Crossing Borders

A Dialogue on the Complexities of Conflict Resolution, Mediation, and Peace Building

By Mitch Bogen

View a photo gallery of the seminar

On May 4th, the Ikeda Center hosted its latest seminar bringing university students into dialogue with distinguished scholars working in peace- and education-related fields. The fourteen Boston-area students in attendance, who ranged from undergraduates to doctoral students, represented a rich range of interests and academic disciplines, including medicine, comparative religion, international affairs, international development, theological studies, and conflict mediation and resolution. They engaged in a 90-minute dialogue on the complexities of conflict resolution with Meenakshi Chhabra, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, International Higher Education, and International Relations at Lesley University, and Darren Kew, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Crossing Borders

In her opening remarks, Dr. Chhabra noted that this wide range of interests was apt, since the field of conflict resolution is “by nature diverse and multidisciplinary.” She also noted that she appreciated the opportunity afforded by the seminar to take a “moment to step back” from daily professional pursuits to consider anew the motivations for her peace building work.  

In essence, her professional pursuits have been intertwined with and grew out of her personal journey, which began as a child of Hindu parents who had been forced to migrate from present-day Pakistan because of the 1947 partition of India into the states of Muslim-dominated Pakistan in the north and Hindu-dominated India to the south. In a bid to strengthen national identities, these new states hardened feelings of “us-versus-them” among their people, especially their youth, said Chhabra, with an impermeable border now officially separating groups who had once lived together. There were no “people-to-people” interactions at all between these new states. And to make matters worse, recalled Chhabra, the education systems in both countries actively sought to indoctrinate young people, herself included, in a narrative of pure victimhood, with the other side always cast as wrongdoers. 

Chhabra, who is a practicing Nichiren Buddhist, began to see a way past this standoff, when, in 1993, she read Daisaku Ikeda’s thoughts on the riots and turmoil that shook Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.* In Ikeda’s poem, called “Sun of Jiyu,” Ikeda deplored our excessive attachment to our differing identities, which only builds walls between us. He urged us, in Chhabra’s words, to “break through these walls and discover the primordial origins of humanity,” which is where we find the worth and dignity common to all. This insight spoke powerfully to Dr. Chhabra, who, earlier in ’93, had been shocked by violence carried out by Hindus against Muslims in Bombay, where she then was living. Though this violence did not threaten her, Ikeda’s poem helped her see that it made no sense to think of security solely in personal terms. Instead she embraced a view of the world in which we learn to actively connect others’ security with our own.

Moving to the United States to pursue doctoral studies, she met a Pakistani for the first time in her life, a woman also working on a Ph.D. Because of their shared interests they were able to begin a friendly, ongoing conversation. This friendship inspired Chhabra to do her masters thesis on “the Pakistani understanding of Partition.” It quite simply “blew my mind,” she said, to be “exposed to a whole different narrative” and to learn for the first time that “they went through what we went through.” In 1999 Chhabra and her friend launched a dialogue group of Pakistani and Indian women, and they were invited by the Seeds of Peace organization to conduct workshops with teachers and high school students from both countries. Eventually they were the first group to take students from India into Pakistan. Exchanges have continued over the years and spread throughout the region, often led by young people, some of whom were Chhabra's students. Now, she observed, person-to-person exchanges are so “robust” that she is confident that Pakistani-Indian understanding will grow, “regardless of what the respective government policies might be.”

Negotiating Contradictions

Dr. Kew also shared insights gained from his own life, in particular his experience working as a consultant with the Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC) of Nigeria. The IMC is led by Muslim imams and Christian pastors with the goal of finding nonviolent solutions to the conflicts among Muslims, Christians, and ethnic groups that have plagued Nigeria and surrounding areas for many years, causing much loss of life and property. Kew’s remarks were structured around what he called the “contradictions” that are ever-present in any religiously oriented conflict or process of conflict resolution. The first contradiction has to do with peace, a “central ethic” and “central goal” that appears as often as any other in the sacred religious texts and teachings. Yet, as we know, religious differences cause conflict, everywhere and with considerable frequency.

The next contradiction is a positive one, in that mediators and facilitators in religious conflicts often need to create experiences or awareness of experiences that “actively contradict” existing narratives about one’s faith and the faith of others. In Nigeria, Kew said, Muslims and Christians, who each make up half of the population, do have daily contact, unlike people in Pakistan and India. However they are inclined to engage in a “selective reading of daily events” to confirm the prejudices they have previously been taught, or nurtured themselves without prompting. This leads to an uneasy coexistence that “turns into a downward spiral” when “the red line is crossed” and an act of violence happens across groups, with prejudices further inflamed. Mediation or dialogue sessions can create spaces to actively disrupt destructive stereotypes.

A related way to disrupt complacency is to have participants read the others’ core religious texts and ask questions based on their understanding. If agreement with these interpretations is hard to come by, that’s not the point, said Kew. Because what you are doing is “trying to muddy the waters” a bit, to add some complexity to unreflective prejudice and dogma.

His last example considered the contradiction between dominant mediation methodologies. The Western or US-European style of mediation is essentially secular and anti-authoritarian. It seeks to elicit perspectives from participants, with the facilitator refraining from telling them what to do or think. For example, the facilitator might say, “You decide among yourselves what peace is.” Yet practitioners of traditional religion, the dominant form of religion in Nigeria, take exactly the opposite approach to mediation; rank and file believers expect religious authority figures to identify what is right and what is wrong, and to say what individuals should or should not do. Facilitators at the IMC humorously call this “divine intimidation.” Kew ended his remarks with an open question: Can a secular process facilitate inter-religious peace building?

Authority, Autonomy, and Hope for the Future

These opening remarks were followed by a 45-minute dialogue session that was structured to add as many student voices as possible to the conversation. To that end, several students contributed questions and observations back-to-back and then Chhabra and Kew responded to the emergent themes that spoke most strongly to them.

The first round built on the recent events in Baltimore, where, as one student participant observed, calls for peace and calm from the authorities in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray struck many persons of color and others as condescending and hypocritical, thus calling into question the wisdom or applicability of nonviolent conflict resolution in all circumstances, especially if it is conflated with excessive deference to authority. A related theme considered the difficulties of finding common ground across groups and the challenges of really understanding where people are coming from and what they hope to get out of a mediation or reconciliation process.

Dr. Chhabra responded that the work for social justice and peace work are never separate, though these twin imperatives are often in tension. Since passive peace, which silently acquiesces in the face of injustice, is no peace at all, this tension signifies that true peace has an honest chance to emerge. Dignity, she added, “means to honor everyone’s experience,” so not everyone has to agree about the advisability or efficacy of a certain course of action. “This complexity is good,” she said.

As for the building of common ground, she stressed that it was a shared sense of commitment among the women in her dialogue group that made this possible. Specifically, Chhabra observed that common ground is often realized in response to stories of suffering, which encourage people to respond simply as human beings, with compassion. External identities, either secular or religious, fall away when we say, “You are a human being and you have suffered as I have.” Adapting Martin Buber’s concept of “I and Thou,” Chhabra said that acknowledgment of suffering enables us to address others reverently as “Thou,” but despite this respect the conditions causing conflict might still remain. These conditions are the “it” that still must be addressed, even though the other party has been humanized in one’s eyes.

Kew ran with this last point, saying that in religion-related mediation there is a constant back and forth between the need to acknowledge shared humanity and the need to address the elements of religious affiliation — the “it” — that contribute to the conflict in question. Some people, said Kew, can “cross over” far enough to acknowledge the humanity of others in a conflict, and “never look back,” feeling quite comfortable with this expansion. But others will wonder — since so much religion depends on defining the other — if they have “betrayed their people” by acknowledging the pain of a person their religion might view negatively as an infidel or unbeliever. Compassion and empathy are essential, said Kew, but rarely obviate completely the need to address the “nitty gritty” of a conflict’s religious dimensions. Dr. Chhabra added that another way to “reach across the divide” is to shift your focus from what you want from the other side in a conflict to what it is that you can do for the other.

The next cluster of participant questions and comments went deeper into tensions between autonomy and group belonging, and between empathy and authority. As one participant put it, it’s essential that we help people in groups find their unique voice, especially so that they can speak up in protest if a group’s authority figure calls for violence or oppression of others, as happens too often in groups both secular and religious. This was just one example she offered of why it’s often best to embrace difference. Another participant wondered how a person hired to work with groups, either as a mediator or as an expert consultant, can be an equal within a group — someone not simply seen as an outsider — but also a leader in possession of an authoritative perspective.

With just a short time remaining, Dr. Chhabra focused her final remarks on how she has come to see her responsibilities as a facilitator working with groups in conflict. Before the work with groups comes the work she does with herself, checking her motivations and assumptions. “The work I do with myself is the core of it,” she said. Having once heard a fellow facilitator say of parties in a conflict he was consulting on, that “these people will never change,” she regularly and consciously affirms her faith in the capacity of all humans for growth and agreement. Ultimately she wants the focus to be on collaboration between all parties. After all, Chhabra said, if it takes others to cause conflict, it takes others to solve it in cooperative fashion.

Dr. Kew concluded that authority figures will always remain important, not least because of their power to reinforce our best instincts. We all know we should exercise even if we don’t, he said, but somehow when a doctor recommends it we take the idea more seriously. Further, different contexts call for different forms of authority. Sometimes a leader should remain objective and removed from the tension in a room, but other times it is best for the leader or facilitator to visibly share in the grief of a given moment, demonstrating what might be called “emotional leadership.” A wise leader, said Kew, won’t be content to stay in that place, though. A wise leader will help the group steadily and purposely move out of grief and grievance into a place of hope.


* In 1991, a videotape recorded and released by a citizen showed Los Angeles taxi driver Rodney King being beaten by police (after a high speed car chase). In 1992, when all the officers were acquitted of wrong-doing, chaos and violence broke out across the Los Angeles metro area. According to Wikipedia “they were the largest riots seen in the United States since the 1960s and the worst in terms of death toll after the New York City draft riots of 1863.”


Kew-Chhabra Seminar

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