Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

Gerard Powers says religious actorts do important work in peacebuilding around the world
Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

It is always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers did that recently at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University in a speech regarding extremism, conflict and peacebuilding. Powers is the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

“Wars of religion”

Powers made two basic points.  One is that the “war of religions” paradigm is frequently unhelpful and diverts attention away from other causes of conflict such as the role played by the foreign policy of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis in what Powers called the “peace of religion.” He described those efforts as “unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed.”

Some of the world’s conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists such as ISIS in the Middle East, but there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work which are not primarily religious in nature.  The rise of ISIS, for example, has included support from former secular Bathists in Iraq who were sidelined when the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS.

Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. had warned against military intervention in Iraq but the U.S government did not heed that advice.

“Peace of religion”

Regarding peacebuilding, Powers said, religious leaders and ordinary people motivated by their faith have do important work in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In many societies religious institutions are ubiquitous and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread.

In Colombia, for example, a local priest might travel in “no-go” areas and reach out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both the victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer’s confession.

The “track two” or soft power diplomacy provided by religious and other civil society actors, said Powers, supplements what he called the “track one” diplomacy engaged in by politicians and diplomats.

Powers said the “peace of religion” efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their faith and to the vocation of their religious institutions.

Poor diplomacy

Powers added that there is among Western governments a secular bias which ignores religion, wishes it would go away, or that, at the least, it would remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider “good religion” while at the same time discrediting “bad religion” in foreign countries.

This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works and often plays into the narrative of religious extremists such as those in ISIS.

 

Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914, Creative Commons photo
Christmas Truce 1914, Creative Commons photo

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. There were a lot of parades and bravado as young Canadians marched off to enlist,  expecting to defeat the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians and to be home by Christmas. It did not turn out that way, as the sides dug in for muddy and brutal trench warfare along lines in Belgium and France.

Canadians were not home for Christmas but something exceptional did happen at the front among German and allied soldiers. Estimates are that up to 100,000 British and German participated in an unofficial ceasefire along the Western Front. There was also a Christmas truce on the Eastern front which, although lesser known, involved Austrian and Russian soldiers.

In the West, the truce started on Christmas Eve, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in Belgium. They placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then they sang carols, and the British responded with carols of their own. Men from the two sides called out Christmas greetings to each other. Soon after, they crossed No Man’s Land to exchange small gifts, such as food, tobacco, alcohol and souvenirs. They even played soccer.  Continue reading Christmas Truce 1914

Remembrance Day 2014 in Ottawa

Heather Menzies (left), Rosalie Reynolds lay wreath of white poppies
Heather Menzies (left), Rosalie Reynolds lay wreath of white poppies

There was a little-noticed twist to this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. About an hour after the end of the official speeches, jet fighter flybys and canon salutes, a small group of people gathered at the memorial to lay a wreath decorated with white poppies to accompany the red ones that had been placed there earlier.

“I will be wearing both the red poppy and the white today,” said Heather Menzies of Ottawa, a member of the Voice of Women for Peace and of the White Poppy Coalition. “The red to honour Nathan Cirillo who was killed standing guard at Canada’s War Memorial, and the white to honour the compassion in the face of violence showed [those] passers by who rushed forward to help.”

Menzies, who is also the incoming chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, added: “I wear the red poppy for those who step forward when war becomes necessary, and the white to keep asking why: why war should ever be necessary.”

She spoke for perhaps five minutes. Her remarks were respectful toward military veterans – her father was one – even while she raised points that had gone largely unrecognized in earlier official remarks by the Governor General and other speakers.

Menzies was surrounded by a small group of about 20 supporters and a larger number of people who had remained on site following the official ceremonies. She was treated respectfully by everyone there with the exception of one middle-aged male heckler who was ignored and soon left.

Civiilian deaths

Elizabeth Whitmore, another speaker at the event, said that it is often forgotten that most wars kill more civilians than combatants. (There was in this year’s official ceremonies virtually no mention of civilian deaths and casualties).

Estimates are that 17 million people died in the First World War, about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. In the Second World War, the estimated death toll was 60 million. Civilian deaths are calculated to have been 38 million. Those deaths outnumbered those of the 22 million military who died.

White poppy coalition

A note from the White Poppy Coalition that was circulated to supporters prior to the event described the ceremony as “an alternative and comprehensive means of remembering all those who died and are dying, injured, or displaced by war: soldier and civilian alike. The white poppy is a symbol for the alternative to war as a means of conflict resolution. It is a pledge to work to end war and the suffering it causes.”

White poppies were first worn on Armistice Day 1933 by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in Great Britain. The white poppy idea arose from the wives, mothers, sisters and lovers of the men who had died and been injured in World War One. The women were increasingly concerned about the likelihood of another war and chose the white poppy as a symbol of a pledge to work for peace and in opposition to war.

War Memorial rededicated

At this year’s official Remembrance Day ceremony, the National War Memorial was rededicated by Governor General David Johnston. Princess Anne was in attendance and read a brief message from her mother, Queen Elizabeth. The war memorial was first dedicated by King George VI in May 1939, to mark the sacrifices of those who fought in the First World War. The Second World War began just months later.

PeaceQuest

A group called PeaceQuest says that although it respects the military sacrifices made by Canadians, it believes that the government should also rededicate the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. And if the government won’t, then citizens should.

The group, which began in Kingston and has working groups in Ottawa and several other cities, says it wants to provide a “counter narrative” to the government’s attempts to paint Canada as a militaristic nation. Their intention is to encourage people to look at Canada in terms that go beyond attempts to portray us as a warrior nation.

 

Noble Illusions and other summer reading

Stephen Dale, Noble Illusions
Stephen Dale, Noble Illusions

Early every summer I collect books which I plan to read during the long solstice days that lie ahead but  by late August or early September I find myself feeling frustrated by how much of that list remains unfinished. Here, then, is that list for this summer. I can’t claim to have completed each of these four books. I am part of the way through some of them and have had to content myself with knowledgeable reviews of the others.

Noble Illusions, by Stephen Dale: Ottawa-based writer Stephen Dale has written a polemical book about the First World War. Dale has discovered a boys’ annual called Young Canada and he examines its use of propaganda to glorify the racist colonial wars that preceded the so-called Great War. Dale writes that a publication whose stated purpose was to instruct young men in the cultivation of everyday virtues was used to glorify brutal wars as being valorous and righteous.

Young Canada, Dale says, helped to persuade a generation of young Canadians to head eagerly for the deadly trenches of Europe. He worries that politicians today are using the centenary of the First World War in a similar way by attempting to revive a sense of military duty embodied in the generation that served in the trenches. Some of our leaders want to instill that same unwavering and unthinking loyalty again.

Peacemakers

Peacemakers, by Douglas Roche:  The 85-year-old Roche his written his 21st book, a herculean feat for someone who has also been a Member of Parliament, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations and an independent Senator. Roche has made a career out of harnessing Parliament and international fora, most notably the UN, to find political and diplomatic roads toward greater peace and justice in the world.

Roche claims that, despite what we observe on the television news each day, there are remarkable developments occurring that promote peace.  Despite vicious wars in Syria and elsewhere and the violent standoff in Ukraine, Roche spoke of his cautious optimism in an interview with The Catholic Register newspaper: “There is less violence now,” he said. “There are fewer wars. The economic and social development of people in Africa and Asia is on a steep up curve. There are many things happening that have increased the prospects for peace.”

Roche says that this will be his last book and certainly he deserves a time of rest and leisure, but it is also poignant news because he has contributed so much.

The War that Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan:  We are observing the centenary of the catastrophic First World War and MacMillan, a Canadian historian, had it timed right with the release of this book late in 2013. MacMillan, in the tradition of the American historian Barbara Tuchman, is a master at characterization and anecdote, all based on exhaustive research. So we see the weaknesses and foibles of Europe’s monarchical leaders at the time — Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the British king, George V, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and others, not to mention their various ministers and advisors.

The questions which have been long debated are how did it happen and who was at fault? MacMillan does a masterful job of providing the context and rounding out the characters involved but ultimately shies away from coming down on any one side in the blame game – there is plenty of that to go around.

Jimmy Carter: A Call to Action

A Call to Action, by Jimmy Carter: Perhaps Douglas Roche should engage in a friendly competition with Jimmy Carter, the former American president who is approaching his 90th birthday. Carter has just written his 28th book and in it he continues to be outspoken on theme of gender. Carter says that the most serious challenge facing the world today is the subjugation and abuse of women and girls. He provides detail from his own travel and experience about the continuing incidence of  sexual assault, rape, lack of education and equal pay, the genocide of female fetuses, female genital mutilation, honor killings, dowry deaths and sex trafficking.

Carter takes aim at leaders of the world’s religions as often condoning and even encouraging the subjugation of women. He even severed his lifelong ties with the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue. Carter writes in A Call to Action that religious texts are interpreted “almost exclusively by powerful male leaders within the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other faiths, to proclaim the lower status of women and girls. This claim that women are inferior before God spreads to the secular world to justify gross and sustained acts of discrimination and violence against them.”

There are those who say that Carter has spent the latter decades of his life attempting to redeem the reputation of his one-term presidency and his subsequent loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. One commentator, writing for the Religious News Service, says that religion functions better at the margins of society than in the halls of power, and that Carter exemplifies that dictum. Once out of office, Cater was no longer limited by political considerations and he has been free to speak truth to power, even that of the U.S government, and to act righteously – in the best sense of that word.

The politics of annexation in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, Wikipedia photo
Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, Wikipedia photo

George Melnyk is a founder and former director of the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary, and he is also a close observer of the events unfolding in Ukraine. In this guest piece, Melnyk says the Canadian left is wrong in supporting Russia’s contrived rebellion in Ukraine.    

The situation in Ukraine has been overshadowed by the horrors of Gaza with its more than 2000 dead and thousands injured, as well as hundreds of thousands of traumatized children. With Stephen Harper’s undiminished support for Israel, it is no wonder that progressive Canadians who identify with the Palestinian desire for freedom and independence have been confused on Ukraine.

Harper is equally vociferous in his support for the Ukrainian government, and his anti-Russian rhetoric against Vladimir Putin seems very much like his glorify and demonize approach on Israel and Palestine. However, to separate Harper’s position on Palestine from his position on Ukraine, we must view each situation on its own merits.

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on July 26, the Prime Minister described the situation in Ukraine as “a threat to Europe, to the rule of law and to the values that bind Western nations.” He pointed the finger at “Russia’s aggressive militarism and expansionism.” It is this characterization that bothers the Canadian left, especially when it comes from someone whose over-all foreign policy they abhor.

Domination,  annexation

The left tends to accept the argument that Russia has an inherent right to either control or guide Ukrainian affairs in its self-interest, either because Russia has a “right” to a buffer between Europe and itself, or because Russia has dominated Ukraine for several centuries prior to the country’s independence in 1991. Secondly, the left agrees with the Russian annexation of a significant part of Ukraine (Crimea) earlier this year.  Again, the rationale is that Russia has a right to the place, no matter how contrived and undemocratic the process. The Canadian left seems to have fallen for Russian propaganda that Ukraine is under the control of “fascists” because these categories were accepted currency in the good old days of capitalist and communist camps. However, viewing Putin as some kind of social progressive and the Ukrainian government as reactionary is a complete misreading of socio-political ideologies and realities.

The principled position 

The Canadian left should view this matter from a principled position. As long as Putin felt that he could control Ukrainian affairs it was business as usual. But when the “Euromaidan” revolution brought about the overthrow of its pro-Russian president, Putin moved into high gear discrediting the revolution, creating a fake uprising in Crimea, and launching a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The Ukrainian people responded by voting for a new president in a democratic manner. Those in the areas still controlled by “separatists” had no such freedom or right. If the Canadian left, which has a long history of supporting popular uprisings against dictators and empires, could find its way to see that the February revolution was a democratic revolution against corruption and foreign manipulation, it would support it.

The distrust of Ukrainian nationalism, which goes back to the Soviet era, was very much tied to the Canadian left’s support for communist Russia and its opposition to American imperialism. In the Cold War era only the Soviet Union had the political might to balance that of the U.S. But this legacy of opposition to imperialism, of which the left can be proud, has to be even-handed and applied fairly in the post-communist era. Opposition to American imperialism should not ignore Russian imperialism, or Israeli imperialism, or any attack, overt or covert, on small nations.

Support the Ukrainian revolution

The Ukrainian revolution is one that deserves the support of the Canadian left because of its emphasis on democracy and pluralism. Ukraine’s wanting to embrace Europe and the West is something to be applauded, not reviled. As someone who has been active in the contemporary peace movement, I have applied my peace principles to the conflict in Ukraine. As an opponent of war, I decry the killing that has gone on in that country because of a contrived “rebellion” instigated, directed, and supplied by a foreign power. Since April there have been over 1100 civilian deaths and a quarter-million displaced people, as well as military casualties.

As an anti-war activist,  I accept the right of small and weak nations to defend themselves as best they can. In supporting Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, I am supporting a democratic revolution against imperialism and a dictatorial Russian regime, in the same way that I have supported and continue to support Canadian independence, democracy and sovereignty against foreign intrigues and domination.

PeaceQuest wants Peace Tower rededicated

Peace Tower in Ottawa. Dennis Gruending photo
Peace Tower in Ottawa. Dennis Gruending photo

One hundred years ago this month Europe stumbled into a catastrophic war after a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne along with his wife in Sarajevo. The great powers lined up in their alliances and when Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada, as a British colony, was automatically plunged into a conflict that killed and maimed an astonishing 37 million people. Among them were 61,000 Canadian dead and another 150,000 wounded.

The Globe and Mail reports that the Conservative government plans to spend $83 million over the next six years to commemorate this and other of Canada’s wars — a figure that does not include the $30 million already spent celebrating the War of 1812. Among the plans is one to rededicate the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

A group called PeaceQuest, however, says that although it respects the military sacrifices made by Canadians, it believes that the government should also rededicate the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. And if it won’t, then citizens should.

This poses an interesting clash of iconic images. The 92-metre Peace Tower, perhaps the country’s most recognized monument, serves as a backdrop each year to Canada Day ceremonies. The tower was initially designed as a monument to Canadians who died during the First World War but it also contains strong peace elements — including a stone sculpted dove — which describe a desire for peace.

The National War Memorial is the backdrop for annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, which always have a militaristic tinge to them. The memorial was built to commemorate the response of Canadians in the First World War but ironically it was unveiled in May 1939, just months before the onset of the Second World War.

The Globe and Mail quotes from a document in which the chief of Defence Staff outlines commemorative plans based on the belief that Canada’s unique identity “stems in significant part from its achievement in times of war.”

Although I have no access to Defence Department deliberations, I was able to wander into a recent meeting of PeaceQuest in an Ottawa church hall. PeaceQuest originated in Kingston, Ontario and now has a small chapter in Ottawa, with similar plans for other cities and towns. One of those involved is Jamie Swift, who works in Kingston for The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, and is the co-author of the book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.

Swift explained that PeaceQuest is not interested in a partisan effort or the politics of opposition. Instead, it wants to provide a “counter narrative” to the government’s attempts to paint Canada as a militaristic nation. He says that PeaceQuest encourages people to look at Canada in more broad terms. Nor does PeaceQuest intend to create a new organization. It has chosen rather, to provide thought and resources that will be of interest to people in their faith groups, in schools and in among writers and artists.

In the group meeting in Ottawa, a number of potential plans were discussed. Several, in addition to rededicating the Peace Tower, piqued my interest. One is to build upon the Christmas Truce of Dec. 24, 1914, when German soldiers in the trenches along the Western front in Belgium and France sang carols and decorated Christmas trees. Before long (and much to the chagrin of their senior officers), soldiers from both sides exchanged greetings and presents and engaged in a soccer game on no-man’s land. This amounted to an informal ceasefire that lasted up to a week in some areas along the trenches.

The event has been memorialized in books and a video, and people at the PeaceQuest meeting talked about ways to celebrate that same spirit of peace in December 2014. So stay tuned.

This piece appeared in slightly different form as a United Church Observer blog on July 9, 2014.

Nonviolence, spirituality and social transformation

Heather Eaton, conflict studies professor at Saint Paul University. Photo courtesy of SPU
Heather Eaton, conflict studies professor at Saint Paul University. Photo courtesy of SPU

Heather Eaton says that Canadians have much to learn about nonviolence and its effect on social change. Eaton, a professor in conflict studies at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University, says that the topic of nonviolence is largely absent in the country’s popular and academic circles. “Nonviolence is gaining prominence all over the world,” she recently told me, “but few academics in Canada know how sophisticated it is in theory and practice.”

Using nonviolent resistance, many Aboriginal leaders — particular those within the Idle No More  movement — are working for social change. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have organized blockades for years over issues of land reform. Mi’kmaq and Elsipogtog First Nations communities in New Brunswick are involved in anti-fracking nonviolent resistance in that province.

According to Eaton, Canadians often “ignore or are ignorant” of Aboriginal peoples. But their dilemmas are serious. After all, they must “resist continual and oppressive government policies around land, water, education and governance,” she says.

In 2013, Eaton went to India to learn more about nonviolence from Ekta Parishad, a Gandhian association seeking land reform. The group worked with villages for five years and organized a month-long walk, which included 100,000 people. Ultimately, Ekta Parishad was successful in negotiating sustainable land regulations in the country.Says Eaton: “I walked 20 kilometres a day with people who were very poor and often without shoes. They were well organized and disciplined, eating one meal a day, and that really made me think about peace efforts, protests, petitions and other means we use for social change here. The difference was stark and compelling. I found that nonviolent resistance requires so much training, organizing, effort and courage.”

One of those leading the Ekta Parishad nonviolent action was a man named P.V. Rajagopal. Eaton describes him as one of the foremost leaders, teachers and practitioners of nonviolence in India. She has invited him to spend four days at a conference that she’s hosting at Saint Paul University in May. The primary goal is to begin a serious conversation on nonviolence in Canada, according to Eaton. Other attendees will include Alain Tsuchdin, an activist academic from South Africa; Heather Milton Lightning, who works on the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign; and Raffi Cavourkian, renowned for his music for children and the Child Honouring Centre. Canadian peace organizations, such as Project Ploughshares, Peace Quest and Ceasefire.ca, will be attending, too.

Eaton says that it’s fitting that the conference is being held at a university with a religious mandate. Although raising the importance of nonviolence crosses a variety of academic domains, for Eaton, it’s grounded in religion and spirituality.

This article appeared as a blog on the United Church Observer website on April 10, 2014. Information about the May 8-11 conference on nonviolence at Saint Paul University in Ottawa is available by clicking HERE.

Canada and the propaganda war in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin trades propaganda barbs with the West
Vladimir Putin trades propaganda barbs with the West

Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. There is no war in Ukraine yet, but the potentially violent standoff has been accompanied by an inflated war of words, which includes no small measure of hypocrisy on all sides. In Canada, both Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have compared Russia President Vladimir Putin to Adolph Hitler. Baird even compared the Russian action in Crimea to that of the Nazis’ invasion of Sudetenland in 1938. If that’s the case, then why hasn’t Canada pulled its athletes from the Paralympic Games in Sochi, as one Canadian newspaper columnist has asked.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also indulged in a Putin-as-Hitler reference — this coming from someone whose country has invaded Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua (twice), Panama, Grenada, and Vietnam in the 20th century. You can add to this list America’s engineered overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), and its placement of compliant dictators in these countries. There was also the invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on the fabricated allegation that then-President Saddam Hussein amassed and intended to use weapons of mass destruction. Interestingly, the West compared Hussein to Hitler, too.

Propaganda works best when it takes a dollop of truth before distorting it. The West once celebrated Putin as a liberal reformer but has come to understand that he is no such thing. He exists somewhere on a continuum running from schoolyard bully to authoritarian dictator. But he is neither a Hitler nor a Stalin.

Although Viktor Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency in a 2010 election widely considered to be fair, he quickly showed himself to be incredibly corrupt. Still, it was his turning his back on a promised free trade agreement with the European Union that led to massive demonstrations in recent months and his ouster more recently.

But the Russians suspect, with some justification, that demonstrations in Ukraine were partly the work of right-wing Ukrainian nationalists assisted by the West. This claim strikes a deep chord among Russians because of the great sacrifices that were made fighting fascists in the Second World War. And if the West indeed orchestrated the ouster of an elected president based on his own corruption, it is certainly on thin ice. After all, it has supported its fair share of corrupt dictators in the past.

For his part, Putin persists in the big lie that Crimea is Russian in character because they are the dominant ethic group and he says they have defended the territory with their blood against all invaders.  The problem with this narrative, according to University of Toronto professor Victor Ostapchuk, is that Crimea had for much longer been the home land of the Tatars, who are also Muslims.

After the Russians conquered Crimea in the 19th century, they forced two-thirds of the Tatar population to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire and replaced then with Slavic colonists.  Then in 1944 Joseph Stalin loaded almost the entire remaining Tatar population onto cattle cars and deposited them in Central Asia, where about half of them perished. That was accompanied by another round of colonization in Crimea, mainly by Russians.

When many of the Tatars began to return to Crimea in the late 1980s, they found their homes and lands had been expropriated by others. Crimea, whose population in 2001 was 58% Russian, is now considered by most Russian speakers living there to be territory that belongs to them – but they ignore their own brutal banishment of the Tatars.

We are mostly spectators in the propaganda games being played in Ukraine. But we owe it to ourselves to read, watch and listen to what is being said by players on all sides — and to do so with critical discernment.

This article appeared in shorter form, in my United Church Observer blog on March 13, 2014.