Top-down national reconciliation initiatives overlook the significance of, and connection between, story and culture in social conflict resolution. Such initiatives also prioritize reconciliation between political parties and not between the various pockets of a pluralistic society. Given the legacies of repression in Iraq, both pre and post 2003, storytelling as an instrument of transitional justice can promote national reconciliation by engaging with and emphasizing localized, restorative peacebuilding practices that centre individual and communal grievances.
Storytelling approaches from the bottom-up are subjective, and that is the point. When engaging with transitional justice, there are facts based on documentation, numbers of people missing or killed for example – and that’s the empirical evidence. But then we have the subjective stories taught by different parties.
Iraq is a very pluralistic society. There are Arabs, Kurds, Mandaeans, Shabak, Assyrians and Yazidis for example. So it is ethnically diverse by way of indigeneity. And these indigenous groups have been pushed out of Iraq since 2003 due to genocide, due to pressure and violence from terrorist groups. To rely on storytelling based approaches is to invite all these people to tell their stories, engage with the consequences of having these stories shared publicly, and assume responsibility for their role in oppressing others.
Storytelling can be constructive or destructive. Since 2003, there has been a sectarianisation process, which has pushed discrimination through its stories against an ethnic identity. But this can be countered with constructive storytelling.
Constructive storytelling invites the listener and the teller to engage together in a dynamic that’s positive, as opposed to divisive and polarising. This process brings people together. It could be done in the classroom or legal system. It can be done through restorative education or restorative transitional justice.
Restorative education refers to changing the syllabi in school to encourage students to engage in storytelling and to encourage students to collect stories, oral histories, that their families, their communities and bring them and use that collected knowledge to challenge the status quo. We want to challenge the destructive stories that have been pushed from the top-down, that are pushing discrimination and sectarianism.
In restorative education, the educator and the student have to have a similar kind of dynamic between that of the storyteller and the listener – they have to engage together, they have to be accepting, they have to be respectful, of each other, and they aim to challenge the status quo. This restorative education can take place in the classroom, but it can also take place outside the classroom. During the protest movement, the Tishreen movement protesters went out and shared their stories in the form of chants, slogans, art, graffiti, music, etc. Those were an example of constructive stories – inviting positive change. Constructing museums is another example of positive storytelling. As long as it is inclusive of diverse and real-lived histories.
Going back to restorative justice, one can rely on the court system, but it would be better if this court system was built in parallel to other restorative practices.
When the US was in Iraq, it established the Iraqi high tribunal to prosecute Saddam Hussein, which later evolved to take a form which Iraqis wanted – run by Iraqi judges and enforcing Iraqi law. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission running parallel to that tribunal would have been ideal. While the trial focused on punitive justice, a truth and reconciliation commission would have helped rebuild social bonds and a social contract where people came together and share how they were a victim to Saddam Hussein’s crimes.
We can learn from other countries’ experiences without blindly adapting their methods. South Africa and Rwanda provide good example of successful truth and reconciliation efforts. With insight from these experiences, a new transitional justice framework can be developed for the Iraqi context that takes into account the country’s historical, social, and political contexts. Such a framework would empower people to speak up and feel safe while sharing their stories as well as accept that one may have been complicit in the violence against others.
Constructive storytelling would invite everyone to listen to each other’s stories and engage in a reflective process that would make them question whether they were actually complicit in crimes against others and make an effort to rectify the situation where possible.
Punitive measures invite guilt and shame, but restorative practices focus more on the act, than on labelling a person a criminal and inviting them to rectify their acts through measures that are constructive.
I conducted this research independently by referring to the literature on storytelling, pedagogy, and transitional justice, as well as social constructionism.