As the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) latest beheading became news today, the group’s brutal ambitions have become all the more apparent. The United States and its allies are expected to continue military operations for some time to come. Are such operations just?
Two major statements have arisen in recent weeks, each signed by numerous scholars, religious leaders, and activists. They take very different stands. One, put out by a group called Iraq Rescue, calls for military force against ISIS/ISIL and for arming its opponents. It advertises itself as being signed by conservatives, moderates, and liberals.
The other comes from a group of 53 religious voices who oppose the use of military force, cite Pope Francis in their favor, and call for alternative measures, including reconciliation initiatives and “just peace” practices.
Who is right?
Military force is both justified and necessary to stop ISIS/ISIL. Without it, thousands of preventable deaths of civilians, including communities of religious minorities, would have taken place and will take place. Force meets the criteria of the just war tradition and fulfills the “responsibility to protect” that the international community has articulated.
In the intermediate to long run, however, far more ought to be done to build a sustainable just peace on the ground in Iraq and in the region than has been done in recent years. Iraq has been riven by sectarian tensions for decades. Once the fall of Saddam took the lid off these tensions, they broke out into violence and have become bloody again since the departure of the U.S. military. If the United States wants to avoid another large scale intervention in Iraq, measures to address these tensions are critical. What is needed is reconciliation.
U.S. policymakers have spoken of reconciliation for Iraq for some time now. The 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group used the term 63 times. General David Petraeus promoted reconciliation to quell civil war. Most recently, the Obama Administration has appealed for a reconciliation by which Iraq’s Shiite government would include far more Sunnis and Kurds.
In most of these usages, reconciliation means something much like political compromise. Now, it must go deeper, addressing the wounds of the past. In the past generation, tens of countries around the world have sought to do this through truth commissions, reparations, and local reconciliation initiatives stressing healing, truth-telling, apology, forgiveness, and reparation, often under the guidance of religious leaders. (I have written about these here.)
Such measures will not be possible until the guns stop. Once they do, though, reconciliation can wait no longer. Reconciliation offers a deeper justice than does the use of force alone. In the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions, reconciliation is right relationship within and between communities. Reconciliation is also profoundly pragmatic. Apart from deeper repair, the kind of intervention that the U.S. wants to leave behind will not be avoidable.