Podcast transcription- laureate Mairead Maguire: building 'deep democracy'

3 June 2009


Podcast transcription- laureate Mairead Maguire: building 'deep democracy'


The following is a transcript of an interview with Mairead Maguire by Jane Gabriel at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference to Redefine Democracy in 2009. 


JG: Hello and welcome to an openDemocracy podcast. The Nobel Women’s Initiative holds conferences every two years and Mairead Maguire was one of the Laureates who gathered in Antigua to listen to women from around the world discuss democracy. I’m Jane Gabriel, and she began by telling me what she had learned from the previous conference held in Galway to re-define peace in the middle east and beyond.

MM: Well peace is about…it’s a very active thing. And peace starts with...a one to one basis. Meeting people and sharing. And community. But it is a very active thing. It’s like the word non-violence. People think it’s a very soft thing and it’s just no violence, but it’s more than that. You know non-violence, peace, its not only a lifestyle - its also a political science. It works. Unfortunately political scientists don’t take it serious. But it does work. So coming to gather like that and just sharing other people’s ideas. In Galway I was delighted to meet with Shirin Ebadi’s delegation. I have met Shirin before, I’ve great admiration for Shirin Ebadi. But since then I’ve been able to…when Shirin Ebadi, her office was closed by the security forces and several of the women who been collecting the million signatures for human rights in Iran, we were able to at Shirin’s request contact the embassy in Dublin and join together as a united women’s voice to say we were concerned with what was happening. So I think that kind of action to be able to support each other is tremendously important.

I never regard them as kind of just one-off things, just coming and going home. I think that the friendships that are far more important so that we’re there for each other, it’s very important. When people are working in many of these situations where they’re highly dangerous situations, sometimes they feel desperate, they can’t see any change. But to know that other people around the world are thinking of them, trying to do what they can. We met some of the people who came to Galway from Jerusalem and Palestine, so going back to keep up that constant friendship so they know it’s going to be an ongoing thing, it’s not going to be a one off thing. We’re not going as tourists, we’re going to be there for them for as long as they would wish us to be, to do whatever they would wish us to do in order to help them. So I have gone every year. Some of us from the delegation of the Peace People to meet with our friends in the Occupied Territories and to support their campaigns which are divestment campaigns. We try and accommodate what people are on the ground actually asking for. So we support them in their non-violent struggle to lift the seize of Gaza and the occupation, which is part of the root cause of what’s going on, and to do this through boycott, divestment, through lobbying with contacts that we have and trying to bring to the fore the liberation of the Palestinian people and the sense that there is a solution. It’s a political problem and there’s a political solution. And just help bring a little bit of hope to them.

JG: The links between the local and global and made as each conference builds on the previous one. The subject for debate here in Antigua is how to re-define democracy.

MM speech: You know, we have got as peace activists big in our own hearts and in our own minds the kindness, the compassion, the forgiving, in order that we don’t become part of the problem but rather part of the solution. So democracy starts in our minds when we begin to disarm ourselves and the cruelty that we can have in our minds, and the revenge, and the unforgiveness and the judgmental and the making of enemies. And when we disarm our own mindsets of the acceptance of violence, whether its state violence or armed violence or para-military violence, and we choose to walk the path of non-violence - then we start the building of a new democracy.

JG: Why did you choose ‘re-defining democracy ‘for the second conference?

MM: Well I think there’s a recognition that democracy is not working and that many people have become totally disillusioned with democracy. Even those countries where we would call ourselves democratic, it’s being run by an elite. And there is a disconnect between that elite and people on the ground. And somehow we have got to revisit this whole concept of what is democracy for those of us who live in what is described as an alleged democracy. And it’s very interesting that what’s coming out is that people on the ground…yes within political parties we have been trying to get more and more women, thinking you get women in to political parties and things change. It’s great to get women into political parties. But it’s not changing. So we really have to try to build democracies right across the base of the community. And people to recognize that there, they have a responsibility to work within their communities to rebuild the fabric of their societies. They are the politicians in the community as well. So that what we’re doing is growing a kind of, somebody called it yesterday – I loved the description – a ‘deep democracy’ starting in the villages and in the towns and in the communities. Someone else used the term ‘personalized democracy’ and I loved that because I think more and more we’re coming back to realize that we’re not individuals. We are social animals. We like communities. We need each other. And to rebuild this sense of deep personal relationships. One to one, community to community group to group. That will give people a sense of belonging.

JG: So how would you begin to do that? A lot of the women who you meet in the conference live in appalling conflict situations, some are very isolated. How can you see that happening?

MM: Well it’s amazing that it is happening. I was speaking a breakfast to one of the women who works with Rigoberta Menchu and she was explaining to me that they are working to form a political party and that in their committee they have 20 people and 8 of them are women. In the Mayan culture they have equality, men and women, so they are mobilizing to work together in the local communities. She also explained that to actually form this new party that they will need 20,000 signatures in order to get the party formed. Which means they’re going out around the communities involving people and mobilizing people. So I mean we’re seeing this all over the place. In a sense democracy is happening at the base of the community. And people’s movements. And civil society. And to me this is where the change will come. Because all over the place in different countries people are beginning to deal with the problems themselves ad bringing forth a new kind of politic. A politic which is concerned about the environment, about mother earth. A politic that is concerned about human dignity, human rights, a politic that is rejecting racism, militarism. And it’s a new politic that is arising. And to me I think that’s very exciting because if from around the world we have the women’s right movement, the human rights movement, the equality movement, the environmental movements, we have all these movements for social/political change moving. And then up there we have an elite who are standing by the old politics of militarism, war, and environmental destruction through their policies. I feel what we really need to do is bring together these groups and connect. Because once you get people at the bottom saying ‘we don’t want war, we don’t want nuclear weapons, our human security policy is education, health care, protect the environment, diseases know no borders’, we’ve got to deal with these issues which are enormous, enormous problems. We can’t do it alone. And no one government can do it. But we can do it together. Now I think once those kinds of movement beginning to come together at the top, we change the policies at the top.

JG: I’ve heard you talk about the head and the heart, and the balance. What do you mean?

MM: Well I think it’s very important that when we make decisions, any kind of decisions, that we not only bring our reason to it but we also bring a sense of wisdom to it, usually a wisdom of the heart. I take, for example, in the last century we became technological giants. And brilliant scientists, many many brilliant scientists, my goodness it’s wonderful. But also science was used for things we don’t need, destruction, weapons of mass destruction. So we used our best resources our intelligence in a very wrong way. Now a lot – it was male dominated, hierarchical, patriarchal, and it was thinking from reason the intellect. I think what we need to do to change that is to have a balance of the heart as well as the spirit. Because people are essentially spiritual people, especially women. Women have intuition, and they operate a lot out of the heart. And it’s a thing called love. We can’t prove what it is, but we know love exists. And to bring that sense of love into our decisions. So if we’re making weapons then we have to say, well why? Who are we going to use them against to really need them? And bring the wisdom of the heart to our decisions. And I think we can do this. Because in the past century there was a division between science and religion and both went their own way. Now I feel we need a convergence of both, because we need the scientists to be talking to those within the different religious traditions. I do think we have to find a kind of balance and take what’s good out of both

JG: And is that part of what you envisage as a deep democracy?

MM: Well I think a deep democracy starts with an individual realizing that we are a human family. And put our common humanity above all the things that divide us. And go beyond the racism, nationalisms, tribalisms. So we have to go onto a new level almost that recognize that persons right to life. The right to respect that life, the right to respect that person to have their choices and not be forcing them into our own model. So that kind of movement on to absolute dignity of the human person. I mean today we live in a world with so many young people committing suicide, and elderly, because they can’t feel any joy or any peace and part of that is we have disconnected ourselves from the environment, from the animals, from the beauty of creation. We put ourselves in the centre of the universe which is very egotistical of us because we’re not the centre of the universe. We’re part of a whole cosmos. So maybe we just have to re-adjust. But above all, once we become aware that…go beyond our own ego and see that there’s suffering in the world and we are responsible for helping each other. And my child is not just the one child I have, my child is the one who dies in Gaza today. Because one and half million people are cut off from the world and denied basic things. My child is a child in Darfur. We are responsible for others, to help them. And that builds a sense of being involved in paramount, at the local level, at the international level, and that will bring change.

JG: Do you think that our ability to redefine democracy is dependent on our ability to redefine peace?

MM: Well I prefer the word active non-violence. Because active non-violence is a thing that is made up of love, justice, service, and action, and sacrifice. That you are prepared to actually go out, put yourself out to bring about change like Ghandi and King. And they showed that it worked. So it’s a very positive thing. It’s a lifestyle where you have absolute respect for your own life. I mean, I’ve been given the gift of life, a wonderful gift. No one has the right to take my gift of life. You’ve been given the gift of life, I have no right to take away your gift of life. So we stat from that sense of absolute justice with regard to each other. Then we recognize there are a lot of problems here, people need to feel secure. So we look at how to build non-violent alternatives to force and to violence. Non-violent peace keeping forces. Non-violent conflict resolution. Non-violent mediation teams. So we begin to think, how do we provide security? Because people need that. So what we do then, we look at governments. Now every single government is based on the principle of force, threat of force, military force. We’ve given away our par to governments to have armies, to train young people to kill, and democracy is….we’ve seen in it in the war in Iraq, millions walked for peace. We did not want that war in Iraq because we were saying there were alternatives. But there were a few leaders that went to war against the will of the United Nations and the vast majority of people. So the only way that we can begin to change that is actually to begin to withdraw from our governments our support for them to go to war and to have armies. Now, that may sound like a very big step. But what we put in place is non-violent security. There’s a great movement, the non-violent peace-keeping force. They’re training people, they have hundreds of them to go into conflict places all over the world unarmed, to do mediation to solve these problems. And that can work, because armies don’t work. We see it happening in Afghanistan, we see it in Iraq, that armies create more and more of the problem and God help us, we’re sending out these young men and women and they’re coming back as soldiers, destroyed in their own conscience because they weren’t born to kill and they don’t want to kill. And they’re being sent out, and they’re killing and they’re coming back and they can’t live with themselves. Because in truth, people are not born violent. We have to be culturally conditioned and trained to be violent. And even then it goes against our better judgment.

JG: The relationship between militarism and democracy is just one of the themes that’s being discussed by the participants and the Laureate. The debate begins both inside the hall and without. Shirin Ebadi during the coffee break

SE: On the one hand, elections are to be free and have to happen periodically. And on the other hand, human rights have to be observed. And the two go together. The two of them form democracy. But it’s not only a governmental method or a political system. It’s a culture. It’s the democrats that make democracy. If you don’t believe in it, you cannot bring it to others. Therefore, our duty is to educate ourselves first from within. And then bring it to the society. Each of us, regardless of what we do, we can educate people about it. If we look at ourselves honestly, we may even conclude that we’re not democrats either.

Conference participant summarizing debate: These are just a few of the many lessons or insights that came out of these presentations yesterday. In Sudan, we very much heard about the inadequacy of the electoral process, but yet the importance of creating through affirmative action space for women to take a leadership role. It’s the beginning, it’s certainly not the end. We also heard about how many of the activists have been relying very much on old feminist friends, these friendships across ethnic lines, across conflict lines is really critical to sustaining the work. We also heard about this strategy here in Guatemala, the way that this historical memory is being built and the very explicit ways that that memory is trying to be transferred to young people who have no idea about the true history of this country. We also heard about how to actually identify our own privilege and our own power in the context of building true, deep, substantive democracies where we’re actually putting our privilege and power as activists on the table. We’re hearing over and over and over again about how critical it was to organize between village to village and to do that kind of organizing across borders. Because in all of these instances, these conflicts are regionally based. And the need to build those kinds of alliances.

Also we learned in the Congo about the ways in which music and theatre is a very fundamental strategy that is used. We heard as well the ways in which they can convey that nothing is impossible, inspiring to so many of us. That we need be using these real strategies of subversion and really getting to know our enemy. And getting…the expression goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. For many of us that was a real reminder of that important strategy. And last but not least, we learned that in a lot countries all of these strategies are incredibly life risking and therefore the need for the kind of support from the international community to not just bear witness but to provide the kind of solidarity and support to these activists on the frontlines. Thanks.

JG: You have enormous respect worldwide as a Laureate and enormous attention paid to what you do, wherever you go. How do you feel when you come to one of these countries where you’ve got to a lot of trouble to gather women from all over the world? How does it impact upon you?

MM: Well, I get energized and I get encouraged. Because change only comes about by one to one people standing up and saying, ‘look, you know, I don’t want to kill, I recognize there are problems, I want to be involved in my community. I will use my gifts, my talents, to try and bring a fair and a just world’. Because the world we are living in is totally unjust. I mean when you sit down and you think, fourteen children die every minute from poverty and disease. Well, that makes every one of us feel uneasy. There’s nobody that doesn’t feel, when they really think about that, this isn’t fair. So I come here and I realize that change comes through people standing up and saying ‘this has got to be different’. You look around you and see you all these women, and they are fantastic. Brilliant women, totally committed, working where they are. I spoke to a woman yesterday from Sudan and she was telling me what the women in Sudan are doing on the ground. And we don’t hear that, we only hear the worst in the media. But we don’t hear about the great things that are happening. So I get energized. And I am full of hope.

Speech: But when we look at our histories, how much has worked. Ireland has a history of non-violence – the word boycott comes from there. Guatemala has a history of non-violence. Let’s reclaim our history because the people who most carried that history of non-violence were women. We’ve got to as peace activists be very confident that our message is the serious message. Because that what we lack, we lack confidence in ourselves. We have something that is valuable when we talk about human rights, justice, equality, and non-violence. Because this message can change the world. So we must work to uphold human rights, human dignity. Remove poverty. Take the money out of militarism and put it into dealing with the Millennium goals. You know by 2015, remove poverty, provide health care, and give hope to every child in the world today. By 2015! If we had seven percent – seven percent – of the military budget. We could do that! We have got to say to our political leaders ‘take the money out of militarism and weapons. Because we are brothers and sisters in an interconnected, interdependent world and we do not to kill each other’. This is our task. And we are well able for that task. I’m proud to be walking alongside you wherever you work, and sing, and dance, and laugh, and make love.

JG: This is the last of three podcasts from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on “Re-defining Democracy for Peace, Justice, and Equality”. If you would like to read articles on the conference blog written by participants and the openDemocracy team, or listen to more blogs, please go to our website www.opendemocracy.net and click on the Nobel Women’s Initiative.


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