Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Janessa Gans Wilder, Former CIA
Analyst, Co-founder of Euphrates Institute
JGW: I think our whole way our foreign policy is wired – the American foreign policy attention span is short. We want to see immediate results. We want to see x, y, z taken out, x problems solved and we’ll throw a lot of money and resources at it, but it doesn’t ever really take care of the problem.
Even military experts and academics, everyone I’ve talked to on the subject countering extremism, they all agree that even if we take out ISIS, the next iteration of Islamic extremism will be even more severe, even more barbaric just like ISIS is worse than Al-Qaeda which is worse than the Muslim Brotherhood which is worse than its predecessor, each time, because the root isn’t addressed.
They even acknowledge that we need resources, we need attention in other ways. Yes, let’s put pressure militarily on ISIS. Let’s rescue those enslaved girls. Let’s deny them more safe havens and fertile ground. Let’s also throw a bone to building up democracy, building culture and understanding and non-violence at the roots because that’s really the only thing that’s going to solve it in the long-run. I just don’t think we have the patience for that. We don’t have a system politically that is set up to value that or to support that and it’s tragic.
PI: So, you quit.
PI: You quit and that must have been a pretty risky decision at the time if you have parents or loved ones or friends who maybe admired even the work that you were doing or presumed that you could have moved around in U.S. government circles.
JGW: Yes, absolutely.
PI: [You could have] kept good benefits and a good salary and done different kinds of work, but you just scotched it and started over it sounds like.
JGW: Yes, and it was really hard to go from feeling like you’re in the middle, the center of the universe where people who matter know who you are and are reading your stuff and to all of a sudden be a nobody, that’s what it felt like. I was somebody and it looked great on my resume and I had this position and influence and then nothing. Then you’re a nobody trying to start something that no one has ever heard of and no one cares about.
PI: It sounds like there were times though in those early days when you thought it seemed like Don Quixote charging at the windmills.
JGW: Well, actually still annually I get some feeling or experience that I am ready to be done with this and I will quit at a moment’s notice if something else comes along and then of course the feeling passes and everything is right in the world. It’s hard. Every person in this field, and I’m sure you have experiences like this too and maybe feel this, feels often that you’re all alone and that this is an uphill battle and you wonder how to keep going because it’s an isolated, tough journey in so many ways.
What keeps me going and gets me past those humps are the connections to people doing this kind of work around the world. I am so inspired by their example, their moral courage, the risks that they are taking and the sacrifices, what they’re able to do in the face of such amazing odds. I think gosh, I would have given up, but they’ve kept going, so then that makes me want to keep going.
Thank goodness we have this community of support. I love that your radio show is supporting that because this is an uphill battle and we’re not the norm. It’s not easy. The odds are against us, but isn’t that what creates change? It creates change when those people refuse to give up and when they keep going. It’s so vital to stay connected and to feel inspired and to keep rejuvenating and refueling in that way, otherwise I think we would all give up.
PI: When did you actually start to see something in your own organization that gave you confidence that it was worthwhile work?
JGW: Well certainly there have been things throughout. In 2010, I put on a major global summit with two dozen Middle East peacemakers and American experts and ambassadors gathering for a few days in the Midwest when I was teaching there at Principia College. That was so powerful to have. We had session on people who were informing people about Middle East issues and then inspiring with models of change and what are examples of transformation in peace building on the ground. The last session was transformation. What does it take? What is transformation? How do you create space for transformation; personal community and global?
The impact from that from seeing all these thought leaders together and sharing ideas was really what launched me into it fulltime. I committed to this and said, “There is power in this. There is inspiration in this. This is needed. We need each other. We need this community. We need these ideas. We need these ideas out in the world. That’s been huge.
PI: Let me ask you to pause there before we leave that picture of that gathering. Was there a particular person that told a particular story that you would reference as enlightening, interesting, surprising in that process where you’re watching it unfold? I know I’ve experienced things like this just in radio shows where there’s one particular story that just says okay, this is what we’re talking about.
JGW: Yes, there was such a powerful moment. I actually created an award called Visionary of the Year just to recognize our keynote speaker because he’s so amazing. His name is Sami Awad. Do you know him? He’s a Palestinian.
PI: I don’t.
JGW: He lives in Bethlehem and he started the group called The Holy Land Trust. In his talk, he was talking about how he was a Palestinian refugee and was invited by some Jewish contacts that he had made to visit Auschwitz.
Palestinians usually shy away from learning about or focusing on the Holocaust because they say it detracts from their Holocaust, their Nakba which is the same word as Holocaust. He wanted to go and he had such a moving experience there seeing what had happened and letting himself feel that and open emotionally to that.
Then he saw a group of Israeli teenagers who were there on a visit and they were all wearing the Israeli flag. Their instructor was telling them, “This isn’t just your past. This is not only your past, but it’s your present and it’s your future because we have so many enemies out there and unless you are strong and secure, this will happen again and again. This is your future.”
He just realized as a Palestinian they were talking about him and he wanted to prove to them that he is not their future, he is not their enemy; “I will not be that continuing link for them that creates that sense of incredible terror and fear and violence and continues that cycle of trauma and killing.” He said, “I am ready to acknowledge that I am part of this and I refuse to continue the problem.” It was powerful. We were all so moved that everyone leapt to their feet and there was a standing ovation.
The fellow speaker with him on the stage was a rabbi and she got up and walked over to him and they embraced on the stage in front of everyone. People were crying. It was a moment in front of our eyes of an awakening, like you said, of division healed, of fear healed and of this peace that just emerged. It was so powerful to see it right in front of us. It was definitely an amazing moment.
PI: So, do you take a moment like that and what does it do to your belief system? Does it instantly magnify or enlarge to say well, if it can happen on this stage between these two people, it can happen between nations?
JGW: I’ve seen that and I lead trips every year to the Middle East and I’ve seen so many more experiences like that happening there and I think; gosh, if that can happen there, if that can happen between these two people who are supposed to be enemies, if that can happen between these two countries who have been fighting for centuries, the inspiration of that; if it is possible there, it is possible anywhere for anyone. I love exposing people to that example.
In fact, on our last trip when we went to the Middle East, it was a group of Americans and they were seeing the impossible. They were seeing an 18-year-old boy who has had his brother killed and family shot in front of him and yet he knows that violence is not the answer. He’s working together with settlers, Israeli settlers who have taken over the town next to him and they’re working together on peace and you’re hearing him talk about what forgiveness is and what peace means and why he’s chosen that path.
There were Americans who heard him and saw his sincerity change their entire view of not only how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be resolved, but also, oh my goodness, how they are practicing forgiveness in their community.
If I don’t like republicans or democrats or if there are divides in my family, it’s not like someone has been killed and yet I have a really hard time working with them and seeing them as partners and being open to their ideas.
The example of transformation that comes from there, because it is so powerful and because it is so unlikely, can be a model of inspiration and hope for anyone around the globe and that’s what I’m seeing with these chapters. Whether it’s here in Redding California or Sub-Saharan Africa or Pakistan or India, we share those models, we share those examples, we share the skills to create the space for transformation and then they’re applying that in their local context.
That’s what’s powerful; “We care about peace in the Middle East. We’re not Israeli and Palestinian, we’re not Syrian, but we can support them in their efforts, we can support that critical path and endeavor in those groups and we have partnerships with those groups.”
At the end of the day, what really matters is what are you doing in your own day to day life, in your own family, in your own home, in your own community, in your own country because that’s actually the only thing that you have control over and can create change in.
It’s so empowering to translate and support what’s going on over there and be inspired by it, but what are you doing? What are you doing every day to further it, to make it possible in your home and your community? That’s the power.
PI: How do you convince people to do that, to do something that seems difficult or that they may still feel some fear over? Even those that would be somewhat sympathetic to your mission, how do you engender some participation?
JGW: That’s a good question. I hope and pray for the best.
PI: Let me rephrase that. It seems to me that your mission is tied toward investing people into creating chapters so that they are reaching out to people in their community and having salons and conversations and events, so at some point I’m imagining that there is some way that you’re reaching out other than just saying, “Hey, create a charter,” or “Hey, let’s have a show.” Why should people tilt over into participation from a generally sympathetic view to begin with?
JGW: I think the most successful way it has happened is when people have a personal experience. Either we will give a talk or have a speaker come where someone can actually hear directly from someone in the Middle East and they walk away with a different perspective and a different mindset and inspiration, so then they want to be involved, they want to be engaged. Usually, having your mind open leads to that engagement.
I think also in the U.S. we’ve been seeing a surge of interest in our chapters because of the election. Something happened in the election where so many people –
PI: The Presidential election of 2016 you’re talking about?
JGW: Yes, exactly. People thought; this matters to me. This is here at home. I can’t talk to my brother anymore. I can’t talk to my friend. There is such division in my community because of that election. The democrats are hating the republicans and vice versa. We can’t talk. We’re so divided. We see completely opposite in our values and our ideas and way forward. We’ve just seen this surge of interest because all of a sudden, it hit home. This idea of conflict and what that does to a community and to a family has felt very tangible and real to folks and it is motivating them to get involved. They want to find out how to turn the other into a brother. They want to listen to the other. What does that even look like? They’re motivated to do that because it’s painful and it’s hurting us and it’s not getting us where we need to go as a nation or in our circles. It’s interesting how pain can be a motivator and inspiration can be a motivator.
Starting these conversations, being open and not just retreating into our political camps, but you really bridging the divide and engaging. That way, when there is upheaval and conflict, I hope and it seems that it can motivate us to a new place. It can actually be a gift.