Bridg­ing the di­vide: Mus­lim-Jew duo aims for in­ter­faith un­der­stand­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Tom Carter

HAMIL­TON, On­tario — Ali Cheaib, a Le­banese Cana­dian who spent his sum­mer vacation tak­ing refuge from Is­raeli war­planes in a Le­banese bomb shel­ter, calls Judea Pearl, the fa­ther of Daniel Pearl, the re­porter for the Wall Street Jour­nal who was be­headed by rad­i­cal Mus­lims, a hero and a men­tor.

Mr. Pearl is a Jew and Mr. Cheaib is a Mus­lim. Both teach com­puter science — Mr. Cheaib (pro­nounced “Shibe”) at Hamil­ton’s Mo­hawk Col­lege, Mr. Pearl at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les, where he is renowned as a spe­cial­ist on ar­ti­fi­cial intelligence.

They dis­agree on al­most ev­ery point of Mid­dle East pol­i­tics, and both have suf­fered bit­ter losses at the hands of their en­e­mies but are nev­er­the­less try­ing to get be­yond per­sonal tragedy to build bridges with peo­ple of the other faith.

AsksMr.Cheaib,inan­in­ter­view: “Judea Pearl is a phe­nom­e­nal ex­am­ple,likeaphoenix,of­comin­gout of the ashes of loss and tragedy and say­ing,‘Weare­go­ing­to­turn­this­into some­thing­worth­while.’Hehas­done this. Why can’t I?

“What I was liv­ing [in Le­banon dur­ing the war] was the al­ter­na­tive to di­a­logue. Di­a­logue must con­tinue.”

He said this min­utes be­fore Mr. Pearl­took­the­p­lat­for­mattheHamil­ton Place com­mu­nity cen­ter in On­tario for an un­usual pub­lic air­ing of thed­if­fer­ences­be­tween­theIs­lamic world and the West.

Mr. Pearl and Mus­lim scholar Ak­barAhmed­ofAmer­i­canUniver­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. have been trav­el­ing around North Amer­ica talk­ing to one an­other be­fore au­di­ences like this about Daniel Pearl’s death­inPak­istan­fouryearsago,and about Pales­tinian-Is­raeli re­la­tions and other is­sues.

Nearly 1,000 Jews, Mus­lims and Chris­tians crowded into Hamil­ton Place in Novem­ber to lis­ten to the two men talk, much like old friends, about some of the world’s most provoca­tive is­sues. On stage, they parry and thrust as if con­tin­u­ing a long-run­ning­con­ver­sa­tion­in­some­one’s liv­ing room.

DoesIs­rael­havetheright­toex­ist? Was it cre­ated out of the Holo­caust? Why shouldn’t Iran have nu­clear weapons? Are ter­ror­ists au­then­tic Mus­lims?IftheUnit­edS­tatescham­pi­ons democ­racy, why won’t it rec­og­nize Ha­mas? Why do Mus­lims think they are un­der siege by the West? Why won’t Mus­lim na­tions rec­og­nize Is­rael’s right to ex­ist? What,ifany­thing,canbedone­about the state of the world to­day?

“Our mis­sion is not to em­brace each other with un­der­stand­ing, but mainly to lis­ten to each other, to hear two nar­ra­tives side by side,” Mr.Pearl­saysi­nan­in­ter­view­be­fore his pre­sen­ta­tion. “To ac­knowl­edge ea­chother’snar­ra­tive.Ia­ma­sol­dier fight­ing ha­tred, fight­ing ig­no­rance.

“I have not for­given [what they did to my son]. I am not go­ing to for- give.Iam­di­a­logu­in­gasasol­dier.Di­a­logue is my weapon. [. . . ] I am fight­ingth­e­ha­tredthat­tookDanny’s life. We don’t have armies, but we have the good will of mil­lions, the coali­tion of the de­cent.”

Com­mu­nity jour­ney

The nar­ra­tives re­lated by the two men hold that Jews and Mus­lims both fol­low in the tra­di­tion of Abra­ham, and that both have suf­fered from the Holo­caust, the Cru­sades, dic­ta­to­rial gov­ern­ments, in­sults and re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion. That suf­fer­ing, they say, must be ac­knowl­edged and ap­pre­ci­ated by both sides.

Mr. Ahmed, who is re­garded in

most mosques as a scholar and de­vout Mus­lim, says his re­li­gion has been hi­jacked by ex­trem­ists. He is work­ing to see the vi­sion of mod­er­ateMus­lim­scar­ry­the­day.“Itis[the 13th-cen­tury Sufi poet] Rumi’s vi­sion of Is­lam, ver­sus Osama bin Laden’s,” Mr. Ahmed says.

To the two men the speak­ing tour is a way of com­bat­ing the re­li­gious ha­tred that both see threat­en­ing the world.Fortheau­di­en­ceinHamil­ton Place, it was the cul­mi­na­tion of a five-year ef­fort marked by ten­sion, flared tem­pers and growth. It was op­posed­bysomeJewsandMus­lims whosaytalk­ing­with­theother­sis­not only a waste of time, but a be­trayal.

Spon­sors of the event, in­clud­ing Mr. Cheaib, say they want what has hap­pened­inHamil­ton­to­beamodel for other con­flicted com­mu­ni­ties whereChris­tians,MuslimsandJews are search­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

They un­der­stand their ex­pe­ri­ence will not be eas­ily repli­cated. Any group of peo­ple can talk, but rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can take place only if rec­og­nized com­mu­nity lead­ers are will­ing to en­dure hours of tense and of­ten emo­tional meet­ings, and are com­mit­ted to build­ing long-term an­drespect­ful­re­la­tion­ship­sthatwill be­come gen­uine friend­ships. They liken their con­ver­sa­tions to a rocky mar­riage that works only be­cause both sides are com­mit­ted to it.

“We are get­ting calls from other towns, ask­ing for help in set­ting up their own di­a­logue groups, but I don’tknowthatwe­haveany­thingyet that can be du­pli­cated,” Mr. Cheaib says. Mr. Pearl says in­ter­faith out­reach ef­forts gen­er­ally take place among rab­bis, imams and aca­demics, rather than be­tween fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als.

“We demon­strated a tone of re­spect­ful dis­cus­sion that can be du­pli­catedany­where,ona­com­mu­nity level,” he says, if there is gen­uine cu­rios­ity and a will­ing­ness to lis­ten.

‘Mad­ness by fools’

Hamil­ton, a run-down in­dus­trial city of steel mills, smoke­stacks and fac­to­ries at the west­ern tip of Lake On­tario, made in­ter­na­tional head­lines when the city’s largest Hindu tem­ple­was­fire­bombed­justafterthe Septem­ber 11, 2001, at­tacks in the United States, per­haps by van­dals who mis­took it for a mosque.

“The Hindu tem­ple was torched out­of­mad­ness­by­fools,”saysLarry DiIanni, who was mayor at the time of the Pearl event. “Peo­ple were fear­ful. You could cut the ten­sion in the city with a knife.” Hamil­ton, a city of half a mil­lion, in­cludes 15,000 Mus­lims, about 5,000 Jews and a num­ber of Hin­dus.

In an ef­fort to dampen emo­tions, city of­fi­cials ar­ranged meet­ings of eth­nic and re­li­gious lead­ers, which over time grew into the Strength­en­ingHamil­ton’sCom­mu­ni­tyIni­tia­tive (SHCI).The­goal­sweres­im­ple—to pre­vent the de­struc­tion of prop­erty and­todeal­with­racis­man­dreli­gious and eth­nic ten­sions.

By the sum­mer of 2004, Javid Mirza, a mem­ber of the ini­tia­tive who was then pres­i­dent of the Hamil­ton Mus­lim As­so­ci­a­tion, had a strained re­la­tion­ship with Lorne Finkel­stein, a prom­i­nent car­di­ol­o­gist and one of the Hamil­ton Jewish Fed­er­a­tion’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the ini­tia­tive.

Mr. Mirza, a Pak­istani-Cana­dian whoim­portss­port­ing­goods­forWalMart, was try­ing to raise money to bring a 9-year-old Afghan child to Canada for ur­gent heart surgery.

Dr. Finkel­stein read about the boy in the Hamil­ton news­pa­per, calledMr.Mirzaand­vol­un­teered­his med­i­ca­land­me­di­a­con­tacts­fro­man ear­lier cam­paign on Cana­dian health care is­sues. To­gether, the two men worked through the bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles and got the child to Canada, where the life-sav­ing surgery was per­formed.

“The na­tional head­lines were about Jews and Mus­lims of Hamil­ton work­ing to­gether,” Dr. Finkel­stein re­calls. “This brought a tremen­dousamounto­fap­pre­ci­a­tion totheJewish­com­mu­nity,an­dit­was the­firstre­al­break­through­inHamil­ton Jewish-Mus­lim re­la­tions. This wasthe­be­gin­ning[...]ofJavid’sand my re­la­tion­ship.”

But more ob­sta­cles lay ahead. In the sum­mer of 2005, Hamil­ton’s po­lice chief and 30 other Cana­dian po­lice of­fi­cials went to Is­rael to at­tend asum­mi­ton­ter­ror­is­man­d­se­cu­rity, in­fu­ri­at­ing the city’s Mus­lims, who said the sum­mit was the oc­ca­sion of anti-Mus­lim and anti-Pales­tinian pro­pa­ganda.

City lead­ers called a con­fer­ence to air the is­sue, but the meet­ing quick­ly­de­gen­er­ate­d­in­toashout­ing match, with lo­cal Mus­lims spout­ing anti-Semitic in­vec­tive and of­fended Jews re­spond­ing an­grily.

“Ali Cheaib, who I knew from the anti-racism­com­mit­tee,andIlooked across the room at each other, and we­just­shook­our­heads,”Dr.Finkel­stein says. “It was ugly. We both knew this should never be al­lowed to hap­pen again.”

‘All Cana­di­ans’

Dr. Finkel­stein called a meet­ing at his of­fice the next day, invit­ing Mr. Cheaib, Gerry Fisher of the Hamil­ton Jewish Fed­er­a­tion, Mr. Mirza and Hus­sein Ham­dani, a charis­matic Mus­lim youth leader. Over the course of sev­eral months, the men formed the Hamil­ton Arab, Mus­lim and Jewish Di­a­logue Com­mit­tee, which spon­sored the Hamil­ton Place event last month.

They agreed that they would not try­tochangeonean­other’sopin­ions on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics, but would fo­cus on lo­cal is­sues, and that no mat­ter­whatthetopic­thedis­cus­sion would be re­spect­ful and civil.

“The Mid­dle East has noth­ing to dowith­whatweare­do­inghere,”Dr. Finkel­stein says. “We are all Cana­di­ans. We may have dif­fer­ent opin­ions of what is go­ing on in Is­rael, Gaza­orLe­banonorIraq.Butweare not try­ing to change any­one’s mind on­theMid­dleEast.Weal­lleft­some­where else to come here, and we should not bring the old ha­treds and re­sent­ments to Hamil­ton. We have to make sure that what hap­pens over there does not fil­ter back to our com­mu­nity here.”

Par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing, at the po­lice fo­rum, was the sight of the loud­est,mos­tex­tremepar­tic­i­pantsmug­ging for the cam­eras and re­porters.

“It was em­bar­rass­ing,” Dr. Finkel­stein says. “Th­ese peo­ple, some of whom did not even come from Hamil­ton, did not rep­re­sent our com­mu­ni­ties. The me­dia was be­ing used.”

Af­ter­ward, they tried to iden­tify com­mu­nity spokes­men they re­garded as re­spon­si­ble, and gave the namestolo­cal­re­porters.Mosta­gree that this has soft­ened the tone and re­duced the vol­ume of the rhetoric.

“I’d say we have be­come more thought­ful and so­phis­ti­cated in un­der­stand­ing how in­ter­na­tional sto­rieswillplay­outi­nour­com­mu­nity,” saysDanaRob­bins,ed­i­tor­inchiefof the Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor, which cospon­sored the Hamil­ton Place de­bate and do­nated thou­sands of dol­lars in ad­ver­tis­ing to pro­mote it.

“But let me turn this around. The re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties have spent a huge amount of en­ergy in putting up lead­er­ship [to serve as spokes­men].They­de­cid­edthatth­ey­couldn’t let our com­mu­nity be de­fined by peo­ple hold­ing onto old habits and prej­u­dices.”

Si­lenc­ing the fringe

Even so, it seems that ev­ery month pro­duces an over­seas event that threat­ens to per­co­late into a lo­cal cri­sis, forc­ing the com­mu­nity di­a­logue group to deal with re­sent­ment over the Dan­ish car­toons ridi­cul­ing the prophet Mo­hammed and the sub­se­quent at­tempt to si­lence the news­pa­pers, or Pope Bene­dict XVI’s ref­er­ence to his­tor­i­cal as­ser­tions that Is­lam was prop­a­gated by the sword.

When two Mus­lim stu­dents at Hamil­ton’s McMaster Univer­sity were among 17 Cana­di­ans ar­rested for plot­ting to blow up Cana­dian gov­ern­ment­build­ingslastJune,the lo­cal Mus­lim com­mu­nity was stunned­bytherev­e­la­tion­soft­he­p­lot and­dis­ap­point­edthatMus­lim­swere called on to de­fend their re­li­gion.

SaysMr.Mirza:“If­some­onecom­mits a crime, then ar­rest them. But why call them Mus­lims, as if all Mus­lim­sareter­ror­ists?Noonecalls Ti­moth­yMcVeightheChris­tianOk­la­homa City bomber, as if Chris­tian­ity is a re­li­gion of ter­ror­ism.”

In Au­gust, Hamil­ton’s Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty­hel­dar­al­ly­to­protestIs­rael’s border war with Le­banon. Some of the di­a­logue mem­bers saw that the list of speak­ers in­cluded ex­trem­ists and asked edi­tors and re­porters to avoid the event. As a re­sult, it went un­cov­ered, in ef­fect si­lenc­ing the fringe at the risk of giv­ing life to ru­mors.

“Whathap­pen­si­fa­treefallsinthe for­est and no one hears it?” asks Dr. Finkel­stein. “When the event was not cov­ered, it de­nied the hate­mon­gers the at­ten­tion they wanted.”

Be­cause Daniel Pearl was an ac­com­plished­vi­o­lin­ist,thePear­lFoun­da­tion­estab­lished­by­h­is­fa­theruses mu­sic to cre­ate bridges. At the Hamil­ton Place event, a choir of Mus­lim, Jewish and Chris­tian chil­dren sang songs of peace, at times a lit­tle off-key.

Mr. Cheaib says the choir was the best thing to come from the event. Not only did the chil­dren get to­knowea­chother,but­their­par­ents — Jews in yarmulkes and Mus­lim women wear­ing the hi­jab — waited to­gether through the prac­tices. The par­ents started talk­ing, not about Mid­dle East pol­i­tics, but their chil­dren’s school grades, soc­cer, ice hockey and their hopes for their chil­dren.

“There were Mus­lims who had never spo­ken to a Jew be­fore, and Jews who had never spo­ken to a Mus­lim,” says Mr. Cheaib, who en­cour­aged Mus­lim par­ents to al­low their chil­dren to par­tic­i­pate.

“The par­ents have been quite ea­ger,”saysLau­raWolf­son,the­choir di­rec­tor. “The choir was cre­ated for this event, but many of the par­ents haveasked­me­to­con­tinue.They­see it as a good thing. As a so­cial group, it is very di­verse.”

Break­ing the fast

Not ev­ery­one has been won over, and many de­clined to at­tend the Hamil­ton Place event. Some Mus­lims stayed away be­cause days be­fore, Is­raeli ar­tillery had missed its tar­get and killed 17 per­sons, most of them women and chil­dren in the Gaza Strip. Some Jews pe­ti­tioned the Hamil­ton Jewish Fed­er­a­tion to end the di­a­logue, ar­gu­ing that some lo­cal Mus­lim lead­ers sup­port calls for the erad­i­ca­tion of Is­rael.

“I be­lieve in di­a­logue, but this is a mono­logue, a one-way street,” says Lawrence Hart, a doc­tor who sits on the Hamil­ton Jewish Fed­er­a­tion board. “It is time to re­think what we are do­ing and maybe find new part­ners.”

But the di­a­logue is likely to con­tinue. A few months ago, the five mem­bers of the Hamil­ton Di­a­logue each in­vited half a dozen ex­ec­u­tive mem­bers from their re­spec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions to an in­for­mal din­ner, for the pur­pose of es­tab­lish­ing an­other di­a­logue group — this time made up of the most se­nior com­mu­nity direc­tors.

It is still in the early stages, but it was the first time sev­eral of them had met, and the first time some of the Jews and some of the Mus­lims had met a per­son of the other faith.

In early Novem­ber, at the end of theMus­limholy­mon­thofRa­madan, Jewish and Mus­lim stu­dents at McMaster Univer­sity broke the fast to­gether at an Eid din­ner and Jewish com­mu­nity lead­ers were guests of honor at the Hamil­ton mosque.

“This will go on,” Dr. Finkel­stein says. “There is no al­ter­na­tive. As Yitzhak Rabin said when he shook hands with Yas­sar Arafat, you make peace with your en­e­mies, not your friends. Through this, I’ve be­come friends with Ali, Javid, Hus­sein. [. . .]

“We don’t agree on many things. We don’t try. There will be is­sues. Bu­tatleast­nowwe­knowwho­to­call when some­thing hap­pens. That is bet­ter than five years ago.”

“The chal­lenges are still there,” agrees Mr. DiIanni, “but now we have a ve­hi­cle with which to deal with them.”

AmyBaskervil­le­andJohnHay­don con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Tom Carter / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Amul­ti­eth­nic chil­dren’s choir and orches­tra per­formed in Hamil­ton Place in Hamil­ton, On­tario. Mus­lim and Jewish par­ents wait­ing dur­ing prac­tices be­gan talk­ing to one an­other about ev­ery­day things.

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