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
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
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
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
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
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.