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.

How do you bring dialogue down to the neighbors who live across from each other and have been mistrustful of each other their whole lives?

I last met Judea Pearl in Kansas a few months ago at a church, and there were about 1,400 people that day: ordinary students and shopkeepers, local journalists, priests, rabbis, imams and students--it was all a mixture of society. And many of them said this is the first time they spoke to a Muslim or a Jew.

So [this dialogue] is affecting regular people. And not recognizing this indicates that the media does not recognize us. The media continues to have one way of looking at this problem, which is quite cynical, which is quite dismissive because they believe dialogue is not sexy alone.

Why is the media blacking out something that is so important? The world faces two or three major crises: global warming, world poverty and starvation, and religious and ethnic conflict and hatred. Our process will help bring down that ethnic and religious conflict.

This letter states that Jews and Christians have always been considered followers of the same God as in the Qur’an. But some Muslims call on passages advise Muslims not to trust Jews. What do you say to people who focus on that?

We are all very aware of our sacred texts. Like the Bible, like the Judaic text, like the Hindu text, every sacred text has verses, which in the context of the 21st century, would seem inflammatory. So if the Bible is saying “smite here and smite there,” that can be taken completely out of context. You can justify your actions today by applying or misapplying these verses.

We are aware of these verses. But let's put them aside. They can’t be changed. So let's see what the positive verses say. Let's see what verses talk about reaching out. If we can begin to talk, it can then genuinely lead to some understanding.

Mistrust and downright hatred can be so ingrained. How do we remind each other of all we share?

We use the media to get our message across. The great asset the Abrahamic faiths have is precisely what is common. And what is common between Judaism and Islam and Christianity is same monotheistic, global God. Number two, we share great messengers from Abraham to Moses right down. Number three, the Ten Commandments. Number four, we share values and some of the dietary restrictions. And then above all, we share the notion of the afterlife.

And we’re all facing the same problems now: There's global warming. There's vast poverty in many parts of the world. There’s the AIDS pandemic in Africa, and then there's global, religious conflict all over the place. How do you bring down the temperature? By pointing out what is common between the faiths.

Each one of us must look into our own inner conscience and say, where do we stand? Do we stand for status quo, which means let things as they are? Or do we believe that we can change things?

This letter states that the root of most mistrust right now boils down to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. And it calls for a peaceful solution. But is there any idea about what that can be?

Look away from the Palestinian-Israel conflict, which seems so bleak right now. Look at India and Pakistan. We are talking of a global crisis in the confrontation between two countries, which have fought three wars, both nuclear, with a combined population of over a billion people. And what's the situation today? There is a thaw. There's even friendship. How did this happen? Because efforts were made by both sides to see what was common between them.

That's what Jews and Muslims have to start doing--they have to see what is common between us and build on that. I can then see a time when the Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and harmony, live in security, and above all with mutual respect and love for each other.

What will be the next step now? Where do we go from here?

There’s already much that is going on. At my daughter’s center she has a vigorous program of courses with Jewish, Muslim, Christian people. She takes conservative Muslim women to synagogues and vice versa. She just introduced a syllabus for teaching Judaism and Islam in the schools. And Judea Pearl and I are continuing our dialogue around the country. That’s just a small part of it.

There is a lot happening on the ground. It’s not just a letter-writing exercise.

You’ve been at this a long time. What inspires you to keep going?

People like me who come from a religious tradition, who have a belief that human beings are essentially good, essentially compassionate--we have to revive that spark, because the world in which we're living is a very cynical world. It is a very dangerous world, and it's easy [for our spark] to be switched off.

What inspires me are two things. First, my immediate family. Number two, the young generation that I meet inspires me. They have no cynicism, no hesitation. This young generation, they are going to change the world. The older generation and the media are cynical, and they say, "They'll blow us up. Whatever you do, they'll blow us up." The young generation says, "Everything is possible. We can change things."
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