Sa’ed Atshan: On the Quaker practice of embracing conflict

Excerpts from the Friends Journal interview

Republished from the blog of Quaker Universalist Fellowship @
universalistfriends.org/weblog/saed-atshan-on-the-quaker-practice-o....

Introduction: On March 31, 2018, Dr. Sa’ed Atshan will present the 54th Walton Lecture to the annual gathering of the Southeastern Yearly Meeting (SEYM) of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). His theme will be “Quaker Response in Turbulent Times.”

Dr. Atshan, a native of Palestine and graduate of Ramallah Friends School, is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, the UN High Commission on Refugees, Human Rights Watch, Seeds of Peace, the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, and the Government of Dubai.

In October 2015, Friends Journal published Dr. Atshan’s article “Realizing Wholeness: Reflections from a Gay Palestinian Quaker.”

The December 2017 issue of Friends Journal includes Senior Editor Martin Kelley’s interview with Dr. Atshan, “The Challenges We Face and Community We Forge.” We are republishing excerpts with permission.

We encourage readers to subscribe to Friends Journal at Join Us! for print-and-online or online-only access.


In early 2017, Peace and Equality in Palestine, a student group at Friends’ Central School in Wyndmoor, PA, was seeking a speaker. The group’s two teacher sponsors, both queer women of color, invited Dr. Sa’ed Atshan.

Two days beforehand the event was canceled due to parent complaints. In silent protest, 65 students and their teachers walked out of meeting for worship. Friends’ Central barred the two teacher sponsors from campus, later firing them when they refused a severance package in exchange for remaining silent about their treatment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered this story, which stirred much controversy among Quaker and others, but Dr. Atshan made a deliberate choice not to speak with the media. Friend’s Central eventually apologized to him and sought to reinvite him.1 He refused unless the two teachers were reinstated, which they were not.

Once the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigation of Friends’ Central for discriminatory treatment, Dr. Atshan broke his silence with an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.2

The theme for the December 2017 issue of Friends Journal is “Conflict and Controversy.” Martin Kelley interviewed Dr. Atshan about the conflict with Friend’s Central School for “The Challenges We Face and Community We Forge” (20-22, 40).

After a “just-the-facts” retelling of the story, Dr. Atshan described the process by which he initially chose not to speak with the press:

[One] of the challenges that we face now…is the inclination to give in to knee-jerk impulses: to respond immediately whenever we feel that there’s been an injustice, whenever we feel hurt, whenever we feel pain, or whenever we feel offended…. I really try as much as I can to be disciplined and to resist that urge.

I think that going through a process of discernment—reflecting on what just happened, collecting all of the necessary information that one needs, speaking privately with key confidants, giving oneself some space and some time—can be really useful. It can allow us to engage much more productively and constructively…. (21)

Some months later, though, when he saw that the two fired teachers were vulnerable and not being successful with their case, he felt a moral responsibility to speak publicly on their behalf. Then he went public with his Philadelphia Inquirer article, “Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends’ Centra... (8/8/2017).

The interview discussion next broadened to consider the difficulties modern Quaker and others have with confronting conflict. One concern is the stereotyping that Quakers may resort to even with internal conflicts. Dr. Atshan explained:

Stereotyping is very easy. As human beings, we need categories. We need them in our linguistic and conceptual toolbox. Using categories, it’s much easier to process the world around us and to communicate. But sometimes we don’t realize the harm and the danger involved in associating people with a particular label….

It would be wonderful if we were more curious about each other and if we wanted to dig deeper beyond labels. We should be more willing to engage groups directly and ask them how they self-identify…. (22)

A larger concern is the cliché that Quakers sometimes go out of their way to avoid conflict, rather than acknowledge and deal with it.

Part of our Quaker heritage is speaking truth to power. Quakers have been at the forefront of many social justice struggles.

Now Quakerism is morphing increasingly into a community of individuals who think that to be a pacifist, to see the light of God in every human being, and to be committed to our peace testimony requires us to actively avoid conflict and any form of confrontation. Confrontation or conflict is misconstrued as a form of violence.

That is disconcerting. In peace and conflict studies, we teach our students to embrace conflict. We teach our students that conflict is important and we should not avoid it. It’s the way we resolve our differences and address our misunderstandings or disagreements. But it’s important to raise conflict in a way that transforms it.

When instead we avoid conflict, we become passive aggressive, and the underlying issues continue to simmer. That can lead to violent conflict—or at least much more pain in the long run. So embracing conflict and learning to be comfortable with discomfort is a challenge facing Quakers. We have a lot of work to do in that regard. (22)

In the midst of conflict, Dr. Atshan says he finds hope in two ways.

First, he acknowledges that dealing with conflict is “part of a lifelong journey and will take experimentation, patience, and humility."

Second, he is sustained by the community and relationships built among Quakers, by the egalitarian spaces, and the “ordinary, everyday acts of kindness, compassion, love, and joy in the Quaker world.” (40)


Notes & Image Sources

Image: “Dr. Sa’ed Atshan” from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

1Swarthmore professor meets with Friends’ Central to try to settle d...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (2/20/2017).

2Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends’ Centra...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (8/8/2017).

Image: “Welcome new light,” by Alice Popkorn on flickr (12/15/2008, Creative Commons-Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Views: 134

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 17, 2018 at 10:09am

Hello Mike. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I appreciate your words concerning your sister-in-law and know fellowship with you relative to your experience of coming out of occasion for conflict and how so often it is not so much about the other’s behavior as our turning from direct Presence and becoming carried away by a particular set of outward behaviors. Through the appearance of Presence in my consciousness and conscience, it is discovered to me that it is the turning from watchfulness in Presence itself and becoming identified with (or caught up in) and participating in the outward behavior of others and our outward thoughts and emotions relative to them that is the occasion for conflict made manifest. For truly we participate in the activity of the behavior of others that is troublesome to us when we come out of Immanent consciousness in response to it. 

By the power of the inshining Light in our conscience, we are come into a knowledge of the workings of those outward forms and events our consciousness and the pull of them away from inherent Presence itself in itself. In this pulling or drawing impulse away from Immenence, we have a choice to hold in Presence or come out of it and be guided and informed by these outward drawings. 

I am cordial with most of what you have written. However, I have read more of Atshan and just think he is advocating something different from what you glean from his writings. I suspect he advocates the pursuit of active conflict because he believes such active conflict will promote peace in the long run. What I mean is, your advocacy of not ignoring conflict, but acknowledging it strikes, me as different from what what Atshan is advocating. 

William Rogers in his “The Christian Quaker ... (1860) writes of Active And Passive Obedience relative to outward government. Active obedience to laws (for example) is when laws conform to the inshining impulse and direction of immenant Presence in our consciousness and conscience so we manifest agreement with them through or actions. Passive Obedience is when a particular law does not conform with the authority and rule of immanent Presence in our conscience and consciousness and or actions manifest in such a way that we do not conform to them but are obedient to the ramifications of not conforming. In the same way, when a person or group of people act in such a way that does not conform with the inshining impulse upon our conscience our actions are such that we come into obedience with the ramifications of not participating in and identifying with those actions. We are passively obedient to the actions of that person or group by coming out of participating in it and accepting the ramifications of such passive obedience. Such passive obedience, through holding to the impulse of the inshining Light in our conscience, is not an ignoring of the conflict, it is in itself and acknowledgement of it and a coming out of it and the occason of conflict at one and the same time. 

It has been a blessing to read your thoughts and to enter into fellowship. Thank you Mike for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 17, 2018 at 10:15am

Hello Forest. I love this paragraph from your response.

”Principles' are intellectually-produced descriptions of various spiritual realities, from human perspectives. I wouldn't make a principle of avoiding them; but one should keep in mind that they're only descriptions, necessarily incomplete & brittle about the edges.”

It is so true that if someone make an outward principle of avoiding principles then they are not really avoiding principles. The blessing is when, through the appearance of immanent Presence in the conscience, a person or group are come out of the rule and guidance of principles altogether, and are come into the experience of the direct rule and guidance of immanent Presence itself in itself in all things and circumstances. This coming out of outward forms and coming into Life itself in itself is the experience of knowing and being in a life where all occasion for war and conflict are come out of. 

Comment by Mike Shell on 2nd mo. 20, 2018 at 12:28pm

Friend Keith,

Thanks very much for your February 17th comment.

I agree with what you write here:

So often it is not so much about the other’s behavior as our turning from direct Presence and becoming carried away by a particular set of outward behaviors.... By the power of the inshining Light in our conscience, we are come into a knowledge of the workings of those outward forms and events our consciousness and the pull of them away from inherent Presence itself in itself.

With regard to Sa'ed Atshan, though, I understand his Friends Journal interview differently than you do.   You write:

[I] think he is advocating something different from what you glean from his writings. I suspect he advocates the pursuit of active conflict because he believes such active conflict will promote peace in the long run.

On the contrary, in the monthly-long situation of conflict with Friends’ Central School in Wyndmoor, PA, Atshan very deliberately avoided any sort of public conflict, especially any sort of argument in the news media.  He says he did so because

[One] of the challenges that we face now…is the inclination to give in to knee-jerk impulses: to respond immediately whenever we feel that there’s been an injustice, whenever we feel hurt, whenever we feel pain, or whenever we feel offended…. I really try as much as I can to be disciplined and to resist that urge.
I think that going through a process of discernment—reflecting on what just happened, collecting all of the necessary information that one needs, speaking privately with key confidants, giving oneself some space and some time—can be really useful. It can allow us to engage much more productively and constructively…. (21)

From the time the incident with the school happened in February 2017 until August 2017, Atshan refused to speak to the media. He would only speak privately, and then only with the parties involved: the two teacher who were kicked out and the school administration (see “Swarthmore professor meets with Friends' Central to try to settle d...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer 2/20/2017).

He did this in hopes of using Quaker process for negotiating, rather than escalating conflict.

Only in August 2017, when the school fired the two teachers and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had begun a public investigation of Friends’ Central for discriminatory treatment, did Atshan speak to the press (see “Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends' Centra...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer 8/8/2017).

Even then, his concern was the well-being of the wrongfully fired teachers, who had no tenure or union representation. He was not speaking out to defend himself, but still seeking a Quakerly resolution.

He chose to go public because too many Quakers were arguing in with each other in the press and social media—either attacking the school publicly without defending it. He wanted end the public argument and direct Quakers (and everyone else) back to the long-successful Quaker processes of peaceful conflict resolution.

Thanks so much for continuing the write about this.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 2nd mo. 20, 2018 at 12:33pm

Friend Keith,

Thanks very much for your February 17th comment.

I agree with what you write here:

So often it is not so much about the other’s behavior as our turning from direct Presence and becoming carried away by a particular set of outward behaviors.... By the power of the inshining Light in our conscience, we are come into a knowledge of the workings of those outward forms and events our consciousness and the pull of them away from inherent Presence itself in itself.

With regard to Sa'ed Atshan, though, I understand his Friends Journal interview differently than you do.   You write:

[I] think he is advocating something different from what you glean from his writings. I suspect he advocates the pursuit of active conflict because he believes such active conflict will promote peace in the long run.

On the contrary, in the monthly-long situation of conflict with Friends’ Central School in Wyndmoor, PA, Atshan very deliberately avoided any sort of public conflict, especially any sort of argument in the news media.  He says he did so because

[One] of the challenges that we face now…is the inclination to give in to knee-jerk impulses: to respond immediately whenever we feel that there’s been an injustice, whenever we feel hurt, whenever we feel pain, or whenever we feel offended…. I really try as much as I can to be disciplined and to resist that urge.
I think that going through a process of discernment—reflecting on what just happened, collecting all of the necessary information that one needs, speaking privately with key confidants, giving oneself some space and some time—can be really useful. It can allow us to engage much more productively and constructively…. (21)

From the time the incident with the school happened in February 2017 until August 2017, Atshan refused to speak to the media. He would only speak privately, and then only with the parties involved: the two teacher who were kicked out and the school administration (see “Swarthmore professor meets with Friends' Central to try to settle d...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer 2/20/2017).

He did this in hopes of using Quaker process for negotiating, rather than escalating conflict.

Only in August 2017, when the school fired the two teachers and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had begun a public investigation of Friends’ Central for discriminatory treatment, did Atshan speak to the press (see “Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends' Centra...,” The Philadelphia Inquirer 8/8/2017).

Even then, his concern was the well-being of the wrongfully fired teachers, who had no tenure or union representation. He was not speaking out to defend himself, but still seeking a Quakerly resolution.

He chose to go public because too many Quakers were arguing in with each other in the press and social media—either attacking the school publicly without defending it. He wanted end the public argument and direct Quakers (and everyone else) back to the long-successful Quaker processes of peaceful conflict resolution.

Thanks so much for continuing the write about this.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 21, 2018 at 1:15pm

Thank you Mike. I am open to your to your understanding of Atshan. To make sure I understand you better, I have some further questions based on your last post.


  1. Is a reaction by definition “knee-jerk” when it is “immediate?” That is, can a person or group react immediately and that reaction not be justifiably definable or labeled by the pejorative “knee-jerk.”
  2. Does the act of not engaging in “public” conflict mean that Atshan was not engaging in conflict or does it mean that he was engaging in conflict that was not public?
  3. Did Atshan’s private use of the Quaker Process for negotiating conflict … deescalate conflict?
  4. For 6 months the Administration considered whether to fire the teachers that they had already put on leave. Did the Administration show the same discernment when engaging in decision making relative to the teachers? Did the Administration enter into private Quakerly process? The result of that six month period of private conflict and Atshan’s use of Quaker process for negotiating, was the Administration fired the teachers. The result of Atshan’s attempt at engaging in private conflict did not manifest the result he was negotiating. Is that correct?
  5. Is the private use of the Quaker processes of peaceful conflict resolution the same as the pursuit of peace through conflict?
  6. What does the term “peaceful” mean in the context of conflict resolution? Does it mean privately being nice and respectful to one another while in conflict? Or is it more like crying peace, peace!! where there is no peace?
  7. When you use the phrase “wrongful fired teachers” and Atshan’s want to find a Quakerly resolution, you are giving your opinion and Atshan’s opinion that the decision to fire was not made in a Quakerly manner. Is your testimony that the teachers were wrongfully fired manifest through the witness of the immanent Presence in your conscience? That is, are you led by the Light itself to testify that the teachers were wrongfully fired?

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