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29 Nov, 1998

Situation Wanted: Neutral, Trustworthy Peacemakers

Originally Published:  29 Nov 1998

I am poring through a book called ‘Who’s Who of Religions.” Edited by Professor John Hinnells, former Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Manchester, the book is a detailed compilation of the lives, writings and philosophies of hundreds of prophets and popes, disciples and apostles, imams and rabbis, gurus and pundits who have graced history over the years.

While their teachings have enriched the experience of life, there has always been someone who has disagreed with them. Ninety-five per cent, or possibly more, of the illuminaries listed in the book are men. Each of them has propagated a set of beliefs, values and creeds that in one way or another was designed to provide The Answer to both global and local problems.

Very few of those theories survived the lifetimes of their proponents. Soon after their deaths, or indeed during their lifetime itself, rifts and schisms emerged as opponents pooh-poohed their thoughts and came up with versions that they believed to be more water-tight. These people made their mark on history, developed a following, and then faded into the sunset. Only a few have survived philosophically to any substantial degree.

The world today has about 250 countries and territories. But within those political boundaries that we call ‘countries’, there are thousands of borderless cultures, creeds, sects and castes, each with their own winning formula and way of life. They place their trust in everything from the sun and the stars to animals and trees to statues and idols, to an omniscient and omnipotent Creator.

Invariably, conflicts have emerged as one group seeks to foist its views upon another. These conflicts were compounded if the leaders of one or another group were persecuted or executed, setting the stage for historical enmities that very quickly become political and, in the absence of any moves to reconcile differences, degenerated quickly thereafter.

Paradoxically, that often defeated the purpose of the founder whose main objective, in most cases, was to propagate peace, happiness and co-existence.

In the last 10 years or so, a management clichÈ that has gained considerable credence worldwide is to think global and act local. In a way, that is how many of the original thinkers started off, by seeking to address a local problem, making it work and then seeking to expand that solution globally.

Invariably, they quickly discovered that what works in one place is resisted in another. People are just created different, and have an innate desire to be different. As birds of a feather flock together, any threat from another flock of birds quickly leads to a circling of the wagons. Once conflict erupts, the borderline between political, social, cultural or religious differences quickly becomes fudged and at some stage ceases to make a difference at all. Meanwhile, the killings continue.

The greater the world’s population, the greater the propensity for conflict. Local conflicts can also become regional or global conflicts, destroying lives and livelihoods across broad swathes of territory and indeed sweeping up people who may have had nothing to do with the original conflict in the first place.

What good does this do? None at all. Conflicts by their very nature are not designed to do any good, except in the minds of their instigators who are usually the ones least affected by them.

As the world approaches the end of this Millennium, dozens of ‘little conflicts’ have replaced bigger conflicts, hot or cold. Is there room for hope that these can and will be resolved? Certainly.

For one thing, those who have instigated conflicts have invariably pinned their hopes on the support of the uneducated, illiterate, poor and frustrated. Just as disease thrives in unsanitary conditions, so too can people’s minds be poisoned by those with vested interests that have usually more to do with the pursuit of power and vaingloriousness than anything else.

Eliminate those unsanitary conditions, and the threat recedes. Similarly, a highly-educated, versatile and knowledgeable population should, in theory, lay the foundation for a more sensible and rational, family-based society.

Until recently, anyone wishing to whip up local passions had to have access to some form of communication link. While speeches in the local square were one thing, those speeches had to be transmitted well beyond in order to generate maximum impact. Newspapers had some impact, radio had a little bit more, and now there is television and the Internet.

As the world is discovering, people standing behind podiums in a location very remote from the point of conflict can suddenly become experts in outlining their versions of solutions that often do nothing except add to that conflict. The phrase, “mind your own business,” does not apply to anyone anywhere anymore.

The propagation of such simplistic, one-sided solutions, can be highly dangerous and further inflame an already volatile situation. Very often, solutions are best found in privacy, away from spotlights under the glare of which saving face often assumes greater importance than saving lives.

Democratic solutions arrived at by consensus have a better chance of succeeding than those imposed by dictat. The problem is that the number of people involved in the process is increasing. Worse, every conflict is becoming highly politicised and indeed being fanned. Year after year, the Pope prays for global peace, as do millions of others. Year after year, those prayers go unanswered.

Those who pretend to be peacemakers have a moral and ethical responsibility to be first and foremost neutral, balanced and non-judgmental. If they cannot abide by those policies, they should stay out of those conflicts.

The United Nations, set up in the aftermath of World War II to maintain global peace, is struggling severely to keep the peace in several hotspots but has virtually no role to play in promoting it.

Can religious leaders like those listed in the Who’s Who of Religions fill the gap? Should they be given a chance? Could they bring to the table a greater calming influence and no hidden agendas? Could they be trusted and indeed come up with better outside-the-box problem-solving ideas? Should a global group of such leaders be set up? If so, who should appoint them, and how?

A world without such neutral peacemakers is a highly dangerous place. At a time when insecurity and volatility is at an all-time high, new apolitical approaches to peacemaking need to be urgently explored. Perhaps there is scope for a greater involvement by women, not those who resemble Margaret Thatcher but rather Mother Teresa.