One of the major take-home points for me from “Teaching Peace in the 21st Century Workshop” organized by Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, in conjunction with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, in June 2016, is the exposition by Dr George A. Lopez on the components of peace. According the Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies, peace is a function of four elements: truth, justice, love and freedom.
The world is largely in a mess today because everyone pays lip service to loving peace without being committed to truth, justice, love and freedom. The international arena is replete with many examples just as there are illustrations in the way people relate with one another at the interpersonal level. Peace is not just about sloganeering that we are peace-loving; peace is about speaking and standing by the truth, observing justice in all situations, having love for others and making people free from all forms of oppression and discrimination. Perhaps, the approaches of two countries to tragedies would illustrate this critical need of our world.
On Friday, March 15, 2019, the most dastardly terrorist attack in the modern history of New Zealand happened in Christchurch. That day, a White supremacist called Brenton Harrison Tarrant viciously attacked Muslim faithful as they converged on Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center for their Friday prayers.
After the grisly and premeditated attacks, which were partly live-streamed on Facebook, 51 Muslims were killed while additional 40 were injured. The world was horrified and the sole attacker was arrested. The terrorist bore his blame alone, not his religion, though it was apparent that it was an ideology-related crime; not his place of birth, as it was revealed he is from Australia. When he decided to plead guilty, he was sentenced to a life imprisonment (without the possibility of parole) on August 27, 2020. Again, neither his religion nor his place of origin was on trial.
But that tragedy revealed a great leader who was little known before then. That the true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis, as Brian Tracy said, delightfully manifested in the youthful New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who proved her mettle to the impressed world. Her actions after the attacks, reactions to the ensuing developments and interactions with the victim’s families as well as her soothing words reverberated across the world.
Everyone, including the aggrieved and bereaved Muslims, was satisfied by her truthfulness by calling a spade a spade or a terrorist attack by its name. She showed love and demonstrated it by wearing the Muslim scarf while condoling with the bereaved families. She made it clear that Muslims are free citizens like others and accepted responsibility for the burial of the victims. She showed empathy, demonstrated honesty and displayed sincerity. She noted that “the whole country was united in grief” with the Muslim community and everyone appreciated her candor, composure and demeanor. “Jacindamania”, or fervent admiration of the Prime Minister, swept across the world, not just New Zealand, so much that millions of people started to pay attention to her and her country. She emerged a heroine and her popularity continued to soar till she won a landslide victory in the October 17, 2020 national elections.
Meanwhile, there had been a surge in Islamaphobic rhetoric in France starting with the publication of offensive cartoons, originally published by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, by Chalie Hebdo, a French rhetorical magazine, so-called, on February 9, 2006. The French President then, Jacques Chirac, condemned the “overt provocations” while scolding the publication that “anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.”
Charlie Hebdo has continued to heighten racism and stoke anti-Islamic prejudice in France since then but the problem reached a tragic dimension on January 7, 2015 when two French-born brothers of Algerian descent, Said and Cherif Kouachi, stormed the publication’s offices, killing 11 people in the process. The attacks were widely condemned and it was noted that, as the President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the main organization representing French Muslims, Mohammed Moussaoui, said, “Nothing can justify violence.”
This year, precisely on September 1, Charlie Hebdo indicated that it would re-publish the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that had caused problems in the country before. Rather than hide behind the finger of freedom of speech, which is not applicable to anti-semitism, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, could have appealed to the newspaper to shelve the idea as former President Chirac would have done. Rather, he gave a tacit approval by saying it wasn’t his responsibility “to pass judgement on the editorial choice of a journalist or newsroom, never. Because we have freedom of the press.”
On October 2, the French President escalated the brewing bigotry by referring to Islam as a “religion in crisis”, which attracted condemnations from Muslims around the world. Such rhetoric was the context for the unfortunate savage attack and beheading of Samuel Paty, a school teacher who showed his pupils the same cartoons of the Prophet. The attack was carried out on October 16 by an 18-year man of Chechen origin. Justice would have required dealing decisively with the murderer but what followed was the closure of a Paris mosque (as if the mosque sent the boy on that mission) and the declaration by the President on October 22 that “we will not give up cartoons” as if offensive cartoons against Islam are as a state policy.
Diplomatic rows and further attacks happened dividing the country further, especially the inexcusable knife attacks that resulted in the death of three people at a church in Nice on October 29. All-in-all, what is apparent is a failure of leadership as the situation has assumed an emergency note with the ongoing “Boycott France” campaigns in many Muslim countries.
“One of the tests of leadership”, Arnold Glasow once said, “is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Apparently, this is not the case in France as leadership fails to unite people but seeks to polarize them further along racial cum religious lines while freedom is being restricted to the freedom to repress and oppress the Muslim minority.
THE WAY FORWARD
Human beings have made so much progress that we have been to the moon and back, with our “eyes” permanent in the space as satellites. Yet, it is scandalous that we have not been able to cross the bridge of hatred to the side of love and peace. We have failed to overcome our prejudice by extending a hand of fellowship to our neighbor, the vulnerable, the minority and the other. There is thus a lot of needless toxicity, violence, acrimony and bloodshed in the world which all constitute an open sore that assails our global conscience. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift.
In his “A Message to Intellectuals” released on August 29, 1948, Albert Einstein noted that scientific development and technological progress are not enough to save our collective humanity. According to him, “by painful experience, we have learnt that rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of our social life. Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind…creating the means for his own mass destruction. This, indeed, is a tragedy of overwhelming poignancy.”
To reverse the march of this tragedy, the way forward is for the world leaders to be true advocates on peace, truth, justice, love and freedom. Rather than maintain their fixation on power, arms, attacks, weaponry and gung-ho tactics, they should heal the wounds of the world through purposive words and positive actions, not disproportionate reactions and gross inactions. They should lead by example through showing love, empathy, compassion, consideration, fairness and restraint regardless of where they came from or mode of worship.
Mahfouz A. Adedimeji, PhD
University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria