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The public opening session of the international workshop on pacifism which started on December 6th 2017 brought together the international researchers invited for the workshop and the larger audience of about 80 attendees from the Antwerp and Flemish university community and beyond.

The session was conceived as a dialogue between two of the keynote speakers from the workshop, Meena Sharify-Funk, Associate Professor for the Chair of the Religion and Culture Department of the Faculty of Arts of the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada and Cheyney Ryan, Director of the Human Rights Programs at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict.

It was introduced by co-organiser, political scientist Jorg Kustermans of the Research Group International Politics at the Department of Political Science of the University of Antwerp and facilitated by the academic deputy director of UCSIA , theologian Dominiek Lootens.

Jorg Kustermans introduced the topic of the session with a provocative questioning of the limits to pacifism and its relation to violence. Is not the exercise of violence inherent to the practice of pacifism? Are they not intimately related?

There are of course various strands of pacifism: absolute (omnipresence of violence leading to a retreat from the world) versus relative (cf. Bertrand Russell according a right to violence although few wars are worth to be waged), based on an ethics of responsibility or an ethics of ultimate ends and individualist or collective action. Jesus is presented as the archetypical pacifist endowed with unwavering gentleness and uncompromising faith, although he too was not strange to violence and anger. There are very few absolutist pacifists, which calls for institutions to prevent us from taking the law in our own hands.

Dominiek Lootens presented the programme of the ensuing workshop centred around the meaning and history of pacifism, the relationship between pacifism and other religious and cultural traditions, the translation of pacifism into institutions and the limits to pacifism in the face of unacceptable atrocities committed in the name of terrorism and genocide.

He introduced two of the keynote speakers from the workshop as his interlocutors for an exchange of ideas on the relationship between activism and research, just war and peacemaking.

Meena Sharify-Funk, as a scholar of Islamic studies focusing on issues of identity, culture and belief, engages with classical debates between Muslim thinkers and Western thought. She has investigated the role of Muslim women in peacemaking action by interviewing over a hundred of them, tracing a global network through action research. The outcome was published in ‘Encountering the Transnational. Women, Islam and the Politics of Interpretation’ by Routledge in 2016. She has recently released two books about sufism; ‘Unveiling Sufism from Manhattan to Mecca’ and ‘Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics and Popular Culture’.

Cheyney Ryan is a human rights expert who dedicated a lifetime research to the subject of pacifism and just war in its varied secular and religious forms. He has written on these issues for many years, starting with his article ‘Pacifism, Self Defense, and the Possibility of Killing’ (Ethics, 1983), followed by ‘War, Sacrifice, and Personal Responsibility (The Chickenhawk Syndrome) (Roman and Littlefield, 2009). Recent articles include ‘Pacifism’ in the Oxford Handbook on the Ethics of War, ‘Bearers of Hope: On the Paradox of Non-Violent Action’, in The Ethics of Soft War and ‘The Hard Hand of War’ in Law and Philosophy (2017).

To the first question of how they combine activism with research, they start by situating themselves. She is from Iranian-Swedish descent and was fascinated by the figure of Al-Girgani who saved Shiraz from a bloodbath in the 14th century by arriving at a peaceful treaty introducing the Mongolian reign of Timur Lang, who made him member of his court at Samarkand. The poetry of Islamic Sufi-masters such as Saadi and Hafez revealed to her the power of Islamic pacifism. He started in the American civil rights movement and worked with Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker movement. He was expelled from college for political action and took an anti-Vietnam war stance. It was Alisdair MacIntyre who brought him back to academia with a post at Boston College.

Whereas activist thinkers inspired her research, he considers his research not as a form of activism and keeps them both apart. He propounds an extended notion of pacifism applicable to all realms of life and considers war as part of a larger problem that has to do with materialism and spiritual emptiness. He believes in institution building to support dialogue on the ground.

On the topic of just war he points at the fact that there is no systematic theoretical study and just war theorists hardly raise the question of the justness of war. The unsubstantiated leap from self-defense to political defense leads us from defending the American state to intervening in Nigeria. On the issue of peacemaking she sees the university as a proponent for conflict transformation by stimulating students to engage with real life situations (such as the Syrian refugee crisis) and helping them to reflect and read scholarly literature on the subjects they get involved with.

To come back to the initial question raised by Jorg Kustermans, Dominiek Lootens asked whether a pacifist stance is in itself a provocation that could lead to violence? Cheyney Ryan refers to Martin Buber who defined dialogue and argumentation as a form of necessary confrontation and to Martin Luther King who channeled his anger towards political action so that it would not turn into hate. Meena Sharify-Funk states that pacifism, coined in Europe, would gain from a more pluralist understanding by tapping pacifist resources available in non-European cultures and societies.