The Choice is Ours

An Open Letter to All Fellow Britons


Dear Fellow Britons,

I am a recently naturalised British citizen who has lived and worked in the UK for over 13 years. Among the many factors that motivated me to obtain British citizenship was the possibility of being part of a country that is so intertwined and deeply connected to the outside world, especially Europe. The opportunity to live and work in 27 other countries on Britain’s doorstep was an exhilarating prospect for me. After last week’s referendum, it is highly unlikely that I will continue to have that right, but what is far worse from my perspective is that the country I have come to call my home for over a decade, the country where I have cultivated deep bonds of love and friendship, seems to be imploding before my eyes.

Since the referendum last week, there has been a worrying spike in racist speech and hate crimes. People are angry, confused, shocked and scared. Political parties are disintegrating and even those who campaigned for a withdrawal from the European Union (EU) have no plans for what comes next. With renewed calls for Scottish independence, many predict that the outcome of the referendum will precipitate a break-up of the United Kingdom. I never imagined that I would bear witness to such events in my adopted home. It breaks my heart and fills me with dread.

Over the weekend, I’ve heard countless stories from Britons who feel they have been robbed of their opportunities and will be stuck facing the uncertain consequences of a situation they did not choose. There has been a great deal of blaming and finger-pointing, as well as heated exchanges across all sides of the political spectrum. It is also evident that many have taken the referendum results quite personally and have reported no longer feeling welcome in this country. As a recently naturalised Briton, I have also contemplated whether I will still be welcome here.

Needless to say, I understand and sympathise with the intense frustration, anger and sadness that has been expressed in recent days. I feel it too. I can also appreciate the temptation to dwell in this disappointment. But now I want to make an appeal to all fellow Britons, irrespective of whether you voted to leave or remain in the EU last week. At this moment in time we face another crucial choice that will come to define us even more than the outcome of the referendum, and that is how we choose to respond to the situation we are currently in. Almost every commentator has alluded to an indefinite period of uncertainty on our horizon, but the one thing we can be certain of is that anger, blame and regret will not move us forward or help us to heal the deep divisions that have been brought to light by this referendum.

If we look beneath the rhetoric of polarisation, divisiveness and fear, we actually have much more in common than we think. On both sides of the referendum debate, our political leaders have let us down immensely and it has become evident that they did not have our best interests at heart at any point in this campaign. Instead of turning against each other, let us work together to not only demand, but also expect, better leadership going forward.

A second factor uniting us is the high degree of public engagement this referendum has generated, as witnessed by the unusually high voter turnout. Rarely have so many people from all walks of life been so engaged and cared so much about politics. This is an exciting and significant development. The passions that have been stoked by recent political events are unprecedented, so let us view this as an opportunity to channel that passion into much needed positive change.

Finally, we need to understand that everyone who cast a ballot had their reasons for voting the way they did. We can agree or disagree with how our family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers, and fellow constituents voted, but we also have to respect that they had a right to do so.

We keep hearing that the outcome of this referendum will be the biggest factor shaping Britain’s future, but I firmly believe it is our response to that outcome that will determine where we go from here. After all, it was not only our European friends and allies on the continent that were closely monitoring the results of last week’s referendum; the eyes of the entire world were on us and they are continuing to watch us now.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, we must decide within our own hearts: Is it worth staying in blame and disappointment, and turning against one another in the process OR can we consciously accept where we are and begin to build on what unite us?

The choice is ours.

Our Common Humanity

Although I don’t remember very much from the years I spent in high school, something I will never forget is learning about the Holocaust. I was fifteen years old at the time and recall being brought to tears during a history lesson as I learned about the slaughter of six million Jews during World War II.

I felt so deeply connected to the events that unfolded in Europe between the years of 1939 and 1945. It was almost as though I was living through this period while simultaneously learning about it for the first time. And even though I knew how things had turned out, I still continued to hope for a different ending to this gruesome chapter in human history. It was a strange sensation. A desperation to stop something that had already happened. Nothing before or since that time has ever haunted me in quite the same way. The thing that distressed me most about the genocide was how the world just stood by and did nothing to stop it. How on earth could people let this happen?


My classmates didn’t appear to be moved as I was and neither was my teacher. For them the Holocaust was a historical fact. But this was much more than a historical fact. It was the gravest display of humanity’s inhumanity, and it would be repeated the year after my history lesson in the small sub-Saharan country of Rwanda.

While the reality that this was still going on in my lifetime troubled me deeply, it also inspired me to do something about it. I knew I couldn’t change the past, but I was determined to find a way to prevent conflicts and atrocities in the future. Three years later I started university and decided to major in International Relations with a focus on diplomacy, security and peace studies. I then went on to obtain a doctorate in International Relations.

Over two decades have passed and the world looks as it did when I first started out on this path. Armed conflicts have persisted around the world and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in countless countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Central African Republic and the Congo, to name just a few.

Although the world has not changed, the fact is that I’ve changed, to the point that my fifteen-year-old self would hardly recognise the person I’ve become. This reality became painfully evident to me quite recently when one of my students asked me what my views were on the current situation in Syria. In response to this student, I heard myself giving a purely academic account of how the conflict developed, the factors that made it difficult to resolve, followed by a grim prognosis on the unlikelihood of achieving peace.

What stands out in my response was the complete lack of emotion. There was no sense of indignation and most of all, no glimmer of hope towards changing the situation or positively impacting the conflict in any way. The passion of my younger self had been dimmed to the point of resignation about this situation. When reflecting on this conversation I wondered, what happened to me? Where did my fifteen-year-old self go? And what had happened to my enthusiasm and drive to create change in the world?

Some would say that the shift I’ve observed in myself over the years is completely normal. It could be a result of getting older and becoming more cynical about the state of the world and how difficult it is to foster change. But I sense there is more to it than this and it may have something to do with the way my education and training has shaped my understanding of the world.

Peace vs. War

Within the discipline of International Relations (IR), the dominant theory is known as Realism. This approach is based on the assumption that states operate in a self-help system with the sole objective of maximizing their power interests. According to Realists, competition and conflict between states is inevitable, and cooperation is viewed as an aberration. Realism continues to remain the most influential discourse within IR and it is no wonder: how can anyone meaningfully counter a perspective that purports to provide a ‘realistic’ account of the world?

One doesn’t need to be a student of International Relations to be influenced by the assumptions of Realism. Most people learn about global events through the filter of 24-hour news networks. The fact that most networks seem to dedicate 99% of their content to broadcasting, not just news, but bad news, paints a particular perception of the world, one which is by no means accurate. Those who make a point of watching the news subject themselves to a daily dose of fear – which is the predominant emotion of most broadcasts. Add to this the fact that, despite how negative the story might be, broadcasters deliver the news in an eerily calm and detached manner. The message to the viewer is clear: this is the way the world is. Accept it.

It seems apparent to me that on a global level, the ethos of Realism has locked us into a state of contrast, perpetuating that which we do not want. What we focus on and give our attention to continues to grow. So the more we dwell on the seeming intractability of conflict, violence, and terrorism, the more it persists.

It’s time to recall and reconnect with a fundamental truth that I seem to have temporarily lost sight of along my path, and that truth is our community humanity. It was this truth that inspired me to study International Relations in the first place and after years of study, I can continue to see evidence of it. How else can we explain soldiers from opposing sides in the trenches of World War I, coming together on Christmas day to celebrate with one another, or the fact that British civilians who experienced the horrors of strategic bombing during the Second World War were the strongest opponents of taking retaliatory measures against German civilians?

Even in the gravest situations, I can see proof of this fundamental truth. It is, for instance, no accident that the commission of mass atrocities is almost always preceded by efforts to deny our common humanity, such that perpetrators will consciously disassociate from victims through processes of ‘dehumanization’ and ‘othering.’ These practices have been a consistent feature of every genocide in human history. Why would such processes be so essential for carrying out atrocities unless there is truth to the proposition that we are deeply connected?

Rather than dwelling on and finding explanations for the prevalence of conflict in the world, which is what my education and training has taught me to do, what if we, instead, found ways to collectively shift our focus towards our common humanity? This doesn’t mean denying or glossing over troubling events in the world – indignation can serve us well as long as we don’t reside in it for too long.  The key is to allow the indignation to inspire us to move towards greater clarity. And not to simply look for clarity, but to actively cultivate it, even in the darkest of moments and in the most unlikely places.

Globe Hand

I am convinced that if more of us were willing to do this, we could consciously manifest change in the world and truly know, for the first time, what it means to be at peace.