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Traditional mediation/arbitration of violent feuds in North-Lebanese Clans


Traditional mediation/arbitration of violent feuds in North-Lebanese Clans
by Ghassan Moukheiber
This is a preliminary draft. It may not be published, copied, cited or quoted in whole or in part, without the author's prior written consent.
Lebanese are often intrigued when the media report news of traditional dispute settlements called "Sulha" (literally: reconciliation) between family-clans in the Baalbek/Hermel or Becharreh areas of North Lebanon[1].
This process, as well as the Clanic social structures, laws and traditions, have always been very controversial among Lebanese at large, and particularly among city-dwellers. When the account of a "sulha" is made, the common reaction is that of surprise vis-a-vis events they believe could only belong to history, or that could only occur in the most remote lands; and yet these vendettas and the reconciliation that often follows still occur quite often today -- certainly more often than reported in the press -- and within less than a two hour drive from downtown Beirut.
Irrespective of the controversial issues relating to substantive law and values still upheld by the clans, the author can only observe and recognize that complicated and violent disputes are being successfully resolved through traditional processes of conflict resolution.
This paper shall thus attempt to give an analytical account of the Sulha process. It addresses only inter-clan disputes that result in death or injuries on one or both parties to the dispute.
More particularly, this paper shall analyze the "Sulha" process[2] and attempt to identify the elements that lead to the success or failure of the Sulha[3]. These elements relate to: (i) the social context of the dispute; (ii) the Sulha process itself; (iii) its outcome; (iv) the available means of dispute containment and enforcement control; and finally (v) the resulting apology and pardon.
1.         The perceived existence of a shared cultural and community identity:
The Clans that are the subject of this paper may be considered as culturally homogenous communities, characterized by multiplex relations between individuals, and by strong obligations of kinship and status. On the inter-clanic level, they enjoy a high degree of on-going interaction. Therefore, clan-members always perceive the necessity, even in the worst of disputes, to continue the relationship.
The elders and elites of those Clans (called shaykh al-ashira or Zaim) traditionally have a tight control over the affairs of the Clan. They in turn worked for the good of all as well as themselves in maintaining the relative status-quo through continuous compromise. They perform this leadership function through a form of authority that is separate from the national political and administrative structure, but they also very often broker services for their Clansmen with the State administration.
It should be noted that homogeneity of culture is not seriously affected by differences of religion or sect. The Baalbek/Hermel area, for example contains a majority of Shiite Muslims and counts a substantial minority of Christians as well. Furthermore, the Christian Maronites in the Becharreh district consider themselves very similar in tradition to the Muslim Shiite Clans. The same process of conflict resolution is applied by both Muslim and Christian clans that share the same tribal law and social customs[4].
Traditionally, Clan members always resorted to traditional methods for the resolution of their conflicts. The Sulha being thus accepted by all involved parties, lends legitimacy to the applied procedure, substantive rules, obligations and sanctions.
The clanic structure however is changing on both the social and political levels[5]
Socially, the education of clansmen at schools and universities as well as their moving to cities, has profoundly changed the way that the Clan is socially, economically and geographically organized. What "Muslihs" complain most about is the drastic change in understanding of and adherence to the traditional clan values and moral standards, that stress the value of clan honor.
Furthermore, the political brokerage role played by the Clans' traditional leaders is being seriously challenged by newly introduced parties that are well organized and that are very outspokingly critical of the Clan structures[6]. Both perceive each other as competing for the political control of the same Clansmen.
Interviewed persons all agreed that such transformation was making the success of the "Sulha" more difficult and time consuming.
2.         The pressure of running the risk of protracted vendetta:
Disputes involving homicides or personal injuries are traditionally considered extremely serious. They are highly emotionally laden and may result in a protracted conflict: a vendetta marked by bitter and bloody hostilities. Clan rules and traditions make it a duty of any Clan member, and particularly of the immediate family of the dead or injured person(s) to take revenge for the crime, by killing or injuring, in turn, the person deemed responsible for the crime, or any other member of his Clan. It is considered that an attack on any of the clan members is an attack against the whole Clan.
Given the political and social ramifications and peculiarities of vendetta disputes, the general belief is that "sulha" is the most appropriate forum to contain and resolve them.
1.         The Sulha is carried out independently of the state laws, judicial and administrative structures.
Disputing parties prefer to settle their differences in a private forum, i.e., following a traditional process which they have tested and not in a public court. All persons interviewed were unanimous in emphasizing their political and cultural distance from the state law and jurisdictions when it comes to resolving vendetta conflicts. To underscore this fact, a Muslih compared the status of the clan towards the State to international relations: the clan being the socio-psychological equivalent of a state and the central government is simply perceived by clans as another state. This further serves to explain the relevance of Banishment from the village or area, as a major sanction for homicide.
Sometimes, particularly when the Muslih need to apply pressure on either parties, courts and the State police are used. The judicial process is thus occasionally incorporated in the traditional clan process. Although the Police and Public Prosecutors are required by law to investigate cases of homicide and injury, most of these cases are either not reported or covered up, pending the Sulha attempts. Police and Prosecutors alike, as well as all other competent administrative bodies, play the role of accomplice to these attempts and very often cooperate with the Muslihs and assist them in their action.
2.         The Choice of the Third party intervenor(s)
The selection of the Muslih is considered as a crucial element in the conflict resolution process. It was recognized by all interviewed persons that the personal status and skills of the third party intervenor (either as mediator or as an arbitrator) were crucial for the success of the "Sulha"
The traits that are most sought for in an intervenor are: wisdom, fairness, courage[7], and moral rectitute, prominent status within his Clan[8], generosity[9], knowledge of clan traditions and Sulha precedents [10] and good communication and psychology skills.
Different Muslihs are recognized within the different Clans for having these skills to varying degrees. Thus, the choice of a Muslih, or a number of them, depends on the particular dispute in question. One Muslih compared this choice with that of choosing a specialized doctor for particular types of illness.
The status of "Muslih" increases the prestige of a Clan member [11]. Therefore, many wealthy persons try to use their financial power to take the role of a "Muslih", without having the required skills. This practice, although it is increasing, is perceived by many traditional "Muslihs" as a threat to the whole traditional process.
For major conflicts, such as the ones that are the subject of this paper, "Muslihs" of all neighboring or related clans to the disputing ones, form delegations that visit the disputing families and offer their services to help in reaching a solution. The inter-tribe consultation that accompanies these visits and meetings initiates the selection process of Muslihs, that usually leads to the formation of an ad-hoc committee, composed of at least two and up to six "Muslihs", all belonging to Clans other than the disputing ones. This leads us to identifying the role played by these Muslihs.
3.         Control of the process
Disputing parties prefer to keep the "Muslihs" confined within the limits of a role that leaves them with maximum control over the process and outcome.
Thus, the function of the Muslih is limited to mediation[12]; no decision or suggestion made by a mediator is binding or subject to sanction if ignored. This is considered an important element of any effective outcome proposed by the Muslih, as a settlement can only last and mutual pardoning can only effectively be exchanged, if the parties themselves accept it.
However, "Muslihs" are conscious of the fact that to increase the chances of success of their endeavors (particularly when they are self appointed or appointed by the neighboring Clans), they must obtain acceptance of their role by the disputing parties. This is usually sought formally in meetings to which a number of witnesses from other clans are invited. Sometimes, a formal written power of attorney is requested, with a pledge to adhere to any outcome decided by the "Muslihs". In such case, the role of the latter is identifiable as arbitration[13].
In both instances (i.e. when the "Muslih" acts as an arbitrator or as a mediator) and however theoretically non-binding, the "Muslih's" suggested solution is enforceable through informal social control and has legitimacy through community consensus. Failing attempts of convincing it to accept it willingly, any party that refuses to adhere to the solution is "cast out" of the community and is boycotted. Social (sometimes, physical) coercion may be used to enforce compliance. The assistance of the local police or courts may be sought at such a stage. However, it is recognized that coercion may have only a short-term effect and rarely leads to real reconciliation.
It is therefore understandable that enforceability of "Muslih" decisions through such social controls is contingent upon the integrity of the traditional clan structures described in section I.
4.         Fact finding and the airing of grievances:
Before devising a solution to the conflict, the "Muslihs" engage in a fact finding mission, that will allow them to ascertain facts that have led to the dispute and as a result, determine the rights and liabilities of each of the disputing parties[14]. "Muslih" thus hears the parties and witnesses; consults experts if necessary [15] and engages in all possible fact-finding activities. All such proceedings are secret and confidential. The "Muslihs" themselves solemnly swear to keep the absolute confidentiality of the proceedings.
In parallel to the "Muslih's" activities, and also prior to the formal appointment of "Muslihs", internal Clan meetings, as well as inter-clan meetings and visits of delegations, provide the disputing parties with the opportunity to express their opinions and detail their version of facts and their assessment of liabilities, particularly in the presence of delegations of other clans and neighboring villages.
In both cases of public airing of grievances and of public or confidential fact findings, the process is therapeutic, in that it allows free ventilation of anger and frustration; furthermore, it gives the persons an increased sense of power and personal worth because of the care and attention which other clans and "Muslihs" show. This process emphasizes the therapeutic value of ventilating anger in the presence of the community and an assembled group of mediators (Gibbs 1973). This results in catharsis, which is considered a necessary step that precedes and allows conciliation and pardon to take place at a later stage.
The "Muslihs" resort to a high degree of sophistication in devising the outcome, that is adapted to the particular circumstances of the dispute as well as to the disputing parties. In doing so, they rely heavily on case precedents and on clan rules and values, which lend additional legitimacy to their decision.
According to a "Head Muslih" [16] the Muslih identifies the facts and circumstances that have led to the dispute, as well as those relating to the circumstances of the homicide or injury. The latter are identified in categories, depending on whether or not death resulted from an accident or negligence, during an argument, or was premeditated; whether or not there was an on-going dispute or vendetta between clans, etc. Each condition alters the sanction or type of outcome that may be devised.
Addressing the original cause of the dispute, the "Muslih Committee" devises a solution depending on the case[17].
As for homicides and injuries, the outcome usually includes the following sanctions:
-           The banishment of the murderer, with a specification of time length (e.g. several years, or indefinitely) and distance from the village (e.g. to Beirut or abroad). No case of capital punishment was reported to the author.
-           The payment of compensation, the amount of which varies depending on the circumstances of the homicide or injury. The payment of such compensation, called "'dieh[18].
as well as its amounts must remain secret. It is tolerated as a means of "helping out", as clan-men and "Muslihs" alike consider firmly that "blood has no price". This underscores the fact that in most disputes that are the subject of this paper, intangible social resources such as status, honor, prestige and personal satisfaction are equal to or more important than tangible resources, such as money, property or land. Therefore, Muslihs do give these elements an additional degree of care and attention.
The issue of liability is dealt with very tactfully. One principle that is very often highlighted, is that reaching an agreement is more important than determining absolute right or wrong.
However, there are instances where the issue of the parties' liability is either explicitly or implicitly addressed. For instance, the venue of the "Sulha" may be indicative of the sharing of liabilities:
If liability is equally shared, then usually the reconciliation meeting is held in a neutral venue.
If liability is deemed greater on one party rather than on the other, then the party deemed more liable pays first a visit to the other, which later returns the visit [19]
In addition to the issues of substance, the Muslihs determine as well the procedure through which the reconciliation meeting is going to be held, its venue, the sequence of visits and their timing, what symbolic good-faith gestures will be performed [20]. They also send invitations to neighboring Clans and villages to attend the reconciliation meeting and witness the Sulha and exchange of mutual pardon. Invariably, reconciliation meetings include the serving of food and beverages (coffee) which are considered as strong symbolic signs that conciliation was effected and accepted.
1.         Containment measures exist in all phases of the dispute resolution process:
a.         To identify and attempt resolving a dispute before it escalates and leads to vendetta homicides [21]
b.         To stop the escalation of an ongoing vendetta or armed conflict.
c.         To witness the reconciliation meeting.
d.         To insure enforceability and non-recurrence of the dispute or vendetta. It is commonly considered shameful to break a Sulha agreement for no valid reason. This is particularly the case when vendetta is renewed after pardon was exchanged. When there is such a fear and in order to consolidate a reconciliation, Muslihs identify individuals (very often "Muslihs" themselves) to act as "guarantors of blood". Their role is to take full responsibility for any shameful act of the clan or persons guaranteed. This fact increases the moral commitment and puts additional moral pressure on the disputants not to breach the reconciliation.
The Muslihs play a very important role in putting pressure on recalcitrant parties that refuse to accept a mediation process, or that put undue pressure on the other party [22]. In such cases, a weaker party may seek -- and be granted -- the assistance of other Clans, particularly if it is deemed to be right or to have unduly suffered damages. Thus, the mediation process helps equalize or realign status and interpersonal power struggles by promoting an egalitarian ethic.
When asked about the most important part of the conciliation process, all interviewed "Muslihs" answered that it is the public exchange of pardon and of good words "that build for the future".
During the reconciliation meeting, in the presence of a great number of clans and neighboring villages, the stage is properly set for the mending of social relations. Clan mediation is thus particularly important in these cases to provide an organized setting for the exchange of pardon (and sometimes of apology). This has the effect of restoring peace and internal order and reaffirming clan norms and values. Mediation also re-establishes and realigns an individual's place and sense of belonging to the Clan.
Pardon is traditionally very highly valued in the form of a trait of personality called "Helem", which is one of the cardinal qualifications attached by both Islamic and Christian traditions to God. Like hospitality, one could traditionally be praised and recognized for his ability to forgive, when it is in his capacity to sanction.
The interviewed Muslihs gave the author striking examples of symbolic apologies and pardons. In order to morally coerce the pardon of the other party, the Clan Cheikh of one disputing party accompanies the person recognized guilty of homicide to the graveyard of the other clan, and throws him on the tomb of the victim [23]. The victim's kinsmen as well as their clan at large are called upon to witness the scene. They are, by tradition compelled to pardon and stop any ongoing vendetta[24]; doing otherwise is considered an absolute shame. This striking action may be ceremoniously prepared (with massive attendance of delegations of other clans and neighboring villages), or it may be unprepared so as to surprise the other party and apply additional pressure on it to accept conciliation without continuing the vendetta.
In conclusion, The proposition of this paper is that the success or failure of a "Sulha" is directly related to the existence in a particular dispute of as many identified elements as possible.
The two most important elements being the fact-finding process with its cathartic effect and the pardon that goes along with the "Sulha".
Considering the similarities between the clan vendettas and other cases of protracted violence, be it internal (e.g. civil wars, reconciliations being conducted along with the return of the displaced in Lebanon) or international (e.g. war-crimes tribunals in Lebanon, El-Salvador, Bosnia-Herzegovina,..), the proposition of this paper is that the principles applying to the Sulha process are transferable to other disputes and other conflict resolution efforts.

[1]Some of these Clans are, for the Shiites: Jaafar, Shamas, Allaou, Nasreddine, Dandash, Zuaiter, Mokdad, Hamieh, Sherif, Meshaik; for the Maronites: Kairouz, Tok ... These publicized "Sulhas" invariably concern violent, often protracted vendetta feuds, that have already claimed several lives and led to even more injuries.
[2]The Sulha process may, depending on the case, be analyzed as a mediation or as an arbitration. This will be addressed later in the paper. The word "Sulha" will be adopted, both to reflect this ambiguity in the role played by the intervenors and to underscore the peculiarity of this process to the Clans subject of the paper.
[3]The research for this paper has drawn heavily on several interviews conducted with individuals of a number of Clans (Both Christian and Muslim) that are commonly recognized as experienced and well respected "Muslih'" (conciliators). The author is still expecting to complete these interviews and receive copies of written "Sulha" decisions or awards in addition to video-taped meetings of "Sulhas".
[4]cf. Sicking 1980: Religion et development.
[5]Many issues shall not be addressed by the paper: the Clanic structures and how it is being affected by modernity and the changing social and political contexts. The interaction between the process of mediation and the political process and the power struggle.
[6]A typical example is Hezbullah, which has organized conflict resolution forae and rules of its own.
[7]This trait is particularly appreciated when the "Muslih" has to intervene to contain an ongoing fight, which may involve the use of light or even heavy weapons.
[8]There may be found more than one "Muslih" in a given Clan.
[9]The role of "Muslih" involves expenses for receiving sometimes a great number of people, and inviting them for large luncheons or coffee. Sometimes, a number of "Muslihs" may chip-in to help in the payment of indemnities.
[10]Very often, the almost "function" of "Muslih" is handed down from father to son. It is not uncommon to see "Muslihs" accompanied by their junior assistants; practice acting in such case as a training process perpetuating the tradition.
[11]One "Muslih" stressed on the public-service to the community which he performs as well as a religious dimension to his mission. He quoted Imam Ali reported to have said: "To conciliate kins is better than prayer and fasting"
[12]Mediation is defined as the facilitation of an agreement between two or more disputing parties by an agreed upon third party; (Witty 1980)
[13]"Muslihs" furthermore refer to their opinion as a "Judgment" (Hukum).
[14]The "Muslihs" pride themselves to provide parties with a more accurate and just fact finding services than courts.
[15]It was related to the author hat in some instances, "Muslihs" have used evidence, and discovery documents that were collected by state prosecutors and court appointed experts.
[16]Sometimes, but very rarely, is the opinion of the "Muslih Committee" in written form.
[17]The cause of the dispute may be anything from: ownership of land or water rights, issues of honor (e.g. elopement), political disputes, or any other cause (the tail of a dog!).
[18]Also called "Surret el Arabee" (purse of the Arab).
[19]The sequence, timing and venue of the visits can be very sophisticated. For instance, in one recent
case, one party was escorted by a well renowned cleric to the other party's house, with the understanding that the latter will meet the delegation halfway on the street, before entering the house together.
[20]striking symbolic confidence-building action traditionally performed, consists of inviting the leaders of the disputing clans to shave to each other publicly during the reconciliation meeting.
[21]These types of disputes are particularly those honor related, such as elopement done without the consent of the bride or without that of her father or tutor.
[22]This is particularly the case when there is a difference in power and size between two disputing clans.
[23]A variation is to deliver the guilty person to the Police or to the other clan with a handkerchief tied around his neck.
[24]Pardon may be symbolized as follows: the clan cheikh of the victim throws his "abaya" (large outer robe) over the wrongdoer.

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