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