dedication of those people. They really want to help. So I was surprised and wondered how they could be misperceived like this by the recipients of the service. But this was a very sensitive issue. The Westerners felt that they were trying to do something good and refused to believe that their work was under suspicion, while the Africans and Egyptians had a different attitude. Those who worked with the NGO’s enjoyed having a "good job," while the population itself was not as attached to the cause or the service that was being provided as it was to the money and surroundings that came with it.
    In a survey we conducted, we were astounded to find that those Burundians who worked for NGO's or the United Nations had significant differences in their attitudes and perceptions than the rest of the population. This, again, raises the question as to whether the people who work for these groups are different, or is it that by working for those organizations they have a different lifestyle and different issues that make them separate about the way they think about their own society and their own people. It seems to me that this is becoming a serious issue, because how we intervene in a conflict and how we present ourselves to those with whom we are intervening seems to be a serious matter. People can misunderstand what we are doing, people can distrust us, and when we put things in terms of the African experience, it is very easy for people to think that NGO's are just a new way to effect colonization. If this is not the case for those sincere Europeans and Americans who are traveling far from home to do good for Africa or for those who are suffering from war or genocide, then there is a gap in which people who are in the field of conflict resolution should intervene. We need to develop new tools for identifying cultural gaps that are causing misperceptions such those happening about NGO's in Africa. How can they be identified? It is important that we try to understand where we have those gaps and misunderstandings are and try to do something about them.
    I found that those two issues are very important, because cultural differences are not only on the individual level, but they can also happen even on this kind of macro-level – organizations moving from one country to another the way that religions institutions appear (are they a source of conflict or peace?). All of this can be so confusing and so big culturally, and it will be important to develop tools to help us understand how we are going to use them.
    I came back from this trip with some concerns, especially when I think about what I saw in Burundi and this misunderstanding of the role of the NGO's. Then the bombing of the two U.S. embassies in almost the same area – in central Africa, made me wonder if there is any connection between how those organizations are working in Africa, and how they are so widespread in Africa, and how they present themselves and this strange action that took place. All I can say is, like Alma says, we are just scratching the surface. Maybe these examples will help us think about what we conflict analysts and intervenors can do to insure that a certain type of intervention is proper for a certain population at a certain time and is done in the proper way.

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