Muslim & Jew: Can we talk
Judea Pearl, a Jewish computer scientist born in Israel, and Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim Islamic scholar born in Pakistan, were brought together in Pittsburgh by hope born of tragedy.
The tragedy was the brutal murder of Judea Pearl's son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, at the hands of Islamic extremists in Pakistan last year. The hope was they might lead a public dialogue addressing the deepest unspoken fears that divide Jews from Muslims, and Muslims from the West, and make possible a little more peace, a little less war.
Pearl and Ahmed also harbored a mutual fear -- that such a public dialogue might disintegrate in mutual recriminations. More than 400 people attended their first forum on Oct. 23 in Oakland, which was hosted by David Shtulman, area director for the American Jewish Committee. It did not fall apart. It went so well, the speakers believe, that they have asked Shtulman to help them replicate the event in cities across the United States, in Europe, in Israel and in Arab countries.
We asked Pearl and Ahmed to reflect on what happened in Pittsburgh last month, and how they see the way forward for what is now their joint project.
President Bush and other policy-makers concerned about dismal relations with the Muslim world have something to learn from the example of Judea Pearl, father of the brutally slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. With great moral courage and compassion, the Pearl family converted a personal tragedy of biblical proportions into a platform for understanding. American leaders should heed the Pearl family's example if they truly want to positively impact the world in which they operate.
The hatred, anger and violence that sealed Danny's fate, and which poison relations between the United States and the Muslim world, need to be seen in the context of our times.
In my new book, I write of Muslims the world over who suffer from daily injustices and dishonor in regions such as Palestine, Kashmir, the Balkans and Chechnya. The sufferings lead to feelings of besiegement that make rational dialogue close to impossible.
I also point to the sense of besiegement felt in other societies, citing as an example America following Sept. 11, 2001. Israelis have also felt under siege since the creation of their state, surrounded as they are by an overwhelming number of hostile neighbors.
A historical conjunction of factors has created a global situation where several world civilizations feel simultaneously besieged and where hatred and anger readily turn into violence. Perhaps what makes all this even more dangerous is the lack of knowledge about the other.
Muslims need to understand how deeply hurtful and inflammatory phrases like "final solution," "final victory," "extermination" and references to the Jews as "modern Nazis" can be to Jews. Many Jews are highly critical and vocal about actions contributing to the deaths of innocent Muslims. They are therefore doubly hurt at what they see as Muslim insensitivity.
Muslims would do well to understand the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. This blind acceptance is exemplified by a recent documentary broadcast in the Middle East, which portrayed "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" as historical fact.
It would help the broadcasters to know that the Protocols, which are supposed to be a blueprint for Jewish world domination, were written to defame the Jews in the late 19th century by the Russian czar's secret service. Use and dispersement of such damaging propaganda poses great threat to the understanding needed to bridge divides in the world today.
Even just last month at the Organization of Islamic Conferences meeting in Malaysia, outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said "today the Jews rule the world by proxy," by which he meant the United States of America.
Mahathir's remarks did not surprise me, as many Muslims express similar sentiments. What did surprise me, however, was the standing ovation given to Mahathir by the 57 heads of state of the Muslim world, many of whom claim close relationships with the United States.
If Muslims would seriously read American writers, perceptions about America might shift from hostility to tolerance, and maybe even to appreciation. Take Benjamin Franklin, one of the extraordinary Founding Fathers of America, for example. Writing in his autobiography two centuries ago, Franklin opened his arms to Muslims from abroad and even promised that were the leading cleric of Istanbul to arrive, "he would find a pulpit at his service." This knowledge will help dispel the stereotypes in many a Muslim mind, that most Americans are racist and Islamophobic.
Muslim leadership also needs to help Muslims who emphasize only the combative aspects of Islam to rediscover the strong central features of compassion and tolerance in their faith. They need to be reminded that two of the greatest attributes of God are compassion and mercy.
Muslim leadership needs to understand the challenge to their faith from within and speak out loud and clear. It also needs to be much more active in interfaith dialogue and interactions with the media in explaining Islam.
The picture on the other side is equally discouraging.
All polls confirm that the majority of Americans have virtually no idea of Islam. They don't know that Islam is part of the Abrahamic tradition in its religion, culture and ideology and sees itself as such. Abraham, Moses and Jesus are highly revered figures who are deeply loved in Islam.
Such ignorances contribute to why Muslims are infuriated when they hear of hostile comments from someone like U.S. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, whose professional duty it is to deal with Muslims. To Boykin, Muslims are idol-worshippers and Islam is equivalent to the worship of Satan. This to a Muslim, for whom idolatry is perhaps the worst of all sins, is astonishing ignorance. Muslims simply cannot believe that ignorance on this level is possible, and they are inclined to see conspiracies everywhere.
For those Americans who believe that Islam simply means violence -- particularly with the powerful images of 9/11, the death of Danny Pearl, etc. -- an understanding of Islam found in its great spiritual figures becomes imperative. The great poet Maulana Rumi is one such example. Rumi has become a popular poet in America because he conveys the sense of unity in faith. His moving verses of synagogue, church and mosque containing the same spirit are relevant to our times.
America's values of liberty, democracy and human rights resonate in the Muslim world. Yet today Americans are seen as supporting brutal dictators or engaged in several brutal wars with Muslim peoples.
The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan needs to be understood in this context, whatever the so-called media experts tell us. And whatever the experts are telling us the situation in both countries is spinning out of control.
In the Muslim world, America is perceived to unfairly support the state of Israel, which is then given free rein in Palestine. In order to bring peace to the region, both Israelis and Palestinians need to change not so much their negotiating skills but their hearts. In order for this to happen, both need to and can develop an understanding of what is common between them -- starting with their common prophet and patriarch Abraham.
Finally and most important of all, the central Abrahamic message of compassion -- exemplified so perfectly by Jesus -- needs to be rediscovered. While dialogue is too often couched in terms of scoring points and tit-for-tat exchanges, we see too few attempts at reaching out in compassion.
That is why the Pittsburgh dialogue with Dr. Pearl was so important. It was a tiny but essential step. This kind of dialogue needs to be repeated in the United States and the Muslim world. As we get to know each other, we become friends and begin to challenge the stereotypes about ourselves.
Dr. Pearl's grandson and Danny's son is called Adam. My grandson is Ibrahim (or Abraham). These names could have been interchanged, as both Adam and Abraham are figures common to both traditions. If we can bring such bonds to the attention of our communities and our national leaders, we can generate further dialogue, and the meeting at Pittsburgh will have served its purpose.
When I was invited to take part in a one-to-one public dialogue with Professor Akbar Ahmed, I immediately said, "Of course." After all, I represent my son, Daniel Pearl, who practiced dialogues with Muslims on a daily basis, and who has come to symbolize, through the tragic circumstances of his death, the very idea of East/West dialogue. Additionally, the Daniel Pearl Foundation (of which I am the president) has it on its charter to promote cross-cultural understanding, so it is only natural that we explore public dialogues as a forum for achieving our mission.
I later had some doubts, though, whether a dialogue dwelling on religious beliefs in our respective communities would be effective in dealing with the complex issues at hand. To those who live in a pluralistic society, and especially Jews, who rely on pluralism for survival, religious differences are merely curious variants of one universal principle: "Love thy neighbor;" hence they are deemed irrelevant in discussions of substantive issues.
One of the lessons I have learned from the dialogue session in Pittsburgh (and from reading Professor Ahmed's insightful book "Islam Under Siege") is that this view is oversimplistic. Although religious differences may not mean much to secular Westerners, they are the dominant factors in shaping most Muslims' perception of world affairs. Moreover, Muslims' perception of being "under siege," as unexpected as it may look to a naive Westerner considering their number and resources, is both genuine and pervasive, and takes on religious, not political dimension in the Muslim street.
Although some analysts submit that part of this perception is generated by agenda-driven media and conspiracy-minded intellectuals, we must nevertheless acknowledge its existence, analyze its sources and deal with its ramifications.
We must also come to terms with the hard fact that much of the Muslim world perceives the war on terrorism as a war against Islam, and not enough is being done to make the distinction clear and crisp. Unfortunately, when terrorism is inflamed by religious zeal against the Judeo-Christian tradition, actions to prevent terrorism are easily misinterpreted as actions against Islam.
Muslim clerics can help sharpen this distinction by denouncing Bin-Ladenism with the same fervor that perceived anti-Islamic heresy usually evokes among Islamic leaders (e.g., Salman Rushdie). I hope future sessions of this dialogue will explore how Muslim clerics, starting in the West, can help make it known to all that Bin-Ladenism is a form of heresy according to Islam .
By far the most urgent message that Jewish readers would like to convey to their Muslim counterparts is the followings:
"We are not your enemy. Look at our record: We have fought hard for civil rights and religious tolerance, our own hateful extremists have been shunned and marginalized, we are veterans and experts in fighting siege and we can be your allies in your legitimate fight for dignity and acceptance.
"You are trying hard to assure us that Islam, as defined in the Quran, is a peaceful religion, but this is not our main concern. We are not terribly bothered by passages in the Quran that may be interpreted as contemptuous of Jews, because our Torah too has embarrassing passages (e.g., 'eye for an eye'), and we have managed to interpret them honorably; we trust you do likewise. Our concern stems from watching an 8-year-old girl stating on TV that Jews are 'apes and pigs' and that 'the Quran says so.' This does not support the peaceful nature of her teachers' religion, and we need your help in pointing her teachers to the true nature of Islam. Truth is in the practice."
Where I may differ with my distinguished colleague is on ways of defusing Muslims' perception of being under siege. Whereas Professor Ahmed will probably emphasize policy changes toward Muslim countries, I would emphasize perception change, namely, examining the information that has contributed to this perception and help and try to correct for distortions or inaccuracies, if any.
Take for instance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Professor Ahmed and I understand that this conflict is basically a local land dispute between two nations of refugees, each tired and bleeding and each yearning for a long-denied day of normalcy. Yet in the Muslim world, the conflict is invariably portrayed as an imperialist war against Islam the religion. The human face of 5 million Jewish refugees in Israel is hardly seen on Al-Jazeera or Malaysian TV. Thus, one issue I hope to discuss with Professor Ahmed in the future is whether calling for a change in U.S. policy in the region can be effective without a simultaneous call for an honest and open portrayal of all people in the region, Palestinians as well as Israelis.
Questions of intellectual honesty also underscore the famous "Jewish" speech of Mahathir Mohamad, the (now retired) prime minister of Malaysia, which he delivered last month at an Islamic summit. Regardless of his theories about who controls the world, Mahathir cannot possibly believe that Jews are the major impediment to progress in the Muslim world. Malaysia itself is a living proof that a Muslim country can make significant progress without a "final victory" over the Jewish "enemy."
What Jewish readers would like to convey to their Muslim colleagues is that such fantasies, when stated and applauded by heads of states and by the sweeping majorities of their respective constituencies, tend to discredit legitimate claims of Muslims in general. We rely on our Muslim colleagues to help dispel those fantasies in their respective communities and to help spread our first message: We are not your enemies. We can be your allies.
These examples illustrate the nature and style of the dialogues we hope to pursue. The unique feature of this forum is that we share the same utopian vision -- peace and mutual respect among nations and religions -- and we likewise agree on the principles that should govern the means for achieving that vision, based on the Abrahamic tradition of universal empathy and compassion.
We may differ in our assessments of the effectiveness of various policy options, but this kind of difference is more likely to be bridged by discussion and exchange of factual information. Our aims are modest, but their ripple effects may be enormous if people from both communities join the discussion in the same style.
When asked why I joined this dialogue forum, I answered that it is my duty to continue my son's life-work -- dialogue was his mission and avocation. For us, Daniel's family and thousands of people worldwide who support our foundation, the legacy of Daniel Pearl is not a story of martyrdom, nor a claim on victimhood, nor an indictment of the Islamic religion, but a proud reminder of what Abrahamic humanity stands for and a vivid inspiration for the long road ahead.
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