We are pleased to be part of a new UN plan of action calling for “Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes.”
The inaugural event was held during the July 2017 High Level Political Forum. The Temple of Understanding is proud that our board member Dr. Ephraim Isaac spoke at the September session, as the UN encourages broad stakeholder participation in this crucial initiative. His full address, which is offered below, focuses on personal experience of atrocity, and recommends art and music as part of the solution. He concludes with a quote from Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.
The entire September 25, 2017 session is available on UN Web TV online.
Please also note this valuable resource published by Search for Common Ground:
“Transforming Violent Extremism: A Peacebuilder’s Guide”
This guide offers guiding principles for peacebuilders and on-the-ground practitioners as they navigate this important yet high-risk area of work around violent extremism.
A Personal Testimony on Atrocity Crime
Implementing the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement
to Violence that Could lead to Atrocity Crimes (Plan of Action)
UN 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly Side Event
Ephraim Isaac, BA, BD, Ph.D., D.H.L. (h.c.) D. Litt. (h.c.)
Institute of Semitic Studies
September 25, 2017
EXCELLENCIES & HONORABLE GUESTS: I am honored to stand here and give my full support to the Implementation of the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that could lead to atrocity Crimes. Our world is today awash with atrocity crimes and the perpetrations of huge atrocities against humanity. I therefore not only wholeheartedly support and endorse this Plan of Action but will do my best to promote it as far as I humbly can in collaboration with the Ethiopian Peace and Development Center whose Board I chair.
Right at the outset let me, however, on behalf of my Ethiopian Peace & Development Center and myself congratulate the UN office of Genocide Prevention, in particular, His Excellence Ambassador Adama Dieng who has worked so diligently to put this plan before us. His personal commitment to the subject, his hard work, and his humility in undertaking this huge task is admirable. As Chair of the Board of Peace and Development Center of Ethiopia, I thank him very much for inviting me to be a partner of his admirable effort. My humble gratitude also goes to all the co-sponsors of this project, the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
The recognition that Religious leaders and practitioners can and must support and promote this effort goes without saying. In order to emphasize why I support this Plan of Action, in this brief address, I share with you four things: a) my own direct personal experience of the effect of violence b) my indirect personal experience of the effect of violence, and c) my philosophical understanding of the problem of violence d) the commitment of our own Peace & Development Center of Ethiopia to support the recommendations of the Plan.
DIRECT PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I am a scholar of ancient Near Eastern and African civilizations, but the knowledge of the crime of atrocity is for me not an academic subject. I am myself a personal witness to some of those atrocious human deeds and violence, going back to my early childhood days.
I was born in Ethiopia the year the Fascists — I do not mean Italians who have a long warm historical friendship with Ethiopia– I mean Fascists — invaded the country. My first childhood experience at age four in 1941 was not being taken to see beautiful pictures in museums but to be lined up with children of my age by a pre-kindergarten teacher in front of a row of a couple dozen naked political prisoners hurled on the ground, being whipped and bleeding. It is a personal memory of crying while standing and staring at a couple of persons being hanged on high poles in the presence of priests. It is seeing buildings being burnt and crying. I believe some of you also have such childhood experience of horror.
My first childhood memory was not dining in a fancy restaurant but sitting hungry in a narrow underground dungeon my family had dug as a shelter a week before the Ethiopian army with British support arrived in my little town of Nedjio, western Ethiopia, where the Fascist army had its headquarter. I remember crying as we sat in the dungeon while the unremitting sound of bombs and artilleries like a thunderstorm that never stops deafened our ears.
My first childhood memory was not seeing my playmates singing joyfully, but weeping because one of them Desta was hit and killed by an exploding bomb. Not understanding what death meant I remember crying and demanding that he should return as soon as possible to play with me. Now you can see where my strong hate of any form of violence and conflict originates.
My first childhood memory was not singing which I love but crying as my father — a non-political, innocent, hardworking silversmith, a religious Jew who chanted in Hebrew as he worked — was being taken by a soldier who said the Fascists were now sending Jews to life imprisonment. Thank the Almighty, he was released after two months and returned home to our great joy.
My first childhood experience was not being taken to a school but to a distant countryside shelter, three hours away from home, where we lived as refugees for two months until our town was cleared of fighting. It is a memory of being scared, held by my father on his lap sitting on a mule as we fled, and sleeping on a crowded floor with my four brothers and two sisters.
In short, never mind the degree of my experience, from the very start of my life I saw, I heard, and I felt the force of human violence against fellow humans. I saw the sight of death. I hated it and I continue to hate seeing violence of any sort against any one single human being, let alone the horrible atrocity violence against a whole ethnic and religious group.
INDIRECT PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Secondly, directly or indirectly if only from a distance, I felt deeply in my bones the bitterness of violence in my country of birth in the late 1970’s, caused not by a foreign power but by its own native political fanatics. I was emotionally wounded when the Marxist Leninist Derg Red Terror, consumed thousands of young and old, men and women, eliminated because of their religious or political convictions. Among the 61 high Ethiopian Government ministers and officials of Emperor Haile Sellasie, who were lined up and shot indiscriminately, there were many whom I knew personally very well. My close personal friend, the interim successor of the Emperor, General Aman Andom, was taken down as his house was razed to the ground by tanks; His Grace the Patriarch of Ethiopia Abuna Tewoflos, whom I tutored Hebrew when I was in College and became a great friend, the Reverend Gudina Tumsa, President of the Mekane Yesus Protestant Church, who sat next to me in elementary school, General Tadesse Biru, my Predecessor as Director General of the National Literacy Campaign Organization of Ethiopia, and a number of close high school and university friends were tortured and murdered and thrown into mass graves by the fanatic Marxist-Leninist missionaries of atrocious violence.
Like many of you distinguished members of this audience, I have been exposed to stories of atrocity crimes of the recent past beyond my own circle. I gave several lectures in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and traveled in former Yugoslavia. This year, I was a committee member, reader and judge of a university doctoral dissertation pertaining to the trauma and tragedy of the Tamil-Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka, its special effect on women. I met and listened to refugees and survivors of Rwandan, South Sudanese, and Darfurian conflicts in Addis Ababa where I travel often. Who is not frozen in shock when we see images of the beheading of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Coptic Christians in Libya, Europeans, Americans, Japanese in Iraq and Syria, or the massacre of Kenyans and international shoppers in Nairobi, restaurant and coffee shop patrons in Tel Aviv, campers in Norway, sport spectators, theater audiences in London, Paris, Copenhagen, and the WTC September 11 hardworking professionals, firefighters, and policemen—beside whose body remains in boxes I stood shivering three mornings, invited to deliver a Jewish memorial prayer?
I have no proof, but there was a widespread rumor that after the Ethiopian 2005 General Election, overtones of interethnic propaganda of hatred led to a major crisis. The subsequent clash between the police and the thousands of demonstrators ended in a bloody incident and saw the foremost elected leaders of the major opposition political party in jail. I am grateful that both sides accepted me personally to lead a group of traditional elders to negotiate peace among the parties and the Government, and the release of the twenty-five elected political leaders and thousands of their followers from jail. Close to about one million people were said to have come out and danced in the streets the eve of the Ethiopian Year 2000. I also personally witnessed the tragic result of a quarrel that resulted in the war between the two brotherly countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea during the 1998-2000, as I shuttled between Addis Ababa and Asmara with a group of my Ethiopian and Eritrean Elders whom both sides warmly welcomed.
In a recent conversation with a distinguished retired Pastor, we discussed how every human being is a candidate for actions of depravity, and how depravity triggers religious or ethnic hate. Every mortal—we are all mortal–is subject to fall. Even religious leaders who know the rules and preach them become victims of this human weakness. [confessor father in hell joke?] As Einstein is thought to have once said “I can calculate everything even the velocity of light. But I cannot fathom the hate of people behind their smile.” No one can fathom the human infamy and depravity and mischief that end up sinking humanity into tragic pits of crimes of atrocity.
The first and principal source of destructive wars is not religion or social groups eo ipso. It is the behavior and actions of single individuals. History seems to point that conflicts arise from an individual’s mind, selfish goal, beliefs,self-interest, personal glory, feeling of superiority, greed or love of money, and of course personal sense of a divine mission or karma. One individual — Nero, Rasputin, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mengistu, Ben Ladin. et. al. — a single person could ignite the fire of violence and brainwash a crowd, and the whole society then becomes conflagrated because of one single human ego.
Although he did not argue that specifically, Freud implied that in a famous dialogue with Einstein. In 1932, the League of Nations Institute of Intellectual Cooperation asked Professor Einstein to choose a subject he considered of central public interest and invite a person of his choice fora dialogue. Einstein chose the subject,” Is there a way of delivering mankind from the Menace of War” and invited Freud for the dialogue. Two of the great thinkers of that time, both pacifists, thus left us a record of their view about violence and war. Einstein wondered why some believe in the concept of “might makes right”.The two basically agreed on the existence of an instinct of hate in humans and the belief in “might makes right. Freud preferred to call might “violence”.
Freud discussed the concept of l’union fait la force and how larger states were formed and established laws to prevent violence such as pax Romana. But he focused on his theory of the two instincts in humans: the erotic (basically positive and creative and loving as in religion) and the aggressive (basically negative and destructive and hating). However, in his final answer to Einstein he concluded saying that regardless we must try to divert and channel man’s aggressive tendencies to promote love, the cultural development of humanity (although he saw in civilization itself destructiveness), and conversion of people to the hatred of violence, to be pacifists like him and Freud- and me too!
Atrocity crimes start with atrocious minds and foul propaganda of an egocentric individual of negative instinct. This Plan of Action rightly recognizes that atrocity crimes start with the seed of evil propaganda against a religious or ethnic group. The propaganda serves over time to dehumanize the group and turn them into “the other”. Racial and religious propaganda of hatred not only engender severe psychological and mental health problems, but they also lead directly to death and destruction. Mein Kampf was a propaganda document of a political ideology for the Jewish Holocaust. The destruction of Africa, slavery and colonialism, Apartheid, [I was a key member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid in the 1980’s] started with the belief that Africans are subhuman. Reports of travelers and study by anthropologists claimed that Europeans have history Africans are primitive, Europeans are rational and Africans are irrational, Europeans have a wide facial angle, Africans have narrow facial angle, compared to the crocodile; and so on. We have all seen images of people in Syria, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan waging hateful propaganda against each other, terrorist groups beheading innocent persons on TV in broad daylight as propaganda. Preventing incitement propaganda that lead to violence is a key antidote to committing crime against humanity.
PERSONAL & ORGANIZATIONAL COMMITMENT
It is worrisome when today we hear foul inter-ethnic and inter-religious propaganda that we read in the Facebook or Twitter, or hear in radio talks about one group supported by one or another religious or ethnic leader vehemently spewing propaganda against one or another ethnic or religious group. So, I appreciate wholeheartedly the thoughtful recommendations of the Plan of Action before us. We must prevent religious and ethnic propaganda of hate and nip them in the bud before they result in atrocious bloodshed.
Our Ethiopian Peace and Development Center (PDC), whose Board I chair, is already committed to this Plan. We now work with both the government and non-government organizations to address violent religious extremism in Ethiopia. We conduct interfaith dialogues to promote trust and understanding, and the deconstruction of combative conflict narratives among the religious groups. PDC is also educating the public to appreciate the riches of diversity. We give customized training to the Inter-Religious Councils (IRC) members to enhance their knowledge of the issues, causes, and consequences of violent extremism. So far, PDC has trained 2,500 members of the Inter-Religious Council and student leaders in five public universities in Ethiopia, initiating religious acceptance dialogues and Peace Meal Tables in dining halls to bring students of different religious groups together to interact and engage constructively in a safe space, as well as to understand the dangers of hateful propaganda that lead to violence.
Student religious opinion leaders are recruited to join interested students from diverse religious backgrounds for small bi-weekly groups to moderate dialogue sessions on issues of the causes and consequences of violent extremism and the importance of peaceful coexistence, and the respect of religious freedom and equality. PDC trains and mentors dialogue moderators who are carefully chosen. The dialogue work of PDC has so far, a direct and indirect effect on at least 10,000 university students yearly in the selected universities.
Finally, let me say that even above and beyond human depravity, there is still a ray of light for redemption. We have a tragic situation and there must be someway to reverse it.Hence this Plan of Action that I am sure is produced because of such belief in human redemption is of great importance. I stand here myself to support it, because I believe that there are still good people who uphold peace and justice and live and practice a life of love and goodness. The Plan is solid and comprehensive. It cracks the cynicism that sometimes exists about the UN. It is also encouraging to see how many religious groups around the world have associated themselves with it. It might not be easy in the implementation area. In virtually every part of the world, even where the religious groups that are supportive exist, we have religious minorities who engage in daily activities that run contrary to what the Plan says. What can we do to make this Plan of Action a real plan of action that stretches broadly and deeply among human kind? That really is the question. We must, therefore, work hard together, joined by all other interested groups and parties, to implement this excellent statement to be retailed not only at the grassroots level but also at individuals, which is where the problem lies.
Please allow me now to conclude with some humble personal suggestions for the Plan. First,I would like to see the role of music and art in the Plan of Action. Music and art have the capacity to touch the human heart, “sooth the soul” or inspire action. That is why there are national anthems and military bands. Music, art, and dance can serve to promote reconciliation and understanding, and inspire the restless youth.In Bosnia, Father Ivo, one of my fellow Tanenbaum Center Prize awardee, formed a Choir of Christians and Muslims. In Ethiopia, we are now in the process of forming nation-wide Peace Choirs. We can sing “You ‘e got to be taught to love” instead of “You’ve got to be taught to hate.” Second, in the spirit of the importance of education, I would propose two-UN memorial days: a) a Memorial Day of Tragedy and Human Infamy and Remembrance of Past Atrocity Crimes, somewhat like the Holocaust Memorial Day, b) a Day of Hope– Day of Human Hope for the end of Atrocity crimes. Third, some years ago, I proposed to both His Excellency the Late PM of Ethiopia and His Excellency the President of Eritrea to establish the Ministry of Peace in parallel to the Ministry of Defense. I pray that the UN would see merit to such an idea and promote it.
Let me conclude with a quotation from Einstein and a short prayer: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”. I am happy that the UN and Religious Leaders are doing this important work to counter the danger of atrocity violence and lay a foundation for a hopeful vision of humankind.
Open our eyes to see light and beauty in our fellow human beings
Open our ears to hear the song of love from our fellow human beings
Open our mouth to speak well of our fellow human beings
Let our feet hasten to do good for our fellow human beings.
Let us lift our hands embrace humanity, not use them to throw weapons at each other.
May the Almighty bless the work of all who work for peace and love worldwide!