Topics: Middle East, peacebuilding, interfaith dialogue, stereotypes, transformation
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Seeing the Value of Conflict Resolution
- Suspicion of Outsider Interveners
- Productive Peacebuilding in the Presence of Government Monitoring
- Conflict Resolution Models Across Cultures
- Stereotypes About Islam
- Interfaith Dialogues
- Qualities of Interfaith Dialogue Facilitators
- Dialogue and Development
- Scale-Up of Individual Transformation
- Misperceptions About Peacebuilding
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: Dr. Abu-Nimer, could you please give me a brief overview of your work?
A: What part of my work?
Q: Where should we start?
A: I work in three areas really. I am a professor at American University, I teach a peace and international conflict resolution program at the school of International Service. I also work as a practitioner in different parts of the world and also the US, including training in peace and conflict resolution and peace building. Also I do some work in actual interventions in different war zones, like the Philippines and I just finished four years work in Sri Lanka, and I work with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. Those are the primary areas that I have been working in.
You are from Palestine, is that right?
A: I am a Palestinian from Israel.
Q: How did you come into this line of work?
A: I began really working in Arab-Jewish peace and dialogue groups in 1980-1981 after being a peace and political activist as a Palestinian inside Israel. I was involved in a student movement on the campus, and through that political activism I began seeking ways to connect Israeli-Jewish groups. At some point I began facilitating a dialogue group in 1981 and since then I have been working in dialogue and conflict resolution. I did this work until 1989 when the first Palestinian intifada was at its height, and then I decided to leave and come get my PhD. I was burned out from all of the activities, living in a period where it was very difficult to sustain peacebuilding work. I came to this country and accidentally got enrolled in ICAR and finished my PhD there in 1993. Since I came to this country I have been learning about other conflicts, in terms of using my expertise in the Middle East in other parts of the world. In 1992 my former professor James Laue, who was at ICAR, began inviting me places that he worked and since then I have been working in international peace building and international conflict resolution.
Is there a particular moment in your work that you could remember that has been particularly inspiring, or moving to you?
A: The nature of my work, or our work, is in this field you basically have many of these so called transformative moments where actually you get some sustainability out of them.. I guess I could talk about various places, it is not such much a moment, it is the process that takes place. One of the stories that stuck with me is in 1994 is when I was working in Gaza with a staff of American facilitators with me and we were conducting our first conflict resolution training in Arabic. There was no material in Arabic at all, and so we were basically the first to introduce the subject in the Middle East in general. In Gaza, during that time, it was the post-Oslo period and I have had a group of Palestinians who were receptive, but there was also a group of people who were very critical and challenged almost every concept and base. They had some accusation that we were with the CIA, or that we were outsiders trying to make them collaborate with Israel without getting any concessions. Four years later these four counselors became the first to create a conflict resolution in Gaza and called it the Palestinian Community Dispute Resolution Program, they have a staff of twenty-five people and they have curriculums in Arabic. They have twenty-five schools owned by the UN that run peer-mediation every year. They have trained hundreds of teachers. It took about four or five years of work, but it was particularly inspiring to me.
Were there unique challenges that conflict resolution professionals face in an Islamic context?
A: There are many obstacles, including a generic one that faces an international peacemaker who tries to do training or intervention in any conflict or war zone area. Dealing with this question, I have been struggling in identifying those unique obstacles in working in an Islamic context. I have actually written a chapter on that subject in my new book on non-violence in Islam that was published March 2003. Are there any unique obstacles for anyone who works in this context or are they really generic across cultures? I came up with the conclusion that there are some unique obstacles. One of them is the fact that as an international peace builder when you go to an Islamic context, you need to understand there is a history of colonialism and history of occupation that characterize and effect to some extent the theme of peace building and conflict resolution, especially if you come from the Western Hemisphere or other Northern countries people will be more suspicious of your motivation. People will be more cautious about why you are doing this work and what can they really benefit from it and whether this type of work is devised as a tool in order to have them change their identity or that threatens their religious and cultural identity. That is one of major obstacles that I have found.
The second issue that relates to Islam and peace building in terms of straight intervention as an outsider has to do with the fact that much of this work is funded by the United States' State Department, USID, or other US government offices. Because of that nature of the foreign policy of the US in the Middle East and the Muslim and Arab war, there have usually been concerns with who is funding this type of work or whether this is an extension of US foreign policy in the Middle East or the Muslim world. It has to do with issues of the US foreign policies of having a bias foreign policy toward Israel, and you are always expected to be an extension of that policy. What you have to clarify in the beginning is what type of funding you get and where you get it.
A third factor has to do with why you are doing this work in terms of them, or what are the implications of this work in terms of a relationship to the existing or current regime? Your entry point is very significant and with whom you work in the country. Who is your local sponsor and who are the participants, and who invited them. You could go in as an government entry point or from the royal family and that will put you at an awkward point with the opposition who in many cases in the Muslim countries are not necessarily under the gun but at least are under constant security surveillance by the government. If you go through the royal family or the regime then you are limited in terms of your impact and what change you can produce or introduce, and you will be labeled or affiliated with the regime. You have another possibility with entry when it comes to opposition political groups and those typically will be observed closely by the regime as well as the local NGOs. If you go through the local NGOs, which I think is the safest and most neutral, you could reach out to the pro-government and the opposition if you are lucky enough to identify the type of NGOs can be trusted, has some objectivity, and some level of professionalism that allows them to work with you. I find those issues the most challenging.
Regardless of any of the three areas of entry you take your work in peace building and conflict resolution will be monitored by the local security forces. You have to make sure that you are aware of that, as well as that you're participants are not hindered or prevented in any way from the presence of the security. In several places of work that I have done the security forces would penetrate, the dialogue group, or the conflict resolution workshop. The interior ministry will insist on having one person represented in the workshop and everyone in the room will know that it is a security official. Some of these obstacles are unique to places that have a dictatorship, or where you have a regime, and a security apparatus while you are coming in under the umbrella of conflict resolution, peace building, and so forth.
It sounds like those obstacles that you mentioned about trust being very low of an intervener and funding sources can be overcome if you negotiate your entry point correctly?
A: One condition is to spend some more time identifying your local sponsor and your entry point and being transparent as much as you can from the beginning. I would say from the beginning of your connection with international peace building and training that transparency about your motivation, about your goal, and about your funding sources have to be shared explicitly with the participants as with people if they ask and with your local sponsor.
If you are in a dialogue and someone from the Ministry of Information comes and insists on being a part of the dialogue how do you make sure that people feel safe enough in that space to speak openly about their feelings?
A: These things happen almost every time I work in the Middle East and in Sri Lanka with the LTTE in the North or in the Philippines. Again it really depends on the nature of work that you do. The work that I do is very explicit and transparent and says that we are not doing anything wrong, like inciting people for violence or prohibiting people from expressing their views, or doing anything illegal. Anything that you do in this workshop is legal and has been approved by the government, if it wasn't approved it wasn't prohibited either. You walk that line and if there is somebody from the Interior Ministry then you have to be very explicit in saying these things and providing as much safety as possible with the knowledge of ground rules. If there is anything that the group doesn't want to discuss in front of everyone, then you provide the space for them to talk about it individually or in smaller groups.
From my experience, when we had a security person sitting in the room that limited the nature of the conversation due to this suspicion that you could be thrown in jail or somebody can just say that you spoke politics against the president of the country, and that would be the end of not only the workshops but maybe some participants. You need to be more frank from the beginning and accept the limitation that the ministry of information will be there.
It sounds almost dangerous.
A: Not almost, it is dangerous. Danger in the sense of if you are engaged in this political context, this is the nature of peace building in war zone areas, there are conflicting parties and there are people fighting, even if you go in and declare you are doing peace and conflict resolution you are caught in the middle of the storm and you will be effected if you are not careful about the format and the themes that you are presenting.
In a dialogue normally there is an assumption that it is a safe space and people can speak freely about their concerns and that nothing will be taken outside of the room. In a dialogue where that may not be possible given the local norms and given that a representative from the Ministry of the Interior is there, how much can get done in a dialogue with that kind of presence?
A: I will give you an example. In one case we had one of the people we knew in the group was working with the security. We shifted a little bit of the focus from political conversation and the regime, and focused on concrete tangible development issues that it would not get them in any trouble with the security forces. For instance the cases studies we used were disputes between vendors in the cities, land disputes, and disputes between the ministry of housing and some of the neighborhood committees. Looking at these case studies and conversation to be more tangible as well as safer issues for the participants themselves knowing that themes like the relationship between the government and the opposition is not going to be discussed publicly, and on a larger scale in the group due to that sensitivity. Those that are present don't usually stay with you all the time. They come in the beginning, the end, or in the middle just to be present in the workshop as a form of monitoring. As I said this is constantly an issue in war zone areas where there is very little, or minimal degree of trust among people in general and you add to it the security apparatus and then you have a more difficult situation to deal with.
That is interesting. Basically what you end up talking about is basic conflict resolution services where the legal framework may not be in place, or sufficient to deal with people's everyday problem, like between sellers and vendors, land disputes, and things like that where the government or state has failed to do so.
A: In that case it does deal with that. That was a case in Egypt where we worked with a group in Cairo in 1997-98. These conditions depend on the nature of the workshop, the participants, the local sponsor, and the purpose of your project. There are projects I do where I am invited to talk about facilitating and having meetings between the opposition group and the government. Then the whole conversation is basically on the peace process, the dialogue, and on political issues. Whether the security representative is there or not does not matter because that is the focus of our group.
A lot of these techniques, ideas, and theories about conflict resolution are written about in this country and North America and have generally been developed, they may not have their origins here, but when you go to an Islamic context or even somewhere there is a great suspicion of the West, how do you justify using these techniques that were developed over here?
A: This whole issue of using North American models and approaches of peace building is an issue that I have worked on and written about it since I graduated and began working. One of my first realizations in this field is that you can't go to a non-American context, and take a manual that you have written for a group in Boston, or Fairfax and use it in a rural area in Mindanao or in Sri Lanka or in Bosnia, or in other places. You need to be more open and flexible, as well as in tune to what are the skills and expertise that people you work with bring to the table or the workshop and not really assume that you are starting from zero, but assume the opposite, that people that you are working with are capable of resolving their conflict and that they have the skills that are required for them to resolve as well as improve their relationship.
If you have those few assumptions, flexibility, openness, and the assumption that the people you are working with are capable of helping themselves as well as dealing with the situation then I think that you will rely less and less on a prescriptive manual and approach that are created for business men or people who are in a cooperation setting, like in Getting to Yes or all these books of conflict resolution in the US. This is one of the things that we have learned, you focus on the principles of conflict resolution and peace building and those principles assume that they are basically common to many cultures, including North America. For instance, one of those principles that you work with is the issue of equity and fairness in any process you help to design, or any intervention model you follow that anything you do has to meet the equity and fairness standard of the two parties. Also working with the issue of symmetry, in terms of design of the process, like everyone has to be represented on equal basis, and in a way that everyone has a way to express what they want. You try to use the human needs approach where you would have more generic commonalities of people regardless of their race and culture. All people need security, all people need recognition, and all people need to be respected. When you follow these criteria the issue becomes how different cultures express these issues and then how do you help people negotiate. John Burton calls it "setting the fires" of those basic human needs. That is something you can't bring from Boston, from ICAR, or from American University, you have to use local ways of negotiation.
Another principle that guides our work has to do with the issue of cooperation. We bring into the conflict resolution setting the assumption that instead of distractive competition, if people construct cooperative joint-forums to resolve their problems they will be more effective in saving more human lives and resources in resolving those conflicts. How do you do it in terms of techniques? Whether you use a listening technique from Boston or from Gaza, I think that it is obvious that you shouldn't use the techniques from Boston of talking, listening, and acting in Gaza. You need to be able to allow the Gazan, the Egyptian, and the Philippino to devise, improve, or construct their own ways to achieve listening, or learn the skill of listening, communication, problem solving, or whatever technique that you are trying to teach. It is the same thing for dialogue, which I think is a technique that we all use in dialogue, conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation. All of these techniques have been used not only in the North American context but every culture around the world has its own techniques in which they conduct dialogue and mediation, and other forms of conflict resolution. Use the local techniques, tools, and ways according to the principles. You don't change the principle by what you do, but you adjust to that local, traditional dispute resolution.
So you do bring your own principles to the local context?
A: Yes, we all bring our own values and our own assumptions into this work. The values and assumption that I shared with you is what you bring in, such as cooperation, symmetry, and the concept of non-violence. Anything that we devise and design has to meet the standard of non-violence. Some of these things you have to make a decision and you bring them in fully aware that you are bringing in this set of values that might contradict what the local culture or the local norms that you are working with are. This is especially true if you work in a war zone area where the norm to resolve the conflict or dispute is violence and you are coming in with a totally contradictory assumption and introducing non-violence. Many of us are not aware that we bring those assumptions. I think that one of the things that I have found helpful is if you lay those assumptions in the beginning of your work with any outside work, by saying these are the principles that guide my work, and the techniques are going to come from you and what I do is to make sure that we are moving according to those principles. That is why sometimes the opposition groups, or the NGOs found our work in terms of international peace building in war zones areas as a transformative as a political tool for change. They find it feasible or possible to use it toward that end.
In this country a lot of people see Islam as a violent religion. What is your reaction to that?
A: It is not also in this country. Unfortunately people in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries people have been exposed to this stereotype. I know when you said, "Islam is a violent religion" you decided to use the term religion in your question, but you could have used the term culture. I think this is a typical stereotypical, derogatory statement to say that a religion is violent because every religion has teachings to solve problems in violent ways. Also many religions have bases in teachings to justify the use of non-violence and cooperation, persuasion in resolving conflict. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other, even the atheists, have their own ways of resolving conflicts violently and non-violently. I know in terms of the stereotype of Islam has to do with, the not only recent, relationship between the West, Europe and the US, toward the Muslim world. That is where the stereotype is coming from in the last 1200 years of interaction between the Islamic civilization and the Western countries.
This notion that Islam is a violent religion really comes from ignorance, lack of information about Islam, as well as inability to understand that not only Islam, but your own faith, if you are capable of saying that Islam is a violent religion. I have told you earlier that I have written a book of 250 pages explaining the sources of non-violence and peace building in Islam. How can a religion that's name is Islam, which in Arabic is "peace," be practiced as a violent religion? It is almost ironic to look at this theme from this label of a religion equaling violence. I could give you many examples of what the sources of peace, non-violence, and cooperation in Islam and you could read that or find it in many books and many articles.
Every Muslim views his or her religion of peace, and a peace that encourages kindness, mercy, and forgiveness to people who commit wrongdoings or who commit any misbehavior on interpersonal relationships as well as on a community level. The question is why is there this stereotype and image that Islam is a religion of violence and it is really due to the fact that there are smaller groups of militant Muslims who have taken it upon themselves the agenda to liberate their own countries or their own religion by using violence or terrorism on the international level; I am referring to the work of al Queda and so forth. As I said the stereotype against Islam as a violent religion is not from al Queda and it is not from 9/11, you could go back to the 12th and 13th century and writers, scholars, and philosophers viewed the Muslim, the Spanish, and Mindanao in the Philippino with the same stereotypes. The British colonials in the Middle East had the same stereotypes about Muslims there.
What I am curious about then is what impact that stereotype has for conflict?
A: Why don't we have stereotypes against Christianity when we have hundreds of battles and millions of people killed by Christian governments and by Christian groups in the Muslim War, the Arab War, and on the African continent, I think the question should be who perpetrated this stereotype and who does this stereotype serve in terms of power relations to justify Iran as a country, against Afghanistan, Indonesia, or any country. It becomes very easy to believe and also to perpetrate this slogan that Islam is a violent religion. There are small groups of militant Muslims that base their reasons on the poverty, the lack of development, and due to the historical relationship with the West and due to the repression of the local regime and the abuse of human rights by many of the Muslim regimes. These radical militant groups do not find any way to express their opposition except by using, in their perception, violence, bombs, whether it is suicide bombs in Palestine or in Algeria through internal civil war, all these activities are due to these four or five factors.
The implication for peace building, for conflict and for conflict resolution is that every time I work with Muslims and the Christians, like now I am going to Mindanao, Philippines to work with them, one of the major stereotypes that we have to deal with that Christians come to the table thinking that Islam is a religion of violence, and then the Muslims have to spend time defending his or her faith because of this prejudice and this stereotype that the people come with. The implication is at the end of the workshop they leave thinking that they learned a great deal because they discovered that not all Muslims are terrorists. It is a good thing that this person has discovered that but it is sad that it takes a meeting with a Muslim to reach such a conclusion because of that dominant perception of this stereotype out of the Western media toward the war. I think there is very little education that has been done in this country and also world wide on this notion of understanding the complexity and the nature of Islam as a religion and this is not only to blame the Western governments and their educational system, but part of the problem in the Muslim world and those who speak for Islam do not really reach out enough to the Western world, or the outsider, to teach about the non-violence, peace, and cooperation principles in their own religion and they rely mainly on traditional leadership or the dictatorship to convey the message.
There is a great implication in our work, as I said I invest so much energy in phase of the workshop, meetings between Muslims and Christians just to overcome that specific question. In one workshop I did this mock mediation, conflict in the group and after two days I role played as a devil's advocate with one other participant, without having all of the members of the group being aware of this is a role play. One of the reactions of the participants in the debriefing was that "You have been working with us so nicely the past two days and when you suddenly became agitated and aggressive with one of the participants who was a Christian, I thought, oh he is Muslim, I was wondering when this was going to come out." Even as a facilitator you don't escape this labeling and categorization. It is engrained so deeply in the images of people not only in conflict zone areas, and this is not to blame the Western people, but also these are one of the major consequences of having al Queda, all the campaigns launched by the US administration against so called Axis of Evil, which were four of the five were Muslim countries. Then you still struggle against this US unilateral policy, which I think support these types of images.
That is really where I wanted to go with this. You mentioned that the Christians in that one example overcame that stereotype?
A: That always happens. This is one of the accomplishments that you get in inter-faith dialogue. I have been working for five or six years in inter-faith dialogue and one of the primary accomplishments is this notion that now we see each other as equally humans, so it is more difficult to dehumanize the other. I see that not all Muslims are terrorists or violent, to frame it positively there are many sources of peace and non-violence in Islam, like Christianity, they would say if they were a Christian. For Muslims when the finish these inter faith dialogue groups they come out with similar statements such as "Now I understand that the other side that we decided to dialogue and that Christian I was talking to they are not all occupiers or they are not all government and they see our pain and they could be our friends." The Muslims always have to confront the image of being perceived as violent.
What kind of qualities do you think a person doing this kind of work, as you do inter-faith dialogues and other forms of conflict resolution, what kind of qualities do you think that person should have?
A: ...as a person or as a professional?
A: It is hard to really make the distinction between them. I would say that there are necessary attributes or features for international peace builders to be effective in war. You have to be able to gain the trust of the participants and establish a relationship within that allows them to speak safely in a safe environment that allows them to open up and speak. Referring to your previous question, change in perception takes place when people feel safe and safety is one of the conditions that you have to work very hard to establish in the group. If you cannot be trusted as an international trainer then you can't do that.
The second quality is that you need patience. That aspect of patience is very challenging and very difficult. You need patience because it is very intense work and if you do a lot of work and if you do a lot of this type of dialogue groups you tend to see similar things happening. You should have the energy and capacity to listening to people's pain, people's misperceptions, and even listen to people's ignorance. You sit there and you are capable of seeing racist things that have a good intention sometimes. The patience is to see these things in front of you, yet to contain your feelings and then to intervene in an effective and constructive way to establish a safe space for that group to help move them to one area of comfort to an area of discomfort, this is where I think the learning usually takes place. When people are confronted by negative images of the other, by their stereotypes, and prejudice, they learn through these interactions, as well as through positive interactions. Patience in the sense of facing those biases that you have, and having the energy to face them. Patience in terms of dealing with prejudice, with things will bother you.
The third quality I would say is that you need to constantly reflect on your own biases. That is really an aspect that I have found very challenging because each one of us go around with our own values and assumption. Ask yourself, "How are my biases affecting my professional intervention", is another aspect.
Another attribute that is required is that in the US we call it the "walk your talk" concept. It is the fact if you call for social change or for political change then you have to make part of your life assigned to do that, not as part of your work only, but to be able to engage in civil rights work, protests and political activism, community volunteer workshops, community service. To walk your talk is very important. In most of our work people don't only learn from the cognitive and the nice charts, models, and triangles and circles that we draw on the flip charts. Most of the learning also comes from role modeling. When they ask you what do you do in order to make change happen outside of your profession, walking your talk is another important thing.
I have talked about patience and flexibility; you can't go in with structure and a rigid mind set. You can't go in with the mentality of working an agenda from 9-5, minute by minute. You are mechanically treating those perceptions. To change those perceptions that people have of each other you have to be flexible enough to adjust to change your techniques and your intervention based on the nature of the people that sit with you. Obviously there is this principle that you need to understand what you are doing. You need to have a comprehension and an understanding of the processes and dynamics of the conflict and the group work. I think those are necessary substance skills and information that you need to know. I am not sure how much knowledge of theory of conflict resolution or international relations that you need, but you certainly need to understand the group dynamic as well as what happened to the people in the conflict situation.
What techniques have you found most useful for accomplishing the goals of your work?
A: In the inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue that I facilitate I found that one of the effective tools I have is when we link dialogue with development. When you insert in the conflict resolution and peace building work a task that will improve and have implication on the life of the participants. That type of work is mostly on the grass roots level, especially if people need jobs, employment, language, or whatever development component they need. If you can organize a dialogue around that I think you would introduce an effective tool as opposed to bringing dialogue without development implications. When I work in the development context I have found that development without introducing dialogue, peace building, and conflict resolution principles is only short term. There are more sustainability mechanisms if you introduce peace building into the development context. My answer is more generic, not necessarily one specific tool, like listening.
That answers the kind of stuff I am looking for. Can you give me an example of where you tried that and where that worked for you?
A: Sure. In Sri Lanka, in one of the groups that we worked with CARE International, our work was to bring people together who do not have birth certificates, such as internally displaced people. You can go about this in a typical development project and go to the ministry offices, have an NGO that will go and basically go and locate these people, and then process their application in a typical way.
The other way that we helped people to do that locally was to establish forums in which those people who don't have birth certificates can meet together on an on going basis and talk about ways in which they can organize in order to get their birth certificate and carry on some other activities related to the war zone areas. We linked it. We needed to work in that area, and we needed to work with these people and we had many things to choose from. We chose birth certificates because once you have that then you have an ID, once you have an ID then that is a major accomplishment for the person to be able to move from place to place.
Another example is when I used to work in Israel-Palestine was we used to bring together Arab and Israeli teachers, and you could talk about conflict resolution and what type of peace should exist between Palestine and Israel, or you could work with the teachers on creating a curriculum for peace to use in their own schools. The outcome would be an actual curriculum that they are writing together. In order to write it together or separately you have to talk about the conflict, and then talking about the conflict becomes a more primary, or secondary tool in order to produce something that has more sustainability then the dialogue itself. Finding these formats in these areas of cooperation that bring more sustainability and benefit the people in addition to the dialogue is very important. Dialogue itself brings awareness, but awareness is not enough. It is good but is not enough.
What is next?
A: Actually seeing changes in the behavioral aspects is next. We always think that this is what we need, you say as opposed to the first one. For instance, my neighbor has a prejudice about Islam and we bring some awareness to him. That is great, he changed his perception. Is it enough? Am I satisfied with that or do I want him to write a letter to the church where he keeps hearing about how violent Islam is from his congregation? Or do I want him to write to his local Congressman?
Q: Is that what really happened?
A: No, it is a hypothetical example.
So there is a sort of problem in dialogue where you have individual transformation and the Christian says, "You are not a terrorist, and not all of your cousins are terrorists. All Muslims are not terrorists." How do you go then to social transformation?
A: This is the expensive question in peace building and conflict resolution. We all go around and do our own training. I think we have, relatively speaking, developed techniques and strategies that are effective in introducing change on a perceptional, attitudinal change on an individual level. I think we still lack this ability to effectively link the micro with the macro, or the individual level with the small groups and the communities with the policy making level. In some cases you manage to introduce these ideas, and form an NGO in a neighborhood or even have two or three neighborhood organizations work together, but how do you take their work and the individual's work into the policy level? I don't think that we have had enough experience and paid enough attention in the field to be able to do that. There are some ways to accomplish this.
One of the ways would be to insure that in any work you do you will have one or two representatives from the policy making level. For instance, if you are doing a Christian-Muslim-Jewish dialogue group in Washington then you constantly continue sending your reports to a local, regional, and federal officials informing them about the progress that you did and the nature of your work, urging them to be involved in what you are doing. That link to the policy we lack.
A second element as a possibility is to target people who work in policy and most of our work is on the grassroots, middle range intervention as opposed to policy making. There are a few of us who work on the policy level, but I think those who work on the policy level also lack mechanisms how to link their impact into the grassroots and the middle range levels. These linkages are essential for any introduction of change.
An example in particular I am thinking about is in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when you have a sleeping Israeli peace movement that was very highly effective and very active in the late 1980s, yet from 1994 to today I think, especially in the past two or three years of the Intifada, did not pick up as much as it can. There are many people that are doing work in the grassroots level as well as professional, middle class peace activists. How do you transfer that into a policy level? We don't know. If you don't take that case, take us in the US when thirty million people were protesting against the war in Iraq, yet we went to war in Iraq and dropped bombs and killed civilians as well as soldiers. We claimed that we won the war and the global peace movement did not stop the war. The impact of the global peace movement was big, but did not translate into actual policy change.
What do you think are the most common misperceptions that people have about peacebuilding?
A: That it is magic. People ask, "Where are you going?" I say, "I am going to Israel-Palestine." They say, "You are going to solve this conflict." If I say, "I am going Sri Lanka," then they say, "Are you done with Israel-Palestine?" This is a type of cynicism that is behind the misperception and the assumption that peace building as an unofficial Track II can resolve the conflict in a short period, or even that it is aimed to resolve the conflict. Another misperception is that you are the one who is responsible for doing that as opposed to the people that you work with. It leaves out the responsibility of the people you work with. These misperceptions are not only from outsiders, but can also be from the people who sit with you in the workshop.
I was beginning to say that peace building as a second track, or an unofficial track, is a mechanism that makes the official track possible and monitors the dynamics of the official track as well as helping people deal with conflicts and the problems that the government cannot, did not, or should not handle. It becomes more of an alternative that is supplementary to the official negotiation track, as opposed to instead of a mechanism to replace it. These are some of the functions the peace building and conflict resolution tracks. or ways I look at it. The misperceptions of magic and so forth are unfortunate and in many cases because it really hinder the progress or become a challenge to overcome.
Another misperception I face usually is something that I think is more creative from the culture of the training and of the field of CR as it is developing, is that peace building is a matter of skills to learn. It is really the misperception of separating mechanically learning ways to listen and actual listening. We teach skills to many people and many people are satisfied with learning those skills, but have no connection to how to apply them.
One of the misperceptions that I see is that you go to trainings and interventions then they tell you, "I didn't learn many things. I want the skills and the manual. I want all the skills," as if once you have those skills then you are a peace maker and are going to be capable of working in a war zone area. The misperception I am pointing to is this assumption that peace building is a set of mechanical skills that you can learn by books, by charts, but I don't believe that. I think it is important to do that, but a peace building work is really and primarily an issue of internal awareness that is developed in the process, and in a way allows the person to learn some concepts and some ways that eventually will become obsolete in a few weeks, a few days, or a few months. The individual awareness is a skill that is not lost. I think that is where the crux of the peace building should be instead of teaching skills in a mechanical way.
It sounds a little like you are talking about transformation in a certain sense and there is a lot of talk about transformation in general. Is there particular moment where you were transformed around this work?
A: I have avoided using that term for the last hour and a half talking with you. There are these buzz words that come into this field. When I started working it was management and settlement. Ten years later it became resolution. Then in the late 1990s we have transformation. Each of those terms came out in a generation or after ten years of work. I don't know what you mean by transformation.
My basic understanding of what transformation is a lot of the things you just talked about like changing a stereotype, when people are open to new ways of talking about an enemy, things along those lines.
A: The definition for transformation in the field is that we talk about interpersonal change and interpersonal relationships, changed in institutional relationships, and a level of systems and sub systems. It is a process that takes a life-time for a practitioner or a person to continue and change, and to adjust their perception according to the reality. It is hard to say I was evil in 1980 and in January 1981 I became enlightened and I shed. It is very difficult to do that. I think that is another misperception about some of the work that we do.
Q: I can phrase it another way if you like. You were an Arab in Israel, so right off the bat there was a lot of conflict.
A: I am also American.
What I am getting at is it might seem to other Palestinians born in Israel that your choice of work is rather unusual, especially to someone who might be in more of a activist role, or sort of a conflict generation role. How do you come to that?
A: Before that you focused most of your conversation with me as being an Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim. Also parts of my identity are Arab American and Muslim American, some one who has live here for the past fifteen years. First of all, the Arab Palestinian community inside Israel had been exposed to the type of work I do since the 1950s or 1960s. It probably was the most exposed community to this kind of dialogue, Arab-Jewish relation to any other community in the Arab world, or the Muslim world in general due to the relationship with the Jewish majority in Israel. Not always supportive, but there are people who have been working in this for many years so I could always link, in the early 1980s, or find some Arabs who work in this field. Through conversation with them you find some direction, you don't necessarily agree with them, but it helps you find a direction within your professional development.
There are also people who were opposed to this for the same reason that many people in a minority would discount the issue of CR and dialogue as a mechanism as co-habitation with the regime, with the occupier, with the government, with the system, a mechanism of pacification against militants or resistant to the occupation, even as an act of naivete. You are being led to dream that the majority is really sincere about peace or equality. There usually are the typical accusation for any peace builder in general, not necessarily just Arabs in Israel. You deal with them depending on what extent you reflect on your own work, and on your own biases. What type of consciousness you develop as a practitioner or someone who works in this field through my family's support, especially my wife, and the people that I work with, I pass those obstacles. I paid the price like many other people but at some point you realize that this is a life commitment even if you are not adequately paid for six or seven years. That is where you find the meaning for your work. How did I get to this? As I told you earlier on, it wasn't one case or one story in which I shifted from one area to the other.
I was politically active in the Palestinian student union, and that Palestinian student union didn't work alone, it always worked with progressive Israeli peace camps. Through my work with this peace camp we would both stand in protest against the government officials I developed friendships with the Israeli peace groups. Through conversations with them you managed to go a deeper level than politically protests and slogans like "End the occupation." You get to go to a deeper level of conversation like about values, assumptions, identity, and history, and I think you get in a further relationship with the group.
At some point there was an opportunity that lent itself, somebody told me, "Would you be interested in moderating a group of Arabs and Jews on campus for one year?" I said, "I cannot commit for one year, but I can commit for a few months to be a moderator." I did not understand what moderator meant, but it was clear to me after one meeting that this wasn't a protest, demonstration, or partisan activity. You have to be able to walk between the two groups knowing that you are a Palestinian, yet able to get the confidence and the trust of the Israelis to speak to the group who views you as a facilitator who could help both sides.
It is still a challenge after twenty-two years of work to fulfill that role in a satisfactory way. I am continuously challenged by my values, challenged by the reality, for instance this war with Iraq was a big issue for someone who works on peace building in the Middle East. How do you go back to the Middle East and do work on peace building and conflict resolution as an American, an American Muslim, as an American Palestinian, and go back in and talk about peace, democracy, and conflict resolution and still have credibility from the people that you work with, although you come holding that American identity? Those always challenge me continuously. This is transformation, and I think it is a continuous element of change in your identity.
The first of the last of couple of questions is, we have talked a lot about various lessons that you have learned over the years, are there other lessons that you think have been particularly valuable that you have learned over the years?
A: I have shared with you and reflected on things that I have done with you. Working in this area, it is necessary to be able to link actions with attitudes, and change of behaviors with attitudes. It is a necessity to link groups of individuals to policy. It is a necessity to link policy to grassroots projects. These are the struggles that we all as practitioners and scholars are facing in doing this. This is one of the major things that I am struggling with. It is a lesson that I am constantly trying to look at.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to do this work?
A: Patience, flexibility, and constant reflection on your own biases and prejudices. These are the three things that I would recommend. The issue of critical thinking about your own government and your own identity are crucial to the practice, and humor. Use the humor as much as you can to sustain with the field. The fifth one would be to learn how to take care of yourself. That is a major challenge for all of us.
Q: What does that mean? How to earn a living?
A: No, earning a living is important, but this type of work in war zones can take a toll on you psychology, emotions, personality, and relationships. Doing too much can burn you out in one-way or another. Learning to take care of yourself is very important to be effective. What ever it is that would make you more balanced, you should do that.
Q: How do you do that?
A: I told you that I am struggling with that. I always try to do things totally not related to my profession. You saw how many kids were here, so I try and spend some time with the kids. I try to have friends. We have people gathering every three to four weeks to talk about different things. I talk with people that I work with who are colleagues in the profession to try to get some sustainability, and it is very hard to do that.
Q: Thank you.