In the years I spent earning my master’s degree in conflict transformation in the early 2000s, the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) class I took with Mohammed Abu-Nimer remains a touchstone for me.
The course title was something like “Understanding the Cross-Cultural Aspects of Conflict Transformation.” I don’t remember the names of my required readings, nor do I recall the papers I wrote to earn my three credit hours.
Instead, what I distinctly recall are the conflicts that occurred among the students in the room and how Mohammed – SPI professors are always addressed by their first names – handled them. I can picture my classmates in my mind, seated around a circle of tables in what was normally a light-filled studio for artists. There were 20 of us (evenly males and females) from 12 countries. We looked to be early 20s to late 50s.
Seven of us were some stripe of Christianity, five were Muslim, and one was Buddhist – judging by references made to faith-based values and experiences in class discussions. The remaining seven made no mention of their beliefs. As the week wore on, it became clear that some came from settings of severe persecution promulgated in the name of certain religions.
Our appearances were highly mixed, from an Indian woman in a silk sari to an American man in a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts. There was a Middle Eastern woman fully covered in a hijab and jibab – i.e., covered head to toe except for her face – who was sharing a dormitory room with a woman in our class from the same nation. The latter tended to appear in tight clothes that revealed most of her legs and much of her chest. Their distance from each other as roommates was visceral.
One man had issues pertaining to his impending divorce; a woman had issues pertaining to her engagement to be married. A prison official spoke of a grandchild serving time in prison. A middle-aged woman from Asia was sorely missing her young adult children back home and wishing they were with her, while a twenty-something woman from another part of Asia was dreading her return home, where she would be expected to abide by her parents’ wishes in every way.
The question of terrorism arose frequently. Why were radical Muslims targeting innocent Americans in New York City? Why was the U.S. military bombing Muslim civilians overseas?
By Day 4 of the seven allocated for our class, our group felt electric with tension to me. One of the Middle Eastern roommates was openly hostile. Wearing a perpetual half smile, Mohammed was usually on his feet, moving within our circle of tables like a dancing bear considering whether to attack or retreat in the face of threats. Finally he gave a short talk that seemed to be prompted by the behavior of someone from his background (Palestinian-Muslim), but that applied to many of us at that point in the week. This is the gist of what he said:
I’m in this profession, teaching this course, because I believe that it is possible for people holding different beliefs, living in different ways, to learn to live without harming each other, perhaps even cooperating with each other. But this requires that we listen to each other and treat each other with respect. This is what I teach. I hope nobody signed up for this class with a mistaken understanding that I will tolerate disrespect and harm inflicted on others. Now, can we all agree that we will proceed with what we are learning together about each other and about conflict, despite our cross-cultural, cross-religion and cross-gender differences?
The atmosphere in the class shifted. New friendships developed over the next few days, even between the two Middle Eastern women, who chose to remain roommates after all. And I knew I had studied under a maestro of conflict transformation.