Carving the Path for Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

by Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl
19 January 2006
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Washing DC / Los Angeles - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent declaration that Israel should be "wiped off the map"-- far from being an isolated case -- underscores the reality that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be viewed in the context of global tension between Muslims and Jews, tension that is exacerbated by hostilities in the region and that simultaneously helps fuel those hostilities by inflaming fear and mistrust between the two sides.

Those fiery words, first delivered to thousands of students at a "World Without Zionism" conference, were meant to rally support for the Iranian regime by appealing to deeply entrenched sentiments in the Muslim community, the great majority of which perceive the establishment of the state of Israel as a conspiratorial injustice that is responsible for numerous problems that plague Muslim countries.

This mounting tension calls for an urgent and powerful international dialogue between Muslims and Jews to air basic grievances and search for common ground and shared goals. We would like to share a few observations from our dialogue program, "The Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding featuring Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl" (http://www.danielpearl.org/news_and_press/articles/muslim_and_jew_can_we_talk.html). Over the past two and a half years we have been convening town-hall styled dialogues between Muslims and Jews in eleven cities in the US, Canada and the UK.

We initiated this program convinced that dialogue between Jews and Muslims is a necessary step toward easing world tension. We set to ourselves two organizing principles; first, no issue is taboo and, second, disagreements should be represented as two narratives side by side. Issues ranged from theological interpretations of Biblical and Koranic texts down to hot issues in the news. Each of us learned to respect how the other perceives history and, with the help of the mixed audiences, each has offered ways of reconciling differences between the two perceptions.

We can identify a set of core priorities in our respective communities that came out of the dialogues, which we present here as position statements that Jews and Muslims want to convey to, or hear from, each other.

Firstly, Jews would like unambiguous statements condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance. Muslim communities need to take a clear moral stand regarding anti-Semitism, whatever their feelings about the politics of the Middle East. Muslim leaders must ensure that the current surge of anti-Semitism in Muslim countries is acknowledged, checked and fought back at the highest levels of government.

Secondly, Muslims would like to convey to Jews that the religious basis for rejecting anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Islamic civilization, as affirmed by the many and strong bonds among the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These include the respect Muslims have for shared biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac and Moses, and for many rituals and values.

Thirdly, Jews want to hear that Muslim education and media are prepared to portray modern Jews, with their contemporary rituals and beliefs, as legitimate heirs and equal carriers of the Abrahamic tradition. In other words, in addition to revering Abraham and other Biblical figures, Muslim educators must acknowledge that modern Judaism, with its many shades, is a perfectly legitimate version of the teachings of those Biblical figures.

Fourthly, Muslims would like to explain Islam's attitudes toward and practice of democracy, human rights and civil liberties, to gain trust in their ability to implement those rights and liberties in the context of Islamic traditions. Here the example of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan revered by Pakistanis as the Quaid-i-Azam, or great leader, is illuminating. Jinnah was the embodiment of parliamentary democracy and believed in human rights and respect for the law. He achieved the creation of Pakistan in1947, then the largest Muslim nation on earth, without ever breaking the law.

Fifthly, Jews must be given clear understanding where Muslims stand with regard to the State of Israel. Reaction to Israel is complicated by the strong feeling Muslims have for Palestinians, whom they see as oppressed. Simultaneously, Muslims need to understand Jewish history and respect Jewish national aspirations. A double narrative of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples needs to be heard in both the Muslim and Jewish media. Framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a clash between two legitimate national movements is a crucial step for constructive discussion of this issue.

Sixthly, Muslims point out that there is a growing sense of Islamophobia in the West that allows the prophet of Islam and the religion itself to be attacked with impunity. This encourages the perception that the loss of Muslim lives is of little concern to the rest of the world, and further feeds into the sense of anger, desperation and injustice--which then strengthens violent people. Unfortunately, many Muslims perceive the Islamophobia as a creation of Jews, and there is a conspiracy-theory mindset that tends to blame Jews for the ills of the Muslim world. Jewish leaders must be more active and visible in the fight against Islamophobia. Muslim leaders, in turn, must help dispel unfounded conspiracy theories.

Seventhly, on the issue of terrorism, Jews would like to hear Muslim leaders take an unequivocal moral stance, against both the perpetrators of terrorist acts and the ideologues and legitimisers of such acts - in particular, suicide bombings against Israelis. The red line against the targeting of innocent lives cannot be crossed for any grievance.

Finally, in order to overcome the chasm of misunderstanding and bad history that exists between the two communities, an official long-term, public dialogue of the Abrahamic faiths must be supported. Such on-going dialogue needs a role model; we were inspired by the legacy of Daniel Pearl, an American Jewish journalist who earned respect in Muslim society and who came to symbolize the very ideals of religious tolerance and East-West dialogue.

With the help of this symbol, we were able to carve a path of legitimacy in our communities and to witness our dialogues playing a positive role in the warming of relations between Israel and the Muslim world.

The lesson we draw from our experience is that individuals--Muslims and Jews, youth and adults, public officials and religious leaders -- should not be discouraged by incendiary calls for the destruction of Israel. Each of us, all of us, should advance our own human interactions and diplomacy efforts to carve the path of dialogue. And it is a dialogue not only of civilizations, but for the future of humankind.

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* Akbar Ahmed, a former high commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom, is Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University. Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org), named after his murdered son, and a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of California, Los Angeles. A preliminary version of this article was posted on Beliefnet, November 17, 2005 (http://www.beliefnet.com/story/179/story_17913_2.html).

Source: The Common Ground News Service, January 19, 2006 – Editors’ Note: A preliminary version of this article was posted on Beliefnet, November 17, 2005.

Visit the Common Ground News Service Online: www.commongroundnews.org

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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