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A brawl broke out last month between Armenian and Azeri groups in the middle of a highway leading to Jerusalem. Both factions were on their way to exhibit their support or opposition to Israel’s sales of arms to Azerbaijan.
The October 17 incident caught many Palestinians and Israelis by surprise, as Armenian and Azeri communities in the Holy Land are often forgotten or ignored. It also represented the heated reaction around the world by diaspora groups.
This made me reflect on our Palestinian-Israeli conflict in relation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where the two sides just announced a Russia-backed agreement to end the fighting.
Musalaha (reconciliation in Arabic), the Jerusalem-based organization I founded and currently serve as its director, has over 30 years of experience in the field of peace-building and reconciliation. We’ve developed a model that addresses obstacles for reconciliation through desert encounters, and have identified six stages in the process of reconciliation (detailed in a book released this month by Langham Publishing). Through our work, we have guided more than 200,000 Israeli and Palestinian men, women, and youth through more than 1,000 activities.
So I by no means claim to be an expert on the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But perhaps my experience and knowledge working for decades on reconciliation in Palestine-Israel may be helpful to Armenians and Azeris living in their respective countries or in the diaspora.
Here are four areas where I believe lessons we’ve learned from our work of reconciliation in our own conflict can apply to Nagorno-Karabakh:
When the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated last month, I began to hear both Armenians and Azeris, as well as many international observers, quickly point to the claim that this conflict is in essence a religious war: Christianity vs. Islam. I could not help but think of the immediate comparison many people make around the world concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, suggesting that our conflict is also a religious conflict between Judaism vs. Islam, or even Judeo-Christianity vs. Islam.
This is a popular assertion in large-scale conflicts; people often point to the most general difference between the groups. This way of thinking falls into the famous “clash of civilizations” thesis, which argues that contemporary wars will be fought not about ideological differences (as in the Cold War), but about religious differences.
This is problematic in many ways. To begin with, it ignores the diversity of religious identities and factions within conflicts. Not only are there diverse religious expressions, practices, and theologies within each religion, but we see conflicting “sides” having supporters from many religious traditions as well. For example, within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we can find Jews who support the Palestinian struggle and Muslims who support the State of Israel. In addition, people can often forget about minority communities like the Palestinian Christians, Druze, and others who may not fall into our neat binary perception of conflicts. Similarly, as with the example of the highway brawl, the Azeri supporters were Azeri Jews, and there are also Azeri Jews in the Azeri army. Religious identities simply do not dictate allegiance to one side or another.
Moreover, religion can and does play many roles in conflicts. People may indeed use religious language and theology for fueling division and violence, but the same can be done to build unity and peace. Likewise, religion is not always the main motivation for people’s behavior. We humans are motivated by many factors in life that do not relate to our religious convictions, such as the economy, politics, society, nationalism, ethnicity, family, and more. There are many interests for one to be in conflict; religion is not always one of them.
1 Conflict, 1,000 Interests
Conflicts as big as the Palestinian-Israeli or Armenian-Azeri ones have multiple actors and factions who have many interests in sustaining the conflict and/or many visions for a solution. We can never see these conflicts as simply two sides fighting over one thing.
Rather, these conflicts have many sides both from the region and outside of the region, with many interests to promote. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many countries in Europe, North America, and the Arab world are largely invested in the conflict. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, the roles of Russia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Serbia, and Georgia are all important, and all have their goals to achieve.
Therefore, in order to achieve a solution and peace, these diverse national and international factions need to be acknowledged and addressed. In the same way that dominant powers such as the United Kingdom (more historically) and the United States have contributed to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict’s escalation and exacerbation, and their role needs to be addressed, the same goes for international actors in the Armenian-Azeri conflict.
Trauma and Dehumanization
Recognizing the magnitude of trauma and the importance of collective memory in conflict are key ingredients to moving forward for a brighter future. From my experience, one of the biggest disagreements between people is not necessarily religious or ideological in nature, but historical. The way we people groups construct our collective memory serves as a tool to legitimize our past, present, and future acts.
Furthermore, the major traumatic events in our history—whether that be the Holocaust for Israelis, the Nakba for Palestinians, genocide for Armenians, or ethnic cleansing for Azeris—shape our identity and our relations to the other groups around us. We often understand ourselves to be the ultimate victim in history, and by doing so, ignore our own shortcomings and put the blame on everyone but ourselves. We create an “us versus them” mentality: We are good, moral, and progressive, and they are evil, immoral, and backward. This understanding also follows a zero-sum logic, whereby if the other side wins we automatically and completely lose, and the other way round. Therefore, we cannot afford to allow any success to the other side, for it means our loss.
In essence, our collective memory and trauma allow us to dehumanize any individual and group that does not stand with us. For this reason, if we wish to see any form of reconciliation, we need to address our historical narratives and identity in a critical manner.
This is indeed a difficult task, for the process challenges us at our core. But if Palestinians, Israelis, Armenians, and Azeris want to transform their conflicts, they must attempt to construct a joint historical narrative. One that does not wish to belittle any form of trauma or claim to be the ultimate victim, but sees the pain and suffering of all people in the conflict. In order to create a better future, we need to address our complicated past and humanize our enemy in the process.
Good Neighbors, Bad Neighbors
Conflict transformation and true reconciliation must come from grassroots movements. Leaving the conflict to upper-leadership politicians will not create a genuine change within the people. And even if politicians did advance peace, the resentment of the people will not disappear and the conflict may continue in the future (such as in Colombia). Similarly, politicians are also subject to external pressure from other actors in the region, who may make the transformation almost impossible.
Thus, social mobility is key for creating real and lasting change and prosperity for all. Organizations, institutions, and social clubs need to be dedicated to this subject within the region. These bodies can help promote, train, and mobilize people for the purpose of reconciling the different factions. The importance of civil society cannot be stressed enough.
Armenians and Azeris, as well as Palestinians and Israelis, need to ask themselves how they want to treat their neighbors. This is an extremely important question, for the way you treat your neighbor truly reflects who you are as an individual and as a collective group.
Our theology, ideology, and vision are tested by this mere standard. For what are our religious and spiritual commitments worth if we are unable to love our neighbors? And by loving our neighbors, I also mean concrete acts of justice, mercy, and peace. For us Christians, this is the true test of our love and worship of God. As 1 John 4:20–21 states:
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (NRSV).
At the end of the day, Armenia and Azerbaijan will live side by side; the question is how they will live side by side.
And of course this is not a challenging question for this specific conflict alone. We all have conflicts in our life and should reflect on our own contexts. As John instructs: “Perfect love drives out fear.”
Salim Munayer is founder and director of Musalaha in Jerusalem, and the author of Journey Through the Storm: Lessons from Musalaha (Langham Publishing, November 2020).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.