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One of the more remarkable movements of modern times is Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they might solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. Although it is not affiliated with any organised religion, AA was founded on Christian principles, and its success has spawned various other twelve step programmes such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.

A striking feature of AA is the degree to which social barriers are broken down. AA meetings are attended by diverse groups of people whom would not normally associate with each other. If you were to attend an AA meeting in Wellington tomorrow, you could well end up sitting between a current member of parliament and someone who has just been released from prison; or between a person who is a household name and someone who has spent the last few years living under a bridge. You would meet people whom are very different from each other, yet have all been outcasts in their own individual ways.

This is one of the organisation's strengths. Instead of looking for differences, members look for similarities and avoid judging each other. Nowhere is this more miraculous than in strife-torn countries where people who would otherwise have been enemies have found common ground in AA.

I recently read about a Muslim alcoholic who attended his first AA meeting in Israel. The other members of the group were all Jewish. There was no animosity between them. The Jewish alcoholics welcomed him with open arms, found him an Arabic copy of the AA Big Book and helped him take his first steps towards sobriety. For all of them, AA was a haven away from suicide...

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