How Do We Define the Concept of Peace?

In this interview, artist and youth activist Yousra Mishmish reflects on the definition of peace and the Youth, Peace, and Security Agenda.

Yousra Mishmish is an artist and youth activist dedicated to the development of underprivileged communities in her region through social entrepreneurship, technologies and dialogue. Inspired by young people in her marginalised community in Jordan, she has participated in peacemaking projects focusing on gender-based violence, social discrimination, bullying and lack of opportunities. Yousra also leads a project that empowers children to resolve injustices in their local communities and practice changemaking. Recently, she spoke with us about the concept of peace and the Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) Agenda.

Hi Yousra, it’s a pleasure speaking with you today. What does the concept of ‘peace’ mean to you?

This is a very good, controversial question. I actually work for an organisation called Peace First, so I ask this a lot in my organisation.

To give you a deeper understanding of where my definition of peace comes from, I want to first share a quick story. I was working on a social trial that targeted successful young people who had one thing in common: they all came from very difficult situations and backgrounds – as refugees, as people from marginalised communities, as people experiencing financial hardship.

We wanted to understand the steps they took in their lives that made them successful. So, we gave each participant a number of cubes, each with a certain word written on it, representing things that we believe have a huge impact on anyone’s life: education, work, community, nationality, relationships.

The participants had to rank these cubes, from the ones that had the most weight in their lives to the least. And when I say the most weight, that did not have to be something good. For example, some people had relationships as the most important cube but they weren’t in a relationship. One Syrian guy said, ‘I work two jobs to be able to have enough money to get married, so relationships themselves affect what I want to do with my time.’

A number of people listed nationality as having the least weight, but for some their nationality ruined their lives. For example, those who had a passport from Gaza, where they cannot own anything, and they cannot work or study. For other nationalities, your passport gives you access and services you didn’t get anywhere else.

It was interesting to see that people have different meanings for the same word. And the one that was most interesting to me was the cube that had the word ‘peace’ because it had three main forms of sorting.

A lot of people sorted ‘peace’ as the least weight/priority, and I think that happened because maybe they didn’t understand the true meaning of peace. Maybe we don’t ask ourselves that question a lot. And mainly what they said was this: if you had good education, a good job and good relationships, and if you live in a country without war, peace would be the result of all those things. So, they put it last.

Other people put ‘peace’ as the first cube because they believe that peace comes from the inside not the outside. They said that if you have a peaceful heart, you will be producing very well, and you will be having good relationships with the people around you.

People living in countries of conflict chose not to use the ‘peace’ cube because they felt that they cannot sort something they had never had. So, for some people peace does not even exist and you can’t ask them to identify that.

From that experience I was able to create my own meaning of peace which was ‘the absence of disturbing feelings’, which varies from person to person. For some people disturbing feelings can be fear, hunger, or pain. Wherever you find that these disturbing feelings do not exist you can actually define peaceful mindsets and peaceful situations.

So, if I would give you my definition of peace it would be thinking of the question ‘What disturbs me and how can I eliminate it?’ Something that disturbs me for example is being stigmatised, being discriminated against, or being judged based on biases and stereotypes that I didn’t choose (ie a female that’s young and coming from the Middle East).

And if I would choose a peaceful state I would be in places where people make me feel like I belong and I can have a dialogue with other people who don’t judge me.

So, I stopped asking the question ‘What does peace mean to you?’ and I started asking the question ‘What disturbs you?’

What word is used in your language to connote peace, and what meaning does this word have in your context?

Peace has several pillars of meaning in the Arabic context. Language-wise, the word for peace in Arabic is Salam. Definition-wise, it would be very different from one person to another, but mainly peace is coming with good intentions, peace is the lack of violence, peace is the lack of wars. So, it’s a very big word.

But I cannot think of peace without connecting it to the community definition because this might be sad and funny but in the Middle East and North Africa – a region that hasn’t seen a lot of peace – the word peace is used on a daily basis.

Our official greeting that we use when we want to say Hi is Salam Alaikum, which means peace on you. This is also connected to our religious background because this word is mentioned in the holy books.

In the Muslim world, one of the essential things that you do as part of prayers is to turn your head to your neighbours and say Salam Alaikum. Even within institutions such as schools, teachers will enter a room and say Salam Alaikum and the students all stand and respond Salam Alaikum.

It’s very deep in the community, and I think most people say it without meaning it. It’s more of a social concept, an unofficial greeting that you would hear any time. But mainly it would have a meaning that ‘I’m coming in peace, I’m not going to harm you.’

It’s something that shows good intentions in general.

How does this connotation affect efforts to build peace in your country? To promote the meaningful participation of youth?

It’s not the word itself, but the use of the word. If you take peace/Salam out of the social norms, the word peace can be understood as very bad. It’s very political and sensitive.

In some countries, for example, organisations with the word ‘peace’ in English or Salam in Arabic can face threats (especially if working with a non-Arabic organisation). Sadly, using the term peace in these contexts is often perceived as advocating for a certain version (often viewed as Western) of peace that Arabic people don’t agree with.

Personally, working in Jordan with a global organisation that seeks to empower people, the name of my organisation has not prevented me from working but it has raised so many questions.

Whenever I’m working with a community-based organisation or especially political institutions I am asked, ‘Where does the money come from? What do you want? Who do you stand with?’

If you have a global organisation that produces papers, gets volunteers, has a website and publishes stories and is named peace or Salam you will be questioned. The meaning is usually defined based on the situation and the aim.

Organisations are unfortunately put in the situation where they need to explain very carefully what they are doing, focusing on their activities rather than the name and about certain topics.

Peace depends on how old you are, where you come from, and the amount of peace that you have in your life.

In Jordan, if you ask policymakers for a definition of peace, they will give you the traditional definition of not having wars, not having violence in the streets. They are not having enough conversations with young people to understand what disturbs them, what affects their lives.

So many people would reject reading UN Security Council Resolution 2250 because it has peace and it has security (as opposed to for example peace and art), which will lead people to think about wars, conflicts, policies, especially in contexts that have so many political issues.

When implementing the resolution, it is often not represented as something that is more about engagement, which leads people to stigmatise it based on their own understanding of peace.

There is not a lot of understanding of the YPS agenda more widely: 80 per cent of the knowledge is going to 20 per cent of the people. If you don’t know the YPS agenda, it would be very challenging to get people involved unless you present it in the right way and get people to be design partners with you rather than recipients.

Photo Credit: The feature photo is a painting by the author. 

Yousra Mishmish By Yousra Mishmish

Yousra Mishmish is a Fellow in Residence and MENA Regional Manager for Peace First. In addition to her youth-focused work, she has several years of professional experience in supporting start-ups, social enterprises and SMEs to accelerate their growth and leverage their success in the MENA region’s biggest incubators and innovation hubs.

She holds a Bachelor of Engineering in computer engineering from Jordan University and a diploma in conflict management from Fryshuset-Sweden. Yousra is also a member of the UN Office of Counter-terrorism’s youth unit, working with a global team of changemakers on designing international peace-focused youth programmes and materials.