A conversation among strangers. A story shared around a table. This is often the raw work of peacebuilding. In the eyes of American University professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, the mechanisms of peace largely comprise these moments of human connection. Moments of honesty and vulnerability. Moments of newfound trust. And—perhaps improbably, yet undeniably—moments of joy.
The latter has long been a driver of Abu-Nimer’s career. Among the world’s leading peace experts, Abu-Nimer is inspired by what he calls the “joyful moments” when participants in peace dialogues begin to register commonalities despite their differences.
“[Peace facilitators] can identify those moments with people when you work with them,” shares Abu-Nimer. “You see the lights in their eyes—there is something that changes after two days of meeting the ‘other.’ [Participants] discover that [people from the other community] are human . . . and they are afraid, and they need security, and they themselves are as [equally] fragile.”
Abu-Nimer is a vanguard in the field of interreligious peacebuilding. Joining AU’s School of International Service (SIS) in 1997, he has pioneered faith-based and faith-sensitive frameworks for addressing global conflict. His methodologies have ushered in a paradigm shift within conflict resolution studies. Whereas peacebuilding traditionally focused solely on secular causes and solutions of conflict, Abu-Nimer’s work continues to prove the importance of engaging religious leaders in peace efforts.
In recognition of his instrumental contributions, AU has recently designated Abu-Nimer the inaugural Abdul Aziz Said Chair in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at SIS. The chair—named in honor of Professor Abdul Aziz Said, SIS/BS ’54, SIS/MA ’55, SIS/PhD ’57—holds special meaning for Abu-Nimer, who worked closely with Said for many years.
“It’s very meaningful for me to be the inaugural chair. On a personal level, this is something very meaningful, and professionally as well,” reflects Abu-Nimer. “Said was one of the founders of peace and conflict resolution. Both his work and his reputation extend . . . globally, and he has worked with thousands of students.”
SIS dean Shannon Hader lauds the Said Chair as a uniquely collective testament to Said’s legacy.
“Made possible through the generosity of numerous alumni, friends, and family, including Professor Said’s wife, Elena Turner, SIS/BA ’82, the Said Chair underscores Professor Said’s lasting impact on the AU community and global scholarship,” says Hader.
“Professor Said pursued peacebuilding as a collaborative undertaking,” Hader continues. “As the inaugural chairholder, Professor Abu-Nimer embodies this vision of his former colleague through his teaching, research, and practice of interreligious dialogue and nonviolence.”
A Journey Shared
Abu-Nimer first met Said in 1995. He had recently completed his PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University in Virginia two years prior and admired Said’s work. Already a peace legend at AU, Said helped formalize peace studies as a discipline and had recently founded SIS’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution degree program.
The two scholars quickly realized the potential for collaboration to write a new script for peacebuilding that recognized faith and spirituality as, in Abu-Nimer’s words, “a constructive force, rather than an exclusive or destructive force.”
Growing up a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Abu-Nimer had witnessed the complexities of manipulating religious identity to justify violence and exclusion in a conflict context. He believed that root causes of conflict—such as territorial borders or access to natural resources—produce varying outward dynamics according to religious identity factors. Accounting for and engaging with these dynamics, he concluded, was critical to the peacebuilding process.
Abu-Nimer began his journey for peace during his undergraduate studies in Jerusalem. He was trained as a facilitator by Oasis for Peace (an Arab-Jewish village created in the late 1970s to promote equal and shared living between Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Israel) and co-led Arab-Jewish dialogues with students—a topic in the 1980s, he says, that “no one would touch.”
Furthermore, as a PhD student, Abu-Nimer identified a glaring hole in the scholarship about peacebuilding and Islam.
“In the mid-nineties, somebody actually asked me to write a paper on Islam and nonviolence and peacebuilding,” recalls Abu-Nimer. “I struggled with that paper in 1993-94, and I noticed that the whole Library of Congress only had about five to ten resources on nonviolence and peacebuilding in Islam, but it had thousands of entries on . . . Islam, religion, and violence.”
Abu-Nimer wrote the paper, embarking on a new chapter in scholarly research. When he joined AU’s faculty in 1997, he found a mentor in Said and a home at SIS.
Both colleagues saw need for robust consideration of Islamic frameworks for peace. Together, Abu-Nimer and Said co-authored papers and launched a degree specialization program in Peacebuilding and Islam. As Abu-Nimer extended his study of peacebuilding applications to other divided society contexts, including Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, he and Said continued to exchange insights as friends and collaborators.
“I shared a journey with him for over 20 years since I joined AU,” Abu-Nimer says. “We worked together very closely, sharing many ideas and the values and views on building [programs] and supporting diversity and inclusion both in our own AU community and in conflicts around the world.”
Reflecting about the new Said Chair, Abu-Nimer adds: “I feel both honored and also feel the responsibility to continue the work of the past in the shoes of Professor Said.”
Peacebuilding in Practice
In his new position at AU, Abu-Nimer is eager to further advance the development and adoption of faith-informed peace interventions. Abu-Nimer’s identity as a scholar-practitioner—an identity he feels AU uniquely supports for its faculty—speaks to his extensive involvement with global organizations and on-the-ground initiatives, including the International Dialogue Center (KAICIID) and the self-founded Salam Institute for Peace and Justice.
Since he conducts on-site programs in conflict areas, Abu-Nimer can bring real-world case studies into the classroom, such as a dialogue on peaceful living he conducted in Egypt between Coptic Christians and Muslims.
“[SIS] students,” says Abu-Nimer, “are hungry for the mix between practice and knowledge, practice and research, practice and theory.”
Currently, Abu-Nimer is working on projects related to reconciliation and forgiveness, religion and diplomacy, and justice and nonviolence. His overarching goal is to empower peace workers—namely community members, policymakers, and students—with the tools to leverage faith systems respectfully and pragmatically.
Looking forward, Abu-Nimer hopes to see more appreciation and recognition toward peacebuilding’s qualitative nature from governmental and non-governmental donors. Peace workers are often confronted with what Abu-Nimer calls the “unfair question” when it comes to evaluating efficacy—akin to demanding someone attribute their career success, for better or worse, entirely to the impact of their third-grade math teacher.
“People will say to me, ‘Okay, now, you worked in Iraq for 12 years. And now look what's happening in that area,’” explains Abu-Nimer. “Yes, we did, but we were like the math teacher in the third grade. There were many other teachers who did not do our work. They [communicated] different messages.”
This challenge of capturing the contributions of peacebuilding motivates Abu-Nimer in his vision for the Said Chair. By ensuring both quantitative and qualitative methodologies are applied, peace workers will better recognize and value those critically important “joyful moments.” Abu-Nimer therefore envisions the chair as a platform in which the applications of nonviolence are “supported, nurtured, and encouraged" jointly in practice and knowledge.
In honoring the ongoing legacies of two of AU’s most influential voices in peace studies, the Said Chair represents a focus on peace as a lived experience for all those it touches.
“The story [of peacebuilding] is not complete without you listening to the powerful stories of people—how the peacebuilding work shifted, affected, or transformed their lives,” says Abu-Nimer.