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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2681

An Imam and a Rabbi: A Dialogue of Civilizations

Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan

Recently, I moderated a dialogue at the University of Delaware, with an Imam and Rabbi. The speakers at the event were Rabbi David Kalender, a senior Rabbi from the congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Virginia and Imam Muhammad Magid, the Imam of ADAMS Center in Northern Virginia and the Vice President of the Islamic Society of North America. It was enriching and frighteningly frank at the same time. The principal participants later confided to me that this was one of the more enlightening and candid dialogues they had engaged ever participated in.

Imam Magid insisted that in an interfaith dialogue it was important that participants be willing to handle the tough issues in good faith and also be willing to examine the religious texts that can be source of discord or misunderstanding. He came down very strongly against anti-Semitism in the Arab world and insisted that, theologically speaking there was little to dispute between Muslims and Jews. He agreed that American Muslims must do more to combat anti-Semitism and holocaust denial.

Rabbi Kalender too argued that it was politics and not theology that was a problem between Muslims and Jews. He made an interesting observation that both Israelis and Palestinians were convinced of their victim hood and were also convinced that their own narrative of the conflict was the true one. He explained how dialogue could help each party understand the pain and suffering of the other. He acknowledged that discourses of intolerance were also generated within the American Jewish community but also claimed that there was a culture of strong self-criticism within the American Jewish community. Given the tough barrage of questions he was getting from Jewish faculty and students, no one would dispute that claim.

Both faced very tough challenges from faculty, students and community members. In response to a graduate student, who pointed out that many Imams in the Arab World were not as tolerant as he was, Imam Magid described how American Imams now regularly traveled to Muslim countries to share the vision of tolerance and understanding that American Muslims are living. Rabbi Kalender conceded to another doctoral student that American Jews must reexamine what was being taught to American Jews about Israel and its politics in traditional Jewish educational programs.

The outstanding elements of their talks were their willingness to engage in self-criticism, try to understand the other's perspective and above all maintain dignity and openness in the face of provocation and criticism. They were not just talking about tolerance and compassion, but continued to display it throughout the dialogue.

The Challenge is Global

In the past few years, an unending series of global events, have conspired to systematically widen the already distended chasm between the West and the Islamic World. Islam today is a global religion. Nearly one fourth of the world is Muslim and Muslims live everywhere. There are more Muslims in America than there are Delawareans in America. The West too is global; it extends from Seattle to Sydney. People everywhere are embroiled in either real suffering or psychological pain directly related to the ongoing US-Islamic discord which has a global presence. We need more and frequent dialogues, interfaith, intra-faith, intercultural and global exchanges, to arrest and slowly rollback the steady spread of inter-communal venom.

In one evening, we did not solve the great problems that plague US-Islamic or Jewish-Muslim relations. But Jews and Muslims and others who were there, went home a bit more hopeful, a bit more thoughtful, and perhaps even a bit more enlightened. The Imam and the Rabbi taught us how to respect, understand, admire and even care for the others even as we fundamentally disagreed with the other's politics.

I went home that night, convinced of the need and the healing power of dialogue. When done right, it is a transformative experience.

The Limits of Dialogue

Skepticism is healthy. It is also an antidote to unbridled optimism. Even as I let the euphoria of moments of mutual understanding wash over me, I couldn't ignore the nagging feeling that most advocates of dialogue assume that conflict is a consequence of misunderstandings and therefore, dialogues can foster understanding and eliminate conflict. Perhaps just understanding the other might not be enough. Even inculcating respect for the other may not douse the fires of conflict. At the core of all conflicts are competing and incompatible interests that may have material as well as moral basis. Conflicts will dissipate when understanding is followed by the replacement of competing interests with common interest.

In simple terms, it is not enough that we talk. We must find common goals to pursue together. Imam Magid told us that all faith communities have come together in Northern Virginia to combat domestic violence. It would be great if Muslims, Jews and Christians and Hindus and others in Delaware can work together to realize some shared value.

Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor and Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware. His latest book is titled, Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West.

Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan is the Associate Professor, Director of Islamic Studies, University of Delaware

- Asian Tribune -

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