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SIS’s living peace legend: Abdul Aziz Said

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Professor Emeritus Abdul Aziz Said

From the day the School of International Service (SIS) first opened its doors to aspiring service leaders in 1958, one member of the SIS community has called the school home: triple American University (AU) alumnus and Professor Emeritus Abdul Aziz Said, ’54, ’55, ’57. In fact, Said attended the SIS groundbreaking ceremony as both an AU faculty member and a graduating PhD student in 1957.

A fixture at SIS, Professor Said taught at the university from 1956 until his retirement in 2015. During his nearly 60 years on SIS faculty, he became the senior ranking professor at AU; became the first occupant of the Mohamed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, which was endowed for him; founded and directed the popular International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) degree program; wrote more than 16 books; and inspired thousands of students and alumni.

However, Said’s greatest achievement has been developing and advancing peace studies at SIS and around the world.

“Traditionally, when we spoke about peace in the past, it primarily meant the absence of war or absence of violence. But increasingly, we have become more precise and understand that peace is not only an absence of violence, but a presence of justice, a presence of equality, and a presence of cooperation,” he says.

His introduction to conflict and peace

Said’s understanding of active peace stems from his familiarity with conflict. Growing up in French-occupied Syria, he experienced a period of time in the 1940s when his father—a Syrian nationalist leader—was exiled, his family was displaced, and bombings during World War II were common. One of the most harrowing, yet formative, experiences he faced growing up was when his three-year-old brother was struck by a French military truck and passed away in Said's arms. "That experience had a tremendous impact on me in terms of the evils of conflict and need for pacific resolution," he says.

When he came to Washington, DC, for his undergraduate studies at AU in the 1950s, Said experienced a new kind of conflict: racial discrimination. In comparison to the international friends he made in DC, many of whom were Lebanese, Said was considered “colored” as an Arab Syrian: “My upbringing and experience deepened my sensitivity about discrimination and prejudice because I was a victim of that as a foreigner.”

The injustice of discrimination and prejudice was a lesson that stuck with him. Shortly after joining the SIS faculty, Said recalls a time when a group of Jewish students approached him and asked for his help establishing a new fraternity. With various pre-existing fraternities on campus from which to choose, the students explained that no chapter would admit them because they were Jewish. Said took a bold stance among faculty and helped the students establish an AU chapter of Phi Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity.

“I did it because I saw students were deprived of full participation in education because of the color of their skin or their religious faith. I did it, probably because I was a minority as a Christian Arab in the Middle East, probably because I had experienced that myself,” explains Said. Of the vast awards and honors that decorate Said’s office walls, he pinpoints a Living Legend Award from the Phi Epsilon Pi National Jewish Fraternity as one of his most prized awards.

Becoming a fixture

Since those early days at SIS, he grew to become a favorite among students and colleagues alike for his values and lessons on peace. He famously retrieved members of the AU community from arrests at peaceful protests and was an active participant in demonstrations against violence, discrimination, and injustices around the world, from the Vietnam War to South African apartheid. In particular, Said recalls the 1963 March on Washington as a powerful moment in his and his students’ careers in peace studies.

“That was unbelievable. For me, that was my opportunity to practice what I’d learned,” he says of the march. “I have been thinking about that recently, talking with one of my former students who was with me in the march. It was exhilarating and inspiring. It felt like I had been learning how to drive and now I’m driving; I’d been learning how to walk, now I’m walking; I’d been learning how to talk, now I’m talking. I felt like a child discovering what I can do. It was great in that sense.”

On and off campus, Said mentored peace leaders like German activist Petra Kelly, SIS/BA ’70; paved the way for understanding Islamic and world peace in academic institutions, government sectors, and nonprofits; and advised the UN, the US Department of State, the US Department of State, and the White House Committee on the Islamic World. Above all, he incorporated education and his students into his long career in international peace, conflict, and cultural understanding.

“No other faculty member at the university has given as many years of service as Professor Said,” says SIS Interim Dean Christine BN Chin. “His dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and building a more peaceful world is second to none, and—I believe thousands of alumni and faculty will echo this—he has made a deep and lasting impression on not only those who sat in his classroom, but in the field he helped build.”

Training future peace leaders

In 1995, SIS established the IPCR program with Said at the helm as founding director. In the years it took to get IPCR off the ground, Said says the creation of this popular program would not have been possible without the increase in scholarly work on global peace and conflict resolution or the decades-worth of demand by the SIS community for more curricula on the subject: “Although my name is associated with founding the program, it is really the result of collaborative efforts of faculty and students.”

Since the program’s founding, it has graduated thousands of students and grown to offer four degree options and four concentrations designed to address the world’s most complicated conflicts. Today, IPCR students can focus on culture, identity, negotiation, justice, and more through the program. Many incorporate practical experience abroad into their curriculum and attain successful careers that a young Said could not have imagined would exist today.

“Above all, the IPCR program connects theory with practice and provides experience overseas. It also provides an opportunity to learn more about other people around the planet,” he says of the program’s unique strengths.

Lessons from a living legend

Said maintains a deep connection to the subject he helped shape as an expert. He’s seen many global conflicts come and go around the world, but says poverty continues to be one of the heaviest threats to peace: “The lack of resources by many people on the planet has always hit me very hard. Poverty leads to the rise of dictatorships and to the rise of systems that are not democratic, and those are threats to peace.”

Though his marching days may be behind him, Said looks to education, literacy, and knowledge as powerful tools for change and peace. Fortunately for SIS, Said’s gift for teaching and ability to supply those tools for change are what sustained him through nearly 60 years on faculty at the school, where so many have come to call him teacher, colleague, and friend.

“I never felt the need or the pull or the push to do something else because I liked teaching and I liked the content. I liked to see what happened to the eyes of a student during an ah-ha moment and I really felt a commitment to be involved in the pursuit of knowledge,” he says.


Learn more about the 60th anniversary of the School of International Service.