Building bridges of understanding

ediation for resolving conflict, is
a welcome wind of change blowing into schools and communities worldwide as a strategy for restoring calm in troubled waters. As an Australia-based educator-mediator, trained in the Harvard method of mediation, I discern a need for teachers, lawyers, community and spiri-tual leaders in India to develop mediation skills in one of the most challenging fields, viz, cross-cultural conflicts, where the courts, politicians and gladiatorial lawyers routinely fail their clients.

An appeal for help from Sunil, an old school friend, recently prompted me to fly from Perth, Australia to Chennai to mediate in one of the most challenging experiences of my life, and one that could very easily have ended in tragedy. Sunil, a Hindu teacher had fallen in love with Fauzia, a young Muslim girl, and wished to marry her. Her father, Ali Khan, a successful merchant, Sunil and I were childhood friends.

On the flight over, I reflected upon the cross-cultural dynamics that I would need to use to mediate this potentially explosive situation. I knew that the allocentric (interests of the group) in the case of Ali and Sunil would be more important than the interest of the individual which is paramount in the Western world. Family opinions and approval would be central and family could include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and even close friends, unlike the Australian nuclear family.

I was only too aware that if I failed as an intermediary, violence involving family members on both sides, was a real possibility. I realised that because I was well-known to both parties, it strengthened my role as a mediator. In sunny Australia, this special qualification would have immediately disqualified me from mediating. To facilitate my role, I sought out a Muslim cleric who was a close friend of Ali’s family, to co-mediate with me. He was highly respected, had more knowledge of the family and events, and could advocate options that were in keeping with the Quran and the Hadith (words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed). After years of association with Muslim and Hindu friends, I was aware that authority to mediate is enhanced by family connections, religious merit, prior experience and knowledge of customs and community.

As a prelude to the resolution, I visited the Muslim cleric and we discussed several issues pertaining to Islam and Christianity. I listened as he quoted from the holy Quran, to repudiate Western propaganda which depicts Islam as a ‘fundamentalist’ religion. He cited references from the Quran which endorse equality of all human beings, and state that women and men are made of the same soul.

This wise, influential scholar was aware that the issue before modern Muslim women (and men) is not to comply with Western traditions, but to implement the rights accorded to women in the Quran which are liberating, and which "enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong" (9:71). My assistant’s position to this scholar-cleric was a great honour accorded to me, as a long-time friend of Ali Khan’s family. In cross-cultural conflicts, especially in Muslim and Hindu collectivist societies, mediation needs to be indirect and relationship-oriented. Considerable time needs to be spent on establishing a relationship of trust.

The cleric considered Ali Khan’s options not only from the viewpoint of the main protagonists (Sunil and Fauzia), but also from the perspective of their extended families and the likely impact of the proposed marriage upon family members. I accompanied him as we consulted each party, understanding their perspectives prior to adjudicating a final, extended family solution. This community approach was used by the learned cleric to restore harmony, maintain family unity, save face, life and property of all. He was able to "tell us what to do" and give directions in accordance with the teachings of the Quran, while protecting the values and sensibilities of the extended family and society. He cleared the way for Fauzia and Sunil’s marriage by drawing a parallel between contemporary Muslim women who were making their own choices and Khadija, wife of the Prophet Mohammed, who had done likewise in her time.

In a multi-faith society like India’s, there is a strong case for teachers to receive basic training as mediators to resolve cross-cultural disputes. Spiritual leaders respected in the community also need to be co-opted and are likely to be far more effective than professional conciliators with an Anglo-centric focus.

Although the Indian judicial system practices the common law system adopted by the Anglo-Saxon countries, it needs to make allowances for religious and cultural norms. In collectivist societies, mediators may have to suggest solutions in accordance with the notions of justice commonly accepted in their communities, rather than imagine the parties in dispute can resolve socio-cultural disputes without reference to wider groups, as is advocated in the Anglo-American mediation tradition.

Such an approach would be more effective in creating precedents which would build bridges of understanding in multi-cultural societies.

(Lionel Cranenburgh is an India born, Perth-based education consultant, counsellor and chief executive of The Conciliator)