AU’s Peace Institute, 2001: Practice, Scholarship and Development

Mohammed Abu-Nimer
Mohammed Abu-Nimer, founder of an institute closed after 15 years (Photo by Kara Lofton)

After earning a PhD in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in 1993, Palestinian-Muslim Mohammed Abu-Nimer applied for 176 academic jobs in the United States.

His desire to work in this country made sense at the time. His wife Ilham, also born in a Palestinian town in Israel, was working on a PhD in early childhood education, and they had a young son (later joined by a daughter) they wanted to raise in the United States.

Abu-Nimer was rejected 176 times.

“Nobody wanted to take a fresh graduate in conflict resolution from the Middle East,” Abu-Nimer recalled in a November 2014 interview with Peacebuilder, adding that conflict resolution was just beginning to be recognized as a field of study.

The 177th application he filed – with Guilford, a small Quaker-rooted college in North Carolina – finally yielded a job offer. Vernie Davis, then an anthropology professor who also taught on peace and conflict topics, hired Abu-Nimer in 1993-94 to teach about religion as a source of both conflict and peace.

The next year, a writer-editor working for EMU’s new Conflict Transformation Program, Cynthia Sampson, suggested Abu-Nimer teach on the same subject at its Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI). And so he did, from the summer of 1995 to 2005. In 1997, he shifted from teaching at Guilford to American University in Washington D.C.[1]

Abu-Nimer’s SPI experiences gave him the yeast he needed to open his training institute in 1999, the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University (AU), as well as to help guide the founding of two others: the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute in the Philippines in 2000 and the Peacebuilding and Development Institute in Sri Lanka in 2008.

Today, Abu-Nimer is a tenured AU professor, with a lengthy CV that lists many journal articles, plus 11 books he has written, co-authored or edited, including Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, and Change: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Israel (1999); Peacebuilding and Nonviolence in Islamic Context: Bridging Ideals and Reality (2003); Modern Islamic Thought: Dynamic, Not Static (2006); Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East (2007); and Building By, Between and Beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (2009). He is also the founder and co-editor of the Journal of Peace Building and Development, published quarterly by the Kroc Institute at the University of San Diego.

Such prodigious scholarly output is not unusual among AU’s professors. But Abu-Nimer brought something different to his AU work: ongoing practical, hands-on work.

Since the mid-1990s, Abu-Nimer has responded to calls from dozens of conflict zones, such as Palestine, Israel, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Egypt, often facilitating both formal negotiations as well as trainings with community leaders and civil society groups.

Abu-Nimer insisted on combining practice and scholarship in his Peacebuilding and Development Institute at AU, similar to SPI’s philosophy. He always aimed to attract an even mixture of university students and practitioners from the field. Over the years, he was largely successful, averaging a total of 60 to 70 enrollees in a series of classes, typically two or three offered weekly, running for three weeks total. His institute operated in the black financially, though it didn’t rake in big money for the university.

Abu-Nimer’s development focus distinguished his institute from SPI. “I was interested in how you integrate peacebuilding with doing development – with microfinance, health, education, agriculture. CARE, UNICEF, DANIDA, USAID and CIDA are all development institutions – how do you integrate peacebuilding into the framework of what they’re doing? That’s a question that interests me.”

Today the peacebuilding institutes in which Abu-Nimer played foundational major roles are all functioning well, except (ironically) for AU’s, into which he poured himself for 15 years.

Revised policies at AU led to the closure of his summer institute and four other centers under AU’s School for International Service in the last several years.

“Throughout the years, it has been a struggle to get the practice of peacebuilding valued as highly as so-called research and scholarship,” Abu-Nimer said. “AU, like most heavily academic and research-driven universities, does not automatically recognize the value of scholar-practitioners.”

In recent years, Abu-Nimer said he has watched AU’s School for International Service, along with many other international studies programs in the D.C. area, struggle with pressure to focus on research and scholarly publication, with coursework centered on matters that are upper-most in the minds of Washington D.C. policymakers and funders: national security, mitigation of terrorism, global governance, development management and diplomatic relations.

International peace and conflict resolution at AU, Abu-Nimer noted, has always functioned as an interdisciplinary program, tapping faculty from other departments and disciplines, such as sociology, international relations and psychology. Its courses have been ”electives” – that is, not regarded as essential for earning a specific degree.

By contrast, noted Abu-Nimer, peace-rooted, globally experienced Mennonites at EMU founded CJP precisely to address violent conflict around the world by linking theory with real-world practice. And, at EMU, the SPI courses can be an integral part of earning a master’s degree or (more recently) an undergraduate degree. This acts as a feeder for SPI and ensures its sustainability too, said Abu-Nimer.

In short, the shifting tides of this era played into the closing of AU’s Peacebuilding and Development Institute after a successful summer session in 2013, where two courses were taught by CJP-linked people. Current CJP faculty members Elaine Zook Barge, MA ’03, and Vernon Jantzi, PhD, taught “Trauma-Sensitive Peacebuilding,” while SPI instructor Babu Ayindo, MA ’98, taught “Media and Peacebuilding.”[2]

“The most rewarding aspect of those three weeks,” said Abu-Nimer, reflecting on the institute’s 15 years of operation, “was being able to bring practitioners from places like Kenya, Nigeria, Iran and Afghanistan and put them in D.C. in the context of policymakers….The interaction for me was explosive, seeing the dreams for change come into contact with the voices of reality.”

The impact of peacebuilding is hard to prove, he said. It takes innumerable moments, countless small steps, to gradually build a stable society largely able to settle conflicts without violence. “Cause and effect will never be clearly established in this field,” he said. “It’s frustrating, because there is now such a demand for quantifiable measurements of success, and this field does not lend itself to that.”

Abu-Nimer regards it as a strength that SPI has theological reasons for working at peace, because such reasons are less susceptible to shifting in response to prevailing political tides. He believes broad support for SPI from a peace-oriented community helps account for SPI’s longevity and ensures its continued viability.

“Few peacebuilding institutes have an institutional host as supportive as EMU is,” he said. “SPI is more than good instructors, shared meals, opening and closing rituals, evening socials, and caring people. There’s a whole community, even beyond EMU, that supports SPI. This is a huge advantage few have.”

In the fall of 2014, Abu-Nimer was awarded a fellowship to spend a semester in Vienna, Austria, as a “senior advisor” at the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). This center was founded in 2011 by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, with the official support of the governments of Austria and Spain and the Vatican as an observer.

“Representatives of all the major religions of the world are on the board [of KAICIID],” said Abu-Nimer. “Its basic rationale is sound – to collaborate to prevent the manipulation of religion for violence.”

Morever, he added, “many governments ignore the positive role religious leaders can play in alleviating poverty and promoting health and education.”

The invitation to advise KAICIID was timely, arriving when he needed it most. “I was exhausted. It was painful to see the institute [at AU] being closed down after 15 years of work.”



  1. Mohammed Abu-Nimer has also taught at a summer peacebuilding program at the School for International Training in Vermont (whose founder, Paula Greene, visited SPI before starting that program) and at the Caux Scholars Program, a summer program in Switzerland that attracts international participants to explore peace and conflict issues. (The academic director of Caux from 1997 through 2010 was Barry Hart, a CJP professor who was in the GMU doctoral program with Abu-Nimer; Hart’s successor at Caux is Carl Stauffer, a restorative justice expert on CJP’s faculty.)
  2. Past and present CJP faculty who taught there in earlier years: Nancy Good (Sider), Ron Kraybill, Lisa Schirch, Howard Zehr and Catherine Barnes.