Akbar AhmedCan something as simple as a letter become an olive branch from the world’s Muslim community to the Jewish community? It seems so, as Muslim leaders around the world signed a landmark letter last month calling for positive and constructive action to improve Jewish-Muslim relations. And the statement went one step further by openly acknowledging the root of tension as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Written by scholars from the Center for Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, a subgroup of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, the letter comes on the heels of stalled progress since last year’s peace summit between Israel and Palestine. And with such signatories as Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem; Sheik Suhaib Hasan, Grand Mufti of Bosnia; and Akbar Ahmed, American University professor and Islamic scholar, the letter is drawing praise from top Jewish leaders, though some also are wary of controversial activist Tariq Ramadan's signature on the letter. Beliefnet spoke with Prof. Ahmed about why he signed the letter, and why “unsexy dialogue” comes before actions in healing the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians.

What was the idea behind the letter? Why did you sign it?

It's a critical time for interfaith dialogue. And I'm aware of the pitfalls, because when I started this dialogue with the Hebrew congregation and Judea Pearl (father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl) not long after 9/11, there was a headline in a Pakistani newspaper suggesting that somehow I'd sold out.

After 9/11, it became a mission of mine. I was one of the signatories [of] the letter sent to the pope and the Christian leaders from the Muslim world. And I really felt that it was high time that something similar was done with the Jewish leadership. I talked to my daughter, Dr. Amineh Hoti, who is the head of a Jewish-Muslim relations center at Cambridge, and she consulted with Dr. Edward Kessler, who's a very well-known scholar of Judaism.

The two of them were critical in drafting this letter. When we sent it out [to Jewish leaders], we got an incredible response. But what’s really interesting is why a simple letter like this created such a stir: The state of dialogue between the Muslims and the Jews is so poor that even a simple call to dialogue sparks great interest and some controversy.

We had some Jewish people saying, "No, this is not far enough. It should have gone further." And we had some Muslims saying that we should have been much aggressive about Palestinian rights, and that this is a Zionist plot. But this is at the margin fortunately, because the mainstream response was positive.

Who was your intended audience for this letter?

The global audience. The moment you have something on the web, it’s everywhere. The reaction was not entirely surprising. What surprised me were people who said it's long overdue. And the most significant response came from Rabbi David Rosen, who's the main spokesman for the American Jewish community, head of the Jewish International Interreligious Initiative outreach, and adviser to the chief rabbi of Israel. David Rosen came in very strongly supporting this and responded by saying, "We should reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters."

This letter begins by saying it's a gesture of goodwill. Some would argue that we are beyond gestures--we need actions.

These people don’t know how the real world works. To say, "Let's solve the problems first," when there's so much tension between communities, is naïve. Some may say, "Well, let's solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, then we'll have goodwill." You are not going to reach that point unless you begin a process--a slow, complicated, difficult, agonizing, tear-jerking process of initial contact and dialogue.

How will the Israelis respond with any sense of sympathy or compassion, or vice versa, Muslims with sympathy and compassion for Israel's problems--unless there is some dialogue which is then followed up with understanding, reading each other's texts, visiting each other's places of worship, and creating friendships?

The bottom line here is this: A letter like this has acted as a catalyst to the idea of dialogue. I look at the situation in Gaza and the West Bank, and it's so bleak to someone like me--a Muslim who values Jewish, Christian, and Muslim life. And I believe that the tragic grimness of the situation should convince us that one letter isn’t enough, there should be a flood of letters to create a dialogue.

Dialogue on has been occurring between many faith groups, but some people still remain wary and mistrustful of each other. How does this letter chip away at this?

Last week in Houston, I was locked in dialogue for two days with a senior rabbi, two Vatican archbishops, and a Catholic priest, with tremendous responsiveness to the idea of just talking and understanding each other. The pope is now pushing this whole notion of dialogue and hosting an interreligious gathering [during his U.S. trip].

This letter is helping, but it's not moving fast enough. While we are having this dialogue, and it is creating friendships and it is changing hearts, you then have major events [in Gaza and elsewhere] that set everything back. So we need to be accelerating this and get more people involved.