For my PhD in political science, I study the meaning of peace. Not in the dictionary sense of the word, but in practice: as an objective of ‘peace work’. Why and how you would want to do that is the subject of another blog. When studying the meaning of peace, you will very soon find out that the dictionary sense of the word is not going to help you make sense of most peace work. For instance, the most widely used academic measure of peace boils down to ‘a situation in which no more than 24 people die in a given year because of armed violence.’ But how does that relate to working on post-conflict reconciliation? Or to building democratic institutions? Let alone to peace education or youth peace camps? The amount of people dying is far too crude a measure to serve as an indicator for the success or failure of such peacebuilding work. So my question became: what could be a good indicator? To answer this question, I first had to find out what people were actually trying to achieve with their peace-work.
As part of this quest, I recently interviewed a series of peace workers in Lebanon, asking what peace means to them. What is peace in Lebanon? Considering that peace is a word that lacks a plural, they gave me a surprising variety of answers.
Most interestingly however, at least for a student of political science, was the lack of answers containing the word ‘political’. In Europe I found that peace work is often seen as highly political (in contrast to more ‘technocratic’ development work). Peace work consists of facilitating political dialogues to reduce violent conflict, building the capacities of local peace ngo’s, or lobbying for the abolition of certain weapon systems. For the Lebanese peace workers I interviewed, none of this was part of their repertoire, nor, in their opinion, a prerequisite for achieving peace.
This is not to say that there is no political notion of peace in the Middle East. There is. The ‘peace process’ (or lack thereof) between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries is an example of this political kind of peace. It is even the first thing many Lebanese mention when you ask them about peace.
In Arabic this peace is called salaam. Etymologically, as well as in the minds of people, salaam is related to the word Islam, which is ‘(inner) peace through submission to God’s will’. This element of submission is, to my mind, why so many Arab people reject this form of peace: it is not that they necessarily want to wage a total war against Israel, they just don’t want to surrender to it either. A peace between sovereign equals (like the paradigmatic Peace of Westphalia) is just not the kind of peace that Lebanese have in mind when they talk about peace in the political sense of that word. To them peace (salaam) means submission. Hence, almost all organizations working on other forms of peace are very careful to point out that they have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor with politics in general.
Instead, many organizations are working on a ‘civil peace’, or silim in Arabic: establishing good relations between Lebanon’s many different religious groups. This is important, because the political situation in Lebanon is so very tense. And because a breakdown of civil peace leads to civil war in the way Hobbes wrote about it: a war of all against all. This is something no Lebanese who has lived through the civil war wants to experience again. Even if they have grown accustomed to low level political violence. A car bomb detonating in the middle of Beirut is considered no more of a nuisance than a traffic accident, but this violence should never be allowed to spiral out of control again.
On an even more individual level, peace is associated with personally not using violence in your relations with other people. Former combatants from different sides, united in an organization called Fighters for Peace, accentuate the need for a personal commitment to non-violence as the only guarantee for peace. Even if they are privately wondering whether it is wise to uphold such a commitment when you are facing an enemy like the Islamic State.
The most personal kind of peace that people are working on is inner peace: peace of mind. A range of trauma counselors, religiously inspired actors and social and humanitarian workers claim that this is the kind of peace they want to contribute to. Mostly because they believe any other form of peace will only last if people are ready to accept it, and acceptance depends on their state of mind.
Finally, there are some peace activists who see peace explicitly not as a noun, but as an adjective. They share the personal commitment for not using violence, but add another normative goal to it: justice. In the eyes of non-violent activists, peace is not a state of affairs at all, but a way of acting (silmiya, peacefully). Which does make peace political again: it is ‘the continuation of policy by political means only’ (to paraphrase Clausewitz). Peace however, is no longer the objective of this policy, which makes it fundamentally different from the peace process with Israel. Justice is not submission, although peace can mean both things. As well as three others.
So, what is peace in Lebanon? The honest answer is that I am not entirely sure. Which also means that I am not entirely sure whether one can say that there is peace in Lebanon or not. But at least these five concepts give us some clue what it would mean to say there is peace. Which is infinitely more than counting dead people can ever tell us.
Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.