Emory Report

April 13, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 28

Sudan course gives students
taste of real-world mediation

Students taking a new course this semester called "Religion and Conflict: The Sudan" have little in the way of textbooks, but they have something even better: access to key people who are dealing with the issue on a daily basis. Religion professors Richard Martin and Thee Smith have brought the world into their classroom in an effort to bring the topic alive for students.

The course represents an effort by the Department of Religion to break away from focusing exclusively on religious traditions-what Martin calls "religion at the center"-and begin to deal with "religion at the periphery, or at the boundaries where religions encounter one another."

"Such encounters have become conflictual in the Sudan," said Smith. "In this largest country in Africa civil war has pitted a Northern Islamic party against South Christians and African traditional religionists in this centry's longest war (30 years)."

Guest lecturers for the course have included former President Jimmy Carter; Brookings Institution senior fellow Francis Deng, who also is former Sudan ambassador to the United States; Tamra d'Estree of George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Resolution; Emory Law School's Abdullahi An-Na'im, a native of Sudan and specialist in religious human rights; and Ivan Karp, NEH Distinguished Professor in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and director of the Institute of African Studies.

Martin and Smith decided to bring into the course outside experts to give students a concrete "understanding of the complexity and historical rootedness of the conflict in the Sudan, particularly as it involves religion, so that they can begin to understand the complexity of the problem and why it isn't easily resolved," according to Martin. The result was "an embarrassment of riches to present to the students."

In addition to giving students a chance to discuss the issues with people who have had various experiences with conflict resolution and the Sudan, Smith said, the course also incorporates a theory practice approach to learning. Students began the semester by completing a workshop on conflict resolution sponsored by the National Coalition Building Institute, with which Smith is affiliated. In the workshops, said Smith, "students could see in a more interactive way how issues play out in certain situations."

Students also gained practical information from President Carter, who shared his experiences in negotiating for peace in the Sudan. "President Carter gave us some valuable specifics on how to approach conflict resolution," said sophomore Andy Breuer, who recalled Carter's description of hammering out agreements line by line on a laptop computer between parties who refused to be in the same room together.

Technology plays a strong role in the course; in addition to texts on conflict resolution theory, students had access to the most current online information and even joined an international Sudan listserve maintained by Abdelmoneim Younis, a researcher at Yerkes Primate Research Center.

The course's final requires students to write grant proposals on some aspect of conflict resolution that could be submitted to agencies such as the United States Institute of Peace in Washington or the Frank Guggenheim Foundation in New York. While the exam is more an exercise than an actual product at this point, said Smith, "other uses for the proposals are possible." He and Martin plan to propose the course be included as part of the regular curriculum. Since the course materials will continue to be available on LearnLink, Smith said, "they could have a life beyond this semester."

According to junior Melissa Lane, students have been brainstorming and coming up with a variety of grant proposal ideas, some of which include bringing conflicted Sudanese parties together to work on a common goal not related to the conflict; studying the effect of the media in perpetuating conflict; and examining and reducing the negative impact of third parties like Ethiopia, Iraq and Libya in conflict situations.

Breuer said the course has altered his world view. "In college we get caught up in the bubble of our academic lives," he said. "The hundreds of thousands of people in the Sudan and elsewhere who have died over religious causes makes conflict in the United States seem minimal by comparison. I'm convinced the issues that are closer to home aren't necessarily the bigger issues we should be addressing."

-Elaine Justice

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