Bolstering SUA’s Role as a Leading Peace University: An Interview with Prof. Alexander Harang

January 02, 2024
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Alexander Harang gestures with his hand as he speaks at a podium with a microphone. He is wearing a grey three piece suit with a black tie.

Born into a family of peace activists in Norway, Alexander Harang, distinguished adjunct professor, has deep experience in both the theories and practicalities of achieving peace. A longtime supporter of SUA and student of SUA founder Daisaku Ikeda’s ideas, Prof. Harang also advises the Nuclear Abolition Project at the Soka Institute for Global Solutions as a senior research fellow and organizes the annual Nobel symposium.

When did you first become interested in the peace movement?

Very early. I became active in the peace movement from childhood as I was born into a family of peace activists. My grandfather founded No to Nuclear Weapons, which is the Norwegian anti-nuclear weapons movement. I still hold positions of trust in that movement, functioning as a board member and leader of its peace political committee. This is voluntary work, like most peace activism.

I also knew I wanted to become a peace researcher long before I started university. My first mentor in life was Johan Galtung, who founded the world’s first peace research institute in 1959. Through two decades of leadership in the Norwegian peace movement, I’ve been involved in different kinds of peace work, including peace education, peace culture, and peace negotiations, as well as less violent conflict resolution, like marriage counseling. I was also the elected representative of the Norwegian peace movement to the International Peace Bureau (IPB) for 15 years, which gave me a certain understanding of how different peace organizations work in various countries on all continents, and how the peace movement organizes globally.

There are so many peace groups and movements around the world. How similar are they?

Basically, all peace organizations promote nonviolent conflict resolution in some manner. But this is being done in so many different ways, from so many cultural, ideological, and spiritual approaches that it is impossible to provide a short answer to your question. The diversity is not only about culture, local conditions, and history, but also politics. Most countries have several peace organizations, as they focus on different issues, and are founded on different approaches to peace.

Politically speaking, I would say the modern peace movement is often left-leaning, where solidarity is a key motivation. You also have a vast number of more centrist organizations, which often have a Christian democratic touch to them, as well as many peace organizations that have a religious basis for their peace work. In the modern peace movement, most often defined as the movement that came about in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s, the so-called “peace churches” are a good example of the latter. In Europe and North America, the Baptists, the Mennonites, and the Quakers were the most notable. Through the 1900s, many other faith communities have formed a peace movement. As you know, we have a very large Buddhist peace movement. There are also Hindu peace organizations, some Muslim peace organizations, as well as traditional African peace movements developed from different spiritual foundations.

So maybe one way to get the big picture is not to look at the thousands of local peace organizations, but rather the larger peace traditions of the world. Gandhi, for instance, was born Hindu but claimed to be part of most world religions. He was a very spiritual person, and many different religions became key to his peace thinking. On the other hand, you have the very large secular peace movement, which is often explicitly atheist. However, you tend to find religious components in most peace traditions.

What motivated you to join Soka’s faculty?

The reason I ended up at SUA has very much to do with its founder, Daisaku Ikeda, and his way of thinking about peace. In addition to Ikeda’s peace philosophy, it was his educational philosophy that drew me to this university. This educational philosophy, with its student-centered focus, where we as teachers serve the students to help them flourish as whole individuals with a key focus on value creation on a global scale—all this just feels intuitive to me as a professor. It also connects with my main research interest, which is peace philosophy. It goes straight into the following questions: How do we achieve nonviolent conflict resolution? What sort of worldview can help us abolish nuclear weapons?

Do you remember when you discovered Ikeda’s work?

At 12, when I read his 1989 peace proposal. In my community in Norway, we didn’t have any Buddhists, so this Buddhist approach to peace was foreign to me. But the themes he talked about were familiar. I encountered this peace proposal through the IPB Bulletin, which back then was the newsletter informing us about what was happening in the peace movements around the world. And there he was—a Japanese peace leader, with a peace proposal he had presented to the United Nations. And he was addressing the same issues we were discussing locally at the time: how to achieve nuclear disarmament; how to promote nonviolent conflict resolution; how to educate for peace; and much more. Suddenly, I had a Buddhist perspective in addition to the one I grew up with on the exact same peace issues. Very inspiring indeed.

Later, in the early 2000s, I began focusing more on the role of weaponry in conflict resolution. I was working on issues such as small arms, landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons. When you’re in this field of peace work, you’re looking for what can be done in regard to the use and access of such means of violence to achieve sustainable peace. It’s impossible to stay in this game without looking at many different approaches to disarmament and arms control because it’s all really difficult. And exactly how to think about disarmament is core to Ikeda’s thinking. This is an area where he has contributed tremendously over the years. So, this focus on disarmament led me to study Ikeda much more deeply. I felt his reasoning on these issues was more solid than any other peace philosopher I knew. Ikeda’s work therefore also became central to my own thinking on arms control and disarmament.

How would you define the idea of Soka as a peace university?

When you look for SUA’s identity as a peace university, you do not have to go very far to find it expressed. An example, from our website, is this quote from Ikeda:

​ “What our world most requires now is the kind of education that fosters love for humankind, that develops character that provides an intellectual basis for the realization of peace and empowers learners to contribute to and improve society.” 

I believe this is a good example of the peace philosophy this university is founded upon. This can also help us understand our mission statement, our values statement, and our university’s principles at a deeper level. To me, this quote expresses the humanism SUA stands for. This implies that our view of humanity is “net positive.” By net positive I mean that one thinks of each human, and humanity as a whole, as more positive than negative. Sure, we do bad things as humans and we are clearly capable of doing harm. But we are even more inclined to do good, and we can certainly also do good, for our fellow beings and the planet as a whole. This quote tells us to foster love for humankind, which is key to what humanism really is about. In Ikeda’s thinking on peace, he always gives emphasis to hope, and to never give up, which again goes straight back to the same humanism.

The next part of his quote about developing the “character that provides the intellectual basis for the realization of peace” is also very similar to Galtung´s motivation for founding the academic discipline of peace research. Lastly—empowering learners to contribute to and improve society—can be understood as a very good approach to “fostering a steady stream of global citizens,” as our mission statement says. In summary, I think all four elements of the quote may be helpful for us in getting a firmer understanding of our mission statement.

I also think SUA’s identity as a peace university is connected to what fields of study we chose to emphasize in our curriculum. For example, peace studies tend to be more than just descriptive of how the world works. Peace studies are also normative in the sense that you study violent conflict to contribute to its nonviolent conflict resolution. To put it simply: you’re not just studying war as a phenomena, like you do in war studies. You are not studying war for the purpose of winning the war militarily, as strategic studies tend to focus upon. In peace studies, you are studying the same war but with the purpose of ending it and for sustainable peace to replace it. Returning to the abovementioned quote again, this can also be understood as the intellectual basis for the realization of peace. I believe that this is something we should build upon as we strengthen our identity as a peace university.

At a time when two large wars are being fought in Ukraine and the Middle East, do you continue to have hope yourself?

Yes. The world is in a horrible state at the moment. There are bigger challenges than I’ve seen in my lifetime, especially when it comes to the threshold for using nuclear weapons, and the very unsettling levels of hatred expressed these days. There’s a general feeling of insecurity in the world as large-scale warfare is back. The war in Ukraine has made nuclear-armed states consider using these weapons like never before. Nuclear weapons are now a much more active ingredient in other conflict scenarios, such as Taiwan and the Middle East. We also see renewed hatred in the Middle East at a level never experienced before in my lifetime. In this situation, we need to wave our peace flag. I believe this will strengthen the Soka spirit that we all experience on campus, and also strengthen our identity as a peace university.

Ikeda’s educational philosophy is also highly appropriate to these times we are currently living through. Our pedagogy, our values, and our dedication to humanism is more needed, and are therefore also more attractive to the outside world I believe. We are therefore in a good position to strengthen our identity as a peace university at this time. And this may be fostered both from above and below. I’ve had many students coming to me with practical peace proposals they would like to study.

I find most of my students deeply committed to peace, seeking to learn more about peace issues so that they themselves can contribute to peace more directly. They want to study peace, and they want to act on what they learn. I therefore believe that if we develop more courses in the field of peace studies, disarmament, and peace philosophy, this will be highly appreciated by the students. Further, if we develop such courses in a way that corresponds with our founder´s peace philosophy, we will also strengthen SUA’s peace identity in doing so. We will then be tapping into a pool of very motivated students, while simultaneously contributing to achieving the strategic direction set out for this university, by strengthening our identity as a peace university, as defined by President Feasel and SUA’s Board of Trustees.