A Discussion with Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Senior Advisor, KAICIID, and Professor, American University School of International Service, Washington, D.C.
March 7, 2018
Background: In March 2018, undergraduate student Casey Hammond interviewed Mohammed Abu-Nimer as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Abu-Nimer is a senior advisor to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) and a professor at the School of International Service at American University. In this interview, Abu-Nimer reflects on his work with KAICIID in the field of interreligious dialogue and social justice. He explains in detail what KAICIID hopes to accomplish by working with and providing funding for Unity Productions Foundation’s Peace Requires Encounter campaign.
How did you enter this field? Why is interreligious dialogue important to you and KAICIID?
I became interested in this work because I have a Ph.D. in conflict resolution and peacebuilding from George Mason University. I also have worked extensively for the last 30 years in conflict zone areas on reconciliation, dialogue, peacebuilding, and nonviolent resistance. As a practitioner, I have done a great deal of capacity building for peacebuilders, community leaders, political leaders, and religious leaders. In the last 15 years or so, I began working with religious leaders, realizing that in any given conflict that has a religious dimension. We must engage with the religious leaders. They hold an important key in the conversation; a key that can unlock certain aspects of the protracted conflict, one that can allow policymakers to be more effective in their work if they engage in policy with religious leaders, and also allow the religious leader to be a peacemaker and assume a more constructive role in their communities. Through engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian, Philippine-Mindanao, Chad-Niger, and the Egypt-Jordan-Lebanon-Iraq conflicts, I have learned a great deal about the strategies as well as the possibilities that exist when religious leaders take an active role in peacebuilding.
How did KAICIID and Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) come to work together?
The partnership between KAICIID and UPF is really specific around the issue of dialogue. It was triggered by the special film documentary done by UPF on Francis of Assisi and the sultan of Egypt. That documentary relates the story of one religious leader, Saint Assisi, speaking to the sultan, at that time who was more of a political power but also has religious influence. We thought this could be a good platform and venue to bring this story to the Muslim and Christian communities in the United States. It would be a good space if we could convene people to see the film and then use the space in which they are convening to encourage conversations on a community level between Muslims and Christians, especially Protestant-evangelical Christians who have not necessarily spoken with or interacted in a meaningful way with Muslims, both on the leadership and grassroots levels. Hence, we started the project with UPF, Kingdom Mission, KAICIID, and the Islamic Society of North America. KAICIID is really playing a role of convening and connecting Muslim and Christian organizations with UPF, which is more a media outlet. KAICIID sees itself as the convener of these three entities, and we also provide the support for the plan. The plan is to have 50 screenings of this film around the United States, and hopefully to finish with a large gathering and conference to disseminate the learning.
UPF is concerned with changing the discourse on Muslims and Arab peoples through the power of film. I am curious if KAICIID has ever partnered with organizations or pursued projects with the focus on the power of film?
No, not directly. KAICIID is a new organization, and this is one of our first projects, so we are very excited and eager. We are looking forward to seeing it being implemented.
When KAICIID is looking to partner with organizations, are there be any specific criteria that organizations must meet? How does KAICIID find these partnerships?
No, there are various criteria for KAICIID work. KAICIID works with multifaith groups, regional or international. The second thing these organizations must do is insist on being invited by the government or formal organization. They also work in scenes of dialogue in regards to the issue at hand.
How does KAICIID view interfaith dialogue's role in building peace in our communities?
Interfaith dialogue is a space that is constructed in a community area. That space in which it is constructed allows people with different perspectives and different views to come together and identify their commonalities and differences. Then, they agree on a common agenda or a common interest that they would like to pursue. This is in the case of the conflict situation. If there is no conflict, interfaith dialogue can also be utilized to deepen the understanding of each other so people are more confident in understanding their own faith, other faiths, and how they are related to each other. That itself is a form of conflict prevention. It can prevent conflicts from escalating and prevent conflicts from causing violence. It can prevent the religious identity from being manipulated to justify violence.
How does KAICIID measure its success? Does KAICIID use some form of evaluations? For instance, when KAICIID looks at UPF’s Peace Requires Encounter campaign, how might KAICIID determine short-term versus long-term change?
We have an evaluation unit, and that evaluation, depending on the event, uses surveys, interviews, and other methods to collect data and document the influence or impact of our work. In general, we see change by the level of interest among people who return to other events. We see the change through people who create initiatives in their own communities. We see indicators of success and change when people from different faith groups jointly launch initiatives to promote diversity, peace, and dialogue among them. For example, we train a group of fellows—Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists—and after the training they themselves go out and launch a joint activity in a country without KAICIID’s support, which is a great indicator that participants have agreed to do. We have our annual reports and quarterly reflections practice that we look at and examine too. Finally, there is the issue of sustainability. Really, the criteria for success is if the initiative that KAICIID created will actually continue without its financial support.
Through KAICIID’s work and your own work, what advice would have for those who pursue work in interreligious dialogue. What do you find to be the biggest hurdles to success?
The lesson we learn in this field is that no matter what you do, you must always be flexible and adjust your plans to the local contexts and target audience you have. Also, the progress and the positive impact you want to have is hard to measure, but this shouldn’t be a reason to give up. You should learn and train yourself in how to identify the small, but hopeful, forms of success. I see people who manage to find them are those who are able to do this work very clearly.