Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Model for Middle East Dialogue - and why it won't work

Some time ago I heard former Secretary of Defense William Cohen (white) and his wife Janet Langhard Cohen (African-American) discuss their book Love in Black and White. One thing they said caught my attention, "There needs to be much more dialogue in America between blacks and whites, but white people have to start the conversation."

I decided to try that the following day with an African-American colleague at work. We had been cordial, the usual professional relationship, but not close. I asked her if I could tell her a story, and simply recounted my experience of hearing William and Janet Cohen the previous evening. She gave me a quizzical look, as in "And why are you telling me this?", but listened to my story. It was the first of some good conversations, and we have become friends.

I was reminded of the Secretary and his wife's advice today on the subway. A young black man came through the car handing out cards. I noticed he was only giving them to African-Americans, and sure enough he walked past without offering me one. When he sat on the seat behind me, I turned around and asked if I could have one. It was an invitation to attend a play at a local college about the ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut entitled His Majesty herself.

As soon as he realized I was interested in what he had to say, he couldn't stop talking. He informed me he had also studied and written about Hatshepsut, and I told him I had visited her temple in Upper Egypt. He said he thought Hatshepsut was much more impressive than Cleopatra, and I agreed. Cleopatra, after all, slept her way into the history books with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but Hatshepsut did it all herself.

"There needs to be much more dialogue in America between blacks and whites, but white people have to start the conversation." Let's unpack this sentence a little. Why did the young man not initially hand me the card? The only reason I can think of is he could not imagine that an old white dude would be interested in a play a young black guy was advertising.

Throughout America's history, whites have held both wealth and power. What the Secretary and his wife were suggesting was that those in power, those who have traditionally held the upper hand, need to initiate dialogue with those who have been under their thumb. It's not going to be the other way around.

If that works in America, can it work anywhere? Could it work in Israel where the Israelis hold the power and the money and the Palestinians are under their thumb? Could it be successful in Egypt, where the Muslim majority places limits and restrictions on the minority Copts? Is the secret for success between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the Jews to initiate the dialogue, and could the Copts and Muslims in Egypt be reconciled if Muslims were willing to do the same?

I don't think so. The key ingredient for this model of dialogue is that each party must accept the other as equal. Because my belief system is that we are all created of equal value before God and each other, my mandate is to treat others as they would like to be treated by me. Throughout much of its history, America has strayed from this core conviction but it can return for the simple reason that it is a return to America's ideological roots.

What are the ideological roots of Islam? Correct me if I'm wrong, but Muhammad never envisioned his people living as a minority among a non-Muslim majority. His earliest message to impoverished slaves in Mecca was that if they followed him they would overthrow the rulers of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, and his final instructions to his followers in Medina were they were to continue to engage in Jihad fi Sabeel Allah, fighting for Islam, until only Allah was worshipped everywhere (Quran 2:193).

Again correct me if I'm mistaken, but Muhammad never intended for non-Muslims to live within a Muslim society in full equality. His instructions for Jews and Christians in Arabia, followed later by the Muslim generals who conquered Egypt, were very clear. Non-Muslims were to live as Dhimmis within the Muslim majority. Argue all you want about whether Dhimmi means "protected citizen" or "second-class citizen", but one thing is clear - it does not mean "equal citizen".

Twenty-five years ago, American government employees were not allowed to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization. I was lying by a hotel pool in Tunis one day when a friend who worked for the BBC thought he would do something "illegal" - introduce me to a Palestinian official who was also at the pool. The official was Yasser Arafat's Public Affairs Chief, and we talked for an hour. I've never forgotten one thing he said, "We will regain Israel and Jerusalem even if it takes until 2050. The simple reason is we will have more children than the Israelis."

And that is why the "Cohen Model of Dialogue" can work in America, but will never work in Israel. As long as Palestinians harbour the hope that Israel will once again be theirs, with them in control and the Jews a minority, there will be no peace. The Jews remember what happened to them in Medina 1400 years ago, and it will not happen again. And as long as Muslims in Egypt see the Copts as less than them in any way, there will be no reconciliation.

Perhaps young Palestinians today are different than the official I met 25 years ago at the pool in Tunis. And perhaps young Egyptian Muslims are different than their ancestors who would allow their Muslim son to marry a Copt (with the stipulation that the children be raised Muslim and she receive no inheritance if he died), but would never allow their Muslim daughter to marry a Coptic man. If these young people are indeed different, which would include the willingness to distance themselves from the historical Muhammad, there can be hope for peace.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Again correct me if I'm mistaken, but Muhammad never intended for non-Muslims to live within a Muslim society in full equality."

Actually, Muhammad intended full equality to start with. It's only after the revolts, assassination attempts and general heating up of tensions that the rules for Muslim - Non-Muslim interaction changed. The start - with the Constitution of Medina signed by the original residents of Medina and Muhammad -- was one of religious freedom:

"(1) This is a document from Muhammad the prophet (governing the relations) between the believers and Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib, and those who followed them and joined them and labored with them.
(2) They are one community (umma) to the exclusion of all men.
...
(16) To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided. 
...
(25) The Jews of the B. ‘Auf are one community with the believers (the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs), their freedmen and their persons except those who behave unjustly and sinfully, for they hurt but themselves and their families. 
...
(39) Yathrib shall be a sanctuary for the people of this document. "

I believe that the state outlined in the 47 Constitution of Medina -- as seen in Ibn Ishaq -- would be like a utopia. If things had stayed this way, I suspect no one would have had any problem with Muhammad at all. Ever.

But Islam inspired this thinking -- definitely to start with -- and I hope it can do so again.

Quotable Quotes: said...

Anonymous,
Thank you for your comment. I would invite you to go back to June 19, 2008, and read my three-part "Muhammad and the Jews" and let me know what you think.

It seems to me that the criterion for "equality" - even in the (16) that you mention - was to accept Muhammad as a Prophet and to submit to his leadership. Those who refused to do this were not accepted as equal, and I see the same true today.

Anonymous said...

NassirH

“It seems to me that the criterion for "equality" - even in the (16) that you mention - was to accept Muhammad as a Prophet and to submit to his leadership. Those who refused to do this were not accepted as equal, and I see the same true today.”

I think it’s highly inaccurate to say that they were forced to accept Muhammad as a Prophet. One of the three purported reasons for the revelation of the verse “There is no compulsion in religion” is that the Prophet Muhammad actually forbade the forced the conversion of the Banu Qurayzah.

Also, contrast the Constitution of Medina to the conquests of the ancient Israelites, or, even more appropriately, compare the wars Muhammad fought to those waged by the Biblical Moses or Joshua. A fair comparison will reveal that “Quotable Quotes” is throwing stones from glass houses.

Anonymous said...

NassirH

“It seems to me that the criterion for "equality" - even in the (16) that you mention - was to accept Muhammad as a Prophet and to submit to his leadership. Those who refused to do this were not accepted as equal, and I see the same true today.”

I think it’s inaccurate to say that they were forced to accept Muhammad as a Prophet. One of the three purported reasons for the revelation of the verse “There is no compulsion in religion” is that the Prophet Muhammad actually forbade the forced the conversion of the Banu Qurayzah.

Also, contrast the Constitution of Medina to the conquests of the ancient Israelites, or, even more appropriately, compare the wars Muhammad fought to those waged by the Biblical Moses or Joshua. A fair comparison will reveal that “Quotable Quotes” is throwing stones from glass houses.

Cyril Lucar said...

Anonymous,

I wonder why, if Islam inspires a society which respects full freedom of religion, there doesn't seem to be much evidence of that anywhere, either now or throughout history. Of course, I have talked to many Muslims who equate not killing us and allowing us to practice our religion with massive restrictions as freedom of religion. I'm sorry, I don't know of any Islamic country which grants the same freedom to Christians as Christian countries do to Muslims.

Anonymous said...

The Jews and Muslims formed their own community. Together they decided to appoint Muhammad as the ruler. It was their choice, they saw in Muhammad a strong leader who talked about one God. However, they didn't accept his Prophethood. In the Hadith, you can find many instances of Jews choosing to go to Muhammad instead of their own judges -- even for cases where the punishment is quite severe. It was only when Muhammad started telling the Jews about stuff that they didn't like that things started to heat up. Similar thing happened to Jesus.

Muhammad was elected with the consent of the Jews and Muslims. There was no army involved.

Cyril Lucar,

"But Islam inspired this thinking -- definitely to start with -- and I hope it can do so again."

I said that Islam has allowed for this type of freedom of religion before. And I hope it can again. I was implying, quite obviously, that there is less freedom of religion in most parts of the Muslim world than the West at this point in time and that the future will be better.

Orycteropus Afer said...

Thank you. Every time I Stare at the View, I come away better informed.

Quotable Quotes: said...

Dear OA,
I can receive no better compliment. Thank you.

David Justice said...

The focus has been on the Islamic angle -- but I also find your tale a useful meditation-piece for Lent.
Thank you.

ctw said...

It's not only "the historical Muhammad" that endangers us. It's also the historical Jesus, and all the other historical entities that have us in such a situation.

Anonymous said...

to CTW: With all due respect, but Jesus was a peaceful hippie preaching love and Muhammad was a pedophile slave-owning raider, see the difference?

Anonymous said...

the most violent prophet

http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/03/who-was-the-most-violent-prophet-in-history/
---------------------

Warrior prophet: mohamed or moses

http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/03/warrior-prophet-moses-or-muhammad/

--------------------------------
i dont think jesus was peaceful according to bible.

http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/03/what-the-quran-bashers-dont-want-you-to-know-about-the-bible/

Greenforest said...

To the commenter above at March 26, 2011 11:28 PM:

I find Danios' articles in those cases to be little more than paste-up or pastiche, and I find his posturing about the method of paste-up to be dubious. The question arises as to why I or anyone else ought to care about a bunch of verses that no significant numbers of Christians and Jews today actually follow. Of course we should criticize those verses, but clearly the priority should be directed to where matters are more urgent, as I will show:

The main reason that large numbers of people in the West and elsewhere are concerned about Islam is due to the present-day behavior and policies of the percentage of Muslims who seem to be following the harsh elements of their core texts (Qur'an, Hadith, and Sira). Polling indicates that large percentages of Muslims, for example, want apostates--those who leave Islam--to be punished, even put to death. In addition, the majority of Muslims want at least some sharia law, including harsh penalties for those who criticize Islam. Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc., simply don't want, and don't follow, such policies to anywhere near the extent and severity as do Muslims. It's not that people are just digging up quotes to make Islam look bad. People in the West in recent times were not paying much attention to Islam until it forced its way into our attention through terrorism and other Islam-based atrocities. The quoting of such Islamic verses etc. generally occurs in the context of arguments over whether or not some action was justified or motivated by beliefs stemming from Islam's core texts.

But if you are interested in a contest of bad verses, etc., see Tina Magaard's work. She is an actual scholar who has done real research on the issue and found that Islam's texts promoted violence and terror to a greater extent than did those of other religions.