Civilian Diplomacy

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Peace is no more — and no less — than the audacity of sanity, reaching past the dubious geopolitics of national self-interest and standing, as Hank Brusselback did, underneath the ancient bridge in Esfahan, Iran, listening to the men who had gathered to sing.

It’s called civilian diplomacy, and it is one way we will create the peace our leaders don’t believe we’re ready for.

“If the government isn’t willing to talk to people, then the people need to be willing to (talk to each other),” Brusselback said. “It comes from a belief in the nature of security — it’s not about weapons, fear and posturing on the world stage. It’s about communication, talking to people, everyone having their basic needs met. If you understood security that way, you’d see that security is about dialogue.”

At the beginning of May, Brusselback, a painter and political activist, and his wife, Gaia Mika, of Dixon, N.M., were part of a delegation of citizen diplomats to Iran sponsored by the 93-year-old Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization that has been at the forefront of significant national and global change throughout the 20th century — from the founding of the ACLU to the rescue of Jews in the Nazi era to the Montgomery bus boycott and the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Mostly FOR has been about stopping war, something that may still seem like futility itself, but consider how futile it must have seemed in 1914, when the Great War started while an ecumenical conference among European clergy was being held in Switzerland to avert the outbreak of war. According to the FOR-USA Web site, two of the participants, Henry Hodgkin, an English Quaker, and Friedrich Sigmund-Schultze, a German Lutheran, upon meeting at a railroad station in Germany as they headed home, “pledged to find a way of working for peace even though their countries were at war.”

This was a pledge of courageous determination, made to the future of the human race. The Fellowship of Reconciliation was founded out of this pledge a few months later, in Cambridge, England; and in 1915, a second fellowship was established in the United States. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries — for the first time in the long history of the human race — humanity’s passion for peace, justice and connectedness has had a permanent structure from which to challenge the short-sighted self-interest of governments, and their predilection to prepare for and wage wars.

And so, with the Bush administration in popularity freefall, its splendid little war in Iraq having run aground, many Americans have been eying its hollow belligerence toward Iran with acute nervousness. But some have decided to be pre-emptive themselves, rather than simmer in their anger and helplessness.

“Our determination was to do something different than go out in the streets, which we did for Iraq,” Brusselback told me. “We wanted to give a message to Iranians — to let them know there are lots of us here who believe in peace.”

This, as I say, is the audacity of sanity, and a sign that the world is changing, the war paradigm is shifting. The May delegation, which consisted of 21 U.S. citizens, was the seventh that FOR-USA has sent to Iran in the last three years. The delegates talked to religious leaders (including Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as well as Muslims). They toured the country.

“We wore pins, written in Farsi: ‘We are part of a peace delegation,’” Brusselback said. “And (people) just had this big, warm smile. They wanted to give us hugs and shake our hands. ‘We love Americans!’ They told us that day after day.”

They also talked to people about the complexity of life in Iran. The country has plenty of problems. People rolled their eyes when talking about President Ahmadinejad, especially his Holocaust-denial posturing. And, yeah, Iran has laws “about all kinds of things that really get in your face personally, especially women,” he said. “Morality police. No makeup, can’t show legs or hair. (Some people) struggle to push the edges. They’re brave. They risk arrest.”

But ladies and gentlemen, none of this is fodder for war. The highest order of ignorance is required before airstrikes, and the slaughter of these warm, courageous people, can be condoned.

Brusselback talked about his wife’s experience in historic and beautiful Esfahan, when she found herself amid a group of schoolchildren in Imam Square. “The teacher asked who she was,” he said. “Then all the children introduced themselves to her one at a time, each saying a phrase in English. It brought tears to her eyes.”

He also talked about coming upon a group of men who had gathered under Esfahan’s 300-year-old bridge to sing, because the echo there was out of this world. As he stood listening, one of them struck up a conversation. “So you’re from the U.S.,” the man said. “Do you think we’re terrorists?”

If we know enough we’ll never go to war again. This is globalization that matters.