In a Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) working session on “Engaging Youth as Peacebuilders in the Middle East and North Africa,” panelists suggested that peace building is not a matter of engagement alone. It’s a matter of how to engage people meaningfully, and on a mass scale.
People are already engaged, panelist Amjad Atallah, Al Jazeera Media Network’s regional director for the Americas, suggested.
Atallah said that people often ask him, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out?” – to which he responds, “Well, in fact, they are.”
“There are bloggers in Saudi Arabia who have been arrested for things that they wrote online or tweeted,” he said.
Yehuda Sarna, a rabbi and university chaplain at New York University, said that the issue of peace in the Middle East, and around the world, has become more important because of globalization.
“As our world becomes increasingly economically interdependent, from a religious standpoint, our world needs to become more inter-faithful,” he said.
Mickey Bergman, who works in fringe diplomacy, moderated the panel. Bergman previously served as a senior policy analyst for the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation in Washington, D.C.
Bergman summarized the panelists’ conclusions about how to combat the challenges that arise: it’s all about human interaction.
“If we’re able to establish that connection, on a meaningful personal level, at the end of the day it defeats the challenges,” he said.
Correspondingly, each of the panelists – Al Jazeera’s Atallah; NYU’s Sarna; Heni Bizawi, an Israeli who is the project manager of PeacePlayers International; and Linda Mills, a NYU professor who co-founded the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership – shared their individual stories of meaningful interfaith work, the relationships that developed, and the impact those connections have had on their efforts.
“When people come together at the personal level, the transformational change that’s possible is incredible,” Mills said.
Having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish household and attended Yeshiva in Israel, Sarna said he didn’t find the opportunity to befriend people who were not Jewish until he was 24.
In 2005, after an event on the NYU campus that stirred up conflict between Muslim students and students of other faiths, he reached out to NYU’s Muslim university chaplain, Imam Khalid Latif, and their relationship began to form.
That summer, the war between Israel and Lebanon began, and Sarna called Latif on the phone.
“I said, ‘I hope what’s going on in the Middle East doesn’t affect the friendship that’s begun to form,'” Sarna said. “I hung up the phone and realized this was the first time I’ve been able to call someone on the other side.”
Bizawi, who served in the Israel Defense Forces, said that the relationships she has built with Palestinian friends, has helped her in service when she’s working with Palestinians.
“When I’m in the checkpoint, for example, I will be nice, see this guy who has family and has kids and he wants to go to work and get food, get money and go back,” she said. “When I look at the [situation] differently, it makes my life easier and it makes their lives easier.”
Still, the biggest problem is figuring out how to make meaningful interactions happen on a mass scale, the panelists said. Additionally, media outlets don’t portray stories of peace building as often as they tell stories about the conflict.
“The affirmative stories that are so ‘rare’ — they’re so rarely told, but they’re very common,” Mills said.
Bergman said that, in an age of social media, however, the public can play this role instead.
“We can push out positive stories as well,” he said. “We’re the media when it comes to social networks.”
Students with commitments in the area of peace and human rights, as well as others with an interest in the region, attended the panel. They spent the last 10 minutes of the session talking to each other at their tables and trying to come up with ways to scale meaningful solutions for their own campuses.
One student solution that was proposed was to create inter-faith service groups. Bizawi agreed that working together on “neutral activities” that don’t involve the conflict is the best route to take.
“We make people come together by finding a subject that is neutral, something that’s not about [the conflict], like basketball,” said Bizawi, who works for a non-profit that brings together children from communities in conflict to play basketball. “It’s the way you touch a lot of people that never thought they’d be able to talk to the other side or talk about peace.”