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Apologies

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

In recent years offering apologies for the errors, transgressions, or violence of the past has became quite a regular feature in international affairs. Thus we recently had the Pope in Israel nearly apologising for Catholic silence during the Nazi regime. Months earlier there were Christians marching to Jerusalem to apologise to the Jews and Muslims for the Crusades. And so on. Some of these events are just over 50 years old while others go back 1000 years.

It is a sign of progress that some leaders are at least acknowledging their predecessors' or group's historic participation in past tragedies. Acknowledgement seems in most cases to be both the least that can be done, and the most that will ever be done. However, apologies and acknowledgement do not automatically lead to reconciliation.

Apologies and acknowledgement should be accompanied by actions along radically different paths, away from the past. Otherwise, apology is spin. Or worse, apology is a form of defence. Indeed, the original Greek roots of 'apology' mean to 'speak in one's defence'. Only in the late 16th century did the current meaning of the word come into being.

For countless barbarities by the powerful, there is not even an apology; defensiveness continues.

On the 9 and 10 of April 1948 the Irgun and Stern gangs terrorised the population of a little Palestinian village, Deir Yasin. About two thirds of the inhabitants were killed, and many fled fearing for their lives or because their property was destroyed. This was all part of a campaign to force Palestinians to leave their homes and land and clear the territory for Jewish settlement. While no apology has appeared in Israel, this year a commemoration of the event in Britain is reported to have been attended by 'left wing' Jewish activists such as those in Peace Now. Their presence is supposed to stand-in for the absence of 'official' Jewish acknowledgement of the terror and murder in Deir Yasin.

Of a completely different order are the internationally recognised war crimes tribunals such as that for the genocide in Rwanda held in Tanzania, and that on the Bosnian terror held in The Hague. In these cases, a legal process forces recognition of wrongs by perpetrators on them. More significantly it punishes the perpetrators. Such a process is flawed and less than comprehensive because many criminals are not caught. However, it ought to signal to future politically motivated mass murderers that the world is watching and that internationally recognised procedures are in place.

But so many perpetrators in cases of political terror and ethnic and religious violence and abuse will never be brought to trial. Neither will there be any apologies or acknowledgement for numerous cases of state-sponsored or collective brutality.