PLU lecturer: In modern world, conflict resolution belongs to citizens, not leaders

Shamil Idriss at his home in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19.
Shamil Idriss at his home in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19. Pacific Lutheran University

Shamil Idriss has spent much of his life’s work empowering private citizens to solve the thorny conflicts that their state leaders have failed to resolve.

Idriss, president and CEO of the international conflict resolution organization Search for Common Ground, will talk about that work — called “track two diplomacy” — Wednesday at Pacific Lutheran University.

The event is the third in a biennial lecture series dedicated to the memory of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador killed in Benghazi in 2012.

Search for Common Ground is based in Washington, D.C., and Brussels and works in 35 countries to end violent conflict. Before joining the organization, Idriss was deputy director of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, which works to prevent conflict by promoting cultural understanding between opposing groups.

Idriss recently spoke to The News Tribune by phone. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Q: Can you start by giving your definition of grassroots peacebuilding?

A: You can advance really just causes in either adversarial or collaborative ways, so grassroots peace-building for me really has two realities. It manifests in two ways. One is the person that steps in the middle of a conflict situation and tries to mediate and bring sides together and help them understand one another and come to agreement. And I think we all tend to put on pedestals those people who have done that in very global and large ways, for good reason. But I think we also have people in our own families who do that naturally and step in when people are divided. And so I think we all have that in us to play that role to different degrees.

But the second way that it plays out is in a much more, what you might call, mundane way that everybody can really play a part in. And that’s recognizing that how we choose to advance our causes can either be introduced in strained relationships, or strengthen relationships.

Q: You grew up in Connecticut, but traveled to Turkey during the summers to visit family. Did your approach to conflict prevention and resolution grow from this experience?

A: There was the fact that much of my family in Turkey was relatively poor and the neighborhood that my parents had done everything as immigrants to move to (in the United States) was really quite wealthy. They moved there in order to get my brother and I the best public education available. So we had somewhat of those class gaps.

Some of my friends in the town where I grew up, their families, their parents were politically very conservative. … Some of my first summer jobs were with communities that were extraordinarily politically liberal. So I think those experiences might not have in any intentional way encouraged me into peace-building, but they did make me much more susceptible to fall in love with it. It became very hard to see issues in such pure good and evil, black and white terms.

Q: You have said that people mistakenly assume that unification is in the hands of our political leaders who set the tone for diplomacy. Why is it up to citizens at a grassroots level to solve violence?

A: As we are in touch with both citizens and state leaders in countries around the world, what we’re finding more and more is that those in positions of political power are frankly really struggling. Many will acknowledge, oftentimes behind closed doors, that they’re failing to deal with the way that conflict manifests in the modern world.

In that world, citizens really have an increasingly powerful role to play and we see the negative side of that. Oftentimes we see that in violent extremist movements mobilized by individuals. But the corollary is also very much available to us — citizens mobilizing in that way could bring communities together to prevent violence and to build cooperation.

People today have the power to not just be consumers of information and media, for instance, but to be producers and disseminators. And to not just be recipients of politics, but to be real players and mobilizers in the political arena. And in that space, it’s just a really exciting time, frankly, to be alive.

If you look at how the international landmine treaty (the international campaign to ban landmines) was signed and mobilized, it really started with a handful of people with laptops in their kitchens literally beginning to mobilize that movement. That did not take long before that became a signed ban mobilizing and putting governments to act on it. And there’s a lot more opportunity for that kind of activism and engagement in today’s world than at any point in human history.

Q: Given today’s political climate in the United States, how can a person get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate care and respect for an opponent who doesn’t share a common upbringing and set of values?

A: The doing of it is not easy, but I think it’s a lot easier than the apprehension about it. We tend to build up pretty strong caricatures of our adversaries, and that oftentimes will prevent us from being able to stew up the courage to actually make contact and build relationships with them.

If you want to be the kind of activist that wants to advance social cohesion, that wants to respect the dignity of all people, including those with whom you most disagree, then you can pursue one kind of activism —collaborative activism.

If you’re going to do that, the second step that would be helpful after that is to also take care of yourself by surrounding yourself with people who will encourage that in you. Because when you reach across these dividing lines, unfortunately today — whether it’s here domestically or internationally — there a lot of people who will define you by what you’re against. I’ve had both conservative and liberal friends who have reached across these divides be accused of being traitors by members of their own family, or friends.

I think there’s all kind of things you can do to bridge divides. One of the things that we find most critical, and it sounds so trite, (is) the power of listening, not listening for every fault in someone’s argument in order to bring it down, but listening to truly understand why somebody feels what they do. Trying to understand not just what their positions are, which might make your blood boil, but what actually led them to that position. What hopes, or fears do they have, what personal experiences have they had that made them feel this way.

That kind of listening, nothing about it requires compromising your principles, or what you stand for. I can tell somebody that I really completely disagree with their view on a position, but I genuinely want to understand where they are coming from.

When we focus only on positions, positions tend to be narrow and they don’t tend to overlap with one another. If you get behind the positions into people’s interests, fears, hopes, motivations, you oftentimes almost always will find areas of common ground.

Q: You recently wrote that the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, exemplified in the travel ban, may marginalize people, lead them to act as enemies, and lead to more terrorist attacks. Can you explain?

A: The talk I’m giving next week is in honor of former Ambassador Chris Stevens. And Ambassador Stevens was so well-known for his passion for other cultures and for engaging in dialogue at all levels. He was known explicitly for being the kind of ambassador who didn’t just meet with the president and other diplomats, but really engaged with local taxi drivers and people in the market place.

There was a program that we helped to launch in honor of him called the Stevens Initiative that connects young Americans with their peers in Muslim-majority countries for facilitated dialogue using video conferencing. We partnered with the MIT neuroscience lab to do the evaluations of this type of work, and in doing that, we learned something that every facilitator and mediator sort of knows in their gut: There’s a critical threshold for people to cross in order for them to become more open to other cultures and other perspectives. And that critical threshold for people to cross is not the experience of being agreed with. In fact, being agreed with is almost irrelevant to them. The critical threshold for them to cross through is the experience of being heard and respected. They become much more open to dialogue. They become much more open to self-criticism.

One thing that we see again and again is, the more communities feel pushed to the margins, the more likely they are to assert themselves with ever-greater passion, aggression and ultimately violence. The more that people are engaged with respect, or listened to and heard, the more that they are willing to engage others and even become self-critical and be constructive members of society. These are some of the dynamics that we know from our work that was reflected in that comment.

Ambassador Chris Stevens Memorial Lecture

Who: Shamil Idriss, president and CEO of the international conflict resolution organization Search for Common Ground

When: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Where: Karen Hille Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Pacific Lutheran University.

Admission is free, but registration is encouraged at