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Euphrates: Prepare for Peace

Arts & Culture | November 7, 2011

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.”

This Albert Einstein quote served as the platform for the Euphrates Summit, a gathering of American and Middle Eastern change-makers who shared their wisdom with students and other future leaders during a two-day conference at Principia College in St. Louis. Among these were three Tufts students and one alum.

Years before, following the US invasion of Iraq, former CIA analyst Janessa Vans Wilder stood by the banks of the ancient Euphrates River, marveling that such a peaceful body of water had flowed through a war-torn city just a few miles north. Inspired by the river’s communication of calm in such a violent space, Wilder decided to leave her position as part of the American war machine to found the Euphrates Institute.

“Most people in the US know about the Middle East from media sound bites at best and politicized talk shows at worst,” Wilder said in her opening remarks. The summit was designed to broaden understanding through three sessions, labeled “Inform,” “Inspire,” and “Transform.”

During the “Inform” session, the audience in Principia’s auditorium and those watching via live online streaming were addressed by Henry S. Enscher, the current US ambassador to Algeria, followed by Dr. James Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute and author of the novel Arab Voices. Zogby cited a study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showing that teachers were vastly ill-equipped to answer their students’ questions about Islam, the Arab world, and Afghanistan.

“Like blind people in a darkened room, we bump into each other without knowing who’s there,” Zogby said, referring to the American-Arab relationship.

Tom Quiggin, a Canadian counter-terrorism expert, defined the highly politicized word “terrorism” as “the practice of generating fear through use or threat of physical or psychological violence, in order to achieve political aims.” Quiggin noted that popular discourse often takes terrorism out of context, as with the popularly flaunted claim that Islam promotes the murder of infidels, which excludes necessary pre-conditions. In context, the Qur’an permits this only after a majority-Muslim country fails to negotiate freedom with non-Muslim invaders, Quiggen said.

The audience delved further into the post 9/11 psyche as Gulten Ilhan, a professor of Islamic Studies and a Muslim Turkish émigré, spoke of frightening trends of “othering” Muslims in the United States. Ilhan cited a 2006 USA Today/Gallup finding that 49 percent of respondents thought American Muslims’ primary allegiance was not to the US, and 59 percent thought Muslim Americans should be required to carry a specialized ID card.

Though these facts certainly sobered the crowd, the “Inspire” session that followed was more than adequate to lift their spirits. Leaders engaged in effective peace-building programs paraded through the auditorium, addressing a wide range of problems and populations. Among these were Dr. Yehuda Stolov, the Israeli head of the Interfaith Encounter Association, and Zainab al-Suwaij, president and founder of the American Islamic Congress. Courageous tales were related with the utmost humility, such as that of the quiet Dr. Douglas Johnson, head of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, Johnson presented bold ideas about the anti-extremist message of the Qur’an to Madrassa teachers who belonged to a violent Al Qaeda chapter.

Various speakers emphasized the importance of finding common ground between the Abrahamic faiths, but solutions were not limited to inter-faith dialogue. T.H. Culhane, a Middle East sustainability expert, insisted that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources could dramatically change the face of the Middle East conflict. Culhane’s Solar C.I.T.I.E.S. project works in Egypt’s “Zabaleen” trash-picking community, turning garbage into renewable energy gold. He has even crafted solar panels from empty water bottles.

But perhaps the most inspired message came from a speaker during the following day’s “Transform” session, which moved participants toward action.

Sami Awad is a Palestinian Christian who directs the Holy Land Trust, an organization that nonviolently supports and mobilizes the Palestinian community. Through his journey to Auschwitz,  Awad began to understand what it would mean to feel true empathy for the Israeli soldiers from whom he had long held nothing but hatred and resentment. He watched a group of Israeli teens tour the camps, listening to leaders tell them that, to honor the victims of the Holocaust, they needed to be strong and protect their country. These future soldiers, Awad realized, saw the Palestinians as the new face of anti-Semitism. To end the enmity between them, he would have to help Jews heal.

“One’s political identity is not an absolute truth,” Awad said. “Create your identity from the future, not from the past; from what you want, and not from what you have suffered.”

Though the summit lasted only two days, its impact will stretch into the coming academic year and beyond. Euphrates nominated seven Warriors for Peace—young entrepreneurs working at American, Iraqi, and Palestinian institutions whose initiatives advance the Euphrates vision in fields from technology to business to education. On the undergraduate level, Wilder advises a group of Euphrates fellows at Principia who hold meetings in which they learn about an aspect of US-Middle Eastern relations and run programs to spread their awareness to the campus as a whole.

Adrian Dahlin, who spent a year at Principia between his years at Tufts, thought this campus would be a suitable next destination for the Euphrates fellows program. During breaks between speakers, the Tufts contingent brainstormed with Principia fellows to devise a new space for US-Middle East peace-building on campus. Megan Maher, a Peace and Justice Studies major who had previously focused on conflict resolution in Africa, is looking forward to continuing to build upon her newfound understanding of the Middle East.

“There are plenty of groups on campus interested in the Middle East, but they don’t work together as much as they could. Right now we’re still brainstorming where we want to go with Euphrates at Tufts, but I think a good first step would be to bring together members from all these groups and collaborate. We may even be able to bring a speaker from the summit to Tufts.”

On the final evening of the summit, Euphrates honored Awad’s work with its Visionary of the Year Award, which Wilder had founded specifically for him. At the podium, Awad spoke of the religious principle to “love one’s enemy.” It is not a suggestion, he said, but a direct commandment.

Pouring out of the Principia dining hall that evening, the informed and inspired Euphrates participants smiled brightly and vowed to keep in touch. From their vantage, the US-Middle East conflict had indeed been transformed.