Preventing Violence is A Task for Everyone: An Interview with Amira Abohussein

By Gabriel Ertsgaard, interviewer

How did you first become involved with interfaith peacebuilding efforts in your home country of Egypt?

Amira Abohussein

In 2007, I started my work in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, and it had a partnership with the United Nations mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. This partnership gave me the opportunity to start attending courses in conflict resolution—in transformation, mediation, and negotiation—to develop my personal skills. And I found these basic skills were really helpful, and helped me not just in my personal conflicts, but also helped me to mediate and solve conflict in my work between my other colleagues. I felt our community had an urgent need to get these kinds of skills and knowledge in an affordable way. This need inspired me to co-found a new NGO that aimed to enhance social peace in our communities and reduce violence.

During that time, back in 2011, there was a terrible bombing at a church in Alexandria. In daily life, things are usually peaceful between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, but this brought to the surface tensions that had been underneath. After the attack, there was a blood drive, and some friends and I went to donate. When they saw that I’m Muslim, though, a woman told me they didn’t want anything from us—not our help, not our blood, nothing.

Some of my colleagues and I decided to start a new project called “Neighborhood Coexistence” to build better relations between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. We established early warning networks and a violence prevention team made up of Muslims and Christians.

We would bring together people from different walks of life—students, professors, police officers, Muslim and Christian religious leaders—and we trained them in what to watch for. This network is to watch for early warning signs of violence. Of course, every situation is different, so it’s not one size fits all. People in the community would bring their own local knowledge to the process and design their local indicators.

We also had Muslims with long beards who would visit Christian prayer services, and Christians who would volunteer at mosque cleaning campaigns. This challenged the stereotype about the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

What brought you to the United States, and how have your experiences been here?

In 2015, I got the Civil Society Leadership Award from the Open Society Foundation, which gave me the opportunity to study for a master’s degree for two years. But I was undecided on whether to pursue studies in economic development or conflict resolution. Fortunately, Brandeis University in Boston had a dual-degree program that let me study both in an accelerated track to finish the two master’s degrees in two years. It was a great opportunity to meet peace builders and development professionals from everywhere around the world.

My work at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington, DC, builds on that prior training and experience. I work on our Yemen project, but there are some important differences between the situations in Yemen and Egypt. Yemen is in the middle of a war right now, which was not the case in Egypt. Also, there is not this Christian versus Muslim dimension in Yemen. The conflicts are not primarily between different religious groups, but between rival gangs and militias. Even so, there’s the same need to build community networks to prevent violence. We’re bringing together religious leaders, educators, and representatives of civil society to enhance their capacity and build a collaborative relationship to solve their local conflict and address their community needs.

We’ve recently seen deadly attacks on both Muslim and Christian places of worship in Christchurch, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. What are the roots of such attacks, and what can be done to prevent them?

These sort of attacks don’t come out of nowhere. There are warning signs. If you look at the New Zealand attack, the shooter had been saying a lot of hateful things about Muslims and immigrants—needing to protect “his people” from Muslims and immigrants, that sort of thing. No one did anything about it, though. No one reported him. There’s this whole issue of free speech versus hate speech. Our words, I think, should not harm someone else. When I was in Europe after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, people were asking me what I thought about the attack and my answer was this:

With no doubt, I’m against such a horrible attack. In general, I’m against any violence including the violence that Charlie Hebdo was practicing. Charlie Hebdo’s campaign of mocking and insulting the Prophet of Islam was a kind violence that hurts millions of Muslims around the world more than physical violence.

Many people were totally fine with this and justify it as freedom of speech, but we shouldn’t be tolerant of hate speech any more. Now we see how hate speech leads to violent action and it starts this closed circle of violence. Therefore, the media can escalate conflict and violence, while it can play a very significant role to peacebuilding, too. Again, you look at New Zealand, and hate speech led to violent actions.

The attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, they’re part of that closed cycle of violence. One of the ringleaders of the Sri Lanka attacks was the son of one of the country’s wealthiest men. This wasn’t about poverty or economic deprivation. This was like the New Zealand terrorist. He got radicalized and believed in the ideology of these terrorist groups. The issue is: radicalization is a process, too, and it has many early warning signs. We need, as family and community, to be alerted to that, and to know when we can intervene to prevent violence.

My favorite saying is by Martin Luther King, Jr: “Those who love peace must organize as effectively as those who love war.”* Peacebuilders need to have the same level of cooperation and organizing. It is also not enough for just a few NGOs or other groups to build understanding and watch for early warning signs. Preventing violence is a daily task for everyone.

*Editor’s note: The original appears to be: “Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks.” The Atlantic has published the February 25, 1967 speech online under the title “Martin Luther King Jr. on the Vietnam War.” As is common with sayings, the more versatile variant has circulated widely since that time.


Amira Abohussein is a Program Officer (Conflict Resolution Liaison) for the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington, DC.

Gabriel Ertsgaard is an English Lecturer at Kean University in New Jersey and a contributing editor for the Peace Chronicle.