Publication: University News: George Mason University

Published Date: April 18, 2011

By James Grief

Gopin PhotoThe Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution is paying close attention to the revolutions and protests that are affecting many countries in the Middle East.

Led by Mason professor Marc Gopin, an ordained Rabbi with a PhD in religious ethics, the center works on promoting social networks of peace builders in conflict areas around the world.

In countries such as Syria and Saudi Arabia where protests have not turned into a full revolution, Gopin has advice for the leadership and protesters: “The lines of communication can remain open as long as conflicts are nonviolent. Violence shuts down all listening.”

“What we learned from the protests is that governments need to engage with their citizens,” says Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian peace activist who joined the center as director of Middle East projects in 2009. “You don’t need a revolution in order to make change. This is where citizen engagement can help.”

Established in 2003, CRDC conducts research and educates concerning conflicts where religion and culture play a significant role in both conflict and peace building. The center engages its students and researchers in what Gopin calls “citizen diplomacy,” or constructive dialogue, with officials and citizens in conflict regions in order to understand different perspectives on an issue. The goal of this work is to resolve conflicts or build confidence for future discussions. To Gopin and his team at CRDC, there is no more important time for this engagement than right now.

“Citizen engagement and diplomacy is designed to minimize the likelihood of violence in a particular situation. Every message either reinforces enemy systems or begins to break them down,” says Gopin.

Earlier this month, Gopin participated in a panel discussion about the role of social media in the revolutions in the Middle East. The discussion was held at Mason in conjunction with the Communication Department and Al-Jazeera English.

“How do you take good motivations from a conflict resolution perspective and move them to something that is truly effective? At CRDC, we are doing a great deal of thinking about messaging around this topic,” Gopin remarked at the event.

Gopin and Abu Sarah’s partners in peace at the center include office manager Nawal Rajeh, managing director Scott Cooper and Hind Kabawat, director of CRDC-Damascus, Syria. In addition to aiding in research, teaching and training, the group handles the often complicated logistics of conducting CRDC’s overseas seminars.

“CRDC aims to bring more depth and nuance into discussions about complex conflicts. In an increasingly connected world, it is important that everyone has a deeper understanding about people from cultures other than their own. My hope is this understanding will result in less polarizing rhetoric and physical violence,” says Cooper.

Another important component to the center’s work is reaching policy makers and the general public through the media. Gopin, Cooper and Abu Sarah are active in traditional and social media, appearing on television and writing columns, blogs and opinion pieces.

“Media guided by a good relationship with conflict analysts can help cut through rhetoric and rumor to get to the real heart of the issues,” says Gopin.

Cooper and Abu Sarah PhotoAdds Abu Sarah, “Tolerance of other views is very important, and sometimes we only hear one side or the other. I hope we bring a sense of understanding that there are many things to consider when reporting on a conflict.”

Although the center has been successful in communicating its position to international media such as Al-JazeeraRussia TodayJerusalem Post and local media such as News Channel 8 and Fox 5 News in the Washington, D.C., area, Gopin expresses frustration that the American media tends to ignore peace-building efforts.

“There are hundreds of organizations like ours that focus on peace building in the Middle East, but none of that gets covered widely by the media. Unless there is a dramatic scene of some sort, the media is disinterested and focused more on violence.”

Both Abu Sarah and Gopin point to the social networks as a reason that Egypt and Tunisia have had successful and mostly peaceful revolutions.

“In those cases, it was important and significant that the citizens created a wide social network of people that are willing to participate in peaceful engagement and made space for free communication,” says Abu Sarah. “People do matter and can make a difference. It only took less than a month of peaceful protests to drive one of the most notorious dictators [Hosni Mubarak] out of power in Egypt.”

In cooperation with Mason’s Center for Field Studies, CRDC conducts overseas experiential learning seminars for students. After conducting successful trips to Syria, Israel and Palestine over the last two years, the center is planning to offer seminars in Liberia, Cyprus, the Philippines and the Balkans.

The trips to Syria have resulted in meetings with some of the most influential figures in the country, including Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria; Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, grand mufti of Syria; Wael Mua’lla, president of Damascus University; Abdullah Dardari, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs; and Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria.

“We look at CRDC as a voice of civil society and an interfaith bridge to the West. When we started building that bridge, it gave us the credibility to secure high-level meetings,” says Gopin.

“We are very proud of our efforts in Syria in breaking down the barriers and being able to listen and speak directly with citizens and leaders at a time when violence and hostility with Israel and the United States was very high,” he adds.

Gopin says that the center’s activities In Syria have contributed to discussions in the U.S. Department of State promoting diplomatic engagement. In addition to Syria, CRDC also has strong networks in Israel and Palestine, Jordan, Turkey and the Caucasus region of Europe and Asia.

This year, CRDC also helped to organize the Interfaith Peace and Justice Initiative of Greater Washington, a coalition of Christian, Islamic and Jewish clergy in the Washington, D.C., region. The group recently toured Israel and Palestine as part of an effort to connect with groups that seek peaceful solutions to conflicts in the region.

On Sunday, June 5, at 1 p.m., the initiative is hosting a community discussion, “Peace and Understanding Between Jews, Christians and Muslims: Where Does Humanity Lie?” at the Oak Brook Church in Reston, Va.


Photo #1: Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC). Creative Services photo

Photo #2: CRDC Managing Director Scott Cooper, left, and Director of Middle East Projects Aziz Abu Sarah. Photo by James Greif

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