An interview with Sa’ed Atshan
In person, Atshan is soft-spoken and gentle; he chooses his words with care and precision. He is generous in giving thoughtful compliments in conversations, and he seems able to find that of God in even the most obstinate political conflicts. It thus came as a surprise when he became the center of a controversy played out in the pages of Philadelphia newspapers this February. We talked to him to find out how a peace and conflict studies professor deals with controversy and to understand the discernment of a public Friend in the era of social media and instant outrage.
Do you have a short, just-the-facts kind of telling of what happened with your speaking invitation at Friends’ Central School?
Friends’ Central School in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, had a student group called Peace and Equality in Palestine, founded by a Jewish student. As part of the student group’s activities, they wanted to have a speaker.
The two teacher sponsors were both queer women of color, and they invited me to speak. I had never met either one of them. I was honored, and accepted. It was approved and confirmed, and we had scheduled it.
I was planning to give an uplifting talk, catered to a high school audience. And then two days before I was supposed to speak, I found out that the event had been canceled. It eventually came out that some parents had complained.
The students protested: 65 silently walked out of meeting for worship, along with their teachers. The teacher sponsors were called to meet at a diner off-campus the next morning at 7:00 a.m. and informed that the locks to their doors were changed and their email accounts shut down. They were not allowed back onto the campus.
All of this was covered in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I remained silent and didn’t engage the media at all. The Quaker world erupted, and Friends’ Central received many messages from concerned Quakers: How could a Quaker school uninvite a Quaker speaker, who’s a professor of peace studies at a Quaker college?
The school eventually apologized to me and re-invited me. I let them know that I couldn’t accept the re-invitation until the two teachers who invited me were reinstated. Instead the teachers were offered a $5,000 severance package in exchange for being silent about how they were treated. They declined that offer, and the teachers were then fired permanently.
Now the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating Friends’ Central for discriminatory treatment of these teachers. It was at this point that I finally broke my silence and published an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer in which I expressed solidarity with the fired teachers.
Tell us a little bit about the discernment that went into your public reaction. How did you decide initially to not talk? And then how did you change your mind and write the article for the newspaper?
I think one of the challenges that we face now—not just Quakers but mostly everyone, given the prevalence of social media—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.
Oftentimes, there’s an instinct—this rush—to take it to social media, to lambast the other party and publicly express one’s frustration. 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.
I try as much as I can to be patient and not to rush to any particular mode of responding. And so that was the model that I adopted in this case. Self-discipline is especially important when it comes to airing our dirty laundry. I love Quakers, and I love being part of the Quaker community and the Quaker world.
This episode was very painful. It revealed some of the internal work that we Quakers have to do to deal with racism within our own community and to really think about who our institutions are accountable to. These are difficult conversations.
And to have some of these conversations happen outside of the Quaker world was difficult. Many people said that they used to have so much respect for Quakerism and they’d lost respect for Quakers now. I’ve had to explain that one institution doesn’t represent all Quakers. Like any faith-based community, we have our issues and struggles. You can’t write-off all Quakers based on just one episode.
So that was very painful for me, but I also had to deal with wanting to continue to represent Quakers and to communicate the beauty and value of all that we stand for. And in this instance, it was the teachers who embodied Quaker values and Quaker principles that we hold so dear.
Was there a process that you used to decide whether or not to publicly weigh in on the controversy?
I don’t want to portray myself as this selfless person, but it really wasn’t about myself. It was about the teachers. When it got to a point where my silence was being construed as equivocation instead of solidarity with the teachers, I knew I had to break my silence. They were the most vulnerable.
You know, I have a job. I have a wonderful job; I have benefits; I have a sense of stability and security. And in my position, I have tremendous support from Swarthmore College. I’m very blessed.
The teachers at Friends’ Central School don’t have a union. They don’t have a tenure track or a tenure system. They’re deeply vulnerable, as we saw. And so given that they experienced what they experienced as a result of inviting me to speak, I felt a moral responsibility. The least I could do was express that solidarity publicly.
This was an example of the tension between free speech versus controversial speech. How do you come down on balancing these?
My concern is the slippery slope. People may oppose the free speech of one party, and then all of a sudden find their own free speech violated. You’re now next on the list, you know? And we see that kind of boomerang effect. We see that time and again.
I truly do believe in the free marketplace of ideas. I believe that people have a conscience and a moral compass that can guide them. I don’t feel threatened at all by points of view that are different from mine.
Sometimes it is painful to hear hate speech. Time and again, we hear vitriolic homophobic speech that’s incredibly dehumanizing to LGBTQ people. And as a gay person, it’s very painful for me to hear that. But at the same time, I don’t think that the solution is somehow to muzzle those who speak in a dehumanizing way. I think the solution is to speak: How do we make a case that’s more compelling? How do we engage young people? How do we engage religious communities on these issues and get them to understand where we’re coming from?
And so I think that approach is much more sustainable and more enduring in the long run.
Even Friends can resort to stereotypes when it comes to our internal conflicts. How do we find our voice when we see someone being mischaracterized?
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. I see this in our relations with Friends United Meeting (FUM); in some situations, we just roll our eyes.
I have deep respect for the work of FUM. I’m a product of Ramallah Friends School, which has been supported by FUM since the 1800s. I am also frustrated with some of FUM’s policies, such as those restricting openly LGBTQ people from working as staff. But my critique doesn’t diminish my overall respect for FUM.
It’s easy for us in the world aligned with the more liberal Friends General Conference to stereotype everyone in the FUM world. We’re all fellow Quakers and have a lot that we can learn from each other. It’s problematic for us to just write-off an entire community and subpopulation of Quakers with one label—and a label that has all of these associations that we’ve attached to it.
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. What is their worldview? If we took the time to do this, we would see that the points of commonality are incredible.
It’s a clichéd observation that Friends will sometimes go out of our way to avoid conflict, even to the point of looking away from bullying behavior. How do we muster the courage to step up and be allies, even within our community?
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.
Where do you find hope in the midst of conflict?
In this interview, we have focused a lot on the challenges that we face. There have been a number of critiques that have come up, and we addressed some incredibly sensitive, thorny, and difficult issues that don’t have easy answers.
First, thinking through these questions is part of a lifelong journey and will take experimentation, patience, and humility. I acknowledge that I have many more questions than answers.
Second, my spirit and soul are sustained by Quakers: the community that we forge and the relationships that we build. The egalitarian spaces that we strive to create and the love that we share with each other and with the world keeps us going in these challenging moments. I don’t want to take for granted the ordinary, everyday acts of kindness, compassion, love, and joy in the Quaker world.
It’s the moment when I’m sitting in Central Philadelphia Meeting on a Sunday and we’re at worship. Fifteen minutes before the closing of worship, the children and the Sunday school teacher are preparing to enter the worship space. They sing a song together to collect themselves and to alert us that they are entering. Just to hear them and then to see them come in—they add light and joy, and their energy just fills the room—makes my heart sing.
These special moments of Quakerism give me the strength and the willpower to renew the work that all of us do collectively. They renew my commitment to social justice work that comes from a place of love. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in polemical issues with their slogans and grand debates, but it’s important not to lose sight of these very ordinary acts we Quakers do that take on a really profound significance in the world we live in.