Transnational terrorism as a manifestation of globalization

In today’s session, our discussion was about terrorism and armed groups. This got me to really think about how world-wide interconnectedness on the ideological, political, technical and economic spheres of globalization has manifested a modern phenomenon of global transnational terrorism. I adopt the definition of terrorism as the unlawful use of violent or intimidation techniques in the pursuit of political aims. Contemporary terrorism began in the 1960s and has spread to nearly all parts of the world. The Middle East and North Africa region is currently the hub of terrorism led by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. However, globalization’s shift of the balance of power in the international system has allowed terrorist activities to prevail and expand across seas. 

The end of World War II brought about a dramatic increase of globalization which is comprised of the integration of the world economy, the advancement of communication technology, and the expansion of air travel. In addition, the US’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold war shaped the social and cultural dimensions of globalization into a modern form of spreading progressive Western liberal ideologies. The global dimension of technology, ideology, politics and economy has not only led to the outbreak of terrorism, but also bolstered it into a cancerous transnational phenomenon that cultivates within and beyond states’ borders. 

Contemporary terrorism emerged as a response to globalization on a socio-political and economic level. Western powers’ general interventionist approach to international relations that aims to spread liberal Western values of democracy and freedom, and the facility of movement of these ideas across geographical spaces resulted in an unprecedented contact between dissimilar groups. This proximity of different societies has led to a clash of cultures and ideologies. Terrorists perceive themselves as “freedom fighter[s]” against Western hegemony and its colonial aspirations in the region. This is exemplified by the rise of Al-Qaeda and the intensification of Islamic and Arab fundamentalism as a reaction to the US’s intervention in the First Gulf War and the its War on Terror in the early 1990s. Therefore, terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda seek to inspire resistance against the West by example in the pursuit of a socio-political change that rejects the prevalence of Western values.  

            Modern terrorism capitalizes on the vulnerability of groups that are disadvantaged by the economic changes of globalization. Contemporary forms of economic globalization, particularly the intensification in the facility of trade, investment, migration, finance and the increasing reach of multinational corporations has proven to be fundamental for states’ economic growth and nourishment. However, this system has also led to the increase of inequality between and within states and the segmentation of the global. Disadvantaged groups perceive globalization as a Western-orchestrated evil that has to be opposed by violence. Although there are other conditions that breed terrorists such as systematic injustices and marginalization, contemporary terrorism is a weapon of the weak that is utilized in response to the what they perceive as negative effects of globalization. In order to understand the global prevalence of terrorism, it is imperative to discuss globalization’s impact on the balance in the world order. There are some sceptics that believe that the intensity of globalization is highly exaggerated. They argue that the period between 1870 and 1914 was much more globalized economically, politically and culturally and that there has always been trade among different societal groups and immigration to various geographical spaces. They also reject the notion that globalization undermines the role of the state. However, Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of September 11 and the expansion of the Islamic State in the Middle East debunk the notion that geopolitics, state power and boundaries remain intact regardless of the interconnectedness. 

Instead, I believe in a transformationalist approach which argues that globalization has indeed had led to the transformation in power on the national and international levels. Globalization has transformed power in a sense that allows for the continuation of politics by new means. It has orchestrated the re-organization of economic, political, military and cultural power. This is due to the fact that advancement in communication technology and transportation has deprived states of the monopoly of collective action. The state was the only structured institution that could mobilize a large number of people, and it would often be held accountable for its actions whether by revolts in the case of authoritarian regimes, elections in democratic regimes or sanctions by the international community. However, globalization has empowered individuals to mobilize themselves into groups. When other forms of resistance fail, the non-state actors resort to violent techniques and terrorism which are found appealing by disadvantaged communities. 

On the international level, globalization challenges the hierarchical organization of the international system by providing processes that facilitate global transnational terrorism.  Terrorist groups can use modern communications technology and transportation linkages to strike across greater distances which fulfills their goals of being recognized globally. They can learn new techniques and information about any potential targets online, communicate across seas, recruit any sympathizers and incite others. Indeed, all of these techniques are used by ISIL which as allowed to expand and instill fear in communities across seas. 

The international community has yet to find a productive mean to stop atrocious terrorist groups that have terrorized civilians within their territories and abroad. These groups have been capitalizing on the negative aspects of socio-economic world-wide interconnectedness, and using modern communication technologies to mobilize support and plan their attacks. However, the international community should use the same assets to combat their actions and strengthen surveillance mechanisms to curtail spaces of dissent. 

Pragmatic Pluralism as a Peacebuilding Approach

By Ferial Berjawi

Today, we had the privilege of speaking to Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, who is a prestigious religious scholar and an author specialized in South Asian history and culture. She spoke to us about her unique approach to long-term peacebuilding, particularly in contexts of religious conflicts, through what she called “pragmatic pluralism”. She asserted that it is vital to have an interdisciplinary lens when analyzing conflicts and to consider how in certain situations, religion is used as a function of power, political, social, economic, and/or territorial disputes. However, she claims that once religion is introduced into a conflict, it adds on another layer to the conflict that alters the dynamics at play; thus, conflicts with a religious dimension are different and need to be studied differently to achieve sustainable peace and co-existence. This stems from the notion that you can negotiate issues, but it would be futile to negotiate deeply entrenched religious values which are about ultimate transcendence, finding a purpose in life, and fulfilling one’s destiny. She critiqued inter-religious dialogues in their attempt to find common values since religious values are nonnegotiable, so these dialogues do not result in lasting effects which would allow the community to thrive. She also stated that tolerance between religious groups is not enough because hostility will often persist and ultimately fuel violence.

Her approach, pragmatic pluralism, attempts to cultivate interdependent relationships where one religion needs another to be itself. She claims that one of the key paradigms of conflicts is that no religious conflict is solely a religious conflict, and that there are other dimensions that often play an imperative role. Hence, we can use these secular opportunities, which often stretch across religious identities, to create a context in which religious interdependence can succeed.

This theory resonates with me to a certain extent. I see how pragmatic pluralism exists in Lebanon where there are 18 different religious groups which have co-existed for centuries. Different sectarian groups need each other on a daily basis, so regardless of all the past violence and conflicts, Muslim Sunnis, Shia’s, Maronites, Orthodox Christians, Druze, etc, live, work, eat, and party together everyday in all parts of the country. However, these religious divides have been tremendously politicized, so sometimes, even the most trivial incidents will trigger inter-sectarian violence because ultimately the commitment and loyalty of some people to their respective religious group trump their economic or social interests. Hence, in this context, like it is in other parts of the world, pragmatic pluralism fails to create sustainable long-lasting peace, and it will continue to fail until the deep seated mistrust between the communities is addressed.

Similarly, I worry that this approach will also fail in the long run when, or if, the secular associational bonds which previously tied different groups together cease to exist. For example, let’s say that two families from two opposing religious groups collaborate on managing a business in their community. If something goes wrong in the business, or if it shuts down, the tensions between the families could very well exacerbate, leading to the re-emergence of deep divides, and maybe, violence.

Moreover, pragmatic pluralism attempts to start from the interpersonal level, and with that, create some sort of institutional or structural change. Nevertheless, it is challenging for me to see the effectiveness of this approach in contexts of religious conflicts where, more often than not, there is a hierarchy that privileges certain religious groups and disenfranchised another.  When discussing the applicability of this approach in India’s caste system, Professor Patton did indeed agree that pragmatic pluralism in a hierarchical society reinforces that hierarchy and oppression of the lower caste; however, isn’t this also the case with religion? I brought up the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the session, and she said that a group called Parents United in Youth brings together parents from both groups to talk about their shared experiences and losses. While this is definitely a great initiative to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, I am not sure how such interventions could lead to larger structural changes in a situation where the power dynamics are extremely unequal and the institutional hierarchy places Israelis on top of the pyramid and Palestinians at the very bottom.

I think this theory is definitely interesting – it is worth looking into, and it is important to study its applicability in different contexts to properly understand what dividers could be transformed into connects, how we can capitalize on existing assets in societies to bring groups together, as well as its shortcomings and risks. I would love to read more about it to understand its scope and depth, and the different strategies that could be used and tailored to different communities and stakeholders.

Gender Equality in Islam

By Ferial Berjawi

In today’s session with Professor Sheherazade Jafari, we discussed gender equality in contexts of conflict and gender-inclusive peacebuilding. This is a topic that I am so deeply passionate about and that I have spent endless nights reflecting on. She believes that we need to put a gender lens to understand the dynamics at play and the powerful ways gender shapes people’s perspectives, needs, experiences and opportunities to make policies complete and reliable; otherwise, they will be self-defeating and counterproductive. During the session, we had an activity in which we had to “walk in female peacebuilders’ shoes” and make tough decisions regarding an intervention in a conflict-affected area which targets gender-based violence against women. Most of the decisions were primarily on whether or not we should include men and religious leaders in the healing process. Eventually, there were benefits and drawbacks that came with whichever decisions we made. We also discussed the role religion plays in achieving or hindering gender equality in different societies, and whether we should work within the system or outside it.

This is something I have particularly struggled with in my own upbringing and feminist work with refugees from deeply traditional Muslim communities in Lebanon. For those of you who don’t know, Lebanon is a religiously diverse country with a population breakdown of 54% Muslim and 41% Christian – figures that often surprise foreigners who tend to picture the Middle East as a region full of bearded camel traders and Muslim women dressed in all black. However, within the Muslim population, more so than other religious groups, there remains a strong identification of cultural authenticity with Islam which has been strengthened by the external threats from the West post-9/11 and the movement of traditional Islamic societies towards modernization in an era of globalization and increased interconnectedness. This has resulted in underlying religious fundamentalism that is premised on absolute monolithic approaches, which reinforces the patriarchy and traditional prejudices about gender. As such, this raises the first question: is Islam inherently misogynistic?

Islamic scholars, as well as many believers in Lebanon would answer that question with a firm no. In fact, when Prophet Mohammad introduced Islam in the seventh century, it was a step forward for women. Unfortunately, data shows that it is predominantly Muslim countries where women are cut, killed for honor, and kept out of school or the workplace. Even in the Gender Inequality Index reviewed above, 8 out of the bottom 10 countries in the list are majority Muslim. Also, we cannot deny that the Koran, like other holy books, explicitly endorses gender discrimination, particularly in cases of personal status. For example, a women’s testimony counts only half as much as a man’s and a daughter inherits only have as much as a son, and seeing as the Koran is considered to be literally the word of God, believers find it hard to ignore or amend these harmful religious practices. Even in cases where the Koran itself does not promote inequality, cultural norms twist the rhetoric to adversely impact women. For example, though the Koran’s rules around divorce might be considered rational, the cultural practices, such as the taboo nature of divorce, the preponderance of men initiating the divorce, and the stigma attached to women who initiate divorce, result in highly unequal realities for men and women.

The strong identification of Muslims with the cultural meanings and practices of Islam means that feminist discourse could either deny that Islamic practices are necessarily misogynistic or assert that oppressive practices are not necessarily Islamic. Both of these strategies produce more radical alternation as part of Islamic traditions that challenge uniformly patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Indeed, feminist Islam scholars, such as Amina Wadud, have tried to present more progressive interpretations of the Koran to advocate for gender equality within Muslim communities. However, those have not gained relative traction in face of the deeply embedded understandings.

Nonetheless, the dichotomy between literal religious teachings and cultural practices often places Muslim feminists in a ‘double bind,’ a situation that emerges from the intersectionality of multiple identities.  As such, women in the double bind find themselves struggling to reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of feminism and their religious identity, and also defend their religion from Islamophobia. Thus, a progressive shift in interpretations not only weakens religious fundamentalism, which could be severely dangerous in its narrowness, but also encourages the Muslim community to practice their beliefs while still advocating for women’s rights and empowerment.

Is Restorative Justice just?

By Ferial Berjawi

Even before criminal justice systems were established and instituted, restorative justice was long practiced by different cultures and populations around the world. Extending beyond just the notion that crimes are violations of the law and an evidentiary-based process, restorative justice focuses on the harm that was caused to individuals, relationships and the community. In the session with Julie Jackford-Bradley, she explained three ties of restorative justice. The first is prevention through building and strengthening relationships, which requires strong social-emotional intelligence and compassion, deep listening and story telling. It creates intentional communities of care and value-based communication. The second tier is intervention, which focuses on repairing relationships, identifying harms and needs, and addressing structural problems. The third tier is reintegration which aims to reduce recidivism and establish a productive way-forward.

I think restorative justice is an incredibly appealing concept and an ambitious model to address the failures of the punitive system. It offers a more positive and constructive approach to addressing harm done to victims and holding offenders accountable for their mistakes by directly communicating with those harmed. It places humanity, compassion, and truth at the forefront of the process; hence, allowing for true reconciliation and the elimination of resentment and hatred. It aims to give survivors a bigger role in the justice process to tailor it to their particular needs for healing. This was particularly salient during the session with Cheryl Ward-Kaiser where she generously shared her personal story of violence and restorative justice with us. Her generosity of spirit, radical humanization, and resilience were absolutely breathtaking and overwhelming, and she is absolutely right that it takes tremendous strength to face the person who has done you wrong and inflicted pain and harm onto you and your family. There is nothing more powerful than being able to find that forgiveness in your heart. I agree with her that this process helps the survivor heal and move on with their life without letting one incident or a series of incidents have the power to completely control their emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.

However, I worry that restorative justice in practice might not always be as victim-centered as envisioned. It might do more to vindicate the offenders from their guilty conscious, if they have one, than to heal the victim. It might have worked in the case of Cheryl because she actively tried to talk to her offenders, and it seems like the burden fell on her to drive this process of healing. It ultimately depends on the victim and their willingness to engage with those who have inflicted pain on them. It also depends on the moral compass and remorse of the offender, and whether they will truly feel and see the impacts of their acts. Thus, restorative justice might indeed fail in a lot of situations, and as the prosecutor during the session mentioned, it will not work in cases of domestic violence where the victim and offender are family members. Even if it does work, the offender, I believe, has to redeem himself/herself in order for justice to be truly achieved. So, I personally think that there needs to be a mix of punitive and restorative processes in the justice system, and ultimately the balance should be determined by the victim, according to their needs and desires in proportion to the crime.

Gun violence in the US

We spent most of this week discussing gun and gang violence as well as the criminal justice system in the US, particularly in Salinas. We were privileged to hear the different perspectives of individuals from various backgrounds: a former gang member, prisoners, police officers, correctional officers, survivors of sexual and physical violence, a public defender, a prosecutor, a person working in Rancho Cielo, and governmental officials working to eliminate the problem. It was extremely interesting listening to their different stories and experiences as well as their own perspectives on the causes of crime and violence.

Most of these individuals agreed that there are root causes to this problems, particularly, poor economic conditions, extreme inequities, relative deprivation, lack of guidance, the desire to have a sense of belonging, child abuse, and dysfunctional homes. One individual stressed that Latinos “need to learn how to be better parents”, and another pointed that all the youth he has worked with experienced some sort of domestic abuse. The pastor noted that we need to reestablish the value of relationships, familial ties, and morals. Similarly, the public defender said that “no one is born choosing this life”; she said that most of her clients have mental health issues, the state hospital is very backlogged and that there is a low standard for insanity according to the law. She said that perpetrators of child molestation are almost always victims of the same crime themselves.

However, these issues are not only present in the US – they exist all around the world. Other countries experience tremendous poverty, famines, economic inequalities and marginalization. But, why is this such a deep and complex problem here, despite the US having the highest incarceration rate in the world? I think this paradox is just mind-blowing, and it is hard to digest.  One could argue, it is because the criminal justice system works here. People in other countries commit crimes, but they are not being held accountable; hence, the incarceration rates are relatively low. However, the criminal justice systems in developed countries do work, and people are held accountable for their actions. It remains that the rates of gun violence and crimes in these countries are still low. Chief Kelly states that there is a culture of violence in the US, which does not exist in similar countries. I agree. I think the US glorifies individualism, and this capitalist system encourages accumulating financial wealth, even if it is at the expense of other individuals, morals, and values.  Nevertheless, it seems like the US government is doing very little to prevent this violence, which I cannot wrap my head around.  I get it – the NRA lobby is one of the most powerful entities, people, particularly across the South are attached to their right of bearing arms, and yes, guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but they are using guns to do it, and that needs to be stopped. Clearly, the prison-industrial complex is not effective in eliminating the root causes of the problem, but while long-term plans are implemented to address poverty, relative deprivation, and marginalization, immediate responses to this violence need to take place.

The United States

“Land of the free, home of the brave” – growing up, the United States was always this far away land in which people can live freely, thrive on a personal, academic, and professional level, and achieve their full potential. The first time I heard the phrase, “American Dream”, I was probably in middle school, right when I received a USAID scholarship to transfer from a very monolithic Lebanese school to American Community School in Beirut (ACS), a diverse American school. At ACS, I got to travel to different countries twice a year for competitions and camps, had teachers and classmates from various backgrounds, nationalities, and religions, and worked on community service projects throughout the year. This experience allowed me to see the raw humanity in others, broadened my perspective, deepened my empathy, and created a spark in me to always strive to become the best version of myself. It made me want to continue my educational career in the US. I was certain that regardless of my background, religion, social class, and gender, I will be far more valued there than back in Lebanon, where nepotism, corruption, and misogyny would define my growth.

And indeed, that’s what happened during my four years at Swarthmore where I attended on a full merit scholarship. I was given the tools to develop and thrive on every level, and I had a strong support network that boosted my emotional and mental wellbeing. This is why I am so incredibly grateful to the United States – I would have never reached the level of deep compassion, personal awareness, intellectual curiosity, professional success, etc., if it were not for my time in ACS and in this country, which was only possible with the financial contributions of the US government and institutions. Not only did my government never offer me anything to reach my potential, but it also does not really value my worth as an individual since I don’t come from a wealthy family nor one with political ties and influence, and it does not care if my basic human rights are violated.

The field trips this past week, despite their focus on gun and gang violence, reminded me why I wanted to come here so bad when graduating high school. Don’t get me wrong – there are so many flaws in American governance and institutions, there is deep structural and institutionalized racism, the government is driven by the desires of interest groups, and many minority groups are economically, socially, and politically disenfranchised. However, when I saw different members of the Salinas community, including district attorneys, the chief police, multiple NGOs, and religious leaders, coming together during the CASP meeting to address violence in the city, I felt some sort of warmth in my heart. When we spoke to Mr. José (the program manager) in the city’s administration and the mayor (who gets paid so little!) about their efforts to move the city forward and ensure protection for all, I felt benign jealousy that most leaders in Lebanese communities would never be so giving and genuine. Instead, they only steal and deceive the population for their own interests. When we went to the prison, and I saw all the different rehab programs, the medical center, the attention afforded to persons with special needs and the policies instituted to protect the rights of prisoners, I was impressed that the system was trying hard to care for the prisoners, rather than one that completely dismisses their humanity and violates their basic rights.

While I don’t want to constantly compare the situation in the US to that in other countries since it is also definitely imperative to address and fix the flaws here, I can’t help but acknowledge the tremendous privilege that comes with living here and being American. People are born entitled to rights that are way beyond the frame of reference for others in different countries, and that is a standard that Americans should celebrate and be proud of in their work to keep improving the system.

My thoughts on Belonging and the meaning of Home

By Ferial Berjawi

During one of the sessions, we discussed the concept of belonging and how it manifests itself on micro, meso and macro levels in traditions, norms, language, community practices, symbols, etc. This session made me reflect a lot on my sense of belonging since I have moved to the United States four years ago and the different aspects that either undermine it or foster it. And indeed, three layers shape my belonging, not only in the US, but also in Lebanon, the country in which I was born and raised for 18 years – the personal, the societal and the national.

I never thought that I would consider the US my home. I was neither born nor raised here – I came to this country with nothing but a suitcase, an accent, and aspirations for a better life. However, it only took a year or so for me to feel connected to this place, and that really made me think about what constitutes a “home”. On a personal level, I was comfortable speaking the language, I embraced the cultural shocks and found ways to navigate them, and built relationships that were so real and full of substance. This place feels like home because I am always being pushed to become the best version of myself, which is something that I never experienced back in Lebanon. Here, I was able to grow on a personal, professional, and intellectual level. I have become a more empathetic, more knowledgeable, more critical, and more reflective. Unfortunately, due to the socio-economic and political situation in my country, this growth environment does not really exist in such a robust manner, and being there has hindered my ability to achieve my potential, which made it feel less like a home.

Does this mean I no longer feel connected to Lebanon? Hell no. I miss it everyday with every bone in my body. I miss the aroma of my mom’s homemade meals, the jogs at the waterfront, the shouting and honking of taxi drivers, the crowded streets in Downtown, Arabic slangs that would never translate into English, spending four nights a week in our favorite neighborhood bar Locale, and the Sunday hiking trips in the mountains. I miss the society that I am so deeply a part of – I understand every cultural reference, every joke, and every gesture. I have been in the US for four years and while I pretty much understand “American society” now, I am still trying to learn its ins and outs – how baseball or football work, the different cultures of different states, or country slang terms that make absolutely no sense to me. But, unlike the US, Beirut pushes you out, it separates you from the people that you love, and it gives you a bit of sweetness before dumping on you a bitter and sad reality: you will never grow here.

On the macro level, my feelings are mixed. I have a Lebanese passport, but what does that really mean? I personally do not feel protected by my government, but rather exploited or ignored. My country does not work for my wellbeing and safety, but rather that of a handful of corrupt elite political leaders, aka former warlords that have held on the reins of power for decades. But what about the US? The government here would pretty much always side with an American over me – I have to constantly prove my worth to reside within its borders, and I do not have the privileges that someone with an American passport holds. However, at least I am valued as an individual, I have rights that this government would preserve regardless of the origins of my passport, and if I manage to prove my worth enough, this country will take me in with open arms and provide the resources that would help me further grow and develop.

With time, my English will slowly become better and better that one day, people will stop noticing that it is not my mother tongue. I will also slowly continue to lose my Arabic vocabulary, become less familiar with the corners of Beirut, and forget what some of my mom’s favorite dishes are called. I will pick up American slangs, learn more about American sports, and hell, I might even get citizenship and be able to vote. But, I will never fully belong. I have come to realize that home is not a place, and it is not a feeling that suddenly overwhelms you once you have achieved it. Home for me is my parents, my best friends, the food that I love, and the place that makes you grow and become the best version of yourself. It is where you feel appreciated, loved, and at peace with yourself and others. I am grateful that I can find home in so many different places, but it scares me that I think I will never feel fully at home. Whether I am in Lebanon or in the US, there will always be something missing. But, maybe that is not necessarily a bad thing – all I know is that I will always try to find home in myself as well, by being at peace with myself and bringing out from within me the higher power that ultimately connects all humans.

Cultural Universalism, Cultural Feminism, and Human Rights

By Ferial Berjawi

I was deeply interested in Professor Avruch’s session on culture and human rights,and I wish we had more time to reflect on cultural universalism and cultural relativism. Personally, I have thought about these questions a lot in my work with gender inequality issues in traditionally patriarchal societies in Lebanon.  This understanding of these concepts is vital to the pragmatic implementation of humanitarian interventions and women empowerment programs in the field, particularly to ensure that our actions on the ground are not inflicting any harm on our target populations. For me, it is also important to reflect on them to determine my own moral compass and how I interact with these issues that are so salient in my daily life as a woman.

Personally, I find the cultural feminists’ claim that real equality should consider and value the biological differences of men and women to be valid and important. When relating that to human rights, I think it is important to examine, reform and transform human rights doctrines as well as institutional structures to ensure complete equality between men and women. This equality will not be achieved until human rights definitions and treaties highlight the current marginalization and oppression of women worldwide and explicitly “re-characterize” or “particularize” existing rights to include reproductive rights and sexual autonomy rights. It is only then when we can say that the international community considers women’s rights as human rights.

Similarly, I find a cultural feminist approach to be valuable in stressing the public/private dichotomy in gender equality efforts. Seeing as the oppression and control of women, particularly in Lebanon, is largely situated in the family unit and within a private sphere, rather than discriminatory legal frameworks, the ‘personal truly becomes the political’. As such, we should examine the micro layers of societies, down to the individual and family unit in addition to institutional and state structures to truly advance women’s movements.

That being said, I identify mostly as a liberal feminist since I disagree with cultural feminism heavy focus on the biological differences between men and women. The underlying rationale is that, instead of identifying women solely as autonomous individuals, they are seen as more oriented toward the family and other groups or communities than men. Although this may be true in modern societies, it is equally important to recognize the role of socialization in creating this reality. While it is imperative to acknowledge that these differences exist, this point of departure leaves room for further discrimination and misogyny that is justified on the basis of mere biological differences rather than seeing women as autonomous human beings that deserve to be treated equally regardless of their differences and/or similarities to men.

In my nuanced liberal feminist approach, I uphold human rights as the primary standard for equality regardless of all other factors at play. As such, I identify as a cultural universalist with the strong belief that there is a universal set of norms, rights, and frameworks that transcend geography, space and time. On the other end of the spectrum are cultural relativists who, like cultural feminists, reject the universality of human rights and attempt to understand culture on its own terms, using its own internal logic. They claim that it would be harmful and ineffective to bring an external framework of gender equality and superimpose that lens to understand the social efficacy of the gender dynamics at place, and instead, we should understand how people make sense of this reality given their own context. They critique culture universalism as a Western hegemonic approach that only expands the locus of Western dominance. Similar to cultural feminists, cultural relativists’ approach is based on the notion that cultures, like genders, are different, and we need to acknowledge and respect these differences in efforts to achieve gender equality rather than adhering to a Western notions of rights.

However, I firmly believe that relativism gives way for people to become apologists for morally reprehensible forms of oppression, and its focus on culture sensitivity truly hinders women’s empowerment movements around the world. To ensure real equality between men and women, we cannot accept discrimination as an intractable element of society. We surely should not legitimize and use a patriarchal and misogynistic society’s system of logic as it will be deeply immoral, unjust, and based on the superiority of men over women. Instead, realities should change, and they have changed in the past with the right mobilization and efforts. If culture were immutable, women would still not have the right to vote and female infants’ bodies would still be scarified as part of cultural rituals. Feminist movements should be grounded in the notion that there are inalienable rights that everyone should have and that women’s bodies and wellbeing are not up to debate regardless of embedded cultural norms and traditions. We should be able to unapologetically criticize and transform this system logic to establish a world where everyone is treated equally, with the full dignity and respect to which they are entitled.

My thoughts on Healing Practices

Restorative Justice and Healing 

Today, we spent our day discussing and practicing methods of restorative justice. In the beginning of the first session, the professor asked all of us to sit in a circle, after which we conducted a few activities to allowed us to agree on shared values and practices that would guide our behavior in the circle. This exercise was a great precursor that set the framework for the rest of the day. It reminded all of us, that regardless of our upbringings and cultures, we all share some universal values, particularly, empathy, humility, and open-mindedness.

Then, we were asked to partner with someone, and share our experiences with war, trauma, and violence in a few minutes. This approach to healing, while it might be tremendously effective for others, made me uncomfortable, and I chose not to participate in the activity. While I am aware that some people might want to reflect on traumatic experiences that they have lived and share them with others in order to be better in touch with how it impacted them and shaped their perspectives, I personally would rather not discuss mine in such a setting. I fear that it would be unproductive for me, and would in fact undermine my emotional and mental wellbeing rather than achieve its intended results of making me feel better by getting things off my chest. This approach does not work well for me personally, but I think it helped me relate back to my work with underprivileged girls in Lebanon, where we would sit in circles and have group discussions about a sensitive topic. I was now more aware that some of these practices, although widely used across the world, might work for some and be problematic for others. 

It highlighted the dichotomy in healing processes between different individuals. Sitting down in circles to talk, share, and reflect on traumatic experiences was never the way my friends, family, and I dealt with things back home. Instead, we laughed it off, had a huge meal, and went out clubbing or partying. I remember us cracking jokes about the acerbity of our political instability right after we saw bombs destroying bridges in the 2006 wars. We would go clubbing until 7AM during the same week that a major political figure was assassinated. If we had to stop and reflect every time we experienced something ‘traumatic’, we would have spent our childhoods just crying and discussing our miseries instead of just moving on with our lives.

Like others in the country and around the world, I have developed defense mechanisms that allow me to joke about these experiences rather than just engage in what I perceive as misery poker. Especially when I am in a new place with people that I recently met, the kinds of stories you tell about yourself define the lens through which they see you, so I refuse to place these experiences at the forefront of my identity, and I refuse to be reduced to a victim of war and violence, or seen just as that.

For these reasons, I also critique the concept of PTSD as a perception of mental health through a Western-centric lens. This concept gained traction after US soldiers came back from war in the Middle East, which was a set period of time in which they experienced trauma; however, people around the world, and even soldiers and other individuals in the US, experience or relive the trauma on a regular basis, and they become so insensitivized to it that it does not really feel traumatic anymore, even if it still impacts them on an emotional and mental level.

Peace in Conflict

By Ferial Berjawi

My earliest memory of being exposed to conflict and violence was on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2005. I was eight years old, in my middle school Math class on a normal school day when suddenly the floor beneath my feet shook and glass from the windows above my desk shattered all over my notebooks and my school uniform. I had no idea what was going on – all I could hear was some fragments of my teachers’ conversations, “an explosion in Saint George… they killed him… tens of people are dead”, but the fear and sadness in my their eyes made it clear that our daily realities were about to be transformed.

Within 10 minutes, my mom, like other parents, had arrived to my school to pick me and my brother up. She looked at us with eyes full of tears, and said with a quivering voice, “Rafik al-Hariri was just assassinated in the heart of Beirut.” For my family, Rafik al-Hariri was not just Lebanon’s prime minister who retained Lebanon’s dignity and integrity and significantly boosted the economy, he was an idol whose drive, values, and morals we aspired to live by. Ever since I was a child, my mom would tell me stories about him – how he was the son of a farmer who sold oranges at the side of the road, how he completed his education regardless his socio-economic background, and how he used his influence, wealth, and power to save his country after the civil war.

A month after the assassination, on March 14th, 2005, I participated in Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution, the largest demonstration in the history of the country that united people across different religious sects and political affiliations to demand the end of the Syrian military occupation and to seek justice for al-Hariri’s death. The protests were completely nonviolent. If anything, it was one of the most memorable days of my life – Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Druze were on the streets wearing Lebanese flags, singing beautiful Arabic songs, and dancing dabke hand-in-hand in downtown Beirut. Despite the fear of political, economic and social uncertainties, people seemed to be at tremendous peace in the aftermath of this violence.

Unfortunately, February 14th’s bombing was only the beginning of a wave of explosions and assassinations of prominent political figures whereby around 24 other bombings struck the city from 2005 to 2009, most of which hit very close to home and had a direct effect on my family and friends. There was also the 2006 war with Israel during which my family and I hid in my aunt’s mountain house and I could literally see bridges getting bombed and collapsing to the ground. In addition, Hezbollah’s militia invaded Beirut in 2008 and took over the whole city in one day. It was April 7th, and I remember very clearly sneaking out to the balcony against my mom’s orders because I was curious about what was going on, when a man in Hezbollah’s military uniform pointed his gun at me, an 11 year old girl, and threatened to shoot if I do not go back inside immediately.

The political situation improved slightly by 2011; however, that is when the Syrian revolution began, and with it, came the large influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon and the military battles against ISIS and other militias at the border. This influx significantly increased tensions between Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian populations residing in the country, resulting in more physical violence and clashes. Moreover, I was witnessed first-hand the injustice, oppression, and trauma that these conflicts caused within these three populations.

Why am interested in peace-building? I do not even think I know what “peace” in Lebanon would look like. My country is constantly on the verge of collapsing, political crises in its neighboring nations have been ongoing for years and years, and the same warlords that orchestrated the civil war in 1975 still hold the reins of power today. Nevertheless, I see a thin veil of peace in this context of conflict and violence in Beirut’s nightlife, food, and outdoor activities. This is how the Lebanese find peace – in Garten every Saturday when thousands gather at the club at 2AM and stay there, dancing on their feet, until 7AM, and then go to Zaatar w Zeit, a Lebanese chain restaurant, for a mankoushe. The restaurant gets so packed that people end up eating their Mighty Kafta on the floor, and there’s people dancing and singing around with absolute strangers. We find peace in the crowded streets of Marmkhayel when you realize that you pretty much know all the bartenders and all the waiters, and that you have known them since you first started going out when you were 14. There is peace in the organized chaos and the common frustration over the lack of jobs, the traffic, electricity cutouts. We find peace in the hundreds of satirical memes and videos that will come out after a parliamentary meeting to mock pretty much all politicians and their incompetence at their jobs.

I have spent months and months wishfully dreaming of peace in Lebanon. This absence of peace has pushed me out of the country, as it has with thousands of youth like me. Every family in Lebanon has at least one family member that lives abroad. Whenever I go back home, I find myself staring out of my window at the beautiful Mediterranean sea on one side, and the impoverished refugee camps on the other. I am inhaling polluted air which smells like garbage while I listen my mom’s soothing voice in the background and then smell her stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis. And I am just standing there, and I am both angry and heartbroken as hell. I am angry at Beirut for pushing me out, and I am heartbroken that it will probably never love me back the way I love it.

But this is why I am attending the SPP. I refuse to give up on my country, my region, and just mankind in general. We can, and we should, do so much better to uplift and empower each other rather than focusing on superficial ethnic, religious, or racial differences to justify violence and conflicts. I believe in the radical humanization of al individuals, and I am excited to understand how I could translate this belief in the real world, spread it to others, and build more progressive and equitable societies that work for the benefit of all of us rather than just some of us.