From Janessa Gans Wilder, founder and CEO of Euphrates Institute
“Who is your ‘Other’? Is it a group from a different religion, nation, ethnicity, race, gender, political party? What if you turned your ‘Other’ into your brother?”
This question is the premise of Janessa Gans Wilder’s Euphrates Institute, a global network of peacebuilders and changemakers, now comprising 25 chapters worldwide. Janessa started Euphrates after her career as a CIA analyst in Iraq, and as a direct result of shifting from seeing Iraqis as “the enemy” to seeing them as colleagues, friends, and brothers.
Post 9/11 I started out in Iraq as the CIA counterinsurgency analyst charged with Al Anbar province, part of the Sunni Triangle, and worked out of the Marine base near Fallujah. It was my job to provide additional intelligence to the military effort: Who exactly was fighting us, and why? Were they Saddam loyalists or Islamic jihadists? Were they supported from abroad? And whose side were the people on? Who were our enemies?
The intensity of the war zone was almost surreal: the deafening noise of artillery, the fatigue, the constant question of life and death, the Marines coming back wounded from the field, and the heavy burden of personal responsibility to do something—anything—to solve the problem. I tried my best to shed light on the situation. But as with too many other battles, Fallujah ended without moving us forward.
For me, however, Fallujah was decisive, the beginning of a personal turning point.
About a month after the battle, I was at a Special Forces base along the Euphrates River. One particular day, while on a rooftop on the banks of the river, I was so struck by the stillness of the water. The river was gently gliding, an intense blue matching the blue of the sky. I just wanted to float downstream.
Wait – Fallujah was downstream! The quiet of the river was so close to the intensity of the war zone, at the same time and practically the same space! Right then I realized that I couldn’t focus on both peace and war at the same moment. A soft but insistent thought came to me, Which will you choose: life and peace, or death and destruction?
That is when I realized that no matter how much death and destruction there was downstream, it could not affect the flow of the life-giving force of the river. No matter how many bombs went off, the water flowed on, undisturbed, undeterred, unaffected. The power of life is in the river…I choose the river!
My life changed as a result of the clarity of that moment. What came to me was that even in the bleakest of human circumstances, there is hope, there is life. We just need to open our eyes and see it.
So I vowed to work for hope and progress in Iraq rather than countering the insurgency, and asked to be reassigned to an assignment to help nascent Iraqi political parties prepare for the country’s first ever democratic election. Instead of interrogating Iraqis, I was listening to them. Instead of analyzing what was going wrong, I was helping to envision what could go right. I no longer saw Iraqis as a faceless enemy – these Iraqis became friends and colleagues with whom I shared common ground and purpose.
After the elections, I became the liaison for the new Prime Minister’s office and got to know him and his close associates. He shared with me an important lesson of Islam: A person is viewed like a “house.” In a house you have the outer door into the house and an inner door to get into the bedroom. The outer door is the heart, the inner door is the mind. You first have to reach a person through the heart and only then can you appeal to their logic and reason. This has become a model for me.
At my going away party, the spokesperson for the PM said to the group, “Janessa, we feel you are Iraqi.” I had come full circle. From seeing Iraqis as the enemy, to seeing them as partners; or in other words, they went from “Others” to brothers. I had come a long way from Fallujah.
I have learned this: Seeing anyone as the “enemy” doesn’t solve any problem. But when you see them as individuals, walk with them in their experience, understand even a little of their challenges, and relating to them can make a huge difference.
Wouldn’t someone be less likely to attack their community if they feel a part of it? Wouldn’t it be easier to tune out the influence of extreme rhetoric when the community members are known to them and they feel they belong…they don’t feel like the Other?
There is the potential for an incredible power of transformation when just a few individuals in a community determine to have a new mindset of Brothers Not Others, starting with empathy and heart…then connection, understanding, relationship, and belonging.
After I returned home in 2005 and left the CIA, I founded the Euphrates Institute to foster understanding between the West and the Middle East. There is concrete evidence that small, grassroots efforts can, over time, effect large-scale societal changes. Therefore the Euphrates Institute encourages local chapters of peacebuilders who look for innovative ways to create communities of Brothers, not Others. To date, there are 25 chapters worldwide including several in the US and Egypt, India, Burundi, Liberia, and Nigeria.
I invite you to be open to having an encounter with your “Other,” to learn something new about your Other, to have a fresh experience with your Other. Be open to a river of possibilities running right through the middle of your concept of your Other…and come to see your Brother who has been there all along.
Choose the transforming power of the river of possibilities…it may change your life, as it did mine.
The purpose of the Euphrates Institute is to inspire humanity with the power of peace and the difference each of us can make in the world and our communities, beginning with ourselves. For more information on local chapters or how to start a local chapter, go to www.euphrates.org.