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George Mason Center Espouses Power of Individuals to Build Peace

Bring up the possibility of Middle East peace and a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and there’s bound to be debate, often a sense of frustration, and in most cases a considerable lack of hope that differences will be settled anytime soon.

Marc Gopin and Aziz Abu Sarah, however, have a unique and entirely opposite perspective on the region and the prospect of peace.

The men — who together run the highly regarded Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at George Mason University — see nothing but optimism and progress in bringing Palestinians and Israelis together. It’s a stance they epitomize in their academic and personal lives, as they teach students about the merits of conflict resolution and train them to be citizen diplomats.

“We focus on engaging with honest people on both sides and then using these relationships to do something positive,” said Sarah, who is director of the center’s Middle East projects.

Gopin, CRDC’s director, established the center seven years ago with the goal of educating a wide range of students on the concept of peace-building, specifically in conflicts where religion and culture can play a significant role in both fomenting violence and promoting stability. Conflict resolution, by its very nature, cuts across fields of anthropology, economics, history and human rights. Consequently, George Mason’s center has classes encompassing all of these areas and students with backgrounds in each of these disciplines.

“We have social workers focused on education, those in the intelligence community, the military, diplomats from several embassies,” Gopin explained. “The program makes them more effective at what they’re doing, whether it’s stopping wars or diplomacy.”

And since its creation, CRDC has grown leaps and bounds, mirroring a nationwide trend of increased interest in conflict resolution. George Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, under which the center falls, was actually the first in the nation to offer a graduate degree in conflict resolution at a time when most higher education institutions were, at best, offering conflict management specialties within other degree programs.

For CRDC specifically, hundreds apply every year but only 15 students get into the program annually, making it the most coveted and famous around, in Gopin’s eyes.

“It’s almost impossible to get into,” he noted. “The quality of students is going up. More and more are studying conflict resolution, in some capacity, at the undergraduate level so they’re coming to us with a strong background already.”

Earlier this year, Gopin brought a group of students from George Mason and other local universities to Syria for the first-ever joint initiative between an American graduate program and Syrian post-graduate training center in this discipline. The week of intensive lectures, projects and meetings with high-level Syrian officials allowed the students to take on the roles of citizen diplomats.

According to Gopin, the joint program stemmed from a “chance meeting” at the World Economic Forum between him and the Syrian peer who eventually worked with him on the initiative.

“We developed a friendship as a result and realized we had an opportunity to work together for the betterment of the Middle East,” he said, “to make Syria more a part of the solution than part of the problem.”

A highlight of the trip was an emotional reunion between Gopin, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, the highest official of religious law in the country. The two men have developed a close bond over the last five years in their efforts to promote dialogue and understanding between religions, and specifically between the United States and Syria.

To that end, the visit also included meetings with advisors to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and afterward Gopin briefed U.S. State Department officials in Syria on the details of the students’ diplomatic outreach.

“As citizen diplomats we had a unique opportunity to interact with Syrian students, professionals, government officials, religious leaders and regular citizens, and construct a different reality from what we had heard or read in the United States,” said Seth Cohen, a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

And given how interconnected Middle Eastern countries are, Gopin said he hopes there will be a positive ripple effect from the trip for the whole region.

Sarah also uses the joint program as an example of the unexpected ability of a handful of individuals to make a larger impact, saying, “It shows the power of two people to make such a change.”

Relationship building at a personal level is one of the main themes in Gopin’s newest book, “To Make the Earth Whole: The Art of Citizen Diplomacy in an Age of Religious Militancy,” in which he outlines strategies for creating communities across different groups globally. It’s the CRDC director’s belief that people outside the government arena can address religious and cultural clashes through the bonds of friendship by building new social and spiritual networks.

Similarly, Gopin and Sarah’s newest venture is a for-profit company geared around educational tourism. The company, named Mejdi — roughly translated to “honor” in Arabic — will help to connect groups with local peace workers around the world. According to Sarah, participants will be able to learn about the climates and histories of a particular land from a local who can give them a balanced tour experience so they can “become part of the solution.”

Mejdi seeks to expose travelers to life beyond the tourist sites and monuments of places like Israel, in addition to pumping some much needed money toward often-undervalued — and under-compensated — peace workers.

In the past, Sarah has done similar cross-cultural bridge building at various religious communities and college campuses around the country. He recalled a particular time when he traveled to the University of Miami at the request of a budding student group formed to better ties between Israelis and Palestinians.

Once he arrived, he encouraged the 50 students, rather than simply debating and talking about their differences, to take action — by opening a fair trade shop to sell their wares and work collaboratively.

“By doing something together it creates a relationship. It was highly successful,” he said. “The point is that if we keep talking we’ll argue. But if we can do something productive, there’s a transformation.”

For more information on the George Mason Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, visit http://crdcgmu.wordpress.com. For more information on Mejdi, visit http://mejdi.net.

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 1, 2014