Temporary Columns: Islam, the West and Central America

I recently attended a conference on Central American peace processes in Toledo, organised and sponsored by the Project on Justice in Times of Transition and hosted in Spain by the Centro International Toledo para La Paz. The conference brought together many of the key participants in the peace processes in Central America during the mid-80s to the early-90s. They included ex Presidents Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala and Jose-Maria Figueres of Costa Rica, former military commander of the guerilla Frente Marti para Liberacion Nacional, Joaquim Villalobos, and former head of the Sandinista Army, General Joaquin Cuadra, former Head of the Guatemalan Army General Julio Balconi, and Sir Marrack Goulding who was Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs at the United Nations at the time, among others. The conference was both a retrospective exploration of the Central American peace processes as well as an effort to glean lessons for efforts at making peace in other places in the world.

The Central American peace processes of this period had a significant impact on how we conduct peace processes in the world today. Many developments that have become commonplace in peace processes around the world were refined, if not first tried, in Central America. They range from the widespread involvement of the United Nations on a regional basis, and the development of human rights monitoring, to the setting up of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and programs for Disarmament Demobilisation and Re-integration of former combatants. However, I want to emphasise another element of the Central American Peace Processes of this period – their contribution to attenuating, if not ending the Cold War.

Portrait_hrWhile the Central American region shaped the context in which each country – whether Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Guatemala – tackled its civil conflict, the cold war shaped the context in which the region dealt with its problems. But Central American leaders searching for peace were not daunted by the global divide we then called the Cold War. They did not feel they had to wait for the Cold War to end to resolve the conflicts in their region, either individually or regionally. The process began under the leadership of President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who first convinced other leaders in the region that they all needed stability to progress economically, and then convinced the United States to give diplomacy and negotiation a chance. As Arias put it in an interview with El Pais (16 March 2006): “20 years ago Central Americans were killing each other. The superpowers provided the arms and we provided the dead. …After the defeat in Vietnam the US needed to win a war. They wanted to get rid of the Sandinistas from power in Nicaragua by military force. I told the US that is not the solution to differences, rather what is necessary is diplomacy and negotiation.”

So Central Americans managed to make peace in their own countries, if not contribute to the end of the Cold War, by demonstrating how particular conflicts seen as sites of political and ideological contestation on a global scale, could be recast as conflicts with their own dynamics that required a particular set of solutions.

GeorgebushOsama_bin_ladenToday we are being asked to choose sides in yet another great global divide – between the West and Islam. We are also told that Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Europe, among many other places, are sites of great contestation between these two value systems. One approach is to view these as indeed sites of great contestation between Islam and the West, pick the side you are on, and proceed to fight it out with the other side in each particular place. Central America suggests a different approach. You do not have to deny the presence of such a “global divide” to tackle each problem separately. And tackling each problem separately may help resolve the global divide.

So Iraq then becomes less a place where the best of the West is contesting the worst of Islamic radicalism, but a country undergoing a triple transition – from Saddam Hussein’s Baath party dictatorship to multiparty democracy, from a Sunni dominated state to a multiethnic one, and from US occupation to self-government. And addressing each of these transitions has less to do with where we stand on the Islam-West divide, than with what techniques we can use to address them and lessons we have learned from other places that can help us do so.

Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian problem becomes a challenge of ending the occupation of a people, and installing a functioning democracy to govern themselves, while developing a viable economy that will sustain their lives. It is not a place where an outpost of the West is facing Islamic hostility. Saudi Arabia can be viewed as the challenge of transitioning from a theocratic kingdom to a more plural state. And Afghanistan becomes the challenge of restoring basic institutions that can function in a country that has been ravaged by war and flattened by bombs for more than 25 years. Syria and Egypt are by contrast straightforward. They require a process for electing a representative government. The issue of Islam in Europe becomes how you include marginalized immigrant communities into the socio-economic and political mainstream of a number of countries who first came as guest workers, but now feel that they are neither guests nor workers.

All of these challenges are familiar to us, not because we have always been successful in addressing them, but because we have dealt with them before in other parts of the globe. By dealing with the parts (democratic transition, immigration, pluralism, building institutions) of the divide between Islam and the West, we need not deny that there may be a whole to it as well. We need only deny that it is clear how much greater the whole is to the sum of the parts. So we do not need to always address the whole in order to tackle each part. This is one important lesson we can learn from the Central American leaders of the 80s, whether government or rebel, who took on another global divide, part by part.

Oscar Arias, the then President of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has just been re-elected President of Costa Rica after 20 years. He is promising a “Costa Rican Consensus” that will contribute to steps to end poverty and lead to military disarmament world wide. Given his contribution to peace in Central America and the end to the Cold War, I would like to add one more thing to his agenda – bringing an end the new global divide between Islam and the West, part by part.