Quaker Universalist Conversations

Sa’ed Atshan on the Quaker practice of embracing conflict

Excerpts from the Friends Journal interview

Sa’ed Atshan on the Quaker practice
of embracing conflict

Dr. Sa'ed Atshan, Swarthmore College
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

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Friends Journal, October 2017 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’ Central speech, stands with fired teachers (8/8/2017).

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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)

"Welcome new light," image by Alice Popkorn / Flickr (2008, Creative Commons-Attribution 2.0 Generic)


Notes & Image Sources

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

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

2Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends’ Central speech, stands with fired teachers,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (8/8/2017).

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

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