Friday, November 5, 2004

On the night of 14/15 November 1940 much of the city centre of Coventry, including the 14th-century cathedral, was destroyed. Yet, only six weeks after the bombing the cathedral’s provost, Dick Howard, did a BBC broadcast from the ruins asking the British people to say “No” to revenge and “Yes” to forgiveness.

This article first appeared in the November/December issue of Resurgence (

On the night of 14/15 November 1940 much of the city centre of Coventry, including the 14th-century cathedral, was destroyed. Yet, only six weeks after the bombing the cathedral’s provost, Dick Howard, did a BBC broadcast from the ruins asking the British people to say “No” to revenge and “Yes” to forgiveness.

In November 1942, with the battle for Stalingrad in full fury, Russian philosopher, Semyon Frank, wrote in his notebook: ‘In this terrifying war, in the inhuman chaos which reigns in the world, he who first starts to forgive will in the end be victorious.’

It isn’t given to all of us to be as generous as Howard or as far-seeing as Frank. And many people, if they had been privy to Frank’s thinking at the time, would have dismissed his thought as nonsensical. In the heat of battle, when survival seems to be all that matters, it is rare to take the longer view. Even at the best of times, when peace prevails, it is sometimes hard for political figures to regard forgiveness or its partner repentance as anything more than religious or personal abstractions, worthy perhaps, depending on your view of life, but unrelated to affairs of state.

Yet, looking back after sixty years, it can be argued that Howard’s ‘No’ to revenge won out in the heart of post-war Europe and Frank’s unrealistic view has been borne out, and that today’s larger Europe rests to an appreciative extent on the bedrock of forgiveness. Most of us take it for granted that the countries which hated each other are now working together. Not everyone has forgiven, nor has everyone faced up to the past, but the idea that the countries might again go to war is laughable.

If there is one person who has in recent years challenged the idea that forgiveness is only personal, it is Nelson Mandela. Locked away for 27 years and emerging as the natural leader of his country, Mandela has refused to operate on the basis of vengeance. And by his example established a mood of forgiveness in the country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, too, played a vital role. By removing the certainty of punishment and offering, after full disclosure, the chance of amnesty, it brought out some of the horrors which would otherwise have been hidden and helped many who had propped up the regime to face reality. South Africa faces enormous problems but no one would have predicted that the country could have got as far as it has today without bloodshed and a civil war.

To suggest that forgiveness may be the way forward now in the Middle East and Afghanistan and, after 11 September, for relations between ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ worlds, could seem far-fetched. The circumstances may be different, and be complicated by religion, but the hatreds of sixty years ago were no less deeply held than the hatreds of today. And Archbishop Tutu’s deep conviction holds there as elsewhere that there is ‘no future without forgiveness’. As Irene Laure, one of the great figures in post-war reconciliation between France and Germany, put it, ‘Hatred, whatever the reason for it, is always a factor in causing a new war.’ Laure, a resistance figure whose son had been tortured and whose comrades had been executed, longed for the total destruction of Germany . But only two years after the war at the centre of reconciliation in Caux, Switzerland, she asked the Germans for forgiveness for her hatred.

There is as yet no Mandela and no Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Iraq and Afghanistan landscapes. And electoral politics make it hard for US and coalition leaders to admit shortcomings, let alone mistakes in their policies. Yet a really honest word at the highest level backed by imaginative aid packages could work wonders, like the Marshall Plan in earlier times.

Just as the new Europe was built on ordinary men and women like Laure ready to ‘build bridges across the Rhine ‘so it is they who are forging a new Middle East, and new intercontinental relations, not waiting for leaders to act. Often it is those who have suffered most who are leading the way in reaching out to the other, sometimes having to brave the opposition of their own people.

Yitzhak Frankenthal, for instance, whose daughter was kidnapped and killed by the Hamas, founded The Parents’ Circle, where nearly 500 bereaved parents in Israel and Palestine who have lost a family member in the hostilities, are supporting each other and working for reconciliation. Their slogan: ‘Better to have the pains of peace than the agonies of war.’ Among their imaginative actions is ‘Hello Shalom, Hello Peace’, a project that enables Israeli and Palestinian to talk on the telephone. In a ten-month period in 2002-2003 more than 200,000 people talked to each other. A similar reaching out is being done by Israeli and Palestinian teachers.

Andrew Rice, whose brother was killed in the 11 September attack on the World Trade Center in New York, has met with Aicha al-Wafi, mother of one of the suicide hijackers. He is working with a whole group of family members of September 11 victims who call themselves Peaceful Tomorrows and are seeking effective non-violent responses to terrorism. He took a year off work to travel the United States talking to groups, universities and schools, putting forward an alternative view to the muscular language of revenge.

Professor Judea Pearl, father of the journalist Daniel Pearl who was killed by Islamic extremists in Pakistan after being kidnapped, has engaged in dialogue with Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former high commissioner of Pakistan to Britain . Four hundred people turned up for the first public dialogue. There was frank talk but there was also empathy. ‘Hatred took the life of my son,’ said Pearl, ‘and hatred I will fight to the end of my life.’ The Secretary-General of the Pakistani American Congress, Faizan Haq, and a Pakistan MP, Umar Ghuman, both asked forgiveness of Pearl for the murder of his son. Pearl responded, ‘I am grateful to these brave officials for making public statements which to me represent sincere commitment to educate people towards tolerance and acceptance.’ David Shtulman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who organised the event, said, ‘People had a chance to speak but also listen. People heard each other through Akbar and Judea in a way they normally are unable to hear one another.’ Akbar says that they are discovering how much in terms of values they have in common. It is a ‘two-way knowledge stream’ and they have become friends.

Rt Rev Mark Sisk, who took office as New York ‘s bishop a few weeks after 11 September, decided to make the improvement of Christian-Muslim relations a priority. ‘I believe it is our duty as Christian leaders,’ he said, ‘to take initiatives that can bind up the wounds of the human community.’ It occurred to him that it would be a wonderful thing if Christians in New York City, people who had learned so recently about the pain of an attack, could reach out to others who had also experienced bombs falling on their beloved city.

Sparked by the bishop a New York parish raised the money to rebuild a mosque in Kabul destroyed by American bombs. The bishop hopes that people in the United States and Afghanistan will see that religion can strengthen rather than impoverish the human community and that even though people of faith may have differences of doctrine they can still live in harmony. ‘We are all brothers and sisters living in the presence of a loving, forgiving and merciful God,’ he says. ‘It is our joy to have the opportunity to reflect that love.’

Earlier this year senior figures met in Fez, Morocco under the patronage of King Mohamed VI with the aim of seeing how to restore understanding between the Muslim, Christian and Judaic worlds. Among insights reported by participants from the different faiths are that

Self-styled moderates should outdo religious extremists in care for all those in all religious traditions who feel deprived, marginalized or tired of ‘modernity’;The wall of separation in the West between secular intellectuals and people of faith filters out religious values from public discourse and should be lowered Political elites should find appropriate ways to acknowledge publicly historic wrongs done by their nations that have been the source of resentment and distrust; Gestures of welcome, contrition and respect are powerful tools for healing history and restoring trust.’
There is plenty of blame, and inhumanity, to go round. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Bali, Madrid and September 11, nothing is to be gained by what some call the ‘pain Olympics’ where you argue that you have suffered more than others. Start with yourself and with your own country, wherever that approach has been tried it has proven to be the best antidote to historic hates or present animosities.

In that context an initiative taken by a group called Faithful America should be noted. Thousands of Americans have paid for and signed this statement appearing on Al Jazeera: ‘A Salaam A’alaykum [Peace be with you]. As Americans of faith, we express our deep sorrow at abuses committed in Iraqi prisons. We stand in solidarity with all those in Iraq and everywhere who demand justice and human dignity. We condemn the sinful and systemic abuses committed in our name, and pledge to work to right these wrongs.’