We need a unified voice
From the morning after the Brexit vote, I’ve felt shell shocked and disconcerted. On a personal level I suddenly have this deep sense of ‘unbelonging’. I’ve lived in the US for 15 years but it’s always felt temporary: like living on the surface. As for Iran, this is the where my deepest roots are, and where they feel watered, but, as the saying goes, it’s complicated. The one place I truly feel at home and safe is the UK, and London in particular. But today felt like a punch in the stomach. So like many others, I’ve been devouring the news and the tweets and the Facebook posts, trying to make sense of it. Here are five points:
- The debate and discussions about the EU, in public or private conversations, are overwhelmingly focused on the EU as a bureaucracy, rather than the EU as we have all lived it. The bureaucrats made the laws and the policies on paper, but we, as the citizens of Europe have brought those laws to life. I remember being in the EU Commission on the day the EU was awarded the Nobel Prize. Even my technocratic EU colleagues were cynical about why the EU was nominated, even though the Nobel Committee made it clear: the prize was both for an idea and the institutions that brought 60 years of peace to a continent previously divided and riven with war. How quickly we forget that just two generations ago that German, French, Italian and British people were killing each other. The EU brought not only peace to Europe, but a sense of unity among the people – and as much as we, as refugees and then citizens, may have felt racism in pockets around the countries where we lived, we all felt and feel European. That people can hop on a plane and travel from London to Florence for £50, or move between universities, and not worry about healthcare from one country to the next – is the EU is – us living out the idea of common humanity bound by the geography of Europe.
This obsession with the bureaucracy of the EU (or the UN for that matter) is a distraction. While Fox News mistakenly claimed that the UK voted to exit from the UN, the headline was ominously prescient. We must take care to avoid falling further into that trap. Instead we need to focus on bringing to life and realizing the commitments that our governments have made on paper – like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so many others. This backward step of exiting from the EU is akin to being told that your university degree from 20 years ago is no longer valid. We cannot afford to regress – not when so much good has come of the unity, and so much more could be done.
- The Brexit vote and people’s reactionary attitudes to the EU shows that state and inter-state relations are at risk if socio-economic issues within states –intra-states – are not addressed. This is a problem across all countries now. We see and hear it in our interactions with women peacebuilders, from Pakistan to Uganda. Everywhere we observe how governments have left a vacuum in addressing people’s basic health, education, income needs. Instead states are building up their armies and security forces. Where there is legitimate dissent or civic activism in pursuit of social and economic justice, the state is silencing them. Instead of fostering interactions with communities and civil society organizations, governments are closing them down in the name of fighting extremism. So we have top heavy security apparatuses claiming to represent secure states, but they bearing down on increasingly fragile societies. The irony is, of course, that if there is no moderate space for dissent and constructive critique of the state, and no alternative entities providing economic and social services or tending to the grievances and aspirations of citizens, anger and radicalization take hold. They in turn draw on identity politics to gain followers and condone exclusion and hate of ‘the other’. This is weakening the resilience and peacefulness of societies across the globe.
- Writing in the Financial Times on June 24th, Philip Stephens points out ‘that Europe must understand just how politically corrosive slavish devotion to fiscal targets has become…the politicians must confront the excesses. If they want to save liberal democracy, they will have to reform capitalism.’ Setting aside the irony that it is the FT making this call, it’s certainly time for it. I’ve coined the system we have now as ‘extreme capitalism’. I’m not against capitalism in general, as a concept – but we have to acknowledge that the last 30 years of economic and financial policies have fostered extremism across the world. It is absurd to celebrate the fact that people have doubled their incomes from $1 to $2 dollars a day, or even $5 – when we have created a system wherein 62 people have the same wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population, as Oxfam and Forbes magazine report. Capitalism has to come off steroids and adjust to the human spirit. The cognitive social psychologist, Matthew Lieberman in his book ‘Social’ writes about the proof that we humans have the principle of fairness and justice hard wired in our brains. We also have empathy and compassion hardwired. Our economies need to be anchored in these humane principles.
It reminds me of the words and work of the brilliant Professor Radhika Balakrishnan who asks the simple question, ‘what is the purpose of the economy and economic policy?’ Balakrishnan suggests we need to put the attainment of economic and social rights (which should be the basis of governance) as the raison d’être of economic policies. In other words, our economic systems have to ensure that kids get decent education and that we have health care and jobs that aren’t about ‘getting by’ but that offer dignity – both in the salaries they provide and the substance of what people do for a living.
- We are living in the most pluralistic societies ever in the history of humanity. Each of us has a racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, geographic and gender identity and so forth. At its best this pluralism is beautiful, like a Persian carpet, with colourful threads woven together to make a coherent whole. But we are at risk of losing the best and getting the worst when each of our identities is being pulled in different directions. Here’s an example: When someone insults Iran, I have a visceral reaction to defend my Persian heritage, even though I’m also British, de facto Italian, and deeply rooted in Americana since I went to the American Community School as a child in Iran. Similarly I uphold my Muslim identity in the face of Islamophobia, but I would much prefer to recognise what unites us, not what divides so. It isn’t difficult. Talk to a Taliban leader about what he wants for his children, and immediately the human connection is made. I’ve no doubt we could find the common ground with the ardent Brexit voters, if only there was an opportunity and a platform for us to listen and talk.
We need to work on social cohesion – not just tolerance or parallel coexistence – but on bringing us together, to acknowledge the good and bad in each of our cultures and traditions. Otherwise our pluralism is going to be fodder for forces that seek to polarize us which includes our increasingly insidious media. No society on earth today can withstand that sort of divisiveness. Yet little is being done to proactively and creatively resist these divisions. Instead of celebrating and acknowledging diversity, even progressive leaders and pundits are too quiet and a little too defensive. I remember in 2008 when the Republicans and right wing media in the US was accusing Obama of being Muslim. The liberal media’s response was basically ‘of course he’s not Muslim’ – instead of being ‘For the record, he is a Christian, but so what if he were Muslim?’ That is the very foundation upon which the US is built.
- Finally to end on a positive note, I’m thrilled that young voters in the UK wanted to stay in the EU, and feel so connected to their European cousins. I hope we get a second referendum so they can be heard properly. And I’m privileged in my work because I see the incredible talent and commitment of ordinary people who are doing what they can to improve their communities, while pushing back against predatory states, self-aggrandising politicians, intolerance and extremism. In communities across the world, ordinary people are taking on the extraordinary task of caring. Just that simple act – of caring about the young and the old around them. They offer viable positive visions and alternatives including education, skills training and health services. They want their police to serve them, not to act as a force of repression. They want their taxes and resources to be spent on people, not on weapons.
The answers are all right in front of us – literally. But right now it’s a little like a cacophonic orchestra – we are each playing our own tune. But when we stop and listen, we will realise that whether it’s the climate change community or the women’s rights and peace communities, we are all on the same side, wanting the same things.
The issues we are fighting for resonate with the vast majority of the public – but we are too disparate and too underfunded right now, to have a strong unified voice and message. Our task is to have our orchestra playing off the same sheet – with each set of instruments getting their airtime – the effect can be profoundly positive. If we are strategic, we can deepen the ties between people within our societies, while also strengthening the relations between our countries globally. Imagine building a house – we start with a vision and blueprint, then the foundations that are determined by architects and engineers. Our home in the world was designed by the architects and engineers of the 1940s, in the aftermath of two world wars. For all its flaws, they gave us an incredible home, but over the years, our governments have spent far too much on the fancy interior design or expensive security plans instead of on the foundations, the plumbing and the wiring. We don’t need to pull down the whole house, we just need to focus on the structural renovations.
We can pull ourselves back from the precipice. We have to.