The Iraq Thomas Hill knows is not the place you’ve read about in the news.
The director of the peacebuilding concentration in the Center for Global Affairs master’s program at the School of Professional Studies, he’s traveled to Iraq some 30 times since 2003—most often to the Kurdistan Region in the north, where he works in partnership with faculty and students at the University of Duhok, home to the country’s only degree-granting program in peace and conflict studies.
“I come back after spending a few weeks there and then read the news and look at the television here and routinely ask myself, ‘What is that?’” Hill says. “It doesn’t correspond to my experience.”
That’s partly because Duhok has been largely untouched by the very real violence and chaos visited upon cities such as Baghdad and Fallujah over the past decade, Hill admits. Throughout the American occupation from 2003-2011 and beyond it remained one of the safest places in all of Iraq—safer by some measures, he says, than parts of New York City.
But Hill’s most recent visit this summer came just weeks after a major development: the capture by Sunni militant group the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, less than 50 miles south of Duhok. Are people in Duhok concerned? Of course, Hill says, “but even at its worst in the past month or two, the city has remained pretty serene.”
Simply reading headlines about the ominous advance of the Islamic State could give you the wrong impression about how the insurgents operate, Hill cautions. “We’re talking about a relatively small number of people who don’t control territory in a traditional sense,” Hill says. “They tend to come in and leave and then come in again and leave again, the effect of which is to make people feel very insecure.”
And in Duhok, unlike in Mosul, residents aren’t faced with direct violence as much as confronted with related quandaries, such as how to deal with a large refugee population that the city has absorbed from Syria and elsewhere in Iraq. With the school year just beginning, for example, it’s unclear whether Duhok classrooms will be able to accommodate all of the displaced children, Hill says.
Stories about these kinds of everyday challenges are often missing from coverage by news organizations tasked with presenting a broad overview of developments in the region, Hill reflects. But subtlety and granularity are hallmarks of his academic realm—peace and conflict studies, an interdisciplinary field drawing on everything from political science and sociology to anthropology, psychology, and economics to study and define peace as something more than just the absence of war. “Peace isn’t a switch you can flip on and off,” Hill says.
Even with the United States once again intervening in Iraq, both through air strikes and diplomatic efforts, Hill laments that this isn’t likely a problem that can be solved by politicians working within two- or four- or even 12-year terms. In Iraq, he cautions, taking the long view is essential. “The Islamic State is thinking in a timeframe that stretches back to the year 700,” Hill says. “They have all the time in the world.”
An even thornier question is how the United States, working with the Iraqi government and other world leaders, should go about negotiating peace with an organization that seems uninterested in it.
Hill, for one, has little patience for that old line about not negotiating with terrorists. “I think it’s important to talk to everybody,” he says. “Individuals or groups who are deeply committed to the use of violence to diminish others’ humanity are deeply problematic to me. But most of the time the reason they’ve become dedicated to those approaches it that they’ve lost everything else. They’ve realized the way they can win an asymmetric battle is by being extreme.” That means that the first step to stopping the violence might mean asking, “How can your dignity and humanity be restored to you?”
Does that mean sitting down with the Islamic State—or Al Qaeda or anyone else—the day after they’ve committed atrocities against American citizens? No. But at some point, Hill says, peacebuilding does come down to being a good listener—even when it’s painful. “I have to be able to sit here and say, ‘I can see how they saw it, and I wish it hadn’t come to that,” he says. “But it’s that last part—‘I wish it hadn’t come to that’—where we have a chance to do something different.”
One of Hill’s most cherished experiences was a summer course (offered in 2012 and 2013) that matched his NYU students with Iraqi counterparts from the University of Duhok. Working in pairs, they conducted field research in Iraqi Kurdistan on topics ranging from public education and religious conversion to business development and women’s rights—all of which play a role in the peacefulness of a society. Their jointly authored findings have been published in a book called Finding Peace in Iraq: Joint Field Research on New Approaches to Peacebuilding in the Kurdistan Region. (A second volume is forthcoming.)
In the next iteration of the program, Hill hopes to bring the students back to New York City to conduct peace research here—because the single greatest lesson the Iraqi and American students end up learning from each other is that the issues that affect people in Duhok can be similar to ones faced by New Yorkers and people the world over. The violence in Ferguson, Missouri this summer? “It’s not as if the day before that event occurred everything was fine,” Hill says. “There were some very serious structural imbalances there, which meant the society was not peaceful.”
Whether in Iraq or closer to home, the primary job of the peacebuilder, he reflects, is to ask: “Can we find people who are marginalized, can we listen to them, and can we figure out how public policies, schools, economic systems, families, and faith organizations can intervene so that people do not get to the point where they feel like violence is the only or the best option?”