An Analysis of the U.S. and Arab-Islamic Cross-Cultural Conflict Surrounding the Park51 Community Center - Part II

Read Part I

By understanding the cultural aspects at work, it is possible to lay out guidelines for a mediation model that will be appropriate to use in the context of the Park51 Community Center Conflict. Part I provided a brief background that illustrates relevant highlights of this dispute, and it analyzed the conflict by touching on specific cultural aspects. With these aspects in mind, Part II will briefly compare the American and Islamic mediation models and propose broad guidelines that may work appropriately in this context.

Comparison of Dispute Resolution Models and General Guidelines to Consider
Having analyzed a number of cultural aspects that have affected the dispute surrounding Park51, it is now possible to compare American and Arab-Islamic dispute resolution models. In doing so, appropriate general guidelines should be considered. While these proposed guidelines will primarily address mediation, some tenets may also be considered broadly across other forms of dispute resolution such as negotiation and arbitration.

Generally, American models of dispute resolution are driven by the high individualism culture discussed earlier, where the goal is to facilitate settlement based on a particular individual’s choices. The process would ideally be lead by a neutral, third party outsider who would be in the best position to allow parties to achieve their individualistic goals rather than reaching a resolution that necessarily benefits the greater good. Since American culture is low-context, linear-active, and monochromic, the process would likely constitute direct, step-by-step problem solving on a strict schedule; moreover, due to the mid-level power distance culture of the United States, the process would be aimed at empowering the parties to solve their own dispute in lieu of litigation. Because American culture is rooted in reliance on the legal system as a theory of fairness, the agreement would ideally be concluded with a formal agreement that is legally binding. Finally, as an individualistic culture that highly values personal privacy, the American process would formally mandate the agreement be strictly confidential. Taken in aggregate, most opponents of Park51 would likely find such a process most satisfactory.

Given the cultural aspects discussed above, an ideal Arab-Islamic dispute resolution model would look markedly different. At the core of such a model is the notion of low individualism (collectivist) that is communally oriented. Ideally, the process would be lead by a “neutral.” This would typically be an elder or religious leader that would move between mediating and guiding an agreement, and would aim to benefit the common good. As a high-context, multi-active, and polychronic culture, the process would likely focus on indirect, less structured problem solving that would look at the “big picture” and how the dispute could benefit the entire community. Because of the high-level power distance culture inherent in most Arab-Islamic cultures, the process would aim to empower leaders of the community to participate in controversies that could ultimately benefit the common good. Unlike the American model, this model would be based on religious authority and would not look as strongly at the American legal system as a guide for fairness. Lastly, as a collectivist culture intent on benefiting the greater good, a formal confidentiality agreement between a few individuals would likely not be embraced.

As the preceding discussion demonstrates, the ideal processes sought by these cultures are quite different. As such, the parties must be willing to be flexible in adopting an appropriate system of mediation that would be mutually agreeable. As a reminder, these proposed guidelines will primarily address mediation, but may also be considered broadly across other forms of dispute resolution. Moreover, as previously mentioned, the mediator and parties should also be aware of their actual or potential biases and not allow these biases to develop into stereotypes, discrimination, and racism.

Goal of process should combine individual and collectivist ideals: Undoubtedly, a major obstacle in combining a mutually agreeable process is the differences in high and low individualist cultures of Arab-Islamic and American cultures respectively. As a result, the goal of the process should merge both ideals. This can be accomplished by inviting a total of four representatives from each side to the mediation and designating that two shall represent “individual” interests while the other two shall represent “broad policy considerations.” While “individual” constituents would include figures such as Pamela Geller who are controversial and aim at representing a particular view, “broad” constituents would include less controversial figures, such as world renowned peacemakers, that would promote ideals to benefit the common good.

Mediator should be unbiased and have experience with U.S. and Arab-Islamic disputes: Another major impediment is who should be designated to mediate the dispute. While American culture would prefer the mediator be a neutral, unaffiliated, third party, Arab-Islamic culture would prefer the mediator be an unbiased insider with connections to the dispute. As a compromise, the mediator should be unbiased and, at the very least, have experience with U.S. and Arab-Islamic disputes. Moreover, if a mediator has connections to the dispute and would like to bring his or her personal experience to the table, he or she may be permitted to mediate if there is no opposition by any party. Though this compromise is imperfect, it hopefully will serve as a first step in constructing an agreeable process to select a mediator whose role will be clearly defined.

Process aimed at empowering parties to solve problems as individuals and for the common good: As a corollary of the first guideline which will merge individual and collectivist ideals, the process will be aimed at empowering both sides to solve problems as individuals and for the common good. After all, if each party has “individual” and “broad” representatives, the goals of both low and high individualist cultures should be equally represented. Again, while this system may need to be tinkered, it will hopefully provide a rough from framework.

Process would foster a hybrid structure differentiating scheduling in morning and afternoon sessions: Perhaps one the most foreseeable obstacles in the process is the difference of how American and Arab-Islamic culture orient time. While Americans are linear active and monochronic, Arab-Islamic culture is multi-active and polychronic. In an attempt to reconcile these differences, the day would be split into two distinct formats. The morning session would generally consist of a strict schedule and direct communication between the parties while the afternoon would consist of a more general schedule where caucuses and more indirect speech are used. As such, the linear-active/monochronic parties would benefit most from the morning session and the multi-active/polychronic parties would take advantage of the afternoon sessions. Since Lewis notes that parties are usually reluctant to adapt in this context, the mediator should qualify the process beforehand and state that the format is a compromise and designed to take both parties’ processing styles into account.

Confidentiality would be voted upon and, in the case of an impasse, would be decided by the mediator: As discussed, both American and Arab-Islamic cultures differ on their views toward a formal confidentiality agreement. Consequently, a system where the parties vote whether the entire agreement, or portions of the agreement, should be kept confidential would be most appropriate. In the event of a stalemate scenario, the unbiased, neutral mediator will weigh the pros and cons and make a determination. Such a method could also be used to establish whether or not the agreement will be legally binding within the American court system.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Muslim cultural center has resulted in a familiar melee between U.S. and Arab-Islamic cultures. Originally proposed as a center to foster intercultural and interfaith dialogue, Park51 has resulted in a proverbial hotbed of controversy.

Examining the cultural aspects of the conflict and the stark differences between these cultures generally, it is no surprise that a consternation has developed. Specifically, American culture is generally highly individualistic, low-context, a mid-level power distance culture, and linear-active/monochronic. Arab-Islamic culture, in contrast, is generally collectivist, high-context, a high-level power distance culture, and multi-active/polychronic. Moreover, while American culture is rooted in its legal system as a bastion of fairness, Arab-Islamic culture typically uses religion as a basis for resolving disputes.

With these cultural attributes in mind, it is logical that parties from each culture would ideally want their dispute resolution system to reflect their own tendencies. However, in an attempt to compromise a mediation model that would merge these attributes, certain guidelines have been suggested. Though these proposed guidelines primarily addressed mediation, some facets may also be considered broadly across other forms of dispute resolution such as negotiation and arbitration.

Undoubtedly, as it has for thousands of years, this cultural clash will likely be revisited again numerous times in the future. While it is not realistic to resolve this melee through a swift, single swoop, there should be general guidelines that may serve to merge the cultural differences. By taking this first step in this process, both parties may find an agreeable solution to Park51. With the entire world watching the events unfold in New York, this is a great opportunity for both parties to set a solid foundation that could greatly impact U.S. and Arab-Islamic relations in the future.

by Mark Materna
See Jane Juliano, Muslim Dispute Resolution in America: A Challenge to Religious Pluralism, Wesley Seminary, December 12, 2005, 17-18 available at

Mark Materna is receiving his Masters in Dispute Resolution and Juris Doctorate at Pepperdine University School of Law. He is currently studying international law and arbitration in London and has been published on the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal. Upon graduation from law school, Mark plans on returning to the east coast to begin his legal career. He graduated cum laude from University of Pennsylvania and enjoys traveling, running, and speaks Polish!