“All conflicts are identity conflicts…” — John Paul Lederach, Conflict Transformation Class, 2005
Growing up in Australia, identity was always a perplexing matter for me. My parents had emigrated from Hong Kong soon after the formal abolition of the White Australia Policy under the Whitlam Labor Government. As the only Chinese kid at school, my early school memories included being teased for being ‘Ching Chong’ and outwardly funny comments about small eyes. Unbeknownst to my parents, I secretly wished for blond hair and blue eyes to fit in like everyone else.
Ironically, upon graduation and relocating to Asia for work, the reverse happened when locals kept asking why I looked like everyone else but spoke like a foreigner. Quickly I learnt to disguise my identity by adopting colloquial slang. Over the process of time, new social identity demarcations adopted from work and family replaced identity conflicts of the past. Today, just as my hometown Australia has become a welcoming cultural melting pot, no longer do I view differing aspects of identity as being mutually exclusive or incompatible, but as a celebration of diversity.
It came as a surprise therefore, when these memories resurfaced during our recent class on Identity and Storytelling. Our professor Dr Dicky Sofjan, had asked a simple yet provocative question, ‘When you wake up in the morning, who do you see when you look in the mirror?’ We were to answer in priority of gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, social class etc. The resulting range of responses led me to a deeper opportunity of thought not only as to who we represented to others and self, but also whether and how it had influenced our chosen areas of work. What stories of the past still influence our present identity?
Upon reflection, I concluded that identity is an ongoing dynamic process, not static nor fixed, but represented by different spectacle frames through which we perceive the world. Whilst most have come to terms with our current frame of identity, the reality is that our past frames still influence our views of the world, how we project ourselves, and how we react to others. This further affects how we see and judge ourselves and others within the collective.
Like snapshots of memories, these frames do not simply vanish over time but become filters that act to crop away, dim, tint, or highlight information presented before us according to preselected lenses. Problems arise when biasedness contributes to negative judgement of situations causing us to choose one course of action over another. Unless we can objectively reframe and resolve unmet basic needs such as past rejection and fear causing such slants, our vision will be forever distorted, which affects not only ourselves, but also those we lead, and those causes we champion.
Our effectiveness as peacemakers relies on the neutrality of the frames that we put on. How well we understand our own identity determines whether we perceive others either to be allies to build bridges, or opponents to be conquered. Constructive win-win resolution requires deeper understanding of underlying needs that drive behaviours and identities of others and self. Only by allowing ourselves to explore alternative points of views outside of what we are accustomed and defined, will we create positive and sustainable peace.
Christina Cheng – Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More
I want to tell you about an incident that changed my outlook on security programs forever. And, I hope it does the same to you.
After spending four years in the tech world working as a software engineer, I set out on a journey to become a peacebuilder some eight years ago. I was grateful to have found a way into the field I was always passionate about. However, I lacked professional experience or theoretical knowledge to back up that enthusiasm. I went through tons of educational material on countering terrorism to compensate for that gap. I devoured several theories on why individuals get radicalized. I learned about religious, socio-economic, financial, and many other broad reasons.
At that period, I was presented with an opportunity to speak to some of the prisoners in a country whose name I cannot tell you. But it was a prison where prisoners from different countries were brought in for its de-radicalization / disengagement program. The opportunity to speak with the prisoners came with a non-disclosure agreement covering the prison name and the country in public records.
At 10:30 am, I arrived at the prison on a cloudy and incredibly humid day, which did not help me control my already heavy perspiration fuelled by the adrenaline. I was given only 30 minutes to speak with them, of which the first ten minutes were a talk with the religious cleric who was in charge of de-radicalization and the next 20 minutes for the assigned prisoners. Being both excited and nervous about the opportunity, I prepared my questions in advance. Determined not to waste any time, I had a full-proof plan to jump right into tough questions.
The first ten minutes with the religious cleric helped me calm my nerves. The cleric was a good-humored old imam who visited the prison two times a week to teach Quran verses to the inmates. He told me that clerics of other faiths also visited the prison and offer teachings to inmates per their choice of religion.
After the priest, I met a young Afghan man named Ahmed (named changed for respect and security). He must not have been more than 25 years of age. He was in jail for launching a grenade attack on a local police station in Afghanistan.
He was calm and composed. I offered a brief hello and jumped into questions. He said he had been in prison for two years, and his trial is still incomplete. I asked him about his crime, to which he confirmed attacking a police station with a grenade launcher, an attack that killed two police officers and injured five. I inquired who asked him to carry out the attack. He said it was his own decision. I asked if he was religious, and he said yes. I asked if he was inspired to commit the attack based on religious framed terrorist propaganda. He answered a simple no. Even though he hadn’t met them, I asked if he felt any sense of belonging with his brothers after the attack, a reason most quoted in academia as the primary reason given for youth traveling far and joining terrorist organizations. To this question, the expression on his face showed that he had no idea what I was referring to. I asked if he belonged to a group and whether he received any money for his actions. He said that he didn’t know any terrorist groups, never spoken to any members, and never received any money. And now that he is in jail, there’s no one to earn an income at home, and his parents and siblings live a hard life.
This experience was over eight years ago, and I had barely started in the field. If given another chance today, I would ask better questions. Anyway, I was getting nothing out of it, and the time was running out. I closed my notebook, looked at him, and asked- so why did you do it? He told me a story in response, most of which I am paraphrasing here for brevity.
Ahmed and his family – mother, father, two brothers (elder and younger) and one sister lived in rural Afghanistan province. His family owned a small piece of land in the village, which his father had to mortgage to a local police officer one summer after a draught. Despite how much the family tried to pay off the debt, they could not pay for the land over the following three years. The local police officer then, using his power, influence, and intimidation, did not just take over the mortgaged piece of land, but also some other attached land owned by the family. The family begged the police for help, but they received more threats and insults instead of receiving any support. They would speak very aggressively with his parents, and some officers even passed remarks on his sister. It inflamed him, yet he decided to remain silent.
This kept happening to many families. But a few years later, when he heard this was happening to the family of a girl he intended to marry, his threshold was reached. Through his friends, he managed to arrange a grenade launcher and attacked the police station, which housed these corrupt police officers. And now, he has been labeled a terrorist for the entirety of his life.
I did not know what to say after this, but my outlook toward de-radicalization changed from that day forward. I am not condoning Ahmed’s action, what he did was wrong, but his reason did not fit into any of the widely quoted narratives. When we set out on the complex but ambitious mission of peacebuilding, we sometimes fall into the trap of bucketing the reasons why someone conducts a violent crime. I firmly believe that our efforts would be more fruitful if we take a step back and try to listen to individual stories, understand them, and then set out a plan. Small but significant change matters more than enormous efforts with no results.
Neha Vijay – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More
As a teenager, I would impatiently wait for my father to return home after work – because we did not know where the next bomb would go off. Buses, trains, buildings – nowhere was safe.
For most of my life, I lived in a country that was grappled with war. People lived in fear. Some were affected more than others. Some lost their homes. Some lost their loved ones. Some lost their lives. Some lost everything. And I was among the lucky ones – the least affected.
The war ended in 2010.
But over a decade later, the question still remains – do we really have peace?
I believe there is so much more we must do to heal the wounds of all communities. I may not have all the answers, but my growing passion for contributing to sustainable peace and reconciliation led me to engage with Class 32 as a Rotary Peace Fellow from Sri Lanka.
The Rotary Peace Fellowship has helped me learn more about peace and conflict studies. Twenty of my classmates from 13 countries – over 15 weeks were guided by extremely wonderful and skilled mentors and lecturers who imparted their knowledge to us.
We learned about peace, conflict, and security – how vital it is to create inclusive communities in peace, security, and development building. We learned about conflict prevention and about world leaders and the strategies they used to prevent conflicts – what worked, what failed and that we have a long way to go. We learned about the importance of change leadership in a turbulent world, non-violent movements, human rights and social justice. We learned more about the conflicts we knew and conflicts we did not know about, we discussed how tragic some stories were and how they could have been prevented, and we learned that in war – no one wins.
But this is not even the best part of the programme for me.
The incredible changemakers I met through the class were the highlight of this experience for me.
A group of strangers met virtually and transformed into friends over the weeks. From Africa, Europe to the Middle Ease, Asia, to the Americas – when we shared our stories, we found that, although miles apart – how similar our challenges were. How are relating to each other’s experiences. From peace practitioners to humanitarian workers to teachers and law enforcement officers – I was truly amazed by the difference we all are making in our communities and the world.
I was inspired by the stories shared by my peers to protect children, empower youth and women, be inclusive of the marginalized, to promote social cohesion among different nationalities and religions. Coming from different countries, with different experiences, we all had one common goal – a passion – to make the world a better place.
In a world where sometimes all hope seems lost, this experience has given me hope – hope that there are people out there filled with empathy and kindness who will do whatever they can within and beyond their power to uplift vulnerable communities and be catalysts for peace and development. They go the extra mile with the hope that in the years to come, no child will has to worry about losing their parent or a parent losing their child to a bloody war. A world where we all live in a society of nonviolence, where equality prevails, and we only find respect and strength in our diversity. And, we are united by our passions and dreams of a peaceful and just world.
Dishnika Perera – Sri Lanka
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32Read More