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Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East

Keynote Address by Abdul Aziz Said
USAID Ramadan Iftar
September 16, 2008

Salamun Alaykum (May peace abide with you). On the blessed time of Ramadan:
Let us remember the children, women and men everywhere who live with injustice, violence and poverty  as their constant companions.

Let us honor our humanity and ourselves Let us celebrate all the people who spend their lives  helping to make the world a community of justice and peace.

Distinguished audience, peace and Islam are not strangers.

One of the key problems in discussions of Islam and peace is exceptionalism: the belief that Islam is profoundly different from other religions, and stands outside the Judeo-Christian heritage. Here in the West, we have constructed a notion of Islam as “the other” – as a reality that exists in contrast to and against Western values. We need to challenge this notion of exceptionalism, without denying the particularity and specificity of the Islamic experience.

Islam shares a great deal in common with its sister Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity and Western civilization, to which it has made vital historical contributions. Like Christianity, Judaism, and the religions of the East, Islam is rich with precepts and traditions that support peacemaking.  And like the followers of other religions, Muslims have often failed to live up to these precepts and traditions.

Good people, peace and Islam have a long history together.

In its purest form, Islam is a Fatwa (command) of peace. The Qur’an mandates “peace is a word from a merciful God.” For a devout Muslim, Islam is peace.  Though this perception contrasts sharply with commonplace non-Muslim impressions, it is rooted in Islamic theology. In the Qur’an Al-Salam, which means peace, is one of the most beautiful names of (Allah), the Arabic word for God. Allah is also used by Christian Arabs in their prayer. It is the same God.

The yearning for peace derives from the innermost nature, or fitra, of humankind. The Qur’an affirms a positive view of human nature.

This characterization of Islamic values is likely to appear unfamiliar to many non-Muslims, who are much more familiar with militant calls for jihad, a word that has frequently been translated as “holy war.”  Jihad is much more than armed struggle against an enemy from the outside. The more important jihad is the struggle within the soul of Muslims for spiritual purification.

Abuses notwithstanding, there is a clearly articulated preference in Islamic social ethics for nonviolence over violence, and for forgiveness (‘afu) over retribution. The Qur’an discourages unnecessary conflict, and condemns fitna, the bringing of  destruction, oppression, and violence.

In traditional Islamic societies, the ideal of a harmonious social order was closely associated with the prescriptions of shari‘a, (Islamic normative and legal teachings). The objectives of shari‘a are closely related to those of religious law in the Biblical tradition:  the maintenance of proper, just relationships between the individual and God, within the family and community, among Muslims, between religious groups, and ultimately between humanity and other created things. 

Dear friends, together we can make peace.

Leaders on both sides of the Islamic-Western divide have much to gain from moving beyond preoccupation with symbols, toward genuine openness to a new experience of the “other.” Only active engagement through sustained dialogue can help us to transcend the fear and anger that produces conflict escalation, and discover the common humanity that these emotions conceal.  And we are only likely to commit ourselves to such dialogue if we can begin to narrate a new story, a story about complementarity instead of the dominant story about confrontation.

Active engagement permits us to understand and recognize the authentic expressions of human religiosity, and protects us from the politics of manipulated symbolism. Active engagement is needed to move beyond negative reactions to discover human commonality, shared experiences, and compatible aspirations.

Muslims and Westerners need to experience themselves “in relationship” rather than “out of relationship.”  They have an opportunity to find meaning in the common tragedy of their estrangement as well as in the possibility of reconciliation.

Establishing peace in the present climate of mutual recrimination will not be easy. Peacemaking, in contrast to war-making, is proactive and requires deliberate efforts to move: from the superficial to the essential, from morbidity to creativity, from defensiveness to openness, and from the politics of fear and projection to a politics of hope.

The fact that the “war on terror” framework for responding to our present insecurity has increasingly become the subject of constant debate suggests a need for a new strategic doctrine. Using the “war on terror” concept to justify actual wars has undermined genuine efforts to promote international security. By avoiding pessimistic oversimplifications and slogans (for example, a “long war against Islamofascism”), leaders in the West as well as in the Islamic world can set the stage for effective responses to current insecurities.

Friends, it’s true, the new story of complementarity exists only in the form of a working outline, and can begin with the simplest of acknowledgements:  Islam and the West are “stuck” with each other, and have no choice but to learn to coexist.  Both are here to stay, prosper and learn from one another. The dignity and security of one is connected to the dignity and security of the other. We can become coauthors of this new story.

We are all heirs of the story of confrontation.  When we leave aside symbols and seek to know one another, we can become architects of a humane global order based on solidarity. It involves the head and the heart.

Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, the 12th century Muslim reminds us, 

My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles,

and a convent for Christian monks, a temple for idols
and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba;

the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran.
Love is my religion and my faith. 
Let us spread peace. The whole world needs the whole world.

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