Interview with Afeefa Syeed

July 11, 2010

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 Asia 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

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