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Abdul Aziz Said, American University professor of international relations, dies at 90

When Abdul Aziz Said, the director emeritus of the American University Center for Global Peace, spoke about resolving political conflicts without violence, his conviction traced back to his own grief brought on by war.

In 1939, Dr. Said was 9, living in a village in northeastern Syria as the country struggled against French occupation. One day, he was playing soccer when a boy told him that his little brother was hurt. Dr. Said followed the boy to where 3-year-old Riyad was lying bleeding in the street. He had been fatally struck by a French military truck. Decades later, Dr. Said would often tell his students, he could still remember the taste of his brother’s blood in his mouth as he carried the body home.

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Dr. Said, who went on to become a leading scholar in the social science field of peace studies, died Jan. 22 at his home in Washington. He was 90 and the cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Elena Turner.

Dr. Said established the Center for Global Peace in 1995 as part of American University’s School of International Service, the department where he taught international relations for 59 years until his retirement in 2015. According to his AU biography, Dr. Said was the university’s longest-serving tenured professor.

The center, which Dr. Said directed for 15 years until 2010, organized workshops and hosted international conferences to bring people of different cultural and religious backgrounds together to focus on problem-solving skills, cooperation, education, economic development, human rights and social justice.

In addition, Dr. Said created the International Peace and Conflict Resolution master’s degree program at AU and wrote or co-wrote 25 books, including “Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East” and “Toward a Global Community: Sufism and World Order.”

He became a go-to expert for U.S. ambassadors to Syria and Foreign Service officers with the State Department's Near East Affairs Bureau. He served on the State Department's Future of Iraq project in the early 2000s and the White House Committee on the Islamic World in 1980.

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He traveled around the world as a lecturer for the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency. He also served as an adviser to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and participated in Israeli-Palestinian Peace talks. In recent years, Dr. Said, an orthodox Christian, gave talks on his research of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, as a framework for positive social change.

He served on the boards of nearly three dozen organizations, including the editorial boards of the Human Rights Quarterly journal and the International Journal of Nonviolence as well as the board of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, a Washington-based research group.

As a Syrian living in Washington, Dr. Said brought an insider’s view in his analysis of Islamic societies, said AU Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, who succeeded Dr. Said as director of the center, which closed in 2013. “He always took it upon himself to bring a different perspective to the mentality of diplomacy and power politics, one that emphasized respect of culture and faith,” Abu-Nimer said. “It sounds easy, seems obvious but in the 1970s and 1980s it wasn’t widely accepted in academic institutions or government hallways.”

Abdul Aziz Said Al Ishak was born in Amouda, Syria, on Sept. 1, 1930. His father, a Nationalist Christian member of parliament, was exiled by the French.

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After attending schools in Cairo and Beirut, Dr. Said came to Washington in 1950 to study at AU. He received his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees in international relations and became one of the original faculty members of the School for International Service. In 1996, he became the first occupant of the Mohamed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, an endowed university chair focusing on the study of Islam and peace.

Over the decades, he participated in civil rights marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid. In the late 1950s, he served as the faculty adviser of an AU chapter of Phi Epsilon Pi, a fraternity started by Jewish students who had been excluded from other Greek organizations.

His marriages to Lucille Brousseau and Elizabeth Schmucker, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 37 years, Elena Turner, of Washington, he leaves a son from his first marriage, Riyad Said of Huntington Beach, Calif.; a son from his second marriage, Jamil Said of Austin; six sisters; a brother; and two grandchildren.

“He was optimistic even as wars continued, especially the fighting in Syria, which affected him personally,” Abu-Nimer said. “We would talk about this, how after 50 years of doing this work, he could still have faith but he always said that peace and nonviolence are the least costly than war and the most humane.”