Photo courtesy Asian Mirror
Dwight D. Eisenhower said “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.”
Many politicians stand in the way of peace for their own vested interests, or from a sheer lack of self-awareness, care and emotional control. This makes them blind to the impact their words and action have on millions of people.
In an interconnected, transparent world, our political leaders are under scrutiny unlike any other time and leaders who do well for the world will manage themselves – their emotions and actions and find the power of balance.
Dee Hock founder of the VISA card wisely said –
“Without management of self no one is fit for authority no matter how much they acquire, for the more authority they acquire the more dangerous they become. It is the management of self that should occupy 50 percent of our time and the best of our ability. And when we do that, the ethical, moral and spiritual elements of leadership are inescapable.”
Management of self can only come from self-awareness grounded in a practice of mindfulness.
History provides enough painful narratives about divided nations ruled by selfish leaders. The separation of people causes tremendous suffering that can lead to violence and destruction.
Trumpism – in going back to a primal reptilian emotional place, to stoke fears of people who are disadvantaged for much larger reasons than the other’s colour or where they came from – globalization, neo-liberal economics, the World Trade Organization, the Federal Reserve and the likes of Wall Street – Donald Trump, one of the most self-obsessed, emotionally immature leaders we have seen in a long time, keeps finding scapegoats and separating his people through fear, when they should be coming together to meet its economic, social and climate change challenges.
A divided nation is easily tampered with and the USA has a lot more to lose than any of those waiting to pounce on it for their own advantage.
Divisive rhetoric of a national leader puts people on edge – separates neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and even families. Not only that, a divided nation has a tremendous cost to individuals, communities and institutions, as the dissonance, pain and suffering it generates could end up in a major upheaval and tragedy.
Lessons from Sri Lanka
We never imagined, growing up in a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 70s with Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Sinhala and others in relative harmony that, we would end up in a brutal thirty year war starting in the 1980s, which killed almost a 100,000 people.
In order to make amends to the domination of Tamil bureaucrats and other favours by the British colonial government, the post-independence government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake pandered to Sinhala nationalists and denied the Tamil minority, their language and civic rights in 1956.
Allowing a peaceful group of Tamil protesters in Colombo on 6th June 1956 to be beaten by Sinhala thugs, the country began to squander its ability to come together as one nation, rather than divide along ethnic and language lines. Instead, if Prime Minister Bandaranaike, invited the protesters to a conversation and continued a dialogue, perhaps Sri Lanka could have changed the course of history.
As Sri Lanka liberalized its economy in 1977 aligning with the USA and the west, India played cold war politics to destabilize the country. What better way than to fan the fire by training a cadre of disenfranchised Tamil youth[i], which eventually resulted in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – one of the fiercest fighting forces of its time[ii].
The Sri Lankan government also walked into a trap of the Sinhala extremist action in July 1983. That ‘Black July’ day riots left hundreds of Tamil people dead and thousands displaced in Colombo and other cities, which brought the country’s deep divisions to international notice.
Sri Lanka as a sovereign nation lost its cohesion and control as the world deemed it a pariah and the war was fuelled through international support and interest.
As the country was divided and separated with poor leadership, opportunistic politics, stoking xenophobia, outsiders with geopolitical interests and the arms industry took advantage.
No nation is immune, not the US and not even Canada, if we, the people, do not play our role to keep pluralistic values that hold together the diverse tapestry of humans in harmony. This requires exemplary, mindful leadership and we, the people, are responsible for putting them into power.
“Why don’t you go back to where you came from” said the young man to a response – “What! do you want to me to come and build my Teepee in your backyard?” from a First Nations Aboriginal women who was threatened a few days after the tragic October 2014 shooting of Sgt. Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa. The young man was bewildered by the response and made a hasty retreat, according to the woman – a Canadian Federal Government employee, who was at one of my soft skills training programmes.
This young man would have been emboldened like others who harassed people of colour over the next few days, egged on by Prime Minister Harper’s insinuations of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – differentiating old and new Canadians – implying the ‘them’, the non-white are separate and could be terrorists. The government authorities deemed this a terrorist attack by Canadian born Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – who happened to have a Libyan father and was known to be mentally unstable.
Nevertheless, the ambiguous yet subtle finger pointing reaction towards Muslims extended to minorities of colour by the Prime Minister, gave license to some ignorant opportunists towards aggression.
These reactions are reptilian, could be driven by a larger fear of the other, now perceived as perpetrating terror – they were also acts of cowardice, as many men picked on women of colour. Yet, it put us all on edge, as the head of Canada was not speaking out on these.
So, refreshing was Justin Trudeau at the time, leading the Liberal Party for elections, as his principled fearlessness led him to take a stand on the notion of us and them Canadians. His position on the Niqab (the face covering as a part of the Hijab), which the Harper government was bent on banning for the Canadian citizenship ceremony to begin with, was courageous, as it was a political risk just before elections.
At a time when the polls showed the Harper conservatives leading, when the security issues were front and centre driven by extreme Islam of a few and the ISIS – Trudeau did what was right in stating that the government had no right to legislate a dress code and that it was un-Canadian to do so.
Trudeau was bold enough to say the following, even if it risked losing support of the average Canadian for his fledgling Liberal party at the time;
“You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up as a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights……But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.”
Then he went onto say;
“But what’s even worse than what they’re saying is what they really mean. We all know what is going on here. It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith,”
This brought Harper’s Evangelical Christian religious beliefs, even showing a Social Darwinist approach of manifest destiny and white superiority into light, and the dangerous edge he brought the country towards racial divisiveness. Canadians were more astute and Trudeau’s emphatic response actually put the Harper government on the back foot.
Canada voted in spades for Trudeau and Liberals at the time, as it showed Canada in its true light – a multicultural, plural nation that is an example to the world that diversity can work with a strong set of values and fearless leadership.
The other fissure that Canada has to make amends for arises from its history – a nation built on the backs of its aboriginal people and their lands. Trudeau government has made a promise to deal with them – the poverty of the communities, land claim issues, violence against Aboriginal women to making amends for the stolen generations in the residential schools.
The government took children away from aboriginal families to put into church led residential schools to erase their language, culture and spiritual practices to make them ‘Canadian’.
Canada’s Aboriginal Pedigree
Historian and writer, John Ralston Saul asserted – “we should not be imagining ourselves in the tradition of either, but recognize the country’s distinct nature, born of this land, and the integration, not just interaction, of settler and aboriginal life”.
Saul begins his book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, by establishing the country’s aboriginal pedigree where he says, we all owe many of our best qualities as Canadians to our indigenous peoples’ heritage.
In one of ex-Prime Minister Harper’s rare brilliant moments in June 2008, he made a formal apology to aboriginal people for the residential schools acknowledging that an absence of an apology gets in the way of reconciliation, and he said, “we are sorry”.
His formal statement read in the Indigenous and Northern Affairs website[iii];
Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child”. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.
What he said then and the follow-up action of his Conservative government did not match, making a mockery of the apology, yet it opened the door for a more sincere effort at reconciliation later.
I was surprised on a trip to North West Territories not long after I came back to Canada in 2011, an aboriginal business leader told me – “We do not tolerate nor do business with people from the south. I will speak to you because you are not white”.
I was afraid that the fissures I witnessed between mainstream Canada and the Aboriginal people – First Nations, Inuit and Metis – one of the fastest growing and advancing communities in Canada, would someday hurt Canada’s cohesion.
Therefore, sooner Canada accepts and honours that pedigree the better. That especially goes to new Canadians also to know and accept that history, as we come together and influence each other, into the ever-evolving culture of Canada.
Another positive move by the Stephen Harper’s former government was to establish the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP) in partnership with the Aga Khan to spread Canadian values of pluralistic democracy around the world.
Canada certainly has the credibility right now to do that as the GCP website states[iv] –
In too many places, diversity is a source of competition and fear. Taken to extremes, escalating exclusion leads to oppression, extremism and violence. Rooted in respect and inclusion, pluralism offers a different path.
More than anything, a commitment to pluralism creates mutual benefits, giving every member of society reason to get along.
- When valued rather than feared, human diversity enriches and benefits a society.
- Having difference recognized by the state and the nation fosters belonging, participation and equality.
- Cultures of inclusion do not erase difference or disagreement; rather, they offer ways to manage conflict peacefully.
- Majority identities and minority aspirations must be considered.
- Pluralist societies require ongoing work and investment – by citizens, civil societies and governments – but the returns are enormous.
These tenets should set the standard for us to elect any political leader or a party and if we follow these – we, the voters, globally, have to be vigilant and engaged never to allow in the likes of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders of the far right and even at 95, emotionally immature Robert Mugabe and other unwise, opportunistic individuals to come into power, as they will divide, separate and create dissonance – as we see Trump doing to the USA.
At a time when the world has to come together to deal with issues of inequality, poverty and most of all natural calamities, we can ill afford for nations to implode for prejudice and xenophobia.
For that, we, the people, have think critically to ensure we only elect leaders who are mindful, emotionally mature to manage themselves first and understand the implications of the power they wield.
“Learning not to be credulous, applying constructive doubt in order to test unexamined beliefs, and resisting the notion that some authority, a great philosopher perhaps, has captured the whole truth”.
Bertrand Russel on Critical Thinking
[ii] Indian intervention in Sri Lanka: The role of India’s intelligence agencies