Jean-Paul Chami: ‘The region needs more peace fundamentalists’

"Conflicts are pretty similar, yet they do manifest themselves differently," said Founder of Peace Labs Jean-Paul Chami.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Jean Paul Chami (C-L) speaks at a peace advocacy training session in Lebanon. (Peace Labs)
Difficult task. Jean Paul Chami (C-L) speaks at a peace advocacy training session in Lebanon. (Peace Labs)

Jean-Paul Chami belongs to a generation fundamentally shaped by the Lebanese civil war. As a 12-year-old, he said he knew he bore no responsibility for the war but that it affected him anyway. A big part of his adulthood was spent on understanding the nature of conflict.

Chami founded Peace Labs, an NGO dedicated to peace, in 2011. He has facilitated and delivered more than 50 training workshops and lectures on peace and conflict skills in Lebanon, the wider Arab world and Africa.

A fervent advocate for a bottom-up approach to peace, Chami has worked alongside local communities in Libya, Lebanon and Iraq that were either involved in or affected by conflict. He has worked on behaviour change and conflict literacy, helping people intellectualise the existence of conflict to distance emotions even as the importance of emotional responses was recognised.

In 2008, Chami became local level peace coordinator at the UN Development Programme for Lebanon and Iraq Peace Programme manager at the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue.

In 2014, Chami undertook assignments for Interpeace, an international NGO for peace building, to manage the Roads to Peace programme in Libya that focused on young people.

The Arab Weekly (TAW) met with Chami (JPC) in Beirut and asked why and how he planned to make people “speak the language of peace.”

TAW: How peculiar is the nature of conflict in our part of the world?

JPC: “Conflicts are pretty similar, yet they do manifest themselves differently. It is like cooking the same dish but with varying ingredients. You end up with the same dish but with a slightly different taste. Yet, people involved in conflicts, whether as bystanders or victims, will always say their conflict is more complicated.

“However, the experience of war everywhere around the world brings both the victim and the perpetrators to animalistic levels, which strips us of our core human traits and character. Once we have crossed the line from conflict to violent conflict it is a different ball game, disregarding justice, freedom and the right to live.

“What makes conflict different in our region is how local, national, regional or international a conflict has grown, how the conflict has been inspired, what is at stake and who are the key stakeholders. Regardless of all these factors, violence always erupts.

“In Lebanon, for example, we could say that there are sectarian aspects that are not necessarily present elsewhere, particularly the subtle layers of sub-confessional fault lines in which we see people from the same religion attacking each other. So it is not necessary one religious bloc against another.

“The level of concentration and intersections makes the whole region a bit peculiar. Lebanon is in a tough neighbourhood. [There are the] occupied [Palestinian territories], Syria, Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

“Our conflicts have been very dehumanising and [led to a] higher level of insecurities; deteriorating trust, sanity among citizens of the same country. We cannot always rely on the us-versus-them rhetoric because your neighbour next door is also the enemy. That enemy could be your brother and, in our culture, brothers killing each other is just a picture of the primitive dawn of the Adam-and-Eve era of the world.”

TAW: How do you empower people to end conflict when they feel doomed, powerless and the victim of wars over which they have no influence?

JPC: “It depends. It is a common thread for people to feel disempowered and doomed. The word that comes to mind is ‘resilience.’ The focus is not to bring the fights and fires into our own houses. It is the most difficult job [possible].

“The Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian examples show us that when we are impacted by a conflict for a long time, chances are part of that conflict will be brought into the inner house and create dangerous inner fault lines.

“Although conflict resolution as a science is still in construction, my intervention is creating awareness about the fault lines by providing literacy skills to people to understand what they have been going through.

“It is important to remind people in our region that we are all conflict experts but that there is no one solution expert as such. Every community has developed its understanding of conflict and it is important to start listening. During the workshops, I customise my language, not using too much academic jargon [but] using street common language.”

TAW: How effective can peace-building be when some local leaders, political or religious, have a grip on people, who may, in fact, be economically dependent on them, too?

JPC: “One must think about the critical yeast, the small number of people. Convincing a huge mass is playing a dangerous power game.

“Winning hearts and minds of the local population requires new discourse leadership in our region. We need more peace fundamentalists to a certain extent, with their peace belief, sharing non-violent alternatives, instigating people to be more helpful. We lack that type of leadership in our region.

“Recently, I have been asked ‘Who is the Gandhi of the Middle East?’ I did not have a clear answer. There are many men and women at the local level, yet not on national level and that is very much needed to counter every other force that exists.”

TAW: How effective can peace-building be when local conflicts are used strategically to shore up global conflicts and interests, all of which are obviously much beyond the control of local communities?

JPC: “As peace-builders we are expected to answer questions [in line] with a security-based linear mentality but conflicts do not unfold in a linear way, nor do solutions. It is hard to engage in a list of short-term simple solutions.

“What is currently invested in peace building is insignificant [compared to] the investment made in wars. This is not an understatement. The capital, the human forces and technology working for war in our region [represent] an elephant against an ant.

“It is about shifting the resources of our region to empower the ant creatively with an understanding of the body and needs of the elephant. The Middle East and North Africa needs a critical yeast of ants, to inspire the elephant to move in a different direction.

“The world today is in a process of change. We are in a New World Disorder. Our wars have moved to information-related and technology-enabled conflicts and even in our region, [wars waged] through media and drones.”

TAW: Can we naively hope for a peaceful Middle East and North Africa region?

JPC: “Of course we can. It is not only about hope. When you really wish and work for something, it will eventually happen. Peace can and will happen. How do I know this? Simply because of the ‘Arab spring.’

“Many mock it because it did not yield what was expected back then. Change takes time and cannot take place without an initial spark and level of consciousness, which happened during the ‘Arab spring’ and its ripple effects in the region.

“That level of consciousness has already been surpassed and there is no turning back. As people, we have understood our ruling regimes, global politics and social affairs.

“We are definitely moving in the right direction, impatient though we may be.”