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Interview with Afeefa Syeed

From the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs,

Background: This discussion between Afeefa Syeed and Katherine Marshall was in preparation for the USIP/Berkley Center/WFDD review of women, religion, and peace. The discussion focuses on Afeefa’s pioneering role within USAID and her rich experience there. She highlights the importance of listening to what communities want and driving programs from that perspective. Across many regions she has seen women as natural peacemakers, from family to community to regional levels, sought out in conflicts because of their skills and approach. She highlights the active roles of youth, many now rediscovering non-violence, and connecting across regions through new technologies both to learn and to build alliances.

Interview Conducted on July 2, 2010

Bio: Afeefa Syeed is Senior Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development Middle East and AsiaAfeefa Syeed Bureaus, where she designs and implements initiatives and training on emerging programs, including engaging traditional and religious leaders and institutions, radicalization, and madrassah enhancement. She works with Washington based and mission staff to define best practices, highlight success stories, develop tools, and frame country strategies to bring expertise in engaging with the cultural contexts. Afeefa is a cultural anthropologist with a focus on grassroots development, with special interest in youth and women. She has worked for over 15 years with various international and grassroots NGOs and US and international development agencies, public and private. She designed and managed a model school whose core curriculum is peace education and civic engagement. She is a member of various interfaith, social service and political action organizations in the US.

What is your source of inspiration for the work you do? Can you reflect on what motivates you, both in the past along the path and today?

For me, much of what I have been doing through my life, regardless of job or position, comes as part of my identity, and that encompasses faith. My faith is very much embedded in a cross-faith understanding of justice. It is a way of life, the idea that faith itself grounds us in what we must or should do, as humanity. It is not religion itself, but a sense of connectivity that has shaped my experience.

This understanding and faith was shaped by my experience growing up, as a child of immigrant parents, by what my parents taught me and modeled, and what I have learned of my story and ancestral heritage along the way. They all conveyed an idea of spirituality that was an active spirituality. This was very much grounded in the inclusive practice of Sufism, and that in turn was part of the experience of my forefathers had as they migrated across Arabia, Cental Asia and then to Kashmir, where I was born and then imbibed through growing up in the multi fabric-ed American society It was a seamless part of the way I was raised. This spirituality is so multifaceted and grounded in my life experience that it is hard to say what dimension moves or motivates me. But it is integrated in a progression of how I understand, and have understood events and my surroundings at different levels as I have grown older. This spirituality is not just a force in itself but a connection to others, including to people from other faiths, or people of no faiths, as many people have experienced this applicability of spiritual approaches in their lives.

How has this shaped your understanding of what it takes to build peace?

In this context, my understanding of what peace building is about is a completely integral part of spirituality, and it is a spirituality that is a cornerstone of everything, and that moves us to action.

What grounds me in my focus on social justice or peace are above all the stories that I heard from a very young age, many coming from Islamic traditions, and then resonating in my American identity as well. Their message is that when you witness injustice, or something that does not serve humanity, you are called to take action. One story is about the Prophet Muhammad, who said, when you see injustice, you should do something with your hands- take action; if for some reason you can’t do it with your hands, do it with your tongue- speak out against the injustice and share with others. And if you can’t do with your tongue, if you cannot speak, do it within your heart or mind – feel bad about the injustice, do not settle for accepting it even in your heart, and seek guidance in approaching it. Here is where there is some sort of natural connection, a spirituality that is part of consciousness. Connection leads to action, whether it is for justice or peace. That is the least you can do, to be connected in consciousness, and it is an obligation. And this was easily reflected in all the great peacemakers I have studied and met from all corners of the world.

That is the mentality I grew up with, a life consciousness that has helped in shaping where and how I can act and what I should do. It has helped me to understand, as I have matured, that you have to choose your battles and helped determine what makes sense to do in a given situation. When I was much younger, I was much more vocal and out there, present at protests, ready to demonstrate, and prone to frustration. Now I have given much more thought to how to create change, and focus on how to establish the patterns and approaches that will not only bring change but also sustainable change, not just for a single group of people but for the community more broadly. I focus far more on how we change and on what it takes to have a lasting impact. That is also a factor in how I think about peace building: our approach needs to be integrated, very much focused on the long term, and accessible.

Click here to read the full interview

U.S Foreign Policy-Facilitating Religious Dialogue?

From a blog entry posted on PeaceNext,

On Tuesday night, June 10th in Chicago, Dirk Ficca, Eboo Patel, and Afeefa Syeed convened as part of a panel discussion moderated by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs entitled, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: One Year Post-Cairo”.

For those unfamiliar with these speakers, Dirk Ficca is the executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, Eboo Patel is the executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Afeefa Syeed is a
senior advisor at the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) Middle East and Asia sectors. The panel marked the anniversary of U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo one year ago, wherein he made it an agenda of U.S. foreign policy to understand and promote religious diversity in its interactions with other nations. This would turn out to be an historic moment in U.S. foreign relations, as it admitted to its failure to adequately address the dynamics associated with an increasingly pluralistic world, as well as raising awareness of an inherent respect owed to religious and spiritual beliefs that had hitherto been, for the most part, ignored by the U.S. government.

The discussion was insightful and enlightening for those in attendance. It highlighted the great need for an appreciation of religious and spiritual life in foreign policy as well as society in general. Considering that each speaker is affiliated with different social and government agencies that do very different work, they were able to offer perspectives that allowed for a more comprehensive vision of what it means to promote public engagement of religious beliefs within a broad social context. Dirk Ficca noted the salience of religious and spiritual values in the human condition, its great contributions to political and social changes for present and past cultures, as well as the crisis it sometimes presents when a religion becomes embedded in political norms. Eboo Patel added to these comments by stressing the realities of a world becoming ever-more populated by youth who possess a power and presence in the global marketplace of ideas. Not only that, he appreciated the sensitivity of late adolescents and young adults who are searching for a sense of identity and a means for affecting a change in the world, all the while being influenced “by the winds of religion”, as he put it. Lastly, Afeefa Syeed added to these thoughts by offering her experience within a U.S. agency that is in the midst of a transition. This transition is intended to acknowledge religion as a major influencing factor in the areas U.S. representatives are working, and the ways in which the USAID is functioning more as a partner or mediator in communities, rather than as an authoritarian entity. One poignant description she had of this was working with a economically deprived community in Karachi, where her function was to ask the community leaders what was RIGHT or GOOD about their community, and working from that point forward in developing a plan to help.

Overall, each speaker agreed on the main points of their separate discussions. These points included the innate ability of religion to effect great good in the world, the increased need, now more than ever, for recognition among national and social entities regarding the value of religion and spirituality as a human quality that is neither diminishing nor able to be quenched, and the U.S.’s responsibility to respect and acknowledge this character in the myriad ways it is manifested in the world.

As with any discussion that is limited to only a few hours, however, there were several probing questions asked by both the moderators and members of the audience. One of these asked what the roles of non-profit organizations are for interfaith experiences. The moderator of the event, Rachel Bronson, asked a popular question, at least within the U.S., whether it might not be better to ignore or suppress religious identities, considering its tendency to influence violence in the world along with peace. Lastly, one question I was left with as an audience member was whether U.S. foreign policy is truly intent on becoming an active participant of religious dialogue for its fundamental worth, or whether this has simply been deemed an appropriate means for securing its own interests in a world it now recognizes as essentially religious. I leave these questions for you, users of PeaceNext, to ponder, as well as to comment on your perceptions of the panel discussion in general.

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Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: One Year Post-Cairo

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dirk Ficca, Executive Director, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions
Eboo Patel, Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core
Afeefa Syeed, Senior Culture and Development Advisor, Asia and Middle East Bureaus, U.S. Agency for International Development
Moderated by Rachel Bronson, Vice President for Programs and Studies, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

June 4, 2010 marks the first anniversary of President Obama’s speech at Cairo University, during which he outlined a path toward “a new beginning” with Muslim communities around the world. During his speech the President recognized the importance of engaging not only with governments but with economically and politically influential sectors of societies, including Muslim communities. It follows that the next steps will include a strategy to engage religious communities of all faiths in addressing pressing foreign policy challenges, and to build the institutional capacity to support it. The Chicago Council is particularly interested in the Administration’s follow-up to the Cairo speech given our recent task force report, Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy, which outlines specific policy recommendations towards such a strategy. Join us for an important conversation that will serve as both a one-year anniversary review of President Obama’s speech in Cairo and the Chicago presentation of The Chicago Council’s task force report.

Dirk FiccaDirk Ficca serves as executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. Ficca worked closely with the religious and spiritual communities of the Chicago metropolitan area to plan and organize the 1993 Parliament event in Chicago. Ficca is an ordained Presbyterian minister and prior to joining the Council served for eleven years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor, Michigan. He teaches at DePaul University, the Lutheran School of Theology, and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Eboo PatelEboo Patel is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. He is author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and is a board member at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and served as a member of the Chicago Council task force that produced Engaging Religious Communities Abroad. He holds a doctorate from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.

Afeefa SyeedAfeefa Syeed is senior advisor at the USAID Middle East and Asia Bureaus. Syeed designs and implements initiatives and training to address issues of engaging traditional and religious leaders and institutions, radicalization, madrassah enhancement, mainstreaming gender, and other emerging programs in the Middle East and Asia. Her work has also included advising the White House, NSC, DOS, and DHS on the same issues. She has consulted with the UN Democracy Fund, World Bank, the U.S. State Department Office for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Department of Human Rights and Labor, and various in-country and international organizations.

The panel will be moderated by Rachel Bronson, Vice President for Programs and Studies, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Chicago Club
81 East Van Buren Street
Chicago, IL 60605
Business attire is required.

5:30 p.m. Registration and reception
6:00 p.m. Presentation and discussion
7:15 p.m. Adjournment

Individuals $10
President’s Circle, Corporate Members, and Student Members complimentary

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