Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad's recent declaration that Israel should be "wiped off the map"--far from being an isolated case of rhetorical tantrum--is a cry for help, a demand for powerful international dialogue between Muslims and Jews. Those fiery words delivered to thousands of students at a "World Without Zionism" conference in October set a hard-line foreign policy course and underscored Washington's concerns about Iran and its nuclear intentions.

On the other hand, we see hope for building tolerance and peace, beginning with community-level relationships. We would like to share with readers a few encouraging observations from a modest dialogue program, the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding featuring Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl, which has both prepared an atmosphere of acceptance for dialogue in the service of public diplomacy, and also set the stage for the next phase of conversation.

Over the past two years--through public appearances, community discussions, and extensive touring within and outside the United States--we have been involved in a dialogue between Muslims and Jews. These are two communities whose grievances reflect and accentuate many of the issues and difficulties that American public diplomacy is facing abroad.

We initiated this program out of conviction that dialogue between Jews and Muslims is a necessary step toward easing world tension. Looking back on our experience in 10 American and foreign cities, we can identify a set of core issues that stand at the highest priority of our respective communities. We present them here in the form of position statements that Jews and Muslims would like to convey to, or hear from, each other.

First, Jews would like an unambiguous statement 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 likewise must ensure that the current surge in anti-Semitism is acknowledged, checked, and fought back at the highest levels of government.

Second, Muslims would like to convey to their Jewish counterparts that the religious basis for rejecting anti-Semitism is deeply entrenched in Islamic civilization. This is attested to by several things: the many and strong bonds between the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the respect Muslims have for the great shared biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac, and Moses; and for many rituals and values. Framing grievances in the context of this common religious and cultural basis is necessary for us to achieve understanding.

Third, Jews would like to hear that Muslim education and Muslim media are prepared to portray modern Jews as heirs to, and equal carriers of, the Abrahamic tradition.

Fourth, 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 in 1947, then the largest Muslim nation on earth, without ever having broken the law or going to jail.

"There is a growing sense of Islamophobia in the West..."
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  • Fifth, 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 a people oppressed. Simultaneously, Muslims need to also understand and appreciate Jewish history and the national aspirations of the Jewish people. In essence, a double narrative, of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, needs to be heard in both the Muslim and the Jewish media. Framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a clash between two legitimate national movements is a crucial first step for constructive discussion of this crucial issue.

    Sixth, Muslims point out that there is a growing sense of Islamophobia in the West which allows the prophet of Islam and the religion itself to be attacked with impunity. This Islamophobia 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 in the Muslim world which 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.

    Seventh, on the issue of terrorism, Jews would like to hear Muslim leaders take an unequivocal moral stance, not merely against the perpetrators of terrorist acts, but also against the ideologues and legitimizers 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 throughout the Muslim world. Such on-going dialogue needs a role model; we were inspired by the legacy of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist who earned respect in Muslim society and who came to symbolize the very ideas of religious tolerance and East-West dialogue.

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

    At one of these dialogues in Ottawa, for example, the Pakistani and Israeli ambassador were publicly seen sitting side by side. Israeli and Pakistani Counsel Generals participated in two other interfaith dialogues, long before Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shook hands at the United Nations Summit and King Abdulla of Jordan addressed a large gathering of rabbis in Washington.

    This means that individuals--Muslims and Jews, students and adults, public officials and religious leaders--should not be discouraged by incendiary calls for destruction of Israel. Each of us, all of us, should advance our own human interactions and diplomacy efforts to carve the path of dialogue itself. And it is a dialogue not only of civilizations, but for the future of mankind.

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