Suspicion of Outsider Interveners

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

... As an international peacebuilder when you go to an Islamic context, you need to understand there is a history of colonialism and history of occupation that characterize and effect to some extent the theme of peace building and conflict resolution, especially if you come from the Western Hemisphere or other Northern countries people will be more suspicious of your motivation. People will be more cautious about why you are doing this work and what can they really benefit from it and whether this type of work is devised as a tool in order to have them change their identity or that threatens their religious and cultural identity. That is one of major obstacles that I have found.

The second issue that relates to Islam and peace building in terms of straight intervention as an outsider has to do with the fact that much of this work is funded by the United States' State Department, USID, or other US government offices. Because of that nature of the foreign policy of the US in the Middle East and the Muslim and Arab war, there have usually been concerns with who is funding this type of work or whether this is an extension of US foreign policy in the Middle East or the Muslim world. It has to do with issues of the US foreign policies of having a bias foreign policy toward Israel, and you are always expected to be an extension of that policy. What you have to clarify in the beginning is what type of funding you get and where you get it.

A third factor has to do with why you are doing this work in terms of them, or what are the implications of this work in terms of a relationship to the existing or current regime? Your entry point is very significant and with whom you work in the country. Who is your local sponsor and who are the participants, and who invited them. You could go in as an government entry point or from the royal family and that will put you at an awkward point with the opposition who in many cases in the Muslim countries are not necessarily under the gun but at least are under constant security surveillance by the government. If you go through the royal family or the regime then you are limited in terms of your impact and what change you can produce or introduce, and you will be labeled or affiliated with the regime. You have another possibility with entry when it comes to opposition political groups and those typically will be observed closely by the regime as well as the local NGOs. If you go through the local NGOs, which I think is the safest and most neutral, you could reach out to the pro-government and the opposition if you are lucky enough to identify the type of NGOs can be trusted, has some objectivity, and some level of professionalism that allows them to work with you. I find those issues the most challenging.

Regardless of any of the three areas of entry you take your work in peace building and conflict resolution will be monitored by the local security forces. You have to make sure that you are aware of that, as well as that you're participants are not hindered or prevented in any way from the presence of the security. In several places of work that I have done the security forces would penetrate, the dialogue group, or the conflict resolution workshop. The interior ministry will insist on having one person represented in the workshop and everyone in the room will know that it is a security official. Some of these obstacles are unique to places that have a dictatorship, or where you have a regime, and a security apparatus while you are coming in under the umbrella of conflict resolution, peace building, and so forth.


It sounds like those obstacles that you mentioned about trust being very low of an intervener and funding sources can be overcome if you negotiate your entry point correctly?

A: One condition is to spend some more time identifying your local sponsor and your entry point and being transparent as much as you can from the beginning. I would say from the beginning of your connection with international peace building and training that transparency about your motivation, about your goal, and about your funding sources have to be shared explicitly with the participants as with people if they ask and with your local sponsor.