Harvard Divinity School, January 29, 2015
Remarks offered by Jeff Seul, Chair of the Peace Appeal Foundation
If we focus narrowly on the perspectives and actions of the Charlie Hebdo attackers and their victims on the magazine’s staff, there are few contemporary situations that seem more polarized and intractable.
Restricting our field of vision in this way, one may well be inclined to characterize our current situation as a hopeless clash of civilizations. As Nicholas Kristof of the NYT pointed out in a recent editorial, some in the West now see “Islam as inherently extremist,” and some Muslims he has interviewed around the world see the U.S. (and, no doubt, France and other Western, or Western influenced, countries) as “an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam.”
Polarized perspectives like these share certain characteristics. They are partial narratives with foregone conclusions. They are partial in two senses of that word: they exclude information and perspectives that won’t fit neatly into the narrative, and they sift and interpret the remaining information and perspectives in biased ways. These neat little stories lead to seemingly inevitable conclusions, often justifying extreme, coercive, even violent, action.
Civilizations, cultures, identity groups – whatever we may call them, and whatever their contestable contours may be – are never monolithic and static. They are internally diverse and dynamic, and the polarized narratives tend to lose their coherence and sense of inevitability as we both widen our field of vision and sharpen our focus within it.
As we open up to the true messiness of our current situation, resisting overly neat little narratives, I believe we will begin to see practical possibilities for shifting the dynamic over time; ways to begin making a seemingly intractable situation tractable.
As I’ve listened to and read many diverse voices over the past couple of weeks – religious and secular, Muslim and non-Muslim, French and non-French, liberal and moderate and conservative – I’ve realized the messiness of my own perspectives on the situation. I’ve found myself wanting to affirm many perspectives, even when they seem to diverge, when the voices sound a bit cacophonous together.
I say “no” to the violence – to the killing – of course. There is too much killing, and not only in Paris, and not only in the name of militant forms of Islam.
But I say “yes” to free speech, and “yes” to exercising that right responsibly, and even “yes” to possible curtailment of the free-speech norm in some cases. And “yes” to possible reappraisal of contemporary Islamic norms regarding blasphemy, as some Muslims intellectuals have urged.
“Yes” to not holding the vast number of moderate Muslims responsible for the actions of the relatively very small (but substantial and demonstrably potent and apparently growing) percentage of Muslims who are violently militant, and “yes” to encouraging even more reflective speech and action from moderate Muslims in response to militant forms of Islam.
“Yes” to police and military protection, and “yes” to concerns about living in a police state and exacerbating tensions and perpetuating violence through dominant Western states’ excessive show of force to extend and safeguard their interests.
One way to open up to the true messiness of our situation and to begin to learn and discover practical options for shifting the current dynamic is dialogue within and between communities. There have been many calls for dialogue following from the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has acknowledged that he intended to spark a vigorous debate this week by saying that a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” exists within France.
Federica Mogherini, the EU Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, said this week that “[w]e need . . . a dialogue” to face the issue of terrorism, which she does not see as an issue between the West writ large and Islam writ large.
When asked what he thought of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, mused that the world would be a nicer place if everyone respected everyone else’s opinion. He added, “Unless we learn to respect one another, it will be very difficult in a world of different views and different cultures and civilizations. We won’t be able to engage in a serious dialogue . . .”.
But calls to dialogue generally are just that. Little is offered in terms of the who and what and how and why of these proposed dialogues. And fledgling efforts at dialogue too often are ill conceived, and so fizzle or fall short. When they do occur, they often occur exclusively through highly formalized and constrained legal, political and diplomatic mechanisms.
The organization of which I’m a part, the Peace Appeal Foundation, helps stakeholders in conflicts create and sustain their own broadly inclusive peace and national dialogue processes. We think a lot about how authentic, constructive, and ultimately action-oriented conversations can begin and be sustained in highly complex, charged, usually violent situations.
I’d like to offer a thought or two about some of the qualities dialogues about our current situation must have in order to produce change over the long-run. I’ll focus on three qualities of genuine dialogue that seem especially germane to the events and controversies we’re considering tonight.
The first quality I’ll emphasize is need for honest, analytical attention to the dialogue context, including history.
The second quality is the spirit in which people must meet.
Finally, on the substance – on the principles and policies and practices at stake in any genuine dialogue – I’d emphasize the need for openness to compromise, even some compromise of principles we hold most dear when that’s required to serve other principles we hold dear, or principles others hold dear.
Humanitarian Assistance Facilitation Act (HAFA) Will Remove Barriers to Charity and Peacebuilding - "The Humanitarian Assistance Facilitation Act (HAFA) is bipartisan legislation that would remove barriers that humanitarian aid and peacebuilding groups face when working in conflict zones."
Click here to contact your representative in support of HAFA.
The U.S. Supreme Court soon will decide whether peacemakers can be sent to jail for trying to end civil wars and promote human rights. The central issue in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which comes before the court today, is whether conflict resolution professionals and human rights advocates are providing “material support” to terrorist organizations when they attempt to persuade members of violent resistance movements to comply with international law, teach them how to pursue their causes through the legal system, and include them in talks designed to end hostilities. The lower courts essentially held that training, advocacy, facilitation and similar forms of assistance intended to end violence and promote the rule of law are not prohibited under the anti-terrorism statute the government seeks to apply to these activities. The Supreme Court should affirm and expand the lower courts’ decisions.
Groups that use violence against noncombatants are deemed terrorist organizations under U.S. law. This characterization is premised on the belief, which I share, that violence against innocents is reprehensible and far exceeds the bounds of fair play, no matter how legitimate a group’s desire for political recognition or independence. Talk and nonviolent forms of advocacy are how politics should be played.
How ironic, then, that U.S. law could be interpreted to prohibit NGOs from helping representatives of foreign governments and members of opposition groups talk with one another; teaching opposition leaders how to use national and international legal processes, rather than weapons, to register their grievances; and training combatants how to comply with the Geneva Conventions while violence persists. Prohibiting material support that furthers violence makes good sense, and the statute at issue in the case does indeed explicitly ban provision of weapons, lethal substances, money, and similar items. However, the statute also contains vague prohibitions on “training,” “expert advice or assistance” and “services” that encompass forms of political expression designed to reduce violence, as well as activities that promote or enable violence.
My organization, the Peace Appeal Foundation, whose founders include five Nobel Peace Laureates, helps construct and facilitate peace processes upon invitation from parties to a conflict. Why is the Obama administration, like the Clinton and Bush administrations before it, arguing that U.S. law should be interpreted to preclude the peace and human rights promoting work of our organization, the Carter Center, Human Rights Watch, and other NGOs represented in the case? It argues that Congress intended to preclude on national security grounds all forms of support to groups designated as terrorist organizations. The record of Congress’ deliberations is far from clear on this point, however, and the statute itself explicitly exempts some forms of support to designated terrorist organizations.
No doubt the real reason successive administrations have attempted to apply the law to activities designed to reduce violence and increase human rights compliance is a desire to determine who engages with groups they have chosen to designate as terrorist organizations, as well as the terms of engagement. This rationale, if true, should inspire both sympathy and concern.
It should inspire our sympathy because NGOs have come to play an increasingly significant role in international affairs over the past several decades, making invaluable contributions, but sometimes also complicating the work of diplomats and other officials. To be sure, it also is true that some groups use legitimate activities as fronts for weapons trafficking, money laundering, and providing training in combat techniques to designated terrorist groups.
Nonetheless, a law banning activities intended to reduce violence and promote human rights is cause for serious concern for a several reasons:
As applied to peacemaking activities and human rights work, these concerns undercut the logic of any
law or policy that subjects political expression intended to reduce violence and promote the rule of law to prior, and potentially arbitrary, government restraint.
The administration’s security concerns are real and significant, yet they can be addressed in ways that impinge less on other national interests and the civil rights of advocates for peace and the rule of law. For example, Congress could amend the statute to require U.S.-based groups and individuals doing conflict resolution and human rights work to provide the government with notice of the fact that they are interacting with members of designated terrorist organizations. Wherever our organization is active, we go out of our way, with the knowledge of the national stakeholders, to inform the U.S. and other foreign governments of our activities and create opportunities for them to participate in appropriate elements of the process. Our experience in numerous conflict zones, including Nepal, where we helped end a decades-long civil war between the former monarch and a group designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, confirms that conflicts are seldom resolved without the active involvement and support of the international community.
Another reason successive administrations have attempted to enforce the material support statute against peacemakers may be a belief that the best way to deal with resistance movements that have resorted to violence is to attempt to discredit and isolate them. If true, this rationale is misguided. These groups often have legitimate grievances that fall on deaf ears within governments that may be
oppressive or corrupt. In many of the conflicts in which members of our organization have been active, including South Africa, Sri Lanka and Nepal, resistance groups advocated nonviolently for recognition and rights for years before the hawkish elements within them turned to violence.
As the Clinton administration’s experience in Northern Ireland demonstrates, peace does not break out spontaneously. Parties must talk, and the legitimate grievances and political representatives of resistance groups must be recognized as such, even as violent conduct is legitimately condemned.
Obama campaigned on the premise that talk matters in international relations, and that talk can work.
Let’s not punish the peacemakers as they attempt to affirm that principle.
Jeff Seul is chairman of the Peace Appeal Foundation.
BLOG - ARCHIVES