An Interview with Mient Jan Faber
Mathematician Mient Jan Faber, Secretary-General of the Dutch Inter-Church Council (IKV), speaks with Andrew Pakula about his initiation into peace work and his organizing projects between Western Europe and the former Eastern Bloc.
Andrew Pakula: How did you become involved in peace activities?
Mient Jan Faber: I'm a mathematician and while I was working at the university, I became interested in liberation movements in Latin America. In my city, Amstelveen, I got involved with church-related groups who were in contact with Latin American farmers, unions, and political refugees. A priest asked if my home could function as a haven for refugees without a passport, most of them from Africa. There the Third World problem became practical. People who had been tortured and imprisoned for a long time were sitting there in my home, feeling isolated. You can't talk to them in a theoretical way about Third World issues.
In '74,1 was asked if I was interested in the job of Secretary-General here in the Inter-Church Council (IKV). I was not a priest, a political scientist, or a sociologist, just a mathematician, and I loved mathematics, so I said no. But they came back again after half a year and I said okay.
In the late seventies the IKV created a peace organization to democratize security policy. It became an enormous success because people were fed up with the Cold War.
From the beginning we've said if you really want to overcome the Cold War, you have to get in touch with the dissidents in Eastern Europe who want the same thing-so we did.
We hated nuclear weapons but many of them loved them. They thought they were good for putting pressure on the Soviets, but we became friends anyway because of the underlying idea of trying to break up the Cold War from below.
The IKV is an official church body, with a big impact on society. It's established, so to say. But we don't have to ask the church what we can do. It's radical but not too radical, so it appeals to a lot of people.
Pakula: How did the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) come to be?
Faber: We had the first discussions with people from Charter 77 in Jiri Dienstbier's apartment, in '82- '83, when we focused on the idea that without a civil society there is no democracy. The discussion was about values, not the market economy. The framework was the relation between civil society and the state. We decided we needed a network in the Helsinki countries that would grow and involve not politicians, not state officials, but grassroots people who feel responsible for their society. But after the revolutions in Eastern Europe, civil society was no longer an issue there. The market and democracy in a formal sense are priorities, but civil society is not. Since Eastern European society was totally atomized (that's what communism did) it is ready for privatization. And so there they go!
Some of them will succeed but the majority will be left behind. They didn't have the opportunity under communism to work for a civil society and now there is no time for it. Most of my old friends who worked on the HCA idea are now in power or running their own little company. We need to find many new people beyond the elite-but where?
The second surprising thing is nationalism. In the eighties you could feel that nationalism could become big in Eastern Europe again, since there was nothing else to bring people together. When I discussed this with my friends in the East they were critical. But now they use nationalism for political reasons and think it is a useful tool. Sometimes I get the feeling they really believe it. If you talk in Bratislava with people in the Slovakian government-which is dominated by the Christian Democrats-they talk about Slovakian nationalism and look at me like: "Why don't you understand me any longer?" In a country like Bulgaria there is nationalism but it's not so strong as in a country like Slovakia, Croatia, or Ukraine. Bulgarians tell me that it's because they don't have a strong community of immigrants in Canada who function as an authority and export these nationalist notions to their old society.
Pakula: There is a large Ukrainian population in Canada, which is why.
Faber: That is a problem in Europe. People move, settle down, and try to influence the situation at home. To create a new common identity is a priority for the HCA. Eastern Europe still has this enormous identification with immigrants abroad. Even the Dutch, after World War II, went in big colonies to Canada. When I was young a lot of people were coming back, still holding their traditional views of Dutch society. There were real battles. They were extremely critical of modernization in Holland. Delegations came over to convert us back to the old traditions. The Dutch community in Canada was small. Imagine what is going to happen when there is a much bigger community from a country that was repressed for a long time!
There is also the question of peace and security. NATO is trying to create new structures of cooperation with the East European countries, but NATO can only play a political role there, so the West European Union has to take over the military role. The West European Union has to become a bureaucracy because powers relate only to bureaucracies: NATO is a bureaucracy, the European Community is a bureaucracy. The CSCE is nothing; it is not a bureaucracy, but only a process, which is very weak. Now is that what we want? Who is influencing this kind of thing? Or is this the kind of silent development that you only notice when it is too late?
Eastern Europeans are going back to their own historical, nationalistic roots, while at the same time, they are trying to copy North America, where they have never lived. But it's so exciting and it's total confusion! People say we are now in a transition from the Cold War to a new, stable situation. My view is that we will live for many years in a transition period, and that's a good thing. We have to prepare ourselves for constant change.
Pakula: What will be the theme of the HCA general assembly that is being planned for March 26 to 29 in Bratislava?
Faber: Nationalism and racism. We will deal with immigration, xenophobia. We will ask: What do you want-a European army, a national army, an ethnic militia, or a gun for everyone? Why is it that in the United States and Belgium, everybody has his gun at home? That's what everybody is doing now. You go to Belgium and you buy your gun. What kind of philosophy is behind that?
Pakula: It's the New World Order.
Faber: The commissions of the HCA will present their reports, and new questions and programs will be discussed. Next June or July there will be an election in Czecho-Slovakia concerning the future of the country. Will Slovakia separate? Will there be a federation or confederation? Will nationalism be stronger in Slovakia? How will the Czechs react? What will the Hungarian minority do? Many of the problems are present in Bratislava and so we hope to bring people from that area into the Assembly itself.
Pakula: Are you as pessimistic as I feel about the prospect of ethnic war in south central Europe?
Faber: For me personally it always helps a lot to get involved in it. That creates optimism, energy. Why not? Why not start 1992 with some optimistic and positive new initiative?
We need alliances in all HCA countries with poor people, oppressed people, churches, unions, women's organizations, and so on. Politics is in disarray and we have to construct a new situation in a peaceful way, in thousands of little projects. People ask me what the next big step is. There is no big step; this is a period of small steps. But try to include people. In the United States-what is it, 25% or 30%? below the poverty line, with almost no hope? I fear that in Eastern European society it will not be 25% with no hope, but 40 or 50%. The thing to do is bring those people in. Maybe the Helsinki Citizens Assembly can do that.
Andrew Pakula is a Toronto-based management consultant, psychologist, and peace activist.