Increased prevalence of terrorism and political violence in the contemporary world has led to many initiatives in recent years aimed at removing the scourge. Military efforts to secure peace have been rapidly deployed, with better informed justification in some cases than in others. Yet group violence through systematic instigation is not exclusively, nor primarily, a military challenge. It is fostered in our divisive world through capturing people's minds and loyalties, and through exploiting the allegiance of those who are wholly or partly persuaded. Some recruits are "inspired" into joining movements for promoting violence against targeted groups, but a much larger number of influenced people do not take part. They can nevertheless hugely contribute to generating a political climate in which the most peaceful of people come to tolerate the most egregious acts of intolerance and brutality on some hazily perceived grounds of self-defence, or retaliation, against the identified "enemy".
The Commonwealth Commission report Civil Paths to Peace, published today, focuses particularly on causes and ways of preventing the terrorism and cultivated violence that have been in the ascendancy for some years, and afflict or threaten the lives of billions in Commonwealth countries and the rest of the world. The report does not argue that military initiatives are never justified, but does argue that when they are based on wrong information or weak reasoning, or inadequately linked to civil measures, they can generate immensely counterproductive results. Systematic civil initiatives, at the national as well as global level, are essential for successfully confronting organised violence and terrorism.
Central to the civil approach is the recognition of the need to overcome the influence of confused and flammable readings of human relations that generate group-specific disaffection and hatred. Even though all human beings have many affiliations, with many distinct patterns of sharing (including the important commonality of a shared human identity), these multiple identities are systematically downplayed in the cultivation of group violence, which proceeds through privileging exactly one affiliation as a person's "real identity", thereby seeing people in an imagined confrontation against each other across a single line of prioritised divisiveness.
Indeed, even the gigantic violence of the first world war, which made so many Europeans act as willing participants in an unnecessary war, drew on singularly prioritising the identity of nationality, ignoring all else. Today, the divisiveness of a singled-out priority is increasingly based on the championing of religious - rather than national - identity, ignoring all other affiliations. The cultivation of such confrontational incitement, often aimed against the west, actually receives implicit support in the west from the increased popularity of classifying the population of the world almost exclusively by religion, or by membership of "civilisations", defined primarily in terms of religion (supplemented by the thesis that different civilisations are prone to "clash" with each other).
But human beings, with a variety of concerns and affiliations shared in many different and complex ways, need not be constantly at loggerheads. If the institutional changes needed for pursuing civil paths to peace call for clarity of thought, they also demand, as the commission report discusses, organised policies and institutional initiatives with the reach and versatility to help, rather than hinder, the understanding of the richness of human relations.
Breadth of reach is crucial here. Even the well-meaning but excessively narrow approach of concentrating single-mindedly on the "dialogue between religions" (much championed right now) can seriously undermine other civil engagements, linked with language, literature, cultural functions, national politics, and social interactions that help to resist the exploitation of religious differences, which very often begins by undermining all other affiliations. The diversity of civil society engagements needs support, not supplanting.
Cultivation of disrespect and hostility can be resisted through various means, including the working of the media, flourishing of participatory politics, expansion of inclusive and broad-based educational activities, and other means of generating mutual respect and understanding. Civil paths to peace also demand the removal of gross economic inequalities, social humiliations and political disenfranchisement, which can contribute to generating confrontation and hostility. Purely economic measures of inequality do not bring out the social dimension of the inequality involved. For example, when the people in the bottom groups in terms of income have different non-economic characteristics, in terms of race (such as being black rather than white), or immigration status (such as being recent arrivals rather than older residents), then the significance of the economic inequality is substantially magnified by its "coupling" with other divisions, linked with non-economic identity groups.
The focus on the civil paths to peace does not ignore, in any way, the basic fact that terrorism and homicide, no matter how generated, are criminal activities that call for effective security measures. No serious analysis of group violence can fail to begin with that basic understanding. But the analysis cannot end there, since many social, economic and political initiatives can be undertaken to confront and defeat the appeal on which the fomenters of violence and terrorism draw to recruit active foot soldiers and passive sympathisers.
The Commonwealth has survived and flourished, despite the hostilities associated with our colonial history. There has been no absence of problems, but we must not underestimate the successes we have had, particularly through replacing the bitter confrontation of the ruler and the rebel with widespread cooperation between independent people.
That success has been possible through the use of a number of far-sighted guiding principles, centred particularly on a multilateral approach. The commission argues that those principles have continuing relevance today for the future of the Commonwealth - and also for the world as a whole. In this sense, Civil Paths to Peace is a modest attempt to present a Commonwealth-based understanding of the civil demands for world peace.
Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in Economics, is the Thomas W Lamont University Professor at Harvard; he chaired the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding, which publishes its report Civil Paths to Peace today
© 2007 The Guardian