A Discussion with Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Professor, School of International Service, American University
Background: This exchange between Mohammed Abu-Nimer and Susan Hayward on June 13, 2010 focused on his experience as a participant and facilitator in a range of interfaith dialogue in the Middle East and beyond. Believing in dialogue as a tool for social change, Abu-Nimer works to leverage the dialogue process as a tool for political action and impact. He highlights the limiting factors for organizations working in the Israel-Palestine conflict: many organizations have feared having the “other side” be perceived as working with them. The interview explores how Abu-Nimer’s religious background shapes the way he approaches peacebuilding, and he emphasizes the teachings on forgiveness and peace in Islam. The role of women in religious peacebuilding is severely limited, he argues, in large measure because of the male-dominated clergy in Islam and Judaism. Yet women play a key role in the peacebuilding process because they can relate to marginalized people in society and are more likely to gain the peoples’ trust. The field of religious peacebuilding is in danger of fragmenting into narrow, overly specific subcategories. What is needed is to mainstream the role of women in religious peacebuilding to benefit the field as a whole.
Interview Conducted on June 13, 2010
Please tell me a little about your background, and how your experiences growing up in Palestine led you to become involved in conflict resolution.
I grew up in a diverse community of Muslims, Christians, and Druze in Israel/Palestine. Being a member of the minority in that context made me more aware of “the other,” and of the dominant majority, and the dynamics between majority/minority communities. Also, living within an Israeli Jewish context of domination, and the exposure to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, sensitized me more and more to deep-rooted conflict dynamics.
I grew up in Galilee, in a typical Palestinian family. Many of those around me were affected by the 1948 displacement, and had lost land and family members. When I moved to Jerusalem, I became more in touch with the larger Palestinian identity. As a sophomore in the university, I worked on issues of dialogue. This came after a period of politicization as I became an activist; I was part of groups and parties, a member of the Palestinian movement in Israel. I had been active in mobilizing people for protest and demonstrations to resist discrimination and marginalization of the Palestinian minority in Israel.
My work as an activist started fairly early. I was in sixth or seventh grade when I first started attending protests. I was chanting slogans that I didn’t quite understand. But it felt good & I was a teenager and so I had energy that needed to be released. I felt morally recognized and some people in the community appreciated and encouraged my mobilization.
So when I entered the university, I was still doing this nonviolent resistance and advocacy work. Through the university I met leftwing politicized Jews who were also working toward the liberation of Palestine and the rights of Palestinians in Israel. A couple of people in the University asked me if I wanted to join or lead a dialogue group. The person who asked me thought I was some sort of political leader, and that I could recruit people. And that’s what I did for the first dialogue we had & I brought some folks together. The dialogue didn’t really work. We approached it like a debate & we were trying to persuade the other side of our position. And I wasn’t acting as a facilitator, I was a participant. But I continued doing these dialogues.
How did these dialogues impact you?
At this time, dialogue wasn’t fashionable. At first I saw it as a way to do some freelance work on the side. But then I realized, over the years, that I enjoyed participating in the dialogue process. If you really believe in dialogue as a vehicle of social change, you can never go back to the way you were before & indoctrinated by your “own side’s ideology.” I developed more self-critique
the kind of critique that tortures you in a conflict situation. You want to believe that you are on the right side, and that justice is on your side only. But through this work of peacebuilding, you come to see that you need and depend on the “other” to get anywhere in resolving the conflict.
Working for dialogue felt like I was still continuing to recruit people for a cause --- but the cause was not one-sided any longer. But I did wonder how to make the dialogue process more politicized & to leverage it as a tool for political action and impact.
I did this dialogue work for ten years and then I became burnt out during the first intifada. So I left to America to do a Ph.D. I began to think more critically about what it was about this dialogue work that had burnt me out. I saw that the organizations I worked for in Israel and Palestine were not as supportive or systematic as they should be. You work for these organizations and you realize that their structures and ideology are self-defeating. Sometimes organizations were scared to have Palestinians working for them, or minorities working together. Or the organizations will impose parameters on the dialogue & saying they can only be conducted on the assumption of a Jewish-state, or the PLO cannot be discussed, or you cannot speak about politics at all. But these were all issues in the late 1980s and early 90s, and they were significant, particularly for the minority facilitators and participants. There were just so many examples of majority discourse dominating the dialogue itself, even shaping the dialogue process and outcomes. It concerned me. If the dialogue groups or peacemaking groups are replicating the conflict outside into the organization’s structure, then what’s the point? This is what I did my PhD on. I began arguing for a different structure and methodology for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
When did religion factor into your thinking and work?
I grew up in a religious family. Spirituality is simply part of the culture & you are Muslim, even if you don’t practice. However, in Israel/Palestine during the 1970s and 80s, religion was not a way to describe or frame the conflict. It was mainly interpreted via the political and economic issues. It was not really until the 1980s, with Hamas and the Iranian Revolution, that religion began to come into the conversation. So I became more conscious of religion as a factor in that conflict during this time.
Then, in 1993, when I finished my dissertation, I was asked to do some writing on Islam and peace. I found very little research on the topic. There were maybe 7-10 pieces in the Library of Congress. I thought & if we Muslims see our religion as one of peace and harmony, then why is there so little written on this, and so much more written on Islam and violence? So this inspired me to focus on Islam and peacemaking, the role of religion in dialogue, and the role of religion in peacemaking. My main argument has been against an imposition of Western style into local cultures. My drive was not spiritual, but anthropological/sociological and ethical & you can’t take a model devised in Boston or Washington, DC and dump it into the Middle East. You have to draw from, and make it relevant and effective for, local communities.
So it felt natural to go and say what does your religion, your culture, say about peacemaking?
I compared Arab style conflict resolution and the use of dispute resolution for racial issues in Ohio. And then I did research in nonviolence in Islam & I studied that for five years. In 1996, Cynthia Sampson and I developed a course on religion and peace for Eastern Mennonite University. Since then I have been working and teaching this course and others. And other people began teaching the same thing, and taking religion and peacebuilding more seriously. In the last fifteen years, religious peacemaking has emerged as another tool in the toolbox of peacemaking.
But my interest in religion and peace also corresponded with my arrival in America. My first job was in a Quaker school, where diversity and pluralism were accepted and encouraged by the community, and to some extent by the institution. I was going to Quaker Meetings, and spirituality was always present there.
Furthermore, when I came to the US, I experienced something new. Here, I’m seen first as a Muslim. My Palestinian identity was not an obvious aspect of my identity, or how people responded to me. American society and politicians were becoming more familiar and obsessed with Islam during this time. I was surprised how much the circle I worked with highlighted my religious identity. So I became more conscious of my religious identity.
In addition, as a first generation Muslim immigrant in the US, that aspect of my identity became more threatened because of the fear of Islam, and the Bush Administration campaign of war on terrorism and so on. It was natural that the aspect of my identity that was more threatened is the one that rose to the fore of my conscience.
And then, of course, 9/11. For us in Western contexts, it changed things. It gave a push for people to consider, what does religion have to do with it?
Religion has to be considered as part of the dynamic shaping conflict and peace. So I have looked at religion as spirituality and religion as part of cultural differences too. And the two sides converge into the question of how our models of peacemaking can be rooted in the local culture. So we have to ask ourselves, as Muslims and Arabs, what we teach our children about forgiveness and peace. And Americans and other foreigners who come into the Muslim communities need to understand the cultural religious context. Too many of these individuals and institutions lack the basic understanding of such context, yet they are in charge of policy and programs.
Tell me about how you have applied some of your practical peacemaking work overseas.
I’ve done work in Sri Lanka, Mindanao, Egypt, and the US. I also went back every year to Israel/Palestine. In Sri Lanka, I worked for about three years as a technical adviser for the Muslim Peace organizations that tried to help the 7 percent Muslim minority access the negotiating table when the government was negotiating with the LTTE. In the Philippines, I helped train local leaders on religion and peace. I’ve trained people throughout the southern island of Mindanao on interfaith dialogue, and helped programmers and activists determine how to monitor and evaluate their dialogue and religious peacemaking work.
In Egypt, I helped to build capacity of dialogue initiatives in the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue initiated by CEOSS.
How do you evaluate dialogue and its impact?
A few years ago I interviewed 70 percent of those who work directly in the arena of interfaith dialogue in Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt. I found that inter-cultural/ethnic/religious dialogue in these different locations is suffering from similar issues of being dominated by the majoritarian community. It is being used to rectify the majoritarian perspective. Oftentimes, they want to focus on commonalities and they don’t want to look at differences. Sometimes this is because of fear, sometimes because this is what the donor wants. In addition, I found that many of those who work on dialogue are not professional or strategic. They are not clear on how and why they do things in a certain way. Many of them believe dialogue is good & some believe it is a religious mandate & and this is the only way to engage the other. But there is very little professional support for these inter-religious peace workers. Many lack the knowledge of social change technology & what else is out there, strategic thinking about the process. In order to fix these deficiencies, it’s a matter of shifting both the attitudes and requirements of donors and the nature of those who work on dialogue.
It was surprising to observe the level of alienation that is partially imposed on these groups by the larger mainstream community, and more importantly from other social change agents in the communities. Inter-religious peace efforts are easily dismissed and excluded by others actors. In addition, the inter-religious peace community set themselves apart by their lack of networking and coordination with the larger peace groups. There is that general notion among many in the communities of these conflicts (in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, or Egypt), of the conflict not being about religion, thus the work of these groups is often marginalized as inefficient and ineffective or irrelevant.
We determined that one of core needs of these groups, in order for them to have more of an impact, is greater professionalization (i.e. greater strategic design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation), and for them to work with other organizations in order to effect greater political change.
What about women’s role in this work, and particularly women working on religious dialogue and peacemaking?
In the peacebuilding field, there are so many women involved& all over the world. They are well represented in the places I’ve worked, especially on a grassroots level. But when we add the dimension of religion & religious peacebuilding -- the number of women drops significantly. It becomes disturbing and frustrating in a way to see women coming to religious peacebuilding (especially interfaith dialogue) meetings and just listening to men talk about their religious traditions. The clergy come in, and by default they are all men, and they are acting as gatekeepers -- explaining to the outside and inside world what their religion is about. We invite both men and women for dialogue, but men are the ones dialoguing, and women become the audience. Every time we define inter-religious dialogue as an enterprise for clergy, the number of women drops significantly. If we define it as dialogue of experience/life (by focusing on how individuals live their faith and how they deal with their daily problems and conflicts), then the number of women involved increases significantly.
Some who are supportive of inter-religious women’s peace work have argued that women bring a new or unique hermeneutic to interfaith dialogue because they are biologically different. I am not sure of this argument’s validity in terms of programming, and it often compartmentalizes the concerns of women in the context of religion and conflict to certain areas. However, it does make more sense to me that an assertive woman who has been sensitized to (or become aware of) her power relationship in society can give an analysis of her experience as oppressed or underprivileged because of her gender. This experience and analysis can bring a new perspective to religion and faith and inter-religious encounter. This is the same dynamic that takes place with race relations or other minorities interpreting their experience of marginalization through the lens of religion. Women bring in their perspective of being doubly marginalized & first within the conflict in which the dominant majority has marginalized them in the society, and secondly by their religious tradition which has given them less access to theology and the power that comes with that. In conflict areas such as Palestine, Sri Lanka, or Mindanao, I have encountered some women who are aware of those multiple levels of exclusions and can articulate it & women on-the-ground peacemakers. Oftentimes they are more concerned about being an oppressed Muslim, Christian, or Hindu than being oppressed as a woman.
There are a couple of groups in Israel where women Palestinians and Jews meet together. But when I looked at them from the inside, I found that when they engage in the actual dialogue, they were trapped in the same external conflict dynamics -- similar to what I’d seen in male-dominated groups. Women from the Jewish majority were replicating some of the same domination dynamics. Thus this whole idea or assumption that due to their gendered experiences, women might be less likely to replicate these domination dynamics in peacework, is not immediately evident to me.
Nevertheless, there are remarkable women I have worked with & I think of a Sri Lankan Buddhist lay women who lived in a Tamil village for four months. She learned Tamil and more about Hinduism. Her religious identity as a Buddhist was not central, but maybe that was central to those who interacted with her. She did marvelous work and had great presence in the community, and she spoke about victimhood and resistance with such authority that men were silenced, and ashamed to some extent.
Another example is an Egyptian Christian woman who, motivated by her faith and Christian identity, has managed to build an impressive national and international inter-religious and intercultural dialogue group. Her capacity to interact with both Muslim and Christian clergy is certainly an essential factor in the success of this inter-religious project.
I think also of a Palestinian Muslim woman in Israel who has worked for over two decades in interfaith dialogue and has managed to reach out to thousands of Jews and Christians. Her solid commitment to peace between the religions has brought her to many places around the world and allowed her to sustain the internal pressure from her community members to cease this type of work (because they say it is not effective).
What questions would you like to see our July conference on women, religion, conflict, and peace address?
I have no doubt that it’s essential we support women religious peacemakers who will be able to access a large sector of the society: namely other women and men who are not being tapped by the male-dominated organizations. Nevertheless, we have the larger field of peacebuilding, and then within that we create these subcategories & one of which is religious peacebuilding. With each subcategory we create a smaller target group. When we analyze and work in this way, creating subcategories of analysis and targeting them for support, it contributes to the segmentation of the peacebuilding field. We create more enclaves, and then we call for coordination, knowing that in reality coordination requires more resources and time than we give it. I suppose the question I’m asking is: To what extent does focusing on these narrower subcategories (not only women religious peacebuilding, but other subcategories such as youth religious peacebuilding, or media, religion, and peacebuilding) become a stumbling block to social and political change versus a contributing force for change? So the challenging question for me is how do we recognize the need for women to be more engaged in religious peacemaking without fragmenting the subfield of religious peacemaking and the larger field of peacebuilding? How can we encourage organizing peacemaking sub-sectors in a way that the field is not becoming further fragmented and so unable to coordinate and mobilize a larger movement for change? We have not explored such arrangements in a systematic way.
One of the main obstacles is the lack of resources and donors’ agendas and roles. For example, I know a women’s group that split from a mixed religious peacemaking organization and they became exclusively a women’s religious peacemaking group, and now they are competing for the same source of funds with other organizations, without necessarily coordinating with donors or other organizations.
I want to return to something you said earlier -- that outside peacemakers need to come in and operate within, and respect, the local culture. But some feminists & particularly secular feminists -- will say that the culture is the problem that needs to be transformed
In many cases such statements can lead to “cultural arrogance” & women who come into foreign communities from other contexts and assume there aren’t local women already working on these issues. Or they believe there is something inherently wrong with the local culture, but they do not have much understanding of the complexity of the local context and dynamics. The reality is that in many parts of the world, local women have already been involved in this process of change for a very long time. Unfortunately, some outsiders and insiders (women and men) who intervene to promote certain processes of change in local communities, especially in Muslim societies, still operate from a colonial mentality when they declare “the local culture is inherently oppressive.” This doesn’t mean that outsiders should not intervene. But they should enter in a way that allows them to understand and deal with culture and religion from within. The key word is from within.
We are the most powerful country in the world, the United States. We have sophisticated intelligence, a globally powerful economy, and yet we could not “export democracy” to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. I think this is largely because we think we are right and they are wrong, that there is nothing in these current local cultures or systems worth preserving. For example, it took the U.S. a few years in Afghanistan to learn that the jurgha system could be a tool for local dispute resolution.
There are certain internal cultural obstacles for women’s religious peacebuilding, Nevertheless, local actors and perspective are the most effective ways of addressing these obstacles. Relying on externally imported models from European or American cultural context is certainly a recipe for failure in promoting women’s inter-religious peacebuilding, or any other peacebuilding activity for that matter.
Sometimes it’s women within the local context who make this argument as well
Yes, yet even when indigenous secular women declare and blindly dismiss their entire cultural context, it’s also arrogance. What they fail to see is that their own ideology is also an external ideology. To assume that your ideology is superior is problematic regardless of whether you are an insider or an outsider. Such liberal secular dismissal of local cultural practices is especially problematic because it’s part of the colonial and post-colonial processes and systems. It is part of an internalized oppression, this inability to appreciate local cultural and religious traditions. This dismissive attitude toward local culture was a tool used by colonial powers to subdue the local cultural indigenous people. It’s culturally arrogant and even immoral to tell religious people that they need to divorce their religion from everything in their surrounding and that this will “cure them” from their conflicts and lack of development.
I think that as humans we are still struggling to find ways to best address our conflicts, and that religious peacebuilding is one of the paths that we need to explore, in the same way we would other paths (technology, media, business, education). Especially because religious identity is meaningful to people affected by conflict.
Some people are unable to see the disasters that calls for “absolute secularism” have brought on both western urban and local indigenous societies in Latin American, Africa, and Middle East. Thus they still harbor an illusion that if we entirely divorce religion from the public sphere, we can achieve “heaven on earth.” It’s an illusion because people are diverse by nature. Secondly, it’s like saying you have at least two identities and you can mechanically separate them, by putting one in the closet and keeping one out while in public. Maybe it’s possible and I’m the one who is disillusioned, who knows? But in my life, I’ve reached a point that says whether the conflict is secular or religious, there is no way you can genuinely transform a conflict using one method only. It needs to be some framework that combines in a holistic approach that engages all aspects of human identities. And this approach can really only be decided by the people you are working with.