By Catherine Wilson
July 10 2012
In the culturally diverse Highlands of Papua New Guinea, tribal warfare, often employed to “pay back” wrongs done to a clan or settle community disputes, has a long history.
But as tribal fighting increasingly features the use of guns rather than spears — and decimates villages and social cohesion — members of the country’s Islamic Society are quietly taking the initiative to open avenues of community dialogue. Their long-term aim is to change attitudes toward violence through Islam’s philosophy of peace.
Peoples of this island nation have traded with Muslim Malay empires since the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that visitors from Southeast Asia actively introduced the faith.
The Islamic Society of Papua New Guinea was formed in 1983, and Islam soon acquired a following in the Highlands, especially the Southern and Western Highlands and Simbu, Jiwaka and Oro provinces, where the religion’s principles were perceived to have a strong affinity with local cultures and societies.
Today, there are approximately 2,000 Muslims in Papua New Guinea. The main center for national activities and worship is the mosque located in Port Moresby, built in 2001 with generous international donations, including US$100,000 from the Indonesian government.
In a meeting at the mosque, head imam of Papua New Guinea, Mikail Abdul Aziz, said that tribal fighting was impoverishing people and devastating lives.
“When a person kills another, or burns the house of another person, this destroys the community and deprives the community of development,” he said. “If the school is burned, this will deprive children of education. When the hospital is burned, where will the women go to give birth?
“It is turning people into refugees as they flee conflict and take refuge in areas where they have no access to water, shelter or food,” he continued.
In October last year, conflict broke out between the Agarabi and Kamano tribes in Kainantu, a town in the Eastern Highlands, during which a settlement was razed and 15 people killed.
In another incident, 3,000 tribesmen using high-powered guns clashed during a land dispute in Mamale village in Laiagam district, Enga province.
According to an Oxfam report, inequality and land issues are key causes of conflict in the Highlands. Unequal wealth distribution, lack of economic opportunities and a decline in services, including health and education, are seen as factors in contemporary social grievances.
Abdul Aziz said that in the Highlands, people have been warriors’ for generations, fighting has become a way of life and he didn’t expect people to change their ways overnight. He emphasized that the approach of the Islamic Society through community dialogue was to appeal to people’s admirable qualities.
Successful community engagement was dependent on enabling the individual or group’s best attributes.
“The first thing we do in the Highlands is address the goodness of the people and their strengths, rather than their weaknesses,” Abdul Aziz said. “In the Highlands, they always welcome people; they listen to their leaders and are hard workers.”
One of the initial challenges the Islamic Society faced in the Highlands, was dispelling interpretations of tribal fighting as jihad.
“It is not jihad,” Abdul Aziz said. “The first jihad is within ourselves; it is the struggle for ourselves.”
He said there was no equivalence between the believer’s struggle to live as a Muslim and warfare waged to settle community disputes or achieve power or economic gain over another social group.
Members are also concerned that increasingly excessive demands for monetary compensation in tribal dispute mediation is perpetuating the cycle of violence. Compensation alone leaves victims without justice and perpetrators free to re-offend. When the root causes of grievances are not addressed, they compound as a burden for the next generation.
“Using compensation to resolve disputes is making the situation worse,” Abdul Aziz said. “If a person kills someone, he will be asked to pay compensation. This has led to a culture where people are encouraged to commit or provoke crimes in order to obtain money.”
General Secretary of the Islamic Society, Yaqub Amaki, pointed out the individual’s accountability for the life he leads on earth.
“Islam teaches personal responsibility for salvation,” Amaki explained. “In Islam, you really have to strive yourself to go to heaven, to lead a good life. We let people know the importance of forgiveness.”
Amaki said reducing the prevalence of tribal violence involved long-term social changes.
“Many Muslims have taken up leadership roles in Highland communities as councilors and chiefs and are starting to exert a positive influence,” Abdul Aziz continued. “They do this by renouncing alcohol, gambling and using money for the benefit of everyone in the family, rather than harming others, and leading a life that is a good example to children.”
The society also emphasizes that it does not encourage tribalism, promoting the tenet that there is no difference between men.
But progress in addressing tribal fighting will also be dependent on improved socioeconomic conditions. Oxfam recommends: “Improved distribution and quality of services and other tangible signs of development must be provided to ensure that people across the [Highlands] region feel they have all benefited from development activities.”
In the years ahead, the Islamic Society aims to set up a centre in the Highlands in order to work more actively and closely with local communities.