A public peace process

by Shamil Idriss
William Butler Yeats once wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity”.

He was commenting on violence in the 19th century, but his words resonate today. In the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world it seems that the best among us are paralyzed and muted while the most extreme proceed to determine the world in which we all must live.

Opinions on how to improve this situation abound: a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, an end to acts of mass murder in the name of Islam, American independence from Middle Eastern oil...

These political realities cannot be ignored, but our problems run deeper. Consider the head-scarf debate in France, the vandalism of mosques in the U.S., the debate over Turkey’s acceptance in the EU, or the denial of entry to the U.S. of such harmless figures as Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf Islam.

Many Americans and Europeans now believe that Islam espouses violence, oppresses women, and opposes democracy and it would be a mistake to think these views are held only by the closed-minded. People see what is done in the name of Islam and can’t help wondering if there is something essentially barbaric about the religion.

In Muslim countries, views of the U.S. are more complicated. Polls reflect that while U.S. policies are largely despised, Americans are viewed favorably. But despite this nuance, those speaking loudest on behalf of Islam are those videotaping beheadings, blowing up civilians in Iraq, Indonesia, Egypt, and Israel, and murdering schoolchildren in Russia. Muslim opposition to such atrocities is increasingly vocal but tempered, perhaps because we sympathize with the causes of Palestinian, Chechen, and Iraqi independence even as we abhor the means that some use to pursue them. This equivocal response feeds Western suspicions of Islam.

Political agreements alone will not address these problems – what we need is a citizen-led public peace process.

One such initiative is Partners in Humanity (PiH), a program co-launched by HRH Prince El Hassan bin-Talal and the international conflict resolution organization Search for Common Ground. Among other initiatives, PiH seeks to foster cooperation in fields that touch millions of lives: mass media and development assistance.

Media polarizes, but it can also unite - by facilitating the exchange of views. The Common Ground News Service through which this article and hundreds like it have been distributed to editors in the West and in the Muslim world provides a pipeline for constructive ideas to appear in major newspapers. Similarly, televised citizen-conferences linking Americans with citizens from diverse Muslim countries for dialogue should be broadcast. Americans want to know what Muslims think of Beslan and Muslims want to know what Americans think of events in Iraq.

The media can also amplify thoughtful views. Public relations companies should be enlisted to serve dialogue centers and activists. It is not enough to bemoan the polarizing effect of the media. Advocates of rational discourse should learn to write press releases and opinion pieces in ways that are likely to get them published and aired, especially in times of crisis.

Finally, the media can broadcast models of cooperation using popular reality-television formats. Imagine TV shows featuring Americans and people from Muslim countries confronting challenges that require them to cooperate in order to prevail. Such programs might seem irrelevant given the seriousness of the times, but one can not underestimate the power of millions of viewers watching and rooting for Iranians, Egyptians, Indonesians, and Americans of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints cooperating toward a common goal.

Partners in Humanity’s second field of cooperative action is development assistance – a good in itself which is also a way to relieve conditions that feed extremism.

Concerns that charitable giving might go to terrorist organizations have had a chilling effect on Muslim charities. As Hany el-Banna, President of the UK-based humanitarian agency Islamic Relief reports, people are scared to donate money for fear of making mistakes or being wrongly targeted by overzealous government agencies.

Non-governmental aid agencies, multi-lateral institutions, and governments must cooperate to develop mechanisms to verify the transparency of charities working in Muslim countries. This would allow cash to flow again to good organizations so that those in need can receive support. PiH supports El-Banna’s efforts to mobilize this initiative. If successful, it will improve the lives of needy populations in Muslim countries and provide Western governments a way to combat extremism through compassion, not just military action.

This public peace process can work because the roots of activism run deep both in Islam and in the national ethos of the United States.

Americans are taught that we can achieve anything - that we can affect change, even on the grandest of scales. At an early age we learn of national heroes whose bold vision inspired millions to overcome huge challenges, none greater than that captured by Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream“ speech. Americans take pride in believing that ordinary citizens can advance social justice on a grand scale.

Similarly, Islam instills its adherents with hope and commands us to activism. We are taught that Islam not only accepts other monotheistic faiths, but embraces their roots as part of the same revelation – there is perhaps no more hopeful perspective for interfaith harmony. We are taught that we must work for justice in this world, rather than resign ourselves to finding justice in the afterlife. These lessons assume that changing the world for the better is not only possible but is in fact a duty of every Muslim.

Drawing on this shared activist tradition, Partners in Humanity and initiatives like it constitute a public peace process through which we can develop cooperative ventures in any field. They won’t solve the political issues, but our ability to resolve differences will increase as we cooperate in those areas where we agree. And by acting together, we can begin to shape the world around us, rather than feel helpless as extremists do it for us.


- Shamil Idriss is Director of Search for Common Ground's Islamic-Western Relations Program and a member of the Coordinating Committee for the World Economic Forum's Council of 100 Leaders. This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: CGNews, November 19, 2004

Visit the CGNews website at: http://www.sfcg.org/cgnews/middle-east.cfm

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
Is the world moving apart or coming together?
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why we do not get on - and what to do about it. by Steven Everts
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong? by Rami G. Khouri
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
Is the world moving apart or coming together? by Hazem Saghiyeh
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations by Sarah Eltantawi
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata