Presentation and analysis of mediation and conflict resolution strategies to be adopted after a conflict raised a religious tradition.
When talking about religion we need to bear in mind the delicate thing of the subject. It is not a topic we can discuss openly with everybody. As seen in class, people do not separate their personal religious beliefs with the subject of religion as a part of human beings’ life in theological terms. This shows that religion has taken a misunderstood place in people’s life and this has affected the personal life of millions of innocent people. I call them innocent because they are victims of what they were taught by their parents and community about religion. Based on the assumption that we create culture but at the same time we are the result of it, we interpret the world through the eyes of our own cultures. Therefore, the different worldviews end up in clashes causing interreligious conflicts.
A good case of interreligious conflict is that of a good friend of mine named Amila. Amila is a Muslim from Bosnia living in Denmark since 1993. The conflict of the ex- Yugoslavia region is a horrendous example of religious intolerance among other political and ethnicity reasons. Amila left Bosnia with her parents and brother when she was 8 years old. She left with her family to Denmark in a 4 days bus tour crossing all Europe along with 26 other people, escaping from the war.
After the long trip, they arrived in a refugee camp in Denmark where they had to stay for two years waiting for the acceptance of the asylum request. After that, they were sent to a city named Kolding (two hours from Germany’s border) and placed in a complex of condos where normally all the refugees from different countries are placed. This place has become a form of ghetto. Currently, most of the problems regarding violence and robbery are caused by people who live in these condos (apartments). Additionally, the media and is not helping to the portrait of the immigrants in the city.
Coming to Denmark represented a real challenge for Amila in terms of cultural identity, religion, and language. At the age of ten, a person’s identity is not completely developed. At this age, kids have not yet clear who they are and what they want in life. The sequels of war in a kid are devastated and so it was for Amila and her family. Her father and mother were witnesses to the murders of their parents and few neighbours. Amila saw several occasions where wounded people would be left for death in the middle of the street without anyone coming to help. She lived several traumatic moments along her childhood that marked her forever. After they settled down in Kolding, they started interacting with the other refugees and the Danish life in general.
The culture shock they experienced was tough for the family. The communication problems became an everyday issue for them. Suddenly, what she was seeing did not match what she was taught. Amila and her brother were educated in one way (as Muslims, attached to family, not drinkers) and the society and the school were showing something completely different. The History course she was learning in Bosnia was very different from the social democrat way of teaching History in Denmark.
Description of an inter-religious conflict
After giving a general overview of the context in which Amila was living when she was 10 to 12 years old. I will go on with the interreligious conflict Amila faced.
The conflict took place at her primary school it was in her first week of courses in the Danish system. Amila, who came from Bosnia and spoke not so good Danish, was the only girl wearing a veil and covering most parts of her body (arms and legs). However, she was not the only Muslim in the class. In the classroom, there were only a few people from other origins and religions but very well adapted and assimilated to the Danish lifestyle. The other 3 Muslim girls of the class were not veiled and were from Arab origins which made difficult the communication process for Amila.
The age of the kids was ranging from 11-12 years old. The students have been avoiding her, laughing at her and gossiping about her look, since day one. As the week passes by, the class is divided into couples for an exercise. Nobody went to Amila so the professor assigned somebody to her. She was put in a team with a classical stereotyped Danish girl (blond, blue eyes, very tall). They didn’t talk to each other very much during the activity; the Danish girl was staring at Amila most of the time. They hardly finished the teamwork and at the end, the girl started asking Amila:
So you are one of those trash people who only still our money and profit from our country?
Besides, you are covering your head so we don’t recognise you when you commit the crimes people from ghetto do? Right?
My mother says you are all dangerous and I shouldn’t talk to you.
My mom says that the girls that are veiled are slaves of men and they will be treated as objects without rights.
Amila’s reaction was to put her head down and did not answer. She was feeling terrible, she couldn’t understand why she was treated like that when the only thing she was doing was wearing what all the girls wore in Bosnia (the veil). She came home very sad but did not discuss it with her family. She avoided 2 days of school faking a stomach ache but after the third day, her mother obliged her to go to class. Finally, she agreed but under no circumstances, she was going to wear the veil. After a long dispute with her mom, she explained the event occurred 2 days before. Her mom was furious, but she does not speak any Danish at all, so she went to the school with Amila as an interpreter. Pressured by her mother, Amila had to explain to the director the incident with the Danish girl.
The director immediately set a meeting with the professor and a mediator to address the problem.
Values at stake
This is a case of misinterpretation, stereotype, judgment and discrimination. Obviously, the Danish girl does not really think those allegations, but she is interpreting them as reality. Parents play a key role in their kids’ perception of the world. However, it seems that parents need to be educated.
The values at risk in this situation, for the kids, are respect, equality of treatment, tolerance, identity, sense of belonging and of course, the possibility to loose the wonderful opportunity to learn from the diversity of both students.
Each person has a burden of interpretations and worldviews in their back that impedes them to clearly come to a rational understanding of both backgrounds. Interreligious dialogue it is easier and possible when you experience yourself through the other. In a very basic and individual level, intercultural communication can bring together different people just to realise that at the end they have at least one thing in common: being humans.
A person with no respect for different religions can become very dangerous to others. Respect for other is the key to personal success. It is of mass importance to understand the fact that reality is constructed according to each person’s experience. Somehow each person is trapped on his/her own prison of reality. Additionally, they believe this interpretation of the world as the only absolute truth. Once they understand and realised, by giving themselves the opportunity to experience, that their perception of the world is only one amongst millions; then they would have to make a big step to intercultural awareness.
The girl based herself in the most precious and confident reference she can ever find, her mother. Even tough, these statements are based on constant media bombarding and generalised ideas of veiled women by the parents; it is necessary to clear that up with the girl and the parents. Make them understand the negative influence that these ideas can cause on the little girls.
Baring in mind I am a westerner, the importance of human right and equality of treatment among the kids is essential to correctly function in a country like Denmark. Known as a country that makes a strong emphasis on the respect of people’s rights and equality of treatment.
Another value at risk in Amila’s position is the value of belonging. After all, she’s been through; she needs to reaffirm her sense of belonging to something. Additionally, the culture shock and the sequels of war are issues that put her in disadvantage for achieving this goal.
Strategies for mediation
In this incident, there are several ways to approach the situation. Clearly, there is still a long way to go regarding parental education towards multiculturalism. They are in charge of the education of the next generation. A generation that will be, for sure, in constant interaction with diversity. It is necessary to prepare this coming generation to profit as much as possible from differences. Learn as many languages and people as possible in order to enhance their own horizons. How to love this process of learning through the other is the schools and parents’ job.
The strategies to solve this situation will always depend on the mediator and I could not give examples of those because of the lack of interaction and knowledge about solutions to this problem. I as a Mexican, catholic with a certain extent of intercultural awareness but not a professional in mediation will solve it completely different than another mediator from Protestant Zurich, to give an example.
As must of the damage this conflict could cause is at a personal and psychological level (war trauma, building identity, seeking for acceptance), I would propose a personalised solution in order to reach the deepest senses of both kids. We need to bear in mind the fact that the conflict we want to solve concerns especially the 2 children and not the parents. That is to say, that probably they can not be changed even tough we will try to make them understand.
Some good strategies could be to help the students and the parents to overcome the barriers to intercultural communication to lead to a better and more tolerant relationship. According to LaRay Barna (2002), there are six barriers to help intercultural communication among diverse people.
The first barrier is the similarity issue. When we take for granted that people should react in a certain way we put expectations on them. That gives a result of frustration and disappointment building barriers in intercultural communication. On the other hand, if you always think people are different and have different ways of reaching to the same issue, then you won’t be disappointed with that reaction. This is a pragmatic process, that is to say, you learn it through experience and willingness.
The second barrier proposed by LaRay Barna (2002) is the language. Language is a complex element and we need to bear in mind that features such as syntax, slang, intonation and ways of argumentation are always difficult when somebody as Amila has just arrived in a new country. To work on the language will open many doors, especially the door to interact and start making friends. Fluency in the Danish language would give her a perfect way to explain and share her own different culture.
Furthermore, another barrier to intercultural communication is the nonverbal communication. It is imperative to be alert as an eagle to the signs that are not said by words in order to see, feel, hear and smell everything beyond the actual perception.
The fourth barrier is the stereotypes. They are used to avoid uncertainty and as a guide, but never should be used to make decisions about people.
Moreover, the fifth obstacle is the ethnocentrism and judgment. Judgment comes when we try to prove or disapprove an affirmation in comparison with our own standards. We should, instead, try to understand the way the other is reasoning and be flexible with diversity.
Finally, the sixth barrier is anxiety. The anxiety has to be controlled as much as possible because it can impede or slow the process of interaction. Go talk to that person you think is not going to answer back. It is important for Amila to know she can suffer several stress periods (or depression) during the first year on the Danish society.
Knowing and be conscious about this obstacle is already a good start for the parents, the teacher and the kids.
Practically solve the conflict as a mediator
The solution to this conflict is divided in 3 different separate meetings, one with the parents without the children, another with the children and the last one with the teacher to design new implementations to the class to promote intercultural awareness towards religion and diversity among students.
I would meet with the parents in separate occasions assuming that if the Danish girl expressed herself in that way, probably the mother won't be very happy to discuss with the Bosnian mother whom does not speak Danish. I will explain to her the damage she is causing her daughter by making those comments in front of her. I will kindly ask her permission to take both her daughter and Amila to talk and fix the problem. Afterwards, I would meet again with the parents to propose a dialogue based on the best interests of their daughters.
I am being positive about the parents’ reaction by letting me take the kids to the school yard and play and learn about differences.
I will make emphasis on the values at risk especially for respect and tolerance through experience. I will take both girls to the school park and start a game named: What I don’t like about you and about myself. In this game, they will express their thoughts and then I can dissect each argument by putting them in a similar situation. At the same time, this will give me the opportunity to realise what each of them thinks about their own self. Afterwards, they will discover there is a common ground to start building something.
I will continue to encourage both girls to describe their religious beliefs and how they feel about it. Are they happy with what they are told? Are there any questions or doubts about religion they don’t ask due to fear or shame? Then I will ask Amila to tell us her story about how she got here and how she was feeling about Danish life to give Tine (the Danish girl) an idea of her situation. I will show them as a very good example how people in the Far East has survived with a completely different worldview. They do not have a God, there is no good or bad as perceived by “us”.
Furthermore, I will ask both girls to tell me the first idea that comes to their minds when I name different things such as countries, traditional contents, words and people. Some examples are Iraq, Muslims, black people, Danish people, blond people, American people, rich people, refugee, happiness and so on. All these, in order to break down the stereotypes and of course, explain to them what stereotypes are and how they are used. I will show them how powerful the comments made by other can affect the image of oneself. Working the value of identity and belonging, I will explain to them how the world is constantly changing and how globalisation has made our world a more multicultural place every day. I will propose the concept of identity as a flexible role suit, which you wear depending on every situation you encounter and not something static that you stick to.
Hopefully, after this relaxed day to learn about differences I will propose to the teacher to include at least twice a month a cultural break of 20 min. In these breaks, starting with Amila, the teacher will reinforce the values of tolerance, diversity and friendship. Amila will have to make a presentation of Bosnia and the things she likes. Everybody will make that presentation in terms of cultural origins if there are other than Danish, thing and hobbies they love and anything they want their class to know about them. Students must pay attention to this exercises because at the end there will be a memory game asking to match hobbies and description to the people. This exercise will make Amila integrate to the class and will let the people get to know her.
- Barna, LaRay(2002), “Gli ostacoli della Communicazione Interculturale” in Bennett, Milton (2002), “Principi di Communicazione Interculturale, FancoAngeli, Milano.
- Bennett, Milton (2002), “Principi di Communicazione Interculturale, FancoAngeli, Milano.
- Monceri, Flavia, 2008, “Interculturalism and Communication”, Presentation in MIC3, June 2008, Lugano.
- Monceri, F.(2008). “Religious worldviews and fundamental ethical options in multicultural Europe”. Presentation in MIC3, June 2008, Lugano.