Amidst the chaos, learning from the wisdom of history

Nassrine Azimi, Senior Advisor, UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

HIROSHIMA -- I was born a Muslim in a tolerant family where religion, spirituality and conduct as a human-being were one and the same. When I was growing up, it was quite fine to be a Muslim and attend Catholic and Jewish schools, as I did. In our Islam, influences of other faiths were celebrated and the Muslims I knew welcomed people of all creeds, to break fast with during the month of Ramadan, as my parents did. In the Islam we once practiced it was alright to ask questions and express doubts, books were treasured, knowledge was honored, and the sanctity of life cherished.

So it is like millions of Muslims and others around the world that I have watched, aghast, the violence and extremism perpetrated by terrorists under the guise of my religion-- acts so despicable I refuse to consider them even remotely Islamic. And now, as a consequence of these acts the Japanese, who until the tragic murder of the humanitarian journalist Kenji Goto by the ISIL terror group had felt somewhat removed from convulsions wracking the larger Middle East, have woken up to the sobering prospect of being themselves targets of terrorism.

For most people in Japan, by nature respectful of other faiths and more spiritual than religious, the repeated references over the past weeks to the name Isuramu koku has cast the faith practiced by some 1.6 billion people worldwide in its darkest colors (in Japanese イスラム国 translating into “Nation of Islam” is even more misleading and damning than its English equivalent), never mind that the terrorists are neither Islamic nor, in fact, a nation. What a gift, to anoint them with such undeserved respectability! The only argument I have heard thus far about this miscast nomenclature is that “Islamic State” is the name the group calls itself. If I start calling myself ”Queen Victoria” from tomorrow, does it mean everyone else has to, too?

There is much we still do not know about the real circumstances of the kidnapping and murder of the two Japanese hostages. Meanwhile more grim and grisly news pour in from the region that was, once, the cradle of human civilization. Different people will draw different lessons from the tragedy and for now, a time of justified anger and consternation in Japan, there can be little in-depth reflection. Yet, as politicians here and elsewhere weigh their options, it is essential to not obfuscate, fear-monger or misuse recent tragedies to head down the slippery slope towards further violence. Japan has been right thus far, to engage with the greater Middle East on humanitarian, economic and cultural fronts and to try to battle the threat of extremism at its root. The country can look back to its own recent post-war history, to find important lessons about the limits of military action and the importance of a broader, deeper kind of engagement.


When the Occupation forces arrived in mainland Japan in September 1945 the country lay in ruins. Hundreds of cities had been fire-bombed by the Americans--in Tokyo alone a 100,000 civilians were killed in one night of bombing. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still covered in radioactive ash, had lost a third of their populations. Millions of humiliated, desperate soldiers of the former Japanese Imperial Army were being ordered to lay down arms. The food situation was so dire that General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), requested reluctant politicians in Washington the authority to feed their starving former enemy. When Washington demurred, accusing the General of being too soft, he said “Give me bread, or give me bullets.” His call was heeded.

The success of Japan’s Occupation, which lasted till 1952, was a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese, but also to the work of an informed, far-sighted and competent American administration. As early as 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government was rushing to mobilize teams of experts and scholars, to help its military planners better understand who the Japanese were, what motivated them, what could defeat them and, most astonishingly, considering the war was still raging and its outcome uncertain, how an American occupation could become a transformative force and change Japan into a peaceful, prosperous nation.

Hardly had the ink on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech dried that across the White House, State Department, War Department and various ad-hoc committees involved in the war effort, scholars of the quality of Hugh Borton of Columbia University and the British diplomat Georges Sansom were being called in, to help make sense of the enemy. Even those Occupation decisions that remain controversial to this day--maintaining the emperor system or working through the existing Japanese bureaucracy and government--seem wise, in a context were avoiding more chaos and violence was the single most pressing goal.

There was also, from the start, an official American policy to protect Japan's cultural heritage and assets. Thus, within weeks of the troops' landing, plans were already drawn up for a small Arts and Monuments branch at SCAP. That such a unit even existed-- and was endorsed by Washington and SCAP’s senior leadership--is in itself remarkable. But it is the high quality of its staff and advisors that truly stuns--many were or would later become some of the most influential figures in America’s Asian art circles. In March 1946 Langdon Warner, a curator at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, an archeologist as prominent in the US as he had been in pre-war Japan, joined as advisor. The popular perception, that the Americans cared enough for Japan’s cultural heritage to bring on board individuals of Warner’s stature, raised morale--with newspapers following his every move. In those bleak post-defeat months, the cumulative impact of these and other wise policies on endearing the Occupation to a nation hungry for dignity, can hardly be imagined.


Comparing the approach of the American Occupation in Japan in 1945, to that in Iraq in 2003, must become mandatory for any policy-maker contemplating the Middle East today. The root causes of the violence that engulfs Iraq, and the origins of the festering terrain in which groups like ISIL thrive, may also be traced to a severe lack of understanding of the enemy, which no number of American military ‘surges’ have been able to overcome over the past decade.

It was not necessary to wait for that dark stain, the Abu Ghraib prison scandals in 2004, to harden the hearts of Iraqi militants and insurgency--earlier American errors had already poisoned the chalice. Disbanding the national Iraqi army at the outset of the Occupation sent disgruntled and armed former soldiers and officers to an unemployed and revenge-filled existence (not surprisingly, experts believe that many of those same officers are now ISIL's military advisors). The expulsion of Ba'ath Party members from government, bureaucracy and other positions gutted the public sector and made daily life miserable for everyone, a cauldron of discontent. The confusion and visible ignorance of the occupiers, with regard to even the fundamentals of Iraqi power structures, splintered the population into its most basic, primitive divisions and spread fear and insecurity. Iraqi politicians did the rest.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld distilled his disdain for niceties such as cultural heritage at a press conference on April 11, 2003. Questioned about the theft of treasures from the National Museum of Iraq and other institutions, due to lax planning and protection by Occupation forces, he simply said “Stuff happens.” In hindsight, that moment may well have announced the beginning of the end of Iraq and the quagmire that has now engulfed the region.


For the past 12 years, annually, a select group of Afghan cadre from different ministries and academic backgrounds have spent a week in Hiroshima, part of the Afghan Fellowship, a unique, year-long executive training organized by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). It is difficult to describe the enthusiasm, energy and hopeful aspirations of these participants--they want to know and understand everything there is to know about Hiroshima’s post-war reconstruction and revival. To them, Japan, a loyal and trusted friend for Afghanistan during its hardest times (the former UN High Commissioner Sadako Ogata is maybe one of the most popular foreigners in Afghanistan) is the ideal, to which many aspire.

What could Japan do, to use this prestige and its peace credentials, to help a region suffering from violence and distrust? This is, per force, a long term endeavor. One lesson from partnerships such as the Afghan Fellowship is the need for more engagement, and the necessity to better understand the history, culture and politics of the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. Japanese experiences with war, post-war and the modern age hold invaluable lessons, as does its particular model of development. Japan’s investment in education and in the middle-class, its excellent public infrastructure and institutions, its celebration of its own unique identity and culture, its prowess in science and technology and its respect for different faiths are deeply relevant for the rest of Asia. In the wake of new threats Japan may well have to change--maybe improve and hone its intelligence-gathering and security skills, and build alliances to resist and to counter terrorism. Hopefully it will do so without discarding its values, wisdom and patience--nothing is more helpful to the terrorists than hasty reactions that add further to the chaos and misery in which they thrive. Kenji Goto's mother was right, to ask that we not forget, beyond all else, her son's great “kindness and courage.”

Nassrine Azimi
Born in Iran in 1959, Swiss citizen. Earned a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 1986 and another master’s degree from Geneva University’s Institute of Architecture in 1998. Joined the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in 1986, becoming a full staff in 1988. After serving as chief of UNITAR’s New York office, became the first director of its new Hiroshima office in 2003. Stepped down in 2009. Now serves as its senior advisor. In 2011 co-founded and now co-coordinates Green Legacy Hiroshima (http://www.unitar.org/greenlegacyhiroshima), a project to send around the world seeds and seedlings from trees that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Has written opinion pieces in the International New York Times and other publications on various topics, including on Hiroshima’s efforts to bring about peace, and on the aftermath of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Resident of Hiroshima.