Overcoming Division and Xenophobia



Section three of ten of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2017 peace proposal, “The Global Solidarity of Youth: Ushering In a New Era of Hope.”

The author meets with former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, Tokyo, Japan, October 1989 The author meets with former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, Tokyo, Japan, October 1989 [© Seikyo Shimbun]

The second challenge is to lay the foundations for societies in which division and inequality are overcome.

With the rapid advance of globalization, more and more people find themselves living in countries other than their place of birth. Since the start of the twenty-first century, there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of such people, which today stands at 244 million.

With the continuing stagnation of the global economy, xenophobic impulses have strengthened, creating increasingly difficult conditions for migrants and their families.

Former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky addressed this question when he spoke at an interfaith conference in Vienna three years ago. Noting that as globalization and integration trend up, solidarity trends down, he stated:

“In most European countries, solidarity descends when it comes to migrants, asylum seekers, what have you. I think it’s also necessary to say that most political leaders, when it comes to their own chances in campaigns, sadly say ‘Farewell to solidarity with the poor, those who come from abroad.’”

In recent years, there is growing concern, not only in Europe but around the world, about the prominence of hate speech that incites discrimination and about xenophobic political discourse.

In conjunction with last September’s UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, a new campaign was launched to respond to and transform the anxieties associated with the increasing international movement of people. It is clear that any attempt to resolve these issues must take into account the legitimate concerns of people living in countries receiving migrants and refugees. As the UN points out in this campaign, it is crucial to search for means to counteract the drift toward xenophobia and to rehumanize the discourse around migrant and refugee populations while addressing these concerns.

When I met with former Chancellor Vranitzky in October 1989, we discussed the importance of cultural and youth exchanges, and he emphasized that “It is the distance of the heart that matters most, more than the distance measured in the number of hours of airplane travel.”

He also shared with me the story of how his parents sheltered a Jewish couple fleeing persecution during World War II. His parents acted in a time of great duress in a consistently humane manner and without making any distinction on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Reflecting on this wartime experience, the former Chancellor concluded:

“There is a Latin aphorism ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ But I have replaced it with the following as the basis for my action: ‘If you want peace, prepare for peace.’”

Our meeting took place just one month before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In February of that year, Chancellor Vranitzky had agreed to have the barbed wire along the border between Austria and Hungary removed, officially opening the way for the movement of people from the Eastern to the Western Bloc that began in September and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.

Richard von Weizsäcker (1920–2015), the first President of reunified Germany, described the Berlin Wall as the politics that deny humanity made into stone. We must not permit this kind of grievous division to be repeated in the twenty-first century.

Even if there is a sense of comfort felt by people when they are surrounded by others who share the same culture or ethnic group, we must remain vigilant against the danger that this group consciousness will metamorphose into violent discrimination or antagonism directed at other groups at times of heightened social tension. Earlier, I referred to Shakyamuni’s exhortation to judge not by birth, but by conduct. To categorize and discriminate against individuals on the basis of a single attribute is wrong; it is a source of division that undermines society as a whole.

related article Restoring Hope in the Lives of Refugees Restoring Hope in the Lives of Refugees Work and education are vital for dignity. Developing an aid architecture to enable displaced persons to work in fields that contribute to enhancing resilience and promoting the SDGs would help solve humanitarian challenges and protect human dignity. Looking at our world today, there is another issue that could be said to arise from the same deep force as xenophobia. This is the increasing tendency to prioritize market-based economic rationality above all else. We see this in many countries that are struggling with economic stagnation. The negative impacts of this fall hardest on the most vulnerable sectors of society, whose circumstances grow increasingly desperate.

It is certainly a fact that the pursuit of economic rationality has unleashed energies that have driven growth. But this is just part of the picture. When the prioritization of economic rationality becomes entrenched, even the weightiest judgments are made in a semi-mechanical fashion, with little consideration given to the desires and well-being of the people actually living in society.

Xenophobic thinking is propelled by a stark division of the world into good and evil. It leaves no room for hesitation or scruple. In the same way, when the pursuit of economic rationality has no counterbalancing consideration of the human element, a psychology is unleashed that is ready to extract even the most extreme sacrifices from others.

The economist Amartya Sen offers some important guideposts for thinking about this issue in his writings on social justice. In developing his analysis, Sen focuses on the distinction between two different words used to convey the idea of justice in ancient Sanskrit literature on ethics and jurisprudence: niti and nyaya.

According to Sen, niti relates to the propriety of institutions, rules and organizations, whereas nyaya concerns what emerges and how, and in particular “the lives that people are actually able to lead.” He emphasizes that “the roles of institutions, rules and organization, important as they are, have to be assessed in the broader and more inclusive perspective of nyaya, which is inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges, not just the institutions or rules we happen to have.”

Further, Sen compares the politics of the ancient Indian King Ashoka with those of Kautilya, the principal adviser to Ashoka’s grandfather. Kautilya was the author of a celebrated work on political economy, and the focus of his interest was political success and the role of institutions in realizing economic efficiency.

In contrast, Ashoka’s politics were always focused on the behavior and actions of individuals. According to Sen, Ashoka’s thought included a conviction that “social enrichment could be achieved through the voluntary good behaviour of the citizens themselves, without being compelled through force.”

Ashoka’s stance developed through his deepening faith in Buddhism, to which he turned after being tormented by regret at seeing the carnage he had wrought through his invasion of another state.

The idea of the Middle Way is foundational to Buddhism. If we think of this in relation to the concept of nyaya, it indicates a constant and conscientious attention to the impact of one’s actions on others, with the question of human happiness or misery serving as the overarching criterion.

What kind of social anchoring is available to resist both the forces of xenophobia and the pursuit of economic rationality?

Niti, for its part, occupies an important position within contemporary society. As Sen points out, “Many economists today do, of course, share Kautilya’s view of a venal humanity.” Here the overwhelming emphasis is numeric: on the growth rate or maximization of profit. The vulnerable in society, because their interests are difficult to quantify, are often neglected or even discarded.

Xenophobia and hate speech divide the world into the binary of us and them, which are made to correspond to good and evil.

What kind of social anchoring is available to resist both the forces of xenophobia that deepen the divisions within society and the pursuit of economic rationality that is indifferent to the sacrifices of the vulnerable? I believe the answer is to be found in strong connections between people, the kind of friendship that brings into view the concrete image of another in our hearts.

To quote the renowned British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975), with whom I conducted an extended dialogue:

“In my experience the solvent of traditional prejudice has been personal acquaintance. When one becomes personally acquainted with a fellow human being, of whatever religion, nationality, or race, one cannot fail to recognize that he is human like oneself.”

Over the course of my efforts to engage in exchanges and interactions with people from different parts of the world, it has been a palpable sense of the invaluable nature of friendship that has remained with me. Each of the almost eighty dialogues I have published over the years has evidenced a yearning for peace shared across differences of faith and life experience; they are each the crystallization of friendship and a common wish to communicate the lessons of history to the emerging generation.

The conditions facing immigrants came up as a topic in my discussions with two American scholars, Dr. Larry Hickman and Dr. Jim Garrison, both past presidents of the John Dewey Society. This was when we discussed the pioneering social activism carried out by Jane Addams (1860–1935) in the US around the turn of the twentieth century.

After visiting and being impressed by Toynbee Hall, a welfare facility in London named incidentally after Dr. Toynbee’s uncle, she decided to establish a similar facility in her home country. Most of the people living around Hull House in Chicago were impoverished immigrants. According to a biography of Addams, Hull House was described as:

“. . . a sort of island offering an opportunity of breathing more freely to many immigrants. Here, they can speak their own language, play their music, live their culture . . .”

With the help of Addams and her associates, these immigrants were able to establish the foundations of their new life in the United States.

Jane Addams Jane Addams

Addams was always motivated by the belief that there is greater value to be realized in bringing people together than in driving them apart. The young people who were inspired by her went on to become the first generation of social scientists and social workers. Through their persistent research and fieldwork, the legal framework of support for immigrants and the impoverished was reformed.

Dr. Hickman noted that Addams’ activities offer important lessons to us as we face the challenges of our increasingly globalized world. I wholeheartedly agree.

One of the people who worked with Addams at Hull House said they had no grand hopes of improving the whole world, but always simply wanted to be friends to those who were lonely.

Addams herself appears to have embraced the same credo. She encouraged her colleagues to become friends and neighbors to those in need.

“They can teach us what life really is. We can learn where our boasted civilization fails.”

One-to-one interactions and friendship can stir people and move them in the depths of their being.

Former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid (1940–2009) warned against being swept away by conceptualizations of conflict that are often loudly bruited in society. For many years, the late president led a large Muslim movement in Indonesia. He denied the inevitability of clashes between civilizations and stressed that the greatest challenge is that of overcoming our misunderstandings and the preconceptions of others.

In our dialogue, he repeatedly voiced his sense of the importance of friendship. He touched on his own experience of studying overseas and expressed his strong hopes for the outcome of such youth exchanges. “My sincere wish is that they will not become individuals who think solely of their self-interest but are concerned about the interests of society and act to promote world peace and harmony.”

Based on my own experience of establishing bonds of friendship with individuals of differing religious and cultural backgrounds in an effort to build a greater solidarity for peace, I can deeply appreciate the significance of his words.

In 1996, I founded the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research to perpetuate the legacy of Josei Toda and his vision of global citizenship and of a world free from nuclear weapons. The Iranian-born peace scholar Dr. Majid Tehranian (1937–2012), with whom I had a long-standing friendship, honored us by serving as the institute’s first director.

The world is not simply a collection of states, nor is it composed solely of religions and civilizations. Our living, breathing world is woven of the endeavors of countless human beings who may share particular backgrounds but no two of whom are the same.

related article Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching by  William Aiken,  director of public affairs, SGI-USA Reflecting upon the SGI-USA community, William Aiken provides a Buddhist perspective on the future trends for religion in the US. To view and judge others only through the prism of religion or ethnicity distorts the rich reality we each possess as individuals. In contrast, when we develop a deep appreciation, through our individual friendships, of each other’s unique value, differences of ethnicity or religion are illuminated by the dignity and worth of that friend and shine as the value of diversity.

The magnetic field of friendship can enable the functioning of an inner compass when we have lost our sense of direction and help us right society when it seems to be veering off course.

This is the reasoning underlying the SGI’s consistent and active efforts to encourage civil society exchanges, particularly among youth, fostering the face-to-face encounters from which genuine friendship grows. The bonds of friendship provide a basis from which to resist the currents of hatred and incitement at times of heightened tensions between countries or deepened conflict between religious traditions. Envisaging the faces of individual friends, determined not to allow society to become a place where they would feel unwelcome, we can work to create a transformation from conflict to coexistence, starting in our immediate environment. We hope to enable the global emergence of a generation of people committed to peace who build bridges of friendship and disrupt the chain reactions of hatred and violence.

More than anything, there is a joy that resides in conversation with a friend. Friendship makes the exchange of words itself a pleasure and a source of encouragement. It supports us and brings forth the courage to confront the most difficult situations.

A rising tide of friendship within the younger generation cannot fail to transform society. It is my confident expectation that friendship among youth will powerfully turn back the sullied currents of divisiveness and give birth to a vibrant culture of peace based on profound respect for diversity.

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