and Help Promote Peace in the Middle East

At age eleven, Danielle works to promote peace in the Middle East, meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia and other leaders in the region. She understands that achieving peace must start with a solid foundation of human rights and greater freedom for all people there. Even if you don’t travel the world and meet with heads of state like Danielle does in the novel, you can still make a difference, bringing the goal of peace closer to reality.

There are currently four main sources of conflict in the Middle East: the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the violence by the ISIS terrorist group and its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam including the civil war going on in Yemen, and the ongoing oppression and violence affecting citizens in many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. Let’s take a look at each of these areas in turn, focusing on what you yourself can do to promote peace in the Middle East.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians is probably the conflict most closely associated with efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

  • Background. People often talk about this problem as a religious feud that has been going on for “thousands of years,” but this isn’t true. Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully for centuries in the area that’s now Israel and Palestine. During much of that time, the Ottoman Empire ruled almost all of the Middle East. But when the empire collapsed after World War I, both the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs wanted independent states. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 led to the first of several bitter wars between the two sides, which Israel won. Since then, there have been decades of Israeli military occupation and Palestinian terrorism, and many attempts at peace have failed. Now, the question is mostly about land, identity, and justice.
    • Land. The Jewish and Palestinian ethnic groups are not neatly divided into two regions. Instead, they are mixed among each other across the whole area. Everyone considers the land sacred to their own people and don’t want to move as part of a peace settlement. This makes it difficult, but not impossible, to figure out a “two-state solution” for splitting the land into two separate permanent homelands.
    • Identity. Israelis see their country as an essential refuge for the Jewish people, who were without a state for nearly two thousand years. During that time, they were persecuted and murdered in many parts of the world, culminating in the massacre of six million Jews by the Nazis, known as the Holocaust. They see it as essential that Israel be a Jewish state. On the other hand, Palestinians also have a strong national identity, and want a free and independent state where they can decide their own destiny. This means that neither side really wants a “one-state solution” for a single country that includes both groups. A key issue is that the two groups representing the Palestinians, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas, do not accept the idea of Israel as a Jewish state.
    • Justice. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes during the 1948 violence, and want a peace settlement to give them the right to return, along with their descendants. Meanwhile, Israelis want to keep their policy of allowing Jews anywhere in the world to move to Israel, especially if they are being persecuted. There has been a long cycle of revenge and anger, and everyone wants their grievances to be settled in the peace process.
  • Here are some short videos that can start you going deeper into understanding the conflict:
  • Action. The great majority of people on both sides want peace and are willing to make some sacrifices to achieve it, but there is a lot of mistrust that has built up between the two sides. Promoting peace involves helping people break down those barriers and trusting each other enough to make peace possible. Many non-governmental organizations are doing great work in this area.
    • Alliance for Middle East Peace.5 You could bring together your friends and schoolmates in raising money to donate to this group, which creates cooperation between over 100 organizations dedicated to achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Look through the list of members to learn more about their work and consider supporting those that most inspire you.
    • Seeds of Peace.6 This is a leadership program for young people from areas affected by war and violence. Israeli and Palestinian teens come to a special summer camp in Maine, USA where they can meet each other, interact face-to-face, and get to better understand each other’s perspectives. When they go home, they can be voices for peace in their communities, reminding people of the humanity of those on the other side. Watch this video7 about their work, and read8 about ways to get involved!
  • Travel. If you can visit Israel and Palestine, it’s a great opportunity to understand the conflict up close. You can learn a lot by meeting Israeli and Palestinian young people in person, getting to know them, and talking about how your lives are similar and different. Seeing your commitment to peace can inspire them to keep working for peace themselves. If you have a Jewish background, you can travel to Israel free of charge with Birthright Israel,9 and if you have a Palestinian background you can go on a similar trip to Palestine called Know Thy Heritage.10
  • Innovate. Technology has incredible potential to connect people and help them understand each other in new ways. If you know computer programming, you can create tools to build trust between people and help make peace possible. For example, you could create an app that matches Israelis and Palestinians for chat conversations and provides translation. Or a service that helps Palestinian children access high quality education that promotes peace. Or a project for getting reliable information into Gaza, because it is ruled by the Hamas terrorist group, which spreads anti-Semitic propaganda. If your talents are in the arts, you might create a new multimedia platform to let both sides experience “a day in the life” of the other. Use your creativity, and talk to Israeli and Palestinian people to learn more about what they need.

ISIS violence. The most virulent threat to peace in the Middle East in recent years was ISIS, which occupied a large region of Syria and Iraq. ISIS conducts brutal terrorists attacks in the Middle East. ISIS has recently been removed from virtually all of this area. It continues to spread its radical ideology around the world via the Internet, although having lost its territory, its ability to organize attacks has significantly diminished.

  • Background. For many decades, Muslim terrorist groups have been carrying out attacks in the Middle East and Europe, but religion was usually a secondary motivation. However, in the last twenty years or so, more dangerous groups have killed thousands of people for primarily religious reasons. Based on a warped interpretation of Islam, they believe that they are commanded by God to kill those who don’t agree with their religious views, even other Muslims. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda perpetrated dramatic and devastating attacks, like 9/11, but following bin Laden’s death, a new group called ISIS became the most dangerous radical Islamic terrorist group. ISIS uses online propaganda to recruit young people all around the world—therefore young people can play a major role in stopping them.
  • Here’s some further information about the threat of ISIS and movements like it:
  • Action. Defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq is a job for the large international military alliance that is working to liberate all the territory they have captured. But there is also an online battleground, and that’s where your efforts can make a difference.
    • Counter-radicalization. Numerous organizations have gotten involved in counter-radicalization work—like Muflehun,14 which counters radical messaging by showing how the authentic message of Islam forbids terrorism. They also help people who are tempted to become violent, and have respected community leaders guide them back onto a peaceful path. One interesting project is called ViralPeace,15 and uses interactive workshops to train young people on how to “push back against hate, extremism and violence.” By spreading the word about these organizations, volunteering for them, and supporting them financially, ordinary citizens can meaningfully contribute to the fight against hateful ideology.
    • Language learning. If you want to work in a more direct counter-radicalization role as you get older, language skills are a big help. ISIS and organizations like it do a lot of their messaging in Arabic, but also other languages, like Farsi, Turkish, Urdu, Pashto, and Tagalog. People who learn these languages are in high demand for jobs at counter-radicalization think tanks, charities working with terror victims, and organizations that provide education to vulnerable populations. These language skills can also be a big boost for careers in diplomatic service, the military, or intelligence agencies. The earlier you start learning, the better! There’s a wide variety of apps16 to choose from that can be a fun and easy way to learn Arabic and other languages, and if you prefer a more structured course you could use a trusted system like Rosetta Stone.17 Many community colleges also offer in-person classes in Arabic, and will often let younger students enroll as well.
    • Building new tools. Just like with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are lots of opportunities for innovation and creative thinking to bring positive change. This video shows college students working together on a challenge18 to design new tools for counter-radicalization, with 45 teams taking part. There are new challenges and competitions like this frequently, and such projects are a great way to collaborate with friends with diverse skills and create something useful that none of you could have created on your own. If you haven’t learned programming yet, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Learn to Program Computers from a Young Age.” Better software can assist in identifying people vulnerable to radicalization, and make it easier to send the messages most likely to change their minds.
    • Stand against prejudice. There is no justification for violence and terrorism like the acts committed by al-Qaeda and ISIS. But when young Muslims in Western countries experience prejudice and hatred due to their religion and ethnicity, it is easier for radical clerics to convince them that killing is the answer. When young Muslims feel socially excluded and don’t have many non-Muslim friends, it is easier to see people of other faiths as “the enemy” instead of as individual human beings. For this reason, your actions to form friendships with Muslims in your community can undermine the extremists and prove them to be liars.

Sunni-Shiite conflict. There are two main branches of Islam in the Middle East: the Sunnis and the Shiites. Violence and resentment between them is a major cause of instability in that part of the world. Healing this divide can go a long way toward establishing peace.

  • Background. There is a long history of violence between Sunnis and Shiites, stretching back centuries. Both sides have grievances and remember injustices that they still resent. Today, most of the Muslim world is Sunni, with mostly Shiites in Iran. Iraq has high numbers of both, which is a cause of tension due to the lingering distrust between them. In the politics of the modern Middle East, the government of Saudi Arabia is the most powerful representative of Sunni interests. The two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina, are both controlled by the Saudis. Meanwhile, Shiite interests all over the world are represented by the government of Iran. Unfortunately, both of these governments follow extreme versions of their religious traditions. The Saudi leaders follow Wahhabism, which is a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam, and the Iranian leaders practice a fundamentalist version of Shia Islam with clerics controlling the government. The Saudis and Iranians don’t fight directly, but encourage their allies to fight each other in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Although the fighting in Syria gets most of the headlines, the violence in Yemen is also especially violent. Since 2015, there has been an ongoing civil war between the forces of Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is backed by the Saudis, and a Shia rebel group called the Houthis who are supported by Iran. al-Qaeda-linked groups have also taken over large areas of the countryside. All sides have targeted civilians, and more than 10,000 innocent people have been killed so far, with no end in sight.

  • Action. Promoting peace in the conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites will require improving human rights for everyone, as well as creating greater political freedom for women, who often lack basic rights and have little control over their own lives. Even though the war zones are too dangerous for you to visit yourself as a young person, you can organize your community to support some great charities doing valuable work in high-risk areas.
    • Iraq Foundation.25 This group is working both on short-term humanitarian relief projects and long-term efforts to rebuild human rights and democracy in Iraq. One of the main reasons ISIS was able to conquer so much of the country in 2014 was that its civil society was weak. People from different tribal groups did not trust each other, and Sunnis and Shiites looked out for themselves instead of putting the good of the country first. Establishing that trust and a strong belief in democracy can prevent a group like ISIS from ever returning to the country. The Iraq Foundation puts special focus on training women to be leaders in their communities, and helping them fight for full equality in society.
    • Amnesty International.26 A disproportionate amount of the human rights violations in the Yemeni civil war are committed against women and girls. They are often denied the educational opportunities that boys get and are forced into marriages while they are still children. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also very common in some parts of Yemen. Amnesty International documents these abuses for the world to see, and puts pressure on government leaders to stand up for the rights of victims. For more information on what you can do to end FGM, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and help Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation.”
    • Doctors Without Borders.27 The fighting in Yemen caused a breakdown in sewer systems and disrupted the people’s access to clean water. As a result, around a half million people contracted cholera, a deadly disease that is almost nonexistent in developed countries. Around 2,000 died in this epidemic, and more deaths are still happening. Other diseases are spreading, too, and the lack of medical care is causing people to die unnecessarily from minor illnesses. Doctors Without Borders sends physicians into the war zone to provide much-needed care and save lives.

Arab Spring aftermath. Following the failure of revolutions in several Middle Eastern countries, violence and instability are making it difficult for ordinary people to live their lives. Extremist groups and dictators are battling each other, with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

  • Background. In 2011, revolutions broke out in several majority-Muslim countries around the Middle East and North Africa. People were frustrated with living under harsh dictators, and flooded the streets with massive protests. Authoritarian leaders were forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The protesters wanted more freedom, and many demanded a transition to more democratic systems of government. At first, there were major successes. But despite early reasons for hope, everywhere but in Tunisia, serious violence soon returned. The protests also sparked the Syrian civil war, and prompted a brutal government crackdown in Bahrain. And so, there is tension throughout the Middle East. Many people got a taste of freedom during the Arab Spring, but now they are caught in the middle of ongoing violence and are desperate for positive change.


  • Watch these short videos to get a deeper understanding of how the Arab Spring happened and why it matters:
  • Action. You can help people in Arab Spring countries build a better future for themselves by supporting pro-democracy organizations, and also through working on innovations that make it harder for dictators to control people’s lives.
    • Project on Middle East Democracy.31 Known as POMED for short, this group uses a three-pronged approach for supporting freedom in the Muslim world. They conduct research aimed at finding what policies are most effective at promoting democracy. They also engage in advocacy in countries like the United States, urging the government to take an active role in strengthening democracy in the Middle East. Finally, they collaborate with organizations working in the region to help them be better change-makers. This includes training, leadership workshops, and expert advice.
      • National Democratic Institute.32 The NDI focuses on helping activists in these countries create institutions and traditions that most people in America and Europe take for granted. You can’t have a healthy democracy if minorities aren’t included in political parties, if elections are threatened by violence, if nobody holds debates where candidates can talk about important issues, and if young people don’t think that voting matters. NDI has studied how pro-democracy societies have been created in the past, and trains local activists with those lessons, so each country doesn’t have to make those same mistakes.
      • Technology. As discussed above, your creativity can have a major impact on people’s lives in the form of new innovations. Dictators can only hold onto power when they can confuse and frighten their citizens. Technology allows people to share information with each other without the government being able to stop them. In 2011, Facebook and Twitter were hugely important platforms for helping the protestors coordinate their activities. In watching videos about these conflicts and hearing the people speak about their problems, think of ways how new online platforms might be able to help them. For even more on how technology can be the best friend of democracy and human rights, see the entry for “How You Can Be a Danielle and Combat Totalitarianism in the World.”

For more information, please see the following entries in the companion book A Chronicle of Ideas: A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes): King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia, Madrassa Schools, General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu, Kadima, Likud, Palestine, Terahertz Frequency, Knesset, Quartet of Nations and Institutions, Nobel Peace Prize, Shiite, Sunni, Sunni Terrorist Groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Abbottabad, Qur’ān, Muhammad, Angel Jibril, Jihad, Allah, Infidels, al-Zawahiri, Breakaway group from al-Qaeda.


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