Sunday, April 27, 2008

Real Women Don't Throw Bombs

After four months of presidential primaries, what a refreshing contrast to see a woman speak forthrightly about justice and peace—especially at a time when the United States is indulged in saber-rattling with Iran.

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, writer, teacher and former judge recently stood up to an American audience, looked them in the eye and proclaimed: “Never have the problems of any country been solved through war.” (She came to Kalamazoo last week to participate in PeaceJam, an international peacemaking education program for youth.)

Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote democracy and human rights, especially those of women and children in Iran. She was the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to receive the award.

During the same week, Hillary Clinton, a lawyer, graduate of the elite institutions of Wellesley College and Yale Law School and former First Lady, said that the U.S. could obliterate Iran” if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. She is running for president and if she wins, she would be the first woman president in U.S. history.

Ebadi’s memoir, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, was banned in Iran because it criticizes the Islamic Republic government for its murder of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents, imposition of theocratic controls over women and restriction of human rights. Her book, published in the USA, has been interpreted in several languages and distributed all over the world.

Clinton, who has promoted women and children’s rights most of her professional life, wrote the book, It Takes a Village. Although it was mocked by her political opponents and right-wing info-tainment media hosts, the book made the New York Times Bestseller List in 1996 and a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album in 1997.

Ebadi believes that the strength of a chain lies in its smallest piece, therefore, it is essential that the strong protect the weak and most marginal people of society. Children are the most vulnerable because they are unable to protect themselves. She established the Iranian Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child as well as the Center for the Defense of Human Rights. She also drafted the original text of a law against physical abuse of children that was passed in 2002.

Clinton served as chairperson for the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) from 1986 to 1992. However, she failed to influence her husband when he signed the August 1996 welfare reform bill a.k.a. “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.” It was seen as a betrayal of poor women and children in order to ensure Bill Clinton’s re-election that fall. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the CDF and close friend of Hillary, called the law an “abomination.”

Ebadi believes that the education of children should be a country’s greatest investment, not the military. She recognizes that armies drain resources from the populace in order to support military ventures. Iran, which is wealthy through its abundant natural resources, continues to devote much of its treasury to the military while children from poor families must help support them by leaving school to sell flowers or beg.

Ebadi calls on her government, and governments all over the world, to decrease their military budgets by 10 percent and to dedicate that money to education. She also advises a ban on toys and computer games that promote violence and insists that children learn how to work for peaceful coexistence.

Clinton voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to take pre-emptive military action in Iraq and doesn’t regret it. She has consistently voted for war funding, which now amounts to nearly $600 billion through FY 2008. So far, this military venture has resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 Americans and one million Iraqis and the displacement of 4.5 million Iraqis from their homes.

Ebadi believes that a military attack on Iran would worsen what’s left of its tattered democracy. The government would only respond by using national security as an excuse to suppress more of the people’s human rights. Furthermore, she claims a U.S. attack would create further chaos in the region.

Clinton doesn’t offer any noticeable change from Bush’s foreign policy, which advocates U.S. domination in the Middle East. She has shied away from discussing the war in the presidential campaign as much as possible.

Ebadi knows the limitations of government. After serving as the first woman judge in Iran (1975-79) as head of the city court of Tehran at age 23, she lost her position because the Islamic Republic government deemed women incompetent to serve as judges.

Not willing to let a few mullahs to stop her, Ebadi continued to defend women and political dissidents. She also distributed evidence implicating government officials in the murders of students at the University of Tehran in 1999, which resulted in her imprisonment in 2000 and eventual disbarment. Through all of this she still teaches law at the University of Tehran and remains a wife and mother of two grown daughters.

Since she won the Peace Prize, Iranian authorities have tried three times to build a case against her. Currently, Ebadi is accused of having taken money from the U.S. to give to Akbar Ganji, an international award-winning journalist who calls for a replacement of Iran's theocratic system with “a secular democracy.” She regularly receives death threats for working against Islam and Iran.

As a young lawyer Clinton worked with the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate investigation. When her husband was governor of Arkansas, she promoted education reform. When her husband was president, she tried to advance universal health care. She ran for senator of New York and won twice.

Clinton has endured marital infidelity, public embarrassment, right-wing assaults on her character, and some losses in the presidential primaries. She is constantly asked the first question in the presidential debates. However, no matter what is dished out to her, she always gets up, brushes herself off, re-makes her image and presses onward. Through all of this, she remains a good mother and a faithful wife.

So how does each woman continue in the maelstrom of political and ideological crossfire?

Ebadi describes herself as stubborn. Others perceive her as courageous, tough, and possessing a sense of humor. However, there is no mistaking her seriousness of purpose or her willingness to put herself on the line to advocate for those who are unjustly persecuted by the powerful.

Clinton survives the hits by hitting back, maintaining her position, and resolving to win. Principle sometimes fails her in the process perhaps because she believes she has something to offer the world so the ends justify the means. Consequently, she uses race baiting, social class slurs and her love of guns and God to defeat her opponents. Party unity apparently means nothing to her and she would rather bludgeon her primary opponents and risk losing the general election than give up the possibility of the presidency, an office she deems she is entitled.

While I would like to see a woman president in my lifetime, I want a woman whose leadership offers just and peaceful solutions for resolving conflict rather than one who would imitate the aggressive and violent tactics of men.

Maybe Americans could swap Clinton for Ebadi.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Way to Peace Can Be Paved With Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Negotiation

Peace activists are often accused of being naïve dreamers when it comes to dealing with conflict or dangerous enemies.

So what is the alternative? Usually it’s to fight fire with fire (i.e., revenge and retaliation).

The very nature of peacemaking, however, is not to fight but rather to confront “the opponent” with intelligence, craftiness, humor and a thirst for justice. We have some splendid examples of this approach in Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, just to name a few. Skeptics recoil and sputter that such people were exceptions.

However, let’s not forget that these “peace heroes” inspired ordinary people to follow them and choose to become part of a movement for change.

Skeptics also claim that the American “sheeple” cannot be moved because they are asleep, unaware, too numb and too busy to care about injustices. They also say it is impossible to fight against the awesome power of Corporate America, Big Government and other power brokers.

OK, then maybe that’s a cue for peace activists’ next challenge: How can we inspire others so deeply that they choose to form a movement for change from violence and war to peace; from hatred to love; from revenge and retaliation to forgiveness and reconciliation; from an obstinate refusal to communicate to negotiation?

Let’s look at some recent examples of the impossible.

The Amish

On October 2, 2006, ten Amish girls were gunned down in a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

A community known for its gentleness, religious faith and the rejection of modern technological society had been severely violated. However, within six hours of the shooting, Amish leaders reached out to family members of the killer to let them know that they forgave him and still regarded them as part of the community.

The typical Amish attitude about forgiveness is: “We have to forgive others so that God will forgive us.” They formed this outlook on life 300 years ago when their ancestors, the Anabaptists, were persecuted and tortured by Catholic and Protestant religious authorities who objected to their belief in a second baptism. And even as they were burning at the stake, those same Anabaptist martyrs forgave their persecutors, just as Jesus did to his persecutors during his crucifixion 2,000 years before.

The Amish practice of humility, submission and patience “provides them with an enormous capacity to absorb adversity, forgo revenge and carry on-gracefully,” say the authors of Amish Grace, a book about the Nickel Mines community’s response to this terrible tragedy. It was forgiveness that opened everyone to grace and everyone and everything was suddenly changed.

South Africa

April 27, 1994, marked the day apartheid ended and all of South Africa voted. Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison after 27 years with 18 in solitary confinement, was elected South Africa’s first black president.

Mandela’s victory became even more incredible when he called on the post-apartheid government’s efforts to create peace and equality among the races. He did this by getting the new government to pass a general amnesty toward those who were guilty of the crimes and atrocities of apartheid as long as they made a full disclosure of all the facts of their activities.

The victims of apartheid would likewise waive their right to sue for compensation and instead accept reparations. Reparations, then, became a symbolic gesture of the nation that bore the victims’ pain and trauma. Mandela’s underlying assumption was that peace in South Africa could only be won when the people admitted that evil was present in everyone.

“We sat down and negotiated with our former enemies,” said Bishop Desmond Tutu, presidential appointee of the Truth and Reconciliation Committees, the key instrument in healing the wounds of apartheid. “We forgot the past, looked for the best in everyone, and came to terms with the ghastly things done by both sides.”

Tutu illustrated how this worked by citing an “incredibly moving” inter-faith service he attended in Pretoria.

Survivors who had endured the killing of 11 people in their community held hands with the white police officer who had given the order to kill their family and friends years before.

The officer had applied and was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but he also was required to make a public show of regret for his actions by asking the community to forgive him of his deeds. At first, the community was hostile toward him and disbelieved his repentance, but he pressed them to move beyond the past.

“In that moment, barriers toppled,” said Tutu, “and the community forgave him.”

“We don’t know how it can happen, but it happened. Former enemies were able to find one another in magnanimity, even after they experienced untold suffering. They all had good reasons for revenge, but by discovering their own capacities for evil as part of the whole picture of themselves, they were able to forgive and forget.”


Burundi is a geographically-isolated country in the Great Lakes region of east-central Africa with a population of 6 million, down considerably after four decades of civil war, genocide, displacement and an epidemic of HIV affecting nearly four percent of the adult population.

Roughly 85 percent of the population is of the marginalized Hutu ethnic origin while most of the minority is the politically dominant Tutsi.

The coffee-based economy (78 percent of its export trade) make it the lowest GDP per capita in the world at US$90 compared to $43,594 in the United States.

It’s no wonder that Burundi was recently declared the country with the lowest “satisfaction with life“. Howard Wolpe, currently director of the Africa Program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former seven-term U.S. congressman, had been working with Burundi for 10 years including five years as presidential special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region. After getting the go-ahead from the World Bank, Wolpe instituted the Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP), which aimed to develop the leaders’ communication and negotiation skills needed to guide Burundi’s recovery and transition to democracy.

Wolpe went beyond conventional diplomacy, which is usually aimed at obtaining a “quick acceptance” to agreements hammered out by lawyers. The missing element in that process is to take into consideration the personalities of the leaders who harbored decades of fear, mistrust and suspicion.

According to the Wilson Center Web site, the BLTP, “seeks to enable leaders from belligerent parties to address four challenges that are key to the achievement of a durable peace: (1) shifting key leaders from a zero-sum mindset to one that recognizes interdependence and the importance of collaboration; (2) rebuilding the trust and relationships among key leaders that have been fractured by conflict; (3) strengthening their communication and negotiation skills; and (4) rebuilding a consensus on how power should be organized and decisions made.”

The Burundi Program has been so successful that Wolpe has been invited to work with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and most recently, East Timor.

For those of us who want change we need to remember that just because our leadership does not possess the qualities of forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation, does not mean that “we the people” can’t. And if we really believe in democratic governance, then it is incumbent on us to initiate and “be the change” in order to show our leaders the way.

Forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation are not easy. However, they are essential if we are to move beyond our present divisions, hatreds, violence and war both at home and abroad.

Peace activists, in particular, can make a difference everyday to serve as bridges in our local communities so that the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation can spread throughout our country and the world.

This article appeared on Common Dreams on Friday, April 18, 2008.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What the Peace Movement Has Wrought and Opportunities for the Future

Millions of peace activists throughout the United States and the world were unable to prevent the Iraq War from starting and likewise, have been unsuccessful in stopping it. Some might say that the peace movement has been a failure.

However, something has changed among peace activists over these past five years of war. They focus less on George W. Bush and more on expanding the peace agenda through good works and advocacy.

For example, in my town last week peace activists held yet another night of fun and entertainment. This time it was a fundraiser for playground equipment for the newly-established Catholic Worker House whose focus is on poor neighborhood children.

A few weeks before an improv troupe put on a fundraiser for our district’s Department of Peace ( and the local peace group.

One of our group’s latest projects is Iraqi Health Now, which collects medicines and medical supplies to send them to Iraq where doctors need gauze, blood bags antibiotics and syringes. They sent their first box of supplies in December 2006. Last month they sent two semi-trucks full of medicine, supplies, toys and food. This local initiative is now part of Healing the Children.

Peace activists across the nation have also been circulating petitions to support Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s bill to establish a U.S. Department of Peace, which calls for providing practical, nonviolent solutions to the problems of domestic and international conflict.

Global warming, energy conservation and the local food movement have also captured the imaginations and volunteer hours of more and more activists.

Of course, peace activists continue to hold weekly street demonstrations as well as observances for the war’s fifth anniversary and the death of 4,000th American soldier. Many activists still do these things because they wish to witness for peace, stand up for victims of war, and challenge the government’s war policies. They also want their fellow citizens to know there IS and continues to be opposition to the war, especially since the mainstream media tend to shy away from covering peace and justice issues.

If horn honking at public demonstrations is a measure of support for peace, then activists have noticed fewer nasty remarks, scowls and bird flipping salutes. Nevertheless, those people who changed their minds about the war haven’t visibly joined the peace movement. Even the numbers of peace activists attending the demonstrations and activities have dwindled considerably.

Instead, local peace groups seem to nurture a “remnant crowd” that has consistently spoken out against war and injustice over the past 40 years. They have created a loving and open community, which allows them to keep the peace and justice agenda alive among themselves and among local citizens.

Unfortunately, neither African Americans nor Hispanics have showed up at peace demonstrations, at least in my town. Muslims and Arabs come out occasionally, but mostly for special events. Young people are barely involved and some college students even admit they don’t know a war is going on! (Actually, I find young people are more focused on the environmental movement.)

In other words, the peace activists have been largely composed of white, middle-aged, middle-class people. (In my research, the same types of people comprised the pro-war contingent.)

Fortunately, peace groups’ demonstrations, events, letters to the editor, visits to congressional representatives give the peace agenda a PUBLIC face and these efforts have surely contributed to declining support for the war.

In 2003 before the war began, 43 percent of Americans were against the war compared to 66 percent last month, according to CNN opinion poll. That’s real progress for peace.

However, Scott Ritter in his 2006 book, Target Iran, articulated another reason for the rise in anti-war sentiment. The former Marine Corps intelligence officer and U.N. weapons inspector claims that Americans like to win wars so when it looks like we’re losing, we also lose interest in the war.

This sentiment may have influenced the 2006 election when voters kicked out Republicans who supported the war and took over the majority in both the U.S. House and Senate. In February 2007 negative perceptions of the war were at 67 percent.

However, a year later the momentum changed. A February 2008 Pew Research Center poll found an even split (48-48) among Americans who believe the military effort in Iraq is going well and those who don’t. Obviously, the administration that sold this unjust, immoral, unnecessary war is now doing another PR job on Americans by touting the success of the surge.

Unfortunately, they are believing it. And it’s no wonder. These days there is precious little mention of the war in the mainstream media and certainly nothing on the death and displacement of Iraqis or the destruction of their country.

During the presidential primaries, candidates largely skirted the subject.

Concerns about the wobbling economy and dire mortgage crisis have superseded concerns about the war even though half a trillion dollars have been sunk into this fiasco.

One other difficult development peace activists have been unable to prevent is the increasingly negative perception of Muslims. The Progressive (February 2008) reported on the dastardly ways Republican presidential candidates tried to capitalize on Americans’ fears of Muslims by associating them with terrorism.

Likewise, films like Stop Loss illustrate that we are fomenting dangerous prejudicial feelings in our soldiers who fight in the Middle East. This stuff will spread as frustration over the endless war and the sinking economy increases.

Finally, if the peace movement has one glaring failing, it is in its relationship to the U.S. military. That work seems to have been taken up by military families and Bush supporters in the form of sending care packages and participating in send-off and welcome home ceremonies.

However, peace activists have a real opportunity here to demonstrate that peacemaking is about reconciliation. Returning soldiers need to be reunited with the community as full and participating citizens, says war psychologist Ed Tick in his book War and the Soul.

Tick, who has been working with Vietnam veterans with PTSD since 1978 and is now working with Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, says that soldiers must be forgiven for the acts they have committed on behalf of their nation. Who better than peace activists can do that!

Reconciliation with our Republican neighbors is yet another opportunity for peace activists in order to heal the divisions of our country after this disaster of an administration leaves office. I’m finding that more and more Republicans are expressing their painful embarrassment, utter dismay and sorrowful disorientation at having lost their party to the Bush gang.

So bemoaning and denigrating Bush (especially after he’s gone) does little for the real work ahead of us including environmental degradation, global warming, universal health care, housing, restoration of the public domain, post-carbon energy alternatives, education, etc.

Hope and integrity are qualities that characterize peace activists even though many Americans consider these qualities naïve. Let’s show them we CAN make a difference!

This article appeared on Common Dreams on Tuesday, April 8, 2008.