Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. on Conflict

Among other things, the man who was born Michael King, Jr. and died Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said this:

“Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Friday, December 3, 2010


Over the past couple of days a new wave of activists have taken over the world, as we know it. All over the globe, people have come together for a noble cause, the fight against child abuse, and confronting this very real conflict, they decided that something should be done.

One by one, they sat down in front of their computer screens, and changed their profile pictures into snapshots of 90’s cartoons.

Viral campaigns that bring attention to issues such as this one are not something new. A similar example includes the “I like it on the ____” trend that occurred a couple of months ago, in which many women filled in the blank on their facebook statuses in order to confuse others into thinking they were referring to sex, while actually talking about where they like to lay down their purses, which as a statement was meant to unify these ladies together in awareness of October being breast cancer awareness month… Wait. No, yah, that’s right.

If you happen to be one of the many who participated in these awareness campaigns, my point here is not to make you feel dumb, you’re not. Awareness is important, and we all (myself included) love to make ourselves feel good by giving something up, doing just a bit to help out or feel like we’ve made a difference. This is a wonderful human quality, and one that often times leads to some of our finest hours. I am also not implying, at all, that these statuses are the ONLY way in which we aim to make a difference.

The larger point I am making here is that we’ve gotten lazy. Truthfully, aside from being confusing, there is nothing inherently wrong with these campaigns. The problem is, they are not bringing about much good either. I agree that seeing Doug and his green sweater vest gives me nostalgia for when I was a kid. But it does little to actually help a child suffering through abuse today. Most recently a group of celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Seacrest and others have declared themselves “DEAD” in order to raise money for the charity Keep a Child Alive, which provides aid to children affected by HIV/AIDS. “DEAD” meaning they will not appear digitally on twitter until 1 million dollars is donated to the organization. Aside from the fact that we live in a society which equates ceasing to post 140 characters to a website every once in a while to death, which in itself should alarm us to how out of touch we are, the campaign is not working. So far only $183,966 dollars have been raised for the cause, no doubt a very worthy amount of money that will indeed make a difference in many people’s lives. Why not 1 million? Or more? Because the dramatic sacrifices offered up by these celebrities are not real, nor are they motivating. We can do better.

There are today, real issues worth fighting for, real conflicts in the world, which require time, work and commitment. We all know that because we face them daily. Unemployment, disease, poverty, sadness are real tangible problems which touch all of us. But we’ve all found the perfect mask to hide behind. The Internet. Somewhere between asking for someone’s a/s/l on Instant Messenger, to changing our relationship statuses to “It’s complicated” we’ve forgotten the most appealing part of personifying yourself online: it’s not honest. The self we post on facebook is not our real self, but instead the self we want to be, or even worse, the self we think we should be. Again, I think we are all guilty of this. Aaron Sorkin the screen writer of “The Social Network” put it best when he said: "I think that socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.”

Members of previous generations have told me, in more than one instance that we are incredibly lucky (which we are) to live in the time we live, because technology has made organizing, representing and educating ourselves on important issues much simpler (which it is). However, these same advancements have also made it much easier to FEEL like you are doing something when the real impact is minimal.

We should do better. We can start by truly and honestly talking to one another. While online on-the-surface relationships can be fun, in real life they are not valuable. In conflict resolution, there is nothing more valuable than personal connection and communication. Living in a time of conflict, personal and exterior, we need to find ways of truly connecting to each other in order bring about sustainable solutions to our problems. Issues such as breast cancer, AIDS, and child abuse are incredibly important, and deserve the right effort. Social networking can be essential implementing that solution, as was sternly proven by the tweets and posts of Iranian activists during last year’s elections. But we have to remember that it is only a tool for doing so. We are the agents of change, and as such we must begin by taking real action.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

WIKILEAKS: Is document leaking good, or bad for preventing violent conflict?

This past weekend, the website Wikileaks released about 200 of the 251,287 confidential documents and cables from within the U.S. military computer system it plans to release in the near future. Only a few news sources, including the New York Times, have had access to the entire collection of confidential files. These reveal personal conversations, actions and details of American diplomacy within the past 3 years.

The information uncovered exposes (among many other issues): the international concern and discussion over the Iranian nuclear program, the diplomatic haggling over Guantanamo prisoners, and even a request from Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton for the investigation of UN representatives and key figures.

The leak is at the very least embarrassing, and at the most an international game-changer. Personal relationships, flaws, and doubts are exposed, as are real conversations about war, and the potential for more of it. In a country that is exhausted by a media that seems to care more about Kim Kardashian's boyfriend (or lack of one) than about international diplomacy, it can be refreshing to see someone pursuing investigative journalism to its core.

However, it does make me wonder whether this is a positive movement. Conflict resolution and diplomacy involve personal relationships, and trust. Communication is key to resolve or balance an kind of conflict. But forced full disclosure can lead to feelings of betrayal. Is the damaging of relationships a productive action? Is it possible that by releasing these secrets, wikileaks founder Julian Assange and others are doing more harm than good?

Again, this is something I cannot make my mind up about. I am entirely for investigative journalism, and consider figures like Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and Edward R. Murrow some of the most important public servants in our history. However, wikileaks seems to go a bit past journalism, towards voyeurism. I am suspicious of recent "activism" as a self-serving movement, which can actually cause more misunderstanding and further violent conflict and distrust. So I am curious to see what you all think. Are the leaks productive? Could it be done more tactfully or is full exposure the correct way of addressing errors in diplomacy?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

IF WE AMPLIFY EVERYTHING, WE HEAR NOTHING: Comedy and Conflict Resolution in Action.

This past weekend Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear brought an estimated 215,000 people to the National Mall. Much similar to their work on Comedy Central, the Rally contained a balanced mix of comedy and common sense. Aside from the laughs I got from watching the Rally, I was also struck by its message as a tool for conflict resolution. Stewart's speech near the end of the Rally really brought this out:

"I can't control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith. Or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies."

Highlighting the commonalities between different Americans, of different political beliefs, religion, race and morals, Stewart attempted to show that we are not a country that is as divided as the media often seems to point out. "The country's 24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-onator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder." Said Stewart, showcasing the inefficiency that comes in resolving conflict, if people are polarized and unable to see the other's point of view. "The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker."

A few days later, some of the press has reacted. Keith Olbermann for example, has dropped his "Worst Person in the World" segment as a response to Stewart's speech saying: "“Its satire and whimsy have gradually gotten lost in some anger, so in the spirit of the thing, as of right now, I am unilaterally suspending that segment with an eye towards discontinuing it.”

Using comedy as his medium of change, Stewart and Colbert have brought up the very important message of coexistence and collaboration at a time where generalizations and division rule. "Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together and the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together."

What do you think of Stewart's message/rally? Do you agree that in difficult times the media has polarized instead of helped solve problems? Do you think Stewart and Colbert are no different than other pundits, using the current political/economic situation to bring more attention to themselves? How do you feel about Comedy as a way of bringing about that message?

Personally, I find that comedy often leads me to better conclusions and more personal moral or life decisions. It can highlight the ridiculous in life and make it so absurd that you have no option but to disagree and fight against it. It can also bring us together and see that we all laugh aside from our differences and disputes. It can furthermore bring us down to face the sadness of our reality. The undertone present in comedy is often more relevant to our lives than the joke itself, but comedy allows us to get find it ourselves.

Do find that to be true or crap? How do you think comedy plays a role in Conflict? Share your thoughts...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Discussion Question 2: LGBT Rights and Religion

This past week Archbishop, and Nobel Peace Laureate, Desmond Tutu came out with his latest of recent statements supporting LGBT rights both in Africa and throughout the world. "Today I pray for people in Africa and throughout the world who long for freedom because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender." His argument is one that is familiar to members of faith organizations throughout the world that stand behind gay rights as a human right. To let Tutu speak for himself, "Gay people, too, are made in my God's image. I would never worship a homophobic God."

The connection between gay rights and religion is one that is often made as a negative one, particularly in the United States. However, the Archbishop and other key religious figures, such as Reverend Al Sharpton (the only Presidential candidate in the 2004 elections to be for same sex marriage) prove that this correlation is wrong.

The issue LGBT rights is one that is present throughout the world. In the U.S. members of decade-long relationships are still denied the right to hospital visits, pensions, and other legal privileges bestowed only on heterosexual couples, by a government and people that refuse to recognize their union as legitimate. In Uganda, newspapers describe gay members of their society as primal, and the government is back and forth on whether homosexual acts should be a crime punished by life in prison.

Religious leaders such as Tutu and Sharpton are working to push back against this prejudice, by many others like them are doing the exact opposite. How do you feel the religious community can affect this civil rights conflict? Have you seen or experienced religious pressure to feel one way or another? How does your personal faith affect your opinion on this subject? Why do you think there such as strong correlation (negative and positive) between faith and LGBT rights? What is the best approach, in your opinion, to facilitating this conflict: fostering understanding or standing up against ignorance?

If you disagree with the argument that LGBT individuals deserve these privileges, I encourage you to share your thoughts as well. All opinions are welcome, and will be respectfully considered.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Discussion Question 1

This past week the Nobel Foundation announced Liu Xiaobo as the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Xiaobo is currently serving an 11 year sentence for his participation on Charter 08, a manifesto drafted an signed by Chinese intellectuals promoting the democratization of the Chinese government, as well as their adoption universal human rights.

While Xiaobo's struggle to push for the rights of his people, as well as his commitment to doing so in a non-violent fashion is nothing but admirable and praiseworthy, the actions of the Nobel Foundation are inherently political. In choosing Xiaobo as its laureate, the Foundation is absolutely picking a side in this real political discussion, and demonstrating that their idea of peace is intertwined with democracy. Some even say that in doing so, the Foundation is ruining its legitimacy as a voice of reason in the world.

But at the same time, some argue this is precisely the Foundation's point. To encourage people fighting for a just cause, and to take sides on what they think is the worthy fight.

I don't know how to feel about this, and I'm curious to see what you think. Is it inevitable for the Nobel Peace Prize to be political? Is that a good thing? By taking sides, and possibly starting more conflict, as they have in China this past week, is the Foundation really serving peace? Or is this worldly endorsement of Xiaobo bringing the right awareness to his cause, and pushing peace forward? What do you think?

Friday, October 1, 2010


With the recent wave of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic leaders, it is not difficult to get lost in the talking points, such as “settlement moratorium” and “two-state solution,” and forget the humanity behind this enduring conflict. At the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lies the concept of cultural identity. Over the past 60 years, several wars have been fought, and still are, over the ownership of cultural, territorial and religious traditions. Thus far, this process has left a clear winner. During the time after its founding in 1948, Israel has established itself both culturally and politically as a major player in the international scene. This did not come cheaply, today a resilient and suspicious Israeli population prospers, but still under constant threats of terrorist action. Palestinians on the other hand, have little to really call their own after decades of struggle. Divided geographically as well as politically, the Palestinian people face increasingly harsh economic circumstances, and a cultural tradition which is largely defined by its opposition to Israel and their right of return to the Palestinian territory.

Faced with this fragile cultural environment, the Ibdaa Cultural Center was founded 1994 with the desire of providing children in Dheisheh refugee camp with a way to express themselves. This self-proclaimed grassroots organization is today widely recognized for fostering the traditional Palestinian dance debke within Palestinian youth, and presenting this dance to audiences all over the world. By providing the youth with an artistic escape from an environment saturated with conflict, the Ibdaa Cultural Center embodies what this blog aims to investigate, namely: art as a means of conflict resolution. In April of 2010, I was fortunate enough to speak with one of the organization’s co-founders, Ziad Abbas, who enlightened me on the origin and mission of this project, as well as its reception abroad and characteristics of the current Palestinian cultural identity.


The idea for this organization came about when a French group called Discovery, which organized cultural exchanges with students from the North and South of France, decided to establish an international exchange with children from Palestine. From this first exchange came the inspiration and opportunity to develop cultural activities for Palestinian children, which would eventually include cross-cultural exchanges of their own. “We had the desire to just do a project just for children,” says Abbas, “no organization deals with children needs in that period, because of the occupation and the whole situation in the camp.”

Dheisheh refugee camp is one of the most overcrowded of all Palestinian camps within the West Bank, with more than 9,500 persons (1999) in an area measuring half of a square kilometer. Without much room or resources to play, explore and express themselves, children grow up with a strong nostalgia for a homeland they never even knew. Many cite their villages, which were in fact the homes of their grandparents when they were children, as their hometowns instead of Dheisheh. They yearn for their own tradition, their own cultural heritage, and in many ways that is what The Ibdaa Cultural Center attempts to give back to them.

Ibdaa, whose Arabic meaning implies “to create” and according to Abbas implies “to create something out of nothing,” developed quickly from its first group of students. “In the beginning we were 2 leaders and 30 children in the streets, after three years we became 32 leaders,” says Abbas proudly, “now I can say we have hundreds of leaders in the camp.” While at first the group was met with some hesitation from members of their community, primarily because some did not want to have young boys and girls participating in activities together, the cultural center eventually gained popular support. “The people understood that our mission was very valid, and it is related to the people’s daily life of the camp” says Abbas, claiming that the organization’s concept was not just to create a positive environment to children but also to give “a voice to the Palestinian refugee.”


Giving a “voice” to refugees is an important point to keep in mind as we consider the extent to which Ibdaa is working towards conflict resolution. The idea is not to bring children together and enlighten them on the concept of peace, or somehow through dance, lead them to forgive and understand the injustices done to them. Instead, they tend to focus on their role as cultural and community leaders, aiming to provide a positive environment for their respective societies, and in doing so, allowing the youth to better their own lives and communities. “We want our children, not just to throw stones; we want them to think, we want them to dance, we want them to be in touch with other children in the world, we want them to learn how to be leaders, be connected to their community, to support their community, this is the whole idea,” says Abbas, “it’s not the idea of violence or non-violence or that kind of stuff.”

The concept of developing a cultural identity while also educating others about the condition of the Palestinian people, through cross-cultural interaction, is really at the center of all that is organized by Ibdaa. By teaching the youth this traditional Palestinian dance, the organization is helping this particular youth to learn about their own culture, and fulfill a void they have collected as a fourth generation refugee. This is an effort that is continued throughout the many other activities and programs that developed out of the original dance group. These include: dance, art, theater and media projects, a women’s income generating project, a computer lab with skills training, the first women’s basketball team in a Palestinian refugee camp, and even a history project, which educates the kids on their history and heritage, taking many of them to the land where their villages once stood, for the first time in their lives.

Inherit within this concept of a Palestinian cultural identity, and most artistic projects performed by The Ibdaa Cultural Center, is the idea of establishing a voice for the Palestinian refugee within the international community. This is particularly significant considering that dance groups from Ibdaa have had the opportunity to tour around the world, showcasing their art in Europe as well as in the United States. While the large majority of routines are more conservative in their tone, including traditional wear and music, there are a couple that appeal much more to political sensibilities, to an extent that may seem alarming to Western audiences unfamiliar with the Palestinian refugee situation. A specific performance, titled “Mortigal: Political Prisoner” develops a scene in which a man is taken, rather forcibly and violently, by a military official, chained and blindfolded, and tossed around on stage. The music, which accompanies this routine, is also graphic and pointed in its political tone. The performance presents quite a contrast to the more traditional dance numbers in the groups’ repertoire, often shocking audience members with the violence being acted out by children in their early teens. Its aim is very clearly to inform the audience, of the suffering of all Palestinian people as refugees.

After watching these performances, I asked Mr. Abbas about their political nature, and whether or not this kind of programming has ever gotten the organization in trouble with Western audiences. “We were confronted when we were traveling in Europe or in the States,” says Abbas “some people don’t want part of our dance in the States, and we refused to do that, and we insist, this is part of our culture and we will insist on this.” The idea of teaching Palestinian youth about their heritage, without educating them on their rights, seems dishonest and unfair to Abbas, as well as not very productive. “There are some groups,” he explains “that are trying to impose their agenda, to have projects with Israel, to not speak of rights of return, (they say) ‘we want the children to just to focus on music, and just to live their lives, and teach them about peace.’ Okay, we teach our children about peace and education, but we teach them about justice too.”

In developing this cultural and political identity, Ibdaa has never advocated for the use of violence. Their political stance is consistently against violence and instead focused on basic rights, and justice. Mr. Abbas and his organization remind us that conflict resolution does not simply mean the end of violence, but it means resolving problems. The Palestinian people are not only looking for peace, but they are searching for better economic opportunities, the rights to establish their own state and voice in the international community.

By providing the youth with creative and educational opportunities, the Ibdaa Cultural Center uses art to resolve individual conflicts, and better the opportunity of young Palestinians growing up in an environment that is not supportive of a prosperous future for them. Better explained by Abbas himself, “children they are coming from refugee camps, they grow up under curfew, they are surrounded by fence, they couldn’t see Jerusalem which is ten miles from them, do you think they are going to start singing about Michael Jackson songs? They will not sing to Michael Jackson songs, they will be connected to the songs related to their reality. They will create their own songs.”

The idea is to give the youth the capability to finally create opportunities for themselves. To “create their own songs.” In this sense Ibdaa has succeeded. Since its founding in 1994, many members of the organization’s dance groups have been able to prosper, “some of them are finishing their education right now” says Abbas, “some of them are in graduate school, some of them are in medicine school, some of them are amazing, they are leaders in their community.” It is evident through these quotes, and the passion on Mr. Abbas’ voice that the main objective of giving kids the tools they need to succeed has been accomplished, and to this extent, Ibdaa has worked towards a more prosperous and peaceful Palestine, a place where the resolution of conflict with Israel is more likely than it would have been 20 years ago. As explained by Abbas, “in my generation I learned how to throw stones before I learned to read and write.”

The center has indeed managed to “create something out of nothing,” by giving children a new platform for knowledge, filling a large gap in their lives. Using art, the Ibdaa Cultural Center has helped people in grim humanitarian conditions to learn about themselves, and to serve as messengers for the injustices suffered by their communities. In doing so they may not have directly affected the decisions made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmud Abbas, but they have shaken the foundation of a structural violence that has for so long condemned Palestinian refugees to a dire predicament.

As future agents of change, both locally and internationally, I think we can learn a lot from Ziad Abbas and the Ibdaa Cultural Center on where genuine progress can be made within conflict scenarios. Personally, I take two main lessons from this case study: first, if you want to bring real change for the people within a conflict environment, you have to be true to the history and not expect peace without solutions and justice; second, the most genuine efforts to resolve or improve any conflict will not come from internationally mandated standards or campaigns, but from driven leaders within the areas of conflict. As with all my future articles, I hope this has brought up some questions in your mind about the concepts of conflict resolution, art, international “Peacebuilding,” and how different people around the world are dealing with their individual conflicts. If so, I encourage you to share some of those thoughts, questions and examples that come to mind, so we can all benefit from your input.


"Interview with Ziad Abbas." Telephone interview. 20 Apr. 2010.
The Children of Ibdaa - To Create Something Out of Nothing. Dir. S. Smith Patrick. Arab Film Distribuitor, 2002. DVD.
Rosenfeld, Maya. "Power Structure, Agency, and Family in a Palestinian Refugee Camp." International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol.34.No.3 (2002): 519-51. JSTOR. Web. 24 Mar. 2010. .