Peace is not a dirty word

Part of the mahallae team spent this Saturday by the sea in Famagusta, building peace one beach at a time. We needed the rest, it’s been an intense week. The mahallae project aims to shake-up peacebuilding in Cyprus and the Euro-Mediterranean area by introducing tech-enable tools for innovation. It’s a risky, ambitious idea, and we’re well on our way to it (you can sign up here for updates or follow us on Facebook or Twitter).


Shaking-up and re-thinking peacebuilding practice also means we have to ask the hard questions. One that came up this week is why some people dislike the word peace. This post outlines my personal thoughts on this debate (not the official views of any mahallae partners). In response to feedback from activists in Cyprus, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, we use a mix of different terms on the mahallae site. Some refer to what you might think of as components of peace: social cohesion or reconciliation. Others stray from what you might typically associate with peace and refer to broader social change processes: civic engagement or a healthy society.

But do we really need to completely avoid talking about peace? The reasons this term is problematic depend on the local context. Some Cypriots dislike peace because they are disillusioned both with the formal peace process (largely stalled) and with peacebuilding activities led by civil society (often repetitive). In North Africa, peace is seen by some as a counter-revolutionary notion at a time when social change through revolution (sometimes peaceful, sometimes not) is important to many. In Israel and Palestine, the most common greetings in Arabic (سلام) and Hebrew (שָׁלוֹם) mean peace. Still, some activists reject peace as a description of their aim – in their context, peace is likely to mean a settlement requiring compromises they are not sure they can make.

This view from Israel and Palestine goes to the heart of why some people dislike the term peace. Peace can be a deeply conservative notion, it can mean compromise, it can mean keep quiet and don’t rock the boat. There is certainly some truth to this: conflict often results in change, which can be a very good thing. But that doesn’t mean peace is the enemy of change. Avoiding violence does not require avoiding conflict, and there are ways to build peace that also skillfully allow for change. Johan Galtung makes a distinction between negative peace (avoiding violence) and positive peace (overcoming not just direct violence, but also structural and cultural violence). Galtung’s positive peace reaches beyond the conservative notions of peace that are likely at the root of many people’s rejection of the term peace.

Some have suggested that this notion of positive peace is problematic because it pushes a particular positive agenda (often a leftist or liberal one). Then again, one can argue that negative peace is equally value-laden, since it essentially amounts to an endorsement of the (cultural and structural) status quo. The debate is much like debates around negative liberty versus positive liberty, a fascinating theoretical wrangle that requires much longer than a blogpost. So let me cut to the chase: in practice, positive peace makes room for more voices and accommodates the rainbow of social change initiatives that mahallae should support. Positive peace doesn’t have to be about a concrete agenda, it can just be a recognition that for peace to be real it has to engage in debate all of our agendas for peace. That’s why I think mahallae’s core aim should be to support civic engagement for a peaceful society.

That’s a nice, simple tagline, right? Problem: I still haven’t defined what a peaceful society is, really. Some days, I think it’s easier to take refuge in poetic notions. Jeffrey Yang saying peace can be found “out, reaching up to the stars” or Rumi’s field “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing“. That may seem like a cop-out, but there is some value to being vague, precisely because it leaves room for individual thought.

Hannah Arendt explained that only individual reflection and independent thought can keep us away from the banality of evil. Buddhism teaches that peace is every step, that we can only seek to build peace in the world if we also commit to building peace within ourselves. Inner peace is essential for a peaceful society because only through self-reflection can we understand the conflict traps we are caught in. Foucault speaks of using self-reflection to alter prevailing narratives, change “games of truths” that have us stuck in identities that are bound to clash (I’ve written about that before). John Paul Lederach also believes that we have to invent new peace narratives. Inventing peace in his view requires that we reach out to those we fear, touch the heart of complexity, imagine beyond what is seen, and risk vulnerability one step at a time.

A peaceful society is one that is structured in such a way that it encourages us to take the risk to invent, every day, new ways of living together. By embracing an open, positive concept of peace, mahallae can be a tool for activists to navigate fear, complexity, imagination and vulnerability. That’s the peaceful society I hope mahallae helps build. Onwards.


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