Jewish-Muslim Dialogue Can Deliver

Politics and the control of territory are the real issues behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not religion.

It would seem today that many view the great divisions among humankind and the dominating sources of conflict as being religious. This isn’t true, but as more and more is made of the potential for a clash of civilizations, the possibility could become real. There is already more than a little distrust and lack of accommodation between Western and Muslim societies, and these divisions are increasing in importance.

Radicalism, even though few of its objections to the status quo are valid or semi-valid, has a way of overwhelming public discourse. More than ever, we must realise that there is little difference between the various religions, all of which aim to provide similar systems of ethics and morals and a path to a closer connection with God. We must embark upon the challenge of creating a new reality by returning to the commonalities between these religions. When ordinary citizens unite in a commitment to positive change, a 'culture of dialogue' to promote peace and prevent conflict will come into being.

It is incumbent upon the world’s Jewish and Muslim leaders to call for more interfaith dialogue, and make positive contributions to the cause of ethnic and religious tolerance. In addition to improving Muslim-Western relations generally, it would be easier to resolve the political conflict between Arabs and Jews, notably the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, if religion were removed from the equation.

Because of the recent history of warfare that has separated Arabs, who are mostly Muslim, and Jews, the underlying unity of Judaism and Islam is seldom recognised, except by scholars. These two great world religions not only have the same origins but the formulation of the ethical teachings of Islam resemble in many ways the Judaic teachings of the Old Testament. They also share an emphatic and central belief in one God and to a large extent look to the same genealogical and scriptural authorities as the basis of their faiths. Judaism traces its roots back to Abraham and God’s covenant with him, while Islam traces its roots to Abraham through Ishmael, the first born of Abraham. Indeed, Muhammad’s goal was to bring people back to the Abrahamic faith. The word “Islam,” which means peace and submission to God, carries the same meaning as the word “shalom” in the Torah.

This commonality was recognized by Jews and Muslims throughout much of the Middle Ages. Since the arrival of Islam and until only recently, Jews and Muslims had lived together harmoniously, getting on better than Christians with Jews, or Christians and Muslims. But this is often overlooked because of the current confrontation in the Middle East. Leaders would do well to look back at the example of Spain when ruled by the Moors. Until the invasion of the more conservative Almohad dynasty, Muslim Spain, at its best, was a beacon of religious and cultural tolerance, of libraries and literature. It produced great Muslim and Jewish scholars who interacted often. When Muslims took Jerusalem back from the Crusaders, one of their first acts was to allow Jews back to the city. Salahudin, a great Muslim hero, had as a senior advisor the great Jewish scholar Maimonides.

Men distrust people of different religious groups, even to the point of considering them profane and satanic, but what we should realize is that most differences between the Abrahamic religions have more to do with form than substance. A better Jewish-Muslim dialogue will depend on whether Jews and Muslims can prevent the ups and downs of Middle East politics from dividing them.

Politics and the control of territory are the real issues behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not religion. That is why it is incumbent upon the world’s Jewish and Muslim leaders to call for more interfaith dialogue, to increase ethnic and religious tolerance.

We need to promote a dialogue of civilizations between Muslims and Jews, and between Muslim and Western societies, wherever these communities can be found. For Europe specifically, there is much to be learned from the past co-existence of Jews and Muslims in Palestine, Spain and elsewhere, as Christian (or more accurately, post-Christian) Europe struggles to accommodate its many Muslim immigrants.

Negotiation and politics become possible when the beliefs and practices of the “other” are no longer considered to be vastly different from one’s own. Dialogue can enable us to address the most important issue of all: what kind of future do we want to live in? This does not necessarily imply a common approach to every issue, but without a constructive dialogue the future is less likely to become one that we would want. In order to enter into a meaningful dialogue aimed at better results, every individual has to be prepared to exercise tolerance towards other ways of thinking and towards people who base their daily lives on values and experiences different from one’s own.

Leila Hanafi is a graduate student at Georgetown University and director of the United Nations Young Professionals for International Cooperation Association - International Law and Human Rights Committee. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).