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.