Peacemaking Lessons Learned from Dr. Syeed

by Rick Love

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I visited my friend Dr. Sayyid Syeed recently in Washington, DC to discuss ways we could deepen our partnership. I wanted to explore how we could promote religious freedom and counter violent extremism. Syeed directs the interfaith initiative of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) – the largest Muslim network in the U.S.

We planned to meet at the ISNA office, go to Friday prayers together (which are held in a room at Capital Hill), then discuss our partnership over lunch. But God interrupted our plans when a delegation of leaders from India (sponsored by the State Department) stood up to introduce themselves at the end of the Muslim prayers.

As a Kashmiri Muslim, Syeed speaks Urdu, so he warmly welcomed these dignitaries. Syeed often tells me how American Muslims can influence Muslims worldwide, but now I got to see him in action. Here was an unscripted and unexpected opportunity to “do his thing!”

He introduced me to the group and then invited them to lunch with us at the café located at the Supreme Court. As we walked through the Supreme Court, Syeed was the master tour guide. He pointed to stone carvings in the hallway where the Prophet Muhammad was acknowledged as one of the great lawgivers in history (along with Moses and others).

Syeed waxed eloquent about how democracy works in the U.S. and how American Muslims live out their faith here. At one point, he smiled and said to our guests, “India is the largest democracy in the world, but remember ours is the oldest!”

I enjoyed hearing Syeed’s earnest commentary and watching the captivated expressions on the faces of our guests. I was proud of Syeed. I was equally proud of the State Department. Here was a practical, long term way to work toward peace and counter violent extremism, especially in light of Al Qaeda’s recent attempt to start a new branch in India.

My time with Syeed illustrates two tools in the peacemaking tool box - both of which highlight the importance of personal relationships.

Track II diplomacy
Track I diplomacy refers to official, formal discussions of high level political and military leaders. Track II refers to non-governmental, informal, and unofficial dialogue and problem-solving activities between private citizens. Track II diplomacy, especially between religious leaders, has as we seek to counter violent extremism.  

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Soft Power.
Hard power refers to military might – the power to coerce. Soft power refers to the power to attract and persuade (Harvard professor Joseph Nye was the first to coin the term). Soft power is one of the most undervalued, underutilized dimensions of statecraft. Hard power may thwart a group like the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) for a short time, but it will take soft power to thwart the violent extremist ideology and procure a long-term peace. Syeed’s description of Muslims in America and his enthusiastic endorsement of American democracy demonstrates soft power.

Conclusion
Muslim peacemaker + track II diplomacy + soft power = a long term strategy to counter violent extremism and establish sustainable peace