The announcement this past week that the European Union could be offering an unprecedented aid and trade package to both Israel and Palestine if they reach a peace agreement has brought renewed hope to one of the world’s most painful and longstanding conflicts in recent memory. As a continent that is inextricably connected with the origin of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but also is a living example of how deep-rooted conflict can be solved through economic and political engagement, Europe is in a unique position to help Israelis and Palestinians find a way to heal deep wounds and craft a peaceful and prosperous future. Regardless of how this initiative unfolds, it naturally raises the question of what else can be done to build a global society in which different peoples, different creeds, and different world outlooks can live side-by-side in peace.
Universities have done much to drive progress in many areas of human existence, but the challenge remains as to how we can best contribute to world peace. Since I joined George Mason University, I’ve been impressed by the pioneering work of my colleagues in the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution to try to interrupt cycles of violence. Some of them, like Marc Gopin and his colleagues at CRDC, have decades of experience in the Middle East and are actively engaged in mediating the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The pioneering projects undertaken by them and other colleagues to create better understanding in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria in recent years is remarkable.
Yet I believe the most important thing we can do to prevent future conflict is to create an inclusive learning environment where students from different backgrounds can develop their capacity to look at the world through multiple lenses, to productively engage with people different from themselves. One of the most important assets we have at George Mason University in this regard is the astonishing diversity of backgrounds and perspective on our campus, the representation of hundreds of nationalities, and an academic culture that embraces the study of all the cultures of the world.
A good example is the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, generously funded by a Turkish businessman and philanthropist, that is dedicated to advancing our understanding of Islam and its role in the world. The multidisciplinary program in Middle East Studies helps students develop a multifaceted appreciation of the dynamics of this crucial region.
During my very first graduation ceremony last year, we honored an impressive entrepreneur and astronaut, Anousheh Ansari ’89, an Iranian Muslim alumna whose life in many ways reflects our belief in diversity and the opportunities brought about by education. Later this year, we welcomed back to our campus another impressive alumna, Zainab Salbi ’96, an Iraqi Muslim social entrepreneur who has brought about hope to thousands of women around the world. I have known and admired them both before I came to Mason and I was not surprised to learn that both were a product of this special institution.
This week, I will be honored to introduce to the Mason community another extraordinary woman from the Middle East, Shari Arison. As a business leader and philanthropist, Shari has pioneered key initiatives globally that are very close to my heart, and to Mason’s mission. She believes that the ultimate purpose of business and social enterprises is to bring about positive change in the world. And, like Ali Vural Ak and many others, she believes in our mission and has endowed a professorship that seeks to advance a new philosophy of business leadership.
Shari is an Israeli, and I am aware that her presence at graduation has upset some students and faculty who have had a very painful relationship to Israel in terms of the conflict and their people’s history. With full respect for all concerned, our graduation ceremony will help to reaffirm our commitment to the mission of our university, and my own highest goals, namely that the world is made better by deep, courageous, and compassionate engagement with all peoples, with their civilizations, with their respective religions, with their hopes and dreams, and with their sorrows and suffering, even when doing so can put us in between peoples in conflict. This is the Mason way–to enable and empower students from all civilizations, and to pioneer new initiatives and projects that will make this precious planet a far better place for all than the one we inherited.
We at Mason will continue to do what we can to build a world that is more peaceful and prosperous for all.