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Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, One Step At a Time - 2004-08-23

Analysts, scholars, politicians as well as some ordinary people have long agreed the only hope of solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict is dialog. Alas, in reality, both sides have too often turned to violence. An American Jew and a Muslim have recently joined forces to promote a dialogue between Jews and Muslims. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has this story.

Two and a half years ago, Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at the University of California, experienced a father’s worst nightmare. He learned that his son, journalist Daniel Pearl, died a terrible death: he was decapitated by a group of terrorists who had kidnapped him in Pakistan.

“The first reaction is the astonishment at the void and at the senselessness of such a crime,” says Professor Pearl, adding that he then decided to fight the hatred that breeds such senseless violence. Almost immediately upon his son’s death he established the Daniel Pearl Foundation with the mission to promote understanding between Jews and Muslims. The foundation sponsors internships in the United States for Pakistani, Israeli and Palestinian students and journalists. It also organizes multi-cultural concerts to commemorate Daniel Pearl’s birthday.

On the other side of the divide, Akbar Ahmed, director of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, experienced religious hatred very early in life.

“My father migrated from Delhi in India to this new nation called Pakistan in August 1947. Trains going to Pakistan were being stopped and all passengers were killed by Sikhs and Hindus along the way and vice-versa: Hindus coming from Pakistan were stopped in Pakistan and killed by Muslims,” recalls Profesor Ahmed.

But after this dangerous journey, he says he grew up in safety among other Muslims in Pakistan. It was only when he moved to the west in the early 1960-s that he experienced religious hatred again.

“I became aware very often of how they saw me and my culture exactly as my people saw their culture, and very often that was in a negative stereotype. I became aware that it was important that we began to understand each other and to reach out to each other,” says Professor Ahmed.

The Pakistani scholar has written several books explaining Islam. Then two years ago, Judea Pearl invited him to become his partner in one-to-one discussions on Jewish and Muslim concerns in front of a live audience. The idea was to show that more problems can be solved through dialogue than through violence. Professor Ahmed says he was at first hesitant to appear on stage and perhaps have to answer for the deeds of more than a billion Muslims around the world. But he gave it a try and was encouraged by the response.

“The first session was on campus. In fact, most of the sessions so far have been on a university campus. So they (the audience) are scholars. They are professors. They are media people. And they are divided. You have some Muslims, the Jews, Christians, atheists, Hindus -- the whole variety of people turning up and by and large, people quite positive about the idea of some kind of dialogue,” says Professor Ahmed.

In the past year the partners have held talks in many American cities, in Jordan and in London. But where they really want to appear is Israel, Palestine, Pakistan and other places where religious differences are intense. Judea Pearl says some inter-faith discussion is taking place in the Middle East, but it does not get into the media.

“Our aim is to move that dialogue into the press and into television, into the media, where it will be displayed and will attain a seal of approval,” says Professor Pearl.

He adds that education in the Middle East could have an important role in promoting peace: ”Educators are not too involved in that. And that is another step that should be taken care of. The school curriculums must be geared toward acceptance and co-existence.”

Can the two men’s efforts make a difference?

“It’s a small incremental difference. It’s hard to measure, but it does make a difference,” says Professor Pearl. “When you sit in a concert where such a dedication is made and such a commitment is made, there is a residue of commitment in your ordinary life to put considerations of humanity on top of one’s priority.”

There is also opposition, admits Professor Ahmed; for example, Muslims who don’t like to see him shaking hands with a Jewish rabbi. But he says the results are worth the trouble. Judea Pearl says he wants to be able to tell Daniel’s son: “Your father’s death was not in vain. Something positive came out of it.”