Doctoral Student Goes to Hollywood to Teach Peace Techniques

By Buzz McClain

The idea was to bring Jewish and Muslim teenagers together to learn basic karate self-defense moves. What could go wrong?

As it happened, a lot went right, which comes as no surprise to Soolmaz Abooali, the George Mason University PhD student who is developing a program to use sports—in this case, karate—to teach peacebuilding.

Participants in Mason PhD student Soolmaz Abooali’s karate demonstration receive certificates of completion.
Middle row: Actor Joaquin Phoenix is fourth from left, Abooali is sixth from left, S-CAR Dean Kevin Avruch is third from right.

Earlier this month, Abooali, a member of the USA National Karate team and a student at George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), got the chance to demonstrate her research in Los Angeles, with S-CAR dean Kevin Avruch and Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix looking on. Phoenix, as it happens, “is a supporter of this initiative,” says Abooali. “He believes in the value of martial arts and what it does for a person’s development.”

Also on hand was United Nations official Gay Rosenblum-Gumar and executive director of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, Dot Maver.

The reviews from Hollywood are thumbs up.

“The workshop was an incredible and refreshing experience,” says Mona Ghannoum, one of the Muslim participants. “It’s not often that you have a conflict resolution or interfaith workshop through sport, and I thought all three aspects were tied together beautifully.”

“Learning about self-reflection and its relationship with karate sharpened my emotional senses, and taught me values of wellness,” says Rebecca Elspas, one of the Jewish participants. “Instead of simply being told the answer of how to achieve conflict resolution and self-reflection, these ideas encouraged me to ponder further.”

Karate Workshop

Abooali demonstrates basic karate techniques.

The concept behind her research is simple, according Abooali. If you teach someone the principles of traditional martial arts—basically, self-reflection and equilibrium of the mind, body and spirit—they can apply those lessons to better position themselves to address social issues, as well as to help others create the same kind of peace.

Transitioning to practice, the pairs were taught a basic punch, block and kick. These techniques were applied in drills that exposed them to trust-building, attainment of emotional stability, releasing ego and energy exchanges that required the participants to receive and give to each other.

“By staying in tune to their ‘mind, body, spirit’ reactions and equipped with this raw information, the pairs came back to the discussion setting and, in groups of four, designed their theory on what self-reflection means,” says Abooali. “I have to say that they came up with sophisticated ideas that would challenge some scholars! I was impressed.”

By the end of the session, the students were “huddled around each other exchanging phone numbers and asking if there was any way we can continue this momentum and build on this,” she says.

Sports, points out S-CAR dean Avruch, has been used to build bridges before, such as when Iran and the U.S. national wrestling teams met in competition in the 1990s.

Karate Self Relfection

Abooali leads a discussion on self-reflection.

“We at S-CAR teach that there is no one modality, technique or ‘royal road’ to building peace,” he says. “Remember that long before formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Peoples’ Republic of China were established, a thaw was signaled when an American table tennis team was invited to compete with a Chinese one.

“At the interpersonal level, sports between adversaries may build teamwork, mutual respect and trust. The martial arts, as Soolmaz uses them, are somewhat special, since they also build within individuals self-discipline and confidence—which turn out to be valuable personal attributes for peacemakers to possess.”

Abooali’s peacebuilding intentions were not lost on the participants who were enthused and energized by the event.

Dot Maver, left, presents to Abooali the Nicholas Roerich Banner of Peace.

Maver, who presented Abooali with an award at the end of the event, says, “it was   inspiring to observe Soolmaz bring a group of individuals to an awareness of themselves as a group in a relatively short period of time. Perhaps ‘friendship through sport’ is a fitting phrase. This interactive workshop provided a firsthand experience of the probability of peace through sport when competent facilitators engage youth in cross-cultural settings with a focus on mind, body, spirit and reflective dialogue.”

As for the future, Abooali would like to continue the hands-on aspects of her research. “I’m committed to involving players from different tracks,” she says. “It’s not just grassroots; you have to involve the policy- and decision-makers and create partnerships.”

Abooali says she continues to learn about the world, and herself, through her sport.

“My instructor, Michael Tabassi [who was present at the workshop and represented the American Amateur Karate Federation], taught me how to learn through the exploratory practices of the martial arts,” she says. “More importantly, he inspired me to dedicate myself, and by extension my research, to empowering a generation of people to be critically reflective members of society.

“A ‘peaceful’ world can only be achieved if we make it a priority to understand our own goals, desires and needs, and use that knowledge to address broader social issues. Perhaps the educator and philosopher Paulo Freire said it best: ‘Human activity consists of action and reflection.’”