As citizens of this macro-reality, we can often feel as if we are but pawns in the vast global chess game being played by multinational corporations, traditional superpowers, new and emerging nuclear powers, and the economic pushbuttons of development and consumer capitalism. Within such a world, some may find it difficult to believe that our individual choices can make a difference in our communities. So what if a few dozen or even a few hundred people in our city get together for an interfaith meal? So what if families from different cultures living together in a town get to know each other? What difference does it make in the end? Political powers and other forces call the larger shots and will send us all into war and conflict if they so desire. Human nature being what it is, we will succumb to our baser instincts in hard times no matter how many positive interfaith or intercultural experiences we've had with others.
Critics of interfaith dialogue often make this case. They point to examples from Bosnia, the Middle East, Kashmir, Punjab, Rwanda and elsewhere to illustrate that people who coexist peacefully for centuries can be manipulated into barbarically killing each other relatively quickly. Tyrants, insurgents and other power-seekers have learned that cultural, ethnic, and/or religious differences can form natural fault lines in a given communal fabric, which can be exploited by skillful media messaging and the opportunistic staging of current events into powerfully persuasive political theater. Once the mass media have been harnessed, if not outright hijacked, power seekers can move populations as if mountains – whipping up mass fear, anger, hysteria and eventually an appetite for genocide.
Interfaith dialogue seems no match for these gargantuan modern monstrosities. And, in many cases, it isn't. The warmly felt bonds of interfaith harmony that thrive in times of relative peace and prosperity chill easily in times of strife and hardship, especially when political, economic or national security interests are at stake. In such times, usually all but a few individuals will succumb to fear, and then retreat to their respective religio-ethnic corners to prepare for a fight. The individuals who maintain their commitment to peaceful coexistence with their neighbors resist the fight, try to save their friends who have suddenly become "the enemy" because of their religion or ethnicity, and often lose their lives in the process. They may be heroes, to be sure, but they are dead. And they do not win in the end; the warmongers do – at least, most of the time.
But not all the time. Occasionally, we find exceptions to this all too common trajectory in human socio-political relations. Situations wherein populations held themselves together despite enormous pressures to fight and kill one another. Where community leaders resisted the gravitational pull of hatred that strips them of their voices and replaces them with those of fear mongers and peddlers of hatred. When we find these exceptions, we must review and analyze the exact conditions that made them possible in the first place, and determine if they can be replicated in other situations of strife and war.
I encountered such an exceptional situation this past spring while visiting Croatia. Fuzine is one of several quaint mountain villages in the district of Gorski Kotar in northern end of the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. I recently listened to the former governor of the district and a local radio producer tell their stories from the period of the war in 1991.
A Yugoslavian Army base camp was built near the district, on top of a hill. Normally, the existence of this base would have been the beginning of the end for peaceful relations between the Croat and Serbian villages of the district. Croats would view the base as a danger and a provocation, as well as a support camp to the Serbian villages. The Serbians, for their part, would have used the base as a "back-up" for their own violence against their Croat neighbors. Since violence begets violence, Croats or Serbs would make the first strike and the cycle would begin. Many would die, the villages would be destroyed, and the resulting "life" would resemble existence on the surface of the moon.
That's not what happened.
In a stunning turn of events, the municipal leaders of all the villages – Serb and Croat – approached the base commanders and established a relationship with them. After several meetings, it became clear that none of them wanted either to shoot at each other or to be shot. So, they made a written agreement that constituted the "terms" of their coexistence during those months. For example, when the Yugoslav army was required to fire on the villages, per orders from up the chain of command, they warned the citizens ahead of time and instructed them on how to survive the barrage. They provided the citizens with maps of the mines they laid. The village leaders returned the favor and provided base commanders with a "heads up" when they were forced, by public opinion and the radical fringe, to fire on the army base. The local radio producer treated the army base as another "village" in the district and reported its news, events, and played music for the troops, etc. They called the families of wounded guards to apologize – and did so publicly on the radio – when radical elements in their midst broke the agreement and fired on the soldiers. Media reports stayed ahead of the rumor mills, reported the facts of things, and controlled the message to minimize the inflammatory impact of the angry rhetoric coming from other sources.
As a result of the extraordinary bravery and commitment from people on both sides, no one from the district was killed and no one was taken to a wartime prison camp.
Leaders on both sides suffered consequences. Two of the base commanders went to prison for 12 years. One of them disappeared into the mists of "the system" while the other was killed by civilians after being released. The radio producer in Gorski Kotar was banned from media and only recently has begun to work again. Other city leaders voluntarily disappeared into anonymity – this story was kept quiet at first – so as to avoid persecution and death for their actions.
Upon analysis, a few things stand out about this exceptional situation. First of all, there were conditions on the ground that the village leaders exploited to their advantage. The Gorski Kotar district was somewhat geographically remote from the heart of the fighting during the war. As such, neither the base nor the villagers had direct daily involvement in the heart of the war's operations. Without interventions for peace that could have certainly changed, and the district could have become an additional center or "theater" of the war; however, the interventions took advantage of the district's "off the beaten path" status. An additional opportunity came in the fact that one of the base commanders was nearing retirement, weary of his job and of fighting, and was inclined to strike a deal with the villagers as long as he could save face. Therefore, when village leaders approached him and his colleagues with a plan for peaceful coexistence, they were ready to negotiate a plan that would let both sides fly under the radar of the larger war and possibly come away from it largely unscathed.
Secondly, media leaders took their share of responsibility for the creation and maintenance of the arrangement with the base camp, as well as for keeping the peace between the villages during particularly tense weeks. Put simply, radio and print media controlled the message in favor of peace. When infractions to the agreement happened from time to time, from both sides, reporting of the story was done in the least inflammatory way possible. For example, when the base camp did an obligatory firing on the villages (after warning the villagers of the times and locations) and accidentally damaged the radio transmission tower, the base commander sent his own soldiers to repair it immediately so that broadcasts could resume as soon as possible. More importantly, this fact was reported to the community so as to minimize anger and outrage over the incident. In short, media operatives used their power for peace and not for war. They recognized the power of media to incite, enflame, and create the larger narrative in which people experience things in their communities. Through skillful messaging and the coordination of communication lines, they maintained and nurtured the agreement for peace through its many months, creating the very conditions for peaceful coexistence.
Finally, we can see that community leaders in the villages refused to relinquish immediately their roles as leaders to the larger forces of the army. They easily could have done otherwise. Once the base camp was established, they could have decided that war was now inevitable, that their little villages stood no chance to resist the war tide rolling towards them, and that each village needed to now begin fortifying themselves against the army and each other, and prepare to fight and die.
They didn't do this. Instead, they banded together, created a plan, and took a huge risk in walking up the hill to the base camp and presenting it to the commanders. The creativity, courage and will power this required of them simply cannot be overstated. In the end, this human element is what makes the ultimate difference. Human beings are endowed with self-consciousness, agency and imagination, which allows us to not only visualize alternative scenarios in any given situation, but also to imagine and implement alternative courses of action within them – for ourselves and for others. These leaders together resisted the war tide, created an alternative possibility for their district, and bravely took radical steps to implement it. And it worked. Not flawlessly, but enough to keep their people, their homes and their way of life from going up in flames.
Can what happened in Gorski Kotar work everywhere? No and yes. No, in the sense that certain conditions in place on the ground in this district that contributed to the peace are not in place ubiquitously. Most army base commanders aren't open to illegal agreements with "enemy" villagers. Not all regional or district leaders – in the media or otherwise – have working relations good enough to band together in wartime to create and implement such a thing as this. Many other factors prevent any one exception, such as what happened in Gorski Kotar, from providing a stable template for peace easily applicable to any other situation. These situations are exceptions, after all.
Nevertheless, what happened here can be instructive for other areas. The positive and necessary role of media in maintaining the peace agreement in Gorski Kotar is abundantly clear. Those who find themselves in similar situations of religious and ethnic conflict will do well to procure access to media, if possible, sooner rather than later in order to shape the messaging toward peace and restraint, away from hatred and violence. Today's 21st century media technology resists totalitarian control in important ways, as recent events in Iran, China and even North Korea indicate. Those with skills can exploit media for peace as well as for war.
Finally, in the end, much turns on the simple power of human agency and choice, and the willingness of people to join together and exercise that agency in the direction of peace in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. Of course, such principled action plans don't always make a difference. In fact, such plans may often fail in times of war. But, they certainly have no chance of success at all if people give up on the fight from the beginning and refuse even to attempt to alter the course of things. On this point, people on the brink of war in all sorts of situations have at least a chance – perhaps not a big chance, but a chance nevertheless – to turn the tide in another direction, or at least to reduce the body count and carnage.
I am haunted by an image one of the community leaders in Gorski Kotar used in telling us their story when we met with them. The radio producer told us that media flies "as fast as a bird, as fast as the speed of light" even; however, it typically arrives after the dead bodies already lay on the ground. The producer and the other leaders in the community wanted to avoid bodies on the ground altogether. They wanted media to be faster than the dead.
It seems, in this case at least, they succeeded.
B. Jill Carroll is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University.