Gestures, Mosques, and Peace Talks: Interview with Professor Marc Gopin

(10:30AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

cross-posted from Sum of Change

Professor Marc Gopin is the Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) with the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. You can follow his work by visiting He has focused a lot of his work around interfaith conflict resolution, which is why we asked to speak with him about the controversy over the proposed construction of the Cordoba Mosque in lower Manhattan. Right after we scheduled the interview, news broke that peace talks among Israel, Palestine, and the United States would resume in September. This is an issue that Professor Gopin has been deeply involved with for a very long time now, so we included that in our line of questioning.

Highlight clips with partial transcripts and the full 40-minute interview below the fold…

Professor Gopin started our discussion about the Mosque controversy by telling us that he cannot disassociate the fact that he knows Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf personally from the various viewpoints from which he would approach this controversy. He says that, in hindsight, he might have advised the Imam to make it a cultural center because of the current American political climate, while adding that the Imam is indeed the victim of an unfair witch-hunt. Professor Gopin also believes this became a controversy because it is such an ambitious effort and told us the Imam wanted this Mosque to rival 9/11 in its impact. When Professor Gopin said this was being used as a political wedge issue, we asked him if there is also an undertone of interfaith conflict. His answer was; yes and no.

Sum of Change – Prof. Gopin: Interfaith Conflict and Cultural Wedge Issues

Gopin: What looks like interfaith conflict, not only today but throughout history, is often really other conflicts. Political conflicts. Wedge issues between power groups. Ethnic conflicts. Going all the way back thousands of years. You know, the crusades look like its a religious conflict, but the crusaders killed Christians just as much as they killed Muslims. I mean, there’s a lot of craziness once you analyze the details if you want to stick to the fact that this actually a religious conflict.

He went on to describe this current wedge issue.

Gopin: When you have a wedge issue and your intending to regain congress or regain the White House, you want to excercise, you want to stimulate the most fundamentalist people in the country, or the most extreme Christians in the country to do crazy things. So, you want there to be a Church somewhere in Florida that takes upon itself to burn the Qur’an on September 11th. That’s a good wedge issue. You could, you know, you’re gonna get the Christian vote out, in a certain sense. And you don’t want the Christian vote that votes for Obama, you want the Christian vote that hates Obama.

So, you know, these are opportunities of politics. This is the kind of thing that tore apart Iraq, this is the kind of thing that tears apart Pakistan. This is very common of how militancy and the thirst and lust for power of men with guns, this is how they gain power. In this country we don’t have, fortunately, armies going up against each other on this, but we have virtual armies in politics.

We asked Pofessor Gopin how to confront this type of politics. He briefly mentioned signing petitions, giving testimony, and getting a message out.

Gopin:But I do believe that there is a step beyond that. And that’s what Ghandi and King and the great non-violent social change advocates understood. And that is, that you fight fire with fire. If somebody’s gonna burn the Qur’an on 9/11, then you want to be doing something very visual on 9/11 between Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Urquhart: When you say, fight fire with fire, you don’t mean, like burn a Bible because their burning a Qur’an?

Gopin: I’m taking about fighting fire with fire from a non-violent point of view. So, and the fire is not violence, the fire is the visuals. The fire is symbols and the appeal to emotion. These are all things that are very difficult for intellectuals and left-wing people, but they’re very, very important.

Urquhart: Why are they difficult for left-wing people?

Gopin: Because they like to think that they’re rational, but nobody’s rational. Rationality is something we aspire to and we occassionally reach, but it’s not something that anybody lives by day and night. We’re all non-rational, we’re all driven by symbols, we just have different symbols. You know? When I see a beautiful, old, academic campus, I start to drool a little. You know? I’m very attached to ivy league universities, I’m very attached to books. When I see a big library, I go numb a little. I want to be there. Why? Because I’m attached to it. Just like other people are attached to Britney Spears.

Okay so, this is who we are, this is who academics are. And to deny those emotions is, this is a big part of my work and my writings, denying emotions is very dangerous because then you leave emotions to extremists. And that’s a very bad idea.

We’re all driven by emotions and it’s important to excercise the positive emotions, the emotions of trust, the emotions of hope, the emotions of inspiration. You need a John Kennedy, and you need a Bobby Kennedy, and you need a Ted Kennedy to counteract a Joe McCarthy. You need somebody inspiring, somebody who has a vision of an America that you can believe in, not just some sort of rational tract.

Urquhart: And I have to ask, you mention the Kennedy’s and during the campaign there was a lot of talk of President Obama carrying their torch. Do you think he has been?

Gopin: That’s a good question. I think he did in the campaign. And I think that, I think that… I think his Harvard Education is getting in his way.

Urquhart: Really?

Gopin: Yeah.

Urquhart: How so?

Gopin: Because he’s forgotten emotions, he’s forgotten inspiration. He’s up there with all these Harvard economists, you know, figuring out all these complicated things about the economy and he’s not inspiring people enough. And he doesn’t have people in his cabinet that are inspirational enough. Larry Summers is not an inspirational figure. He doesn’t inspire hope in a lot of people. Particularly based on… well no… I’m not going to go into some sort of trashing of Larry Summers. I just think that he can do better in terms of inspirational figures on the economy, on many things. And he himself needs to be more inspirational and remember that that’s how he got into office and that that’s how you give people hope. Hope is, and the emotions of hope are the greatest antidote to the emotions of fear. And when people burn books it’s because they’re afraid of something. They’re terrified. And they, they, somebody capitalizes on that and gets them to do ridiculous things.

So when it comes to the Mosque, and it comes to this particular event, it’s the same issue, people are driven by fear and they need to be driven by hope. And you need to devise clever ways in which you can inspire. So, President Obama needs to do that. I don’t think, by the way, that he should be involved at all in the controversy. I think, frankly, Imam Rauf and many other Muslims and Jews and others have to become more creative in moving this forward. And we don’t know what’s going to play itself out. It may be that they’ve lost public opinion and public opinion is turning against eh Mosque, which would be really unfortunate. We’ll have to see what New Yorkers, in the end, decide.

Sum of Change – Prof. Gopin: Rise of Cultural Wedge Issues

Sum of Change – Prof. Gopin: Denying Emotion President’s Harvard Education Getting in his Way

We spent the last half of the interview discussing the upcoming peace talks between Israel and Palestine. “I think it’s the best the Palestinian’s can hope for right now.” Professor Gopin expressed encouragement by the talks. He said he felt that it was strategically good for Palestine and the United States, and that Palestine had done the right thing in announcing that they would join talks right before the deadline for Israel to announce that it would resume building on the settlements. That put the ball in Israel’s court and, as Professor Gopin believes, will demonstrate right from the start how committed they are to the peace process.

In the past, Professor Gopin has stated that talk is not enough, that to build true relationships people must worship together, eat together, celebrate together, and mourn together. We asked him what steps could be taken during the peace talks to demonstrate that these leaders are interested in building a relationship that goes beyond talk.

Sum of Change – Prof. Gopin: Actions that Accompany Negotiations

Gopin: Oh goodness, yeah. I’ve been begging for this for a long, long time… There are people who, unilaterally, making their own gestures. There are interesting Palestinians and Muslims who are making gestures about knowing more about the Jewish Holocaust, for example. Going to Aushwitz, brining their people to Yad Vashem. It’s all great.

I am waiting for those kind of gestures to be two things: 1) official and, 2) bilateral. In other words, it’s not helping anything to just have unilateral gestures coming from the Palestinian side. And on the Jewish side, we’ve had for a long time Rabbis for Human Rights doing extraordinary work in Palestine. Wonderful people. Rabbis for Human Rights is on their own, in the most controversial and difficult places, at the risk of their health. They’ve planted over 50,000 trees on Palestinian lands in order to defend those lands from being taken. So, you know, there’s great gestures going back and forth between these peoples. We need it to be official.

We need peace processes to not be about just talk that no one believes. I argued, I met with Senator Mitchell a few times, and I’ve written this, and I met with Arafat, and I met with other heads of State, and I’ve always begged for the same thing: actions that accompany negotiations. Actions that are bilateral. Actions that are meaningful. Actions that have emotional power.

So, right now it’s all half-hazard, and it’s individuals. And I would love to see our, the President of the United States and Senator Mitchell tell them behind closed doors we need gestures, and we need to agree on what those gestures are, and they have to be gestures that are powerful enough, that are very meaningful to people on both sides.

Urquhart: What kind of gestures…

Gopin: Exactly some of the things that I was saying. Mostly on honoring other people’s culture, honoring other people’s pain and suffering, generosity, generosity in terms of prisoners and other things, whatever you can be generous about. So, for example, if Israel could make an enormous gesture of generosity for many, many prisoners that it has. And in return, Palestinian Authority could welcome religious Israelis to worship at the series of sites in Area A, the area they control, and make it into a big ceremony. Or, better, because land and land, it’s a big deal, Israel would simultaneously welcome Palestinians to come to various places and holy spots in Israel, as a simultaneous gesture.

These gestures would really send a very powerful signal, especially if they became arithmetic and they increased steadily. That was my dream always of negotiations. And, admittedly, this is very different than the world that Obama has surrounded himself with, which is, once again, elites, liberal elites, who do a curious thing: they’re very emotional people themselves but they don’t acknowledge that other people have to change emotionally.

This was the tragedy of Camp David. You had people intimately related with each other, working on change. You had people like, you know, Rabin getting to know Arafat, and they didn’t have any mechanism for people on the ground to do that simultaneously. And you, you can’t do that. You can’t have Sadat come to Jerusalem and not expect rage in the Muslim streets unless a lot of people go back and forth so that it’s not just one President that comes over, you know, to Jerusalem. And it’s not, doesn’t go in one direction. That there are gestures that mean something to Muslims just as much as Sadat’s gesture to the Jewish community by going to the Knesset. You need to have simultaneous and equal acknowledgement of people’s identity, their culture, their pain, their hopes, their aspirations, their sense of justice, all of that.

Urquhart: Are these the type of things that, 1) you think the Presidents themselves, realistically would be intersted in these types of gestures?

Gopin: Well that’s where I think that the third party is really important because I think if Senator Mitchell and President Obama say it’s important, then it becomes important. And if they can get other European partners and others to say the same thing, then it makes a big difference.

Here is the full, unedited interview. We spoke for almost forty minutes.

Sum of Change – Interview with Prof. Marc Gopin

You can learn more about the documentary that Professor Gopin appeared in, Unusual Pairs, by watching this clip (click here to watch more).