The death of Majd “Jude” Alshoufi: A Peacebuilder

The death of Majd “Jude” Alshoufi: A Peacebuilder

A friend died on Friday, April 2, 2021. He was a talented young man with a promising career in peace and psychology. I have tried to process his death, but nothing in my training or life experiences has prepared me for this tragedy. Jude and I corresponded on March 10. I congratulated him on Instagram on his efforts to build Brain Drive, a mental health app, and he thanked me for my comments. Jude was highly driven, searching for solutions to problems that he, more than any other person I have ever met, intimately understood. His death by suicide compels us to heighten efforts in dealing with mental health issues. Below is a profile I wrote about Jude during our first year in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame.

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Majd Alshoufi is the founder and chairman of the board of directors of New Syrian Human (NSH), an NGO providing psychosocial support and peacebuilding services to Syrian refugees worldwide. The NGO conducts holistic and sustainable communal processes of change through evidence-based and locally-led programming. 

Majd’s passion for social change has evolved; as a child, he had a habit of observing and analyzing situations, “I was always interested in how I felt, I knew that I wasn’t happy with the way things were, and I wanted to change them.” Majd says.

His interest in peacebuilding took roots during his sophomore year in college when he attended a psychosocial class. However, the turning point was when he was arrested for participating in a peaceful demonstration. After his release, he fled to United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and then Turkey. Before starting a psychosocial support NGO, the forerunner to New Syrian Human, he worked with the Catholic Relief Services.  

Majd is interested in psychosocial training and identities; he believes, “Identities are key to conflicts and have borders. When violence is promoted, these borders become bloody as people start killing each other, and the more they do this, the more they keep defining themselves in relation to the “other.” He has learned that you will reach an understanding when you develop an emotional bond with a person and probably develop a common or pluralistic identity. He is attending Notre Dame to reinforce his skills in this field and peacebuilding in general.

Majd loves peacebuilding, especially training people. He says, “peacebuilding is never a job to me,” he quips, “it is a vocation, and it is something I find deep satisfaction in doing.” That is the motivation that led him to abandon the well-paying engineering profession to work for social change.

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Majd “Jude” Alshoufi looked for a home—a place from which he can work to develop solutions to mental health and peace challenges. He died young before finding the home or achieving his dreams. His quest will live in all of us—those who knew him and those who care passionately about mental health. We should all care.  Jude, Rest in Peace!

Going Back to the Basics?

Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.

Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.

Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.

I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies.  It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.

African traditions as an antidote to Judeo-Christian and Islam exclusivism: A reading of Wole Soyinka’s of Africa

African traditions as an antidote to Judeo-Christian and Islam exclusivism: A reading of Wole Soyinka’s of Africa

Wole Soyinka explores the concept of exclusivism in his book Of Africa.[1] Although he does not explicitly define what exclusivism means, we can deduce from his discussions that the term implies ideas that tend to create an ‘ingroup and outgroup.’ In Africa, those ideas range from notions of geography, boundaries, race, religion, migration, and ideology. These ideas are epitomized by what he refers to as “fictioning of Africa.” In Part One of the book, he examines four types of narratives that fictionalize Africa. These narratives written by foreigners as well as writers from the continent include (i) narratives of travelers and adventurers, (ii) narratives of traders, (iii) narratives of internal, power-driven fictioning by post-independent rulers, and (iv) revisionists narratives, driven by a desire to correct history. In Part Two of the book, he discusses African religions as an antidote to exclusivity.

Fictioning Africa

Travel narratives or travelogues defined Africa in a way that excluded it from the rest of the world. Soyinka points out that although Africa appears to have been known or spoken about in ancient writings, “no travel narrative has come down to us that actually lays personal or racial claim to the discovery of the continent” (27). This perhaps explains some of the ignorance or prejudice one reads in most travel literature about Africa. There seems to be a lack of complete knowledge about Africa. Hence, writers including African themselves often misrepresent Africa because rely on inaccurate travel accounts to construct their arguments.

Narratives of trade or commerce focus on the encounter of Africa with various traders from around the world. Soyinka does not take slavery as a departing point for discussing trade in Africa. Neither does he strictly focus on slavery as an idea of exclusion. Instead, he focuses on colonialism beginning with early instances of visitors to Africa and then the Berlin Conference that singled Africa as a piece of wealth to be divided among Europeans. Colonialism created boundaries that redefined Africans – locked them in enclaves that disregarded their traditions and lived experiences. The root of some of the present-day wars and conflicts of exclusivity such as those in Mauritania, Liberia, and Sudan among others can be traced to the creation of these boundaries. In other words, post-independence Africa inherited a legacy of discordant behavior that has led to dictatorships, genocides, and plundering of natural resources.

Of course, not all challenges in Africa can be traced to the demarcation of boundaries, as Soyinka points out, ideology is also crucial in understanding some of the problems affecting the continent. The cold war between the capitalist First World and communist Second World turned Africa into a playfield with catastrophic consequences. For instance, dictators such as Siad Barre of Somalia, a country with a single dominant religion and people of similar ethnicity, continued to massacre their own people because they received support from Russia and at some point, the West.

African writers have tried to move past the tragic history of Africa, but Soyinka argues that these writers ignore historical realities and tend to wish the past away. He counsels that Africa must confront the past because therein lie the roots of contemporary problems in the continent. He portrays South Africa and Sudan as countries that have glossed over race issues instead of tackling them. He particularly singles out Sudan as a case where racism has mostly informed government policies that exclude large populations in the country. For instance, the long civil war that ended with the succession of South Sudan was fought along racial lines – the Arabicized north against the Black south. The more recent violent conflict in Darfur where an ethnic cleansing militia, Janjaweed (which Soyinka compares with Ku Klux Klan in the US), backed by Sudanese government has sought to eradicate an entire ethnic group, is also a product of historical racism.

Soyinka sees these events in Sudan as a replay of the history of slavery whose roots were planted during the era of slave trade. As he points out, “those who wish to understand the undercurrents of the mind that breed and nurture the inhuman conduct of the Sudanese government against his own populace, notably now the people of Western Sudan, the Fur, would do well to take good note of the role of history in this scenario” (83).  Interestingly, African traders were cognizant of the fact that the past acts upon the present. Thus, they enacted different rituals such as forcing slaves to circle the “Tree of Forgetfulness” so as to forget about their homeland and their captors. But the ubiquity of contemporary conflicts of exclusion in the continent reveals the futility of these rituals.

My view is that Soyinka presents these ideas of exclusivity – how Africa has been conceptualized and articulated in a manner that excludes it from the rest of the world – as a foreground for discussing African religions as an antidote to exclusivity. As he argues, “African religions did not aspire to conquer the world” (25) or proselytize like Christianity or Islam. On the contrary, African religions are naturally accommodative and do not seek to dominate – they possess characteristics that shun exclusivity.

African religion as an antidote to exclusivity

Soyinka presents contemporary challenges and opportunities in Africa as a dialogue of different encounters between African, Islam, and Christian traditions, ideas that resonate with other scholars such as Edward Blyden, Kwame Nkrumah, and Ali Mazrui. These ideas were first articulated by Edward Blyden, a Pan-Africanist and a Liberian politician, in his book, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race,[2] and they were later developed by another pan-Africanist and founding president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. In his book, Consciencism, Nkrumah traces the origin of contemporary African religious heritage to three major forces: Indigenous traditions, Islam, and Euro-Christian impact.[3] Ali Mazrui expounds and propagates these ideas with great eloquence, passion, and persistence. In fact, most of his writings are informed by this worldview, which he calls “Triple Heritage”.[4] For Blyden, of the Judeo-Christian and Islam traditions, Islam appears as a favorable religion for Black people. He argues that Islam in its true observance, “extinguishes all distinctions founded upon race, color, or nationality” (92). Mazrui in his seminal work, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, explains that contemporary Africa’s triple heritage is composed of indigenous, Islamic and Christian legacies and that indigenous African religion is the most tolerant of the three religions. He attributes this to the communal nature of indigenous religions, which is different from either Islam or Christianity – the two religions are universalist in aspiration and are always seeking to convert others. Mazrui presents Nigeria and Sudan as the best embodiments of this heritage.[5] But this was before Sudan started its 30-year-old civil war, and Nigeria became a hotbed for Boko Haram terrorist activities.

Soyinka is likely to disagree with Blyden’s conclusions that Islam is an accommodative religion. The discussion on Sudan, Mauritania, and Ivory Coast highlights Soyinka’s thoughts on the contribution of Islam to exclusionary violence in those countries. Similarly, in an essay on “Religion and Human Rights,” which appeared in Index on Censorship,[6] Soyinka criticized Mazrui for his Triple Heritage project.[7] He castigated Mazrui for presenting Africa as a playground for Christianity and Islam while paying lip service to African deities, whom he (Mazrui) did not apparently think were relevant in the contemporary world. Furthermore, Soyinka contended that Mazrui, like Blyden, appeared to believe that Islamic civilization was the better of the three.

Soyinka is opposed to any religion that considers itself superior to others and thus “denigrates other people’s past in whom the present is very much rooted” (83). It is then clear what Soyinka is attempting to accomplish in Of Africa: At one level, he wants to redress what he considers as appalling ignorance and misrepresentation of the African continent through elevating its gods, and at another level, he wants to celebrate these gods as an elixir against exclusivity. He extends these arguments in an essay on “Religion Against Humanity,” published in Granta, whereby he points out that “adherents of African religions who remain passionately attached to their beliefs all the way across the Atlantic – Brazil and across other parts of Latin America – have not taken to wreaking vengeance on their presumed violators (Christianity and Islam) in far-off lands”[8] (the added emphasis is mine).

Conclusion

Soyinka does more than present African religions as a panacea for religious fundamentalism exposed by the dominant religious traditions of Christianity and Islam. He comprehensively discusses Orisa, Yoruba religion and its place among the Yoruba people of Nigeria and those in the African diaspora. Orisa is an epitome of the accommodative spirit that Soyinka drums up support for.

It is likely that a different reading of Soyinka’s book might interpret his ideas as exclusionism. My view is that the comprehensive exploration of Yoruba religions and how they functioned in the society are meant to wade against [?] such a reading. The point here is that a religion that accommodates others is desirable to one that excludes.

Bibliography 

[1] Soyinka, W (2012). Of Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] Blyden, E (1967). Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. 3rd Edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

[3] Nkrumah, K (1970). Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-colonization. London: Panaf Books Ltd.

[4] Adem, S. “Ali A. Mazrui, the Postcolonial Theorist” African Studies Review, 57 no. 1 (2014), pp. 135-152.

[5] Mazrui, A (1986). The Africans: A Triple heritage. Toronto: Little, Brown & Company.

[6] Soyinka, W.  Religion and Human Rights, Index on Censorship, (1991), (5)88, pp. 82-85

[7] Ali Mazrui conceived “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” as a Television series that aired on PBS, and was later published as a book by the same name.

[8] Soyinka, W. Religion Against Humanity, Granta (2012). 122

Trauma healing: when violence strikes and community security is threatened

When the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation (TJRC) released its reports in 2013, I was surprised that my country had committed atrocities to its own people at various times in our short history since independence. The worst was the Wagalla Massacre that claimed over 5,000 lives and wounded thousands. These blind spots in our history have been a major cause of agony among many marginalized people.

Stories of women and men who are unable to have children because of what the military did to them abound in our society. At the release of the reports, I was shocked that victims just wanted the Kenyan government to acknowledge wrongdoing and apologize.  Having lived through a post-election violence in 2007, which claimed the lives of at least 1,500 people, I felt that an apology was insufficient.  Reading Carolyn Yoder’s book on Trauma Healing has enabled me to understand that trauma healing is a unique process to every individual or community and that in order for healing to occur, other support systems, including government apology, are needed.

Yoder’s book has widened my understanding of the subject of trauma healing. I have learned about the close link between violence and trauma, and how it relates to some of the events I have experienced in Kenya. For instance, it was widely claimed that part of the reason Kenyans fought against each other in 2007 and 2008 was that of unaddressed injustices that have traumatized some communities since independence. Therefore, unresolved trauma is dangerous because at some point traumatized people can resort to revenge or to other violent means so as to give themselves a sense of ‘closure.’

Yoder’s discussion of the nexus between biology and trauma challenges my assumptions that trauma is just a social construct. Despite her explanation, I still grapple with questions such as whether trauma can be dealt with the same way people deal with depression or under what circumstances can a community builder recommend medical attention for trauma cases as opposed to a social process such a Transformative Community Conferencing or Restorative Justice.

Reading Yoder’s explanation about secondary trauma has enabled me to reflect on my experience as a teacher and education counselor in Nairobi. Most of my students and their parents had fled wars in their respective countries. Even though some of these children had not directly experienced the wars their parents fled from, their perspective about life was majorly shaped by their parents’ experience of war. The narratives parents passed down to children affected them immensely. Unfortunately, neither I nor any of my teachers really understood the concept of trauma especially, one associated with consequences of war. Such children need specially trained teachers to heal.

Traumatic events shatter the world as we know it and shape victims’ future world. For instance, with increased terrorist attacks and constant electoral violence, people in my community (and perhaps in all communities) constantly worry about their security. Every election year, people vote for leaders from their community because they assume that such leaders better understand people’s trauma, and therefore will help them heal. But the reality is that only one person can be a president. So, communities that do not get the presidency are always scared.

Toward a Sustainable Peace

Toward a Sustainable Peace

Peace means different things to different people, but most assume that preventing violence or escalation of a conflict leads to sustainable peace. They also assume that peacebuilding efforts will address the root causes of conflicts, build or rebuild social institutions and set up effective governance structures, and institute the rule of law. But what happens when various actors in a country are not willing to stop violence or resolve conflicts because war and violence serves their economic, political and psychological functions? Do we kowtow their line and join the plunder? Or do we heighten our calls for negative peace (absence of violence)?

David Keen’s 2012 book, Useful Enemies: When Waging War is more Important than Winning them, responds to these questions and offers a critique of liberal peace, which assumes that people in a country have an interest in peace since they can obtain material and non-material well-being only during peace. He shows that ‘winning hearts and minds’ approach to peacebuilding has not yielded considerable success. In fact, it is the very process of liberal peacebuilding – political and economic liberalization – that often generate destabilizing consequences in conflict torn countries, hindering the attainment of peace. Thus, prompting the question: How can we move beyond peacebuilding activities that exacerbate violence?

Keen challenges us to reconceptualize our approaches to peacebuilding to devote substantial time to conflict analysis. We should ask tough questions such as who has vested interests in the continuation of the conflict? Who is gaining politically or economically? Clearly, winning a war or reconciling a country may not be in the interest of some actors – they will try all means to block a sustainable solution. Keen challenges peacebuilders to reconsider their understanding of conflict and their current peacebuilding strategies. Often peacebuilders succumb to the “planning trap”. They base their activities on wrong assumptions, informed by poor analysis, and do not see the big picture that winning is not what war is always about. Most problems in peacebuilding are caused by this short-sightedness on the part of peacebuilders. For instance, peacebuilders have in the past blamed rebels for causing violence but ignored their grievances or the greed within the counter insurgence forces and the role of corrupt governments. History is replete with examples where government soldiers have forged a mutually beneficial system with the rebels making war a profitable venture.

Failures in societies and governments where corruption and greed sabotages peacebuilding efforts are not an accident, they are rather a reflection of powerful structural factors that are not easy to transform. You cannot transform these societies by winning their hearts and minds. Keen disagrees with peacebuilders who attribute modern conflicts to the breakdown of political, economic and social order. Sometimes the reverse is true, that is, governments, rebels, and peacebuilders have contributed to the breakdown of economic, political, and social institutions of a country. Hence, it is not enough for peacebuilders to have good intentions for rebuilding these ‘failed’ societies as good intentions alone cannot bring sustainable peace.

Preventing violent extremism through education

“Extremism can flourish only in an environment where basic governmental social responsibility for the welfare of the people is neglected. Political dictatorship and social hopelessness create the desperation that fuels religious extremism.” Benazir Bhutto

 

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