Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Common Ground News Opinion Columns

Title: Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist
Author: Hisham al-Zoubeir
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 25 September 2007
Word Count: 844

Title: The importance of meeting face-to-face
Author: Susan Harrison
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 25 September 2007
Word Count: 840

Title: Talk "Lebanon" first
Author: Michael Young
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 25 September 2007
Word Count: 692

Title: ~Youth Views~ Humanity doesn't change with geography
Author: Pensee Afifi and Jane Slusark
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 25 September 2007
Word Count: 691


Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist
Hisham al-Zoubeir

Washington, DC – As the world watches the terrible eruption of violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and is subjected to sporadic communiqués by vigilantes calling for violence against their opponents both within the Muslim community and without, many who are unfamiliar with Islam and Muslims may be forgiven for thinking the worst of both the religion and its followers. Yet in Islam and Muslim history, the precedent for religious co-existence is primordial.

The Qur'anic view of the carpenter from Nazareth is clear: Jesus is called the Spirit of God, and the Messiah. Moses is described as the prophet to whom God spoke directly, without any veil. Muslims still revere those men, and their followers are accorded special places within the book of Islam.

The Arabian Prophet, Muhammad, sent according to Islamic tradition as a "mercy to all the worlds", showed us how these theological abstractions were exemplified in practice in the first interfaith meeting between Muslims and Christians - held some 14 centuries ago.

A delegation of sixty Christians from a community about 450 miles south of the Prophet's city, Medina, visited him in the year 631. During this three-day meeting between representatives of one faith-community with the founder of another, the model of Muslim ethics vis-à-vis the religious "other" was made explicit for all time. There are many lessons to be drawn from this encounter, but three stand out.

The first is that neither the Christians nor the Muslims pretended to be other than what they were. The Christians insisted on Trinitarianism, and the Prophet rejected it as a matter of faith. Both sides believed that Christ was the Messiah, that he had been born without a father, and that he received revelation from God. There was no shying away from difference, but the search for common ground was primary. Remember the culture of the time - the Prophet held the upper hand as the leader of a powerful community - but he did not disrespect his guests, who were politically powerless.

The second was that difference was not a cause of religious conflict. When the Christians suggested they go out into the desert to perform mass, the Prophet invited them to carry out their rituals within his mosque. He did not partake of their rituals, but he invited them into his own place of worship to carry them out. This was not mere tolerance: this was respect, if not acceptance. He met them with what he considered to be absolute truths, but not as a bigot.

Later generations of Muslims took his practice very seriously: when he said that the rights of non-Muslims under the protection of the Islamic polity were sacrosanct, that he would be a witness for them on the Day of Judgement, Muslims listened. The millions of non-Muslims who are still very much a part of the Muslim world are testimony to that. The situation was not perfect, but non-Muslim historians record that it was the best model of its time.

The third lesson was that difference did not mean that co-existence on a social and political level was impossible. The Christians nonetheless accepted the Prophet as their guarantor in the political realm, and for 14 centuries other Christian communities have accepted Muslim rulers as their guarantors, with their lives, property and religion safeguarded in exchange for a tax, similar to the tax Muslims paid to their temporal authorities.

The above encounter with the Christians of Najran was by no means an isolated event in the life of the Prophet which points to ongoing interfaith relations. An earlier treaty, the documentation of which is still in existence, with Christians of Sinai bore this practice out:

"This is a message from Muhammad son of Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far: we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers (people of Medina), and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate."

None of the above was a medieval call for syncretism, nor should it be understood to be a denial that Islam, a universal religion, did call for Muslims to be fully committed to their faith. Rather, this was placing into Muslim ethics the need to respect the religious other, by respectfully engaging this other.

The Prophet is known to have claimed that he was not sent "except to perfect good manners", and his display of respect and co-existence is a model that has become sorely lacking in many parts of the world. While some may have forgotten his example, his practice nonetheless established precedents that we would do well to heed today with renewed commitment.


* Hisham al-Zoubeir is a researcher of classical Islamic thought. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of European Muslims, and writes on Islam-West relations. This article is part of a series on apostasy and proselytism distributed by the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 September 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


The importance of meeting face-to-face
Susan Harrison

Toronto - Does it matter if we meet face-to-face?

In 2004 I went to Qom, Iran to participate in a conference called "Revelation and Authority", a dialogue between North American Christian Mennonite scholars and local Muslim Shiite scholars. A few months ago, we met again - this time in Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. It was a joyful, collegial reunion and, in addition, a nonverbal connection seemed to occur when we looked at each other again, face-to-face.

Each time we gather for dialogue, there is a kind of audible relief in realising that we both really exist, that we are dedicated to making this dialogue happen.

Face-to-face meetings are the moment when the research and media-informed opinions we hold are measured against the experience of the encounter with the other. There is something profound about meeting face-to-face: noticing that someone limps or has a hard time staying awake in a long lecture, seeing the way someone's eyes light up when they hear a new idea, or watching the quizzical looks on a Muslim's face when a Mennonite explains the worship of a triune God (a God in 3 forms).

People are like "living books", but unlike a published paperback, our plots are constantly changing. And, as living books, our stories interact with each other when we meet; they take account of the new characters, who in turn affect the plot line and the ensuing chapters.

However, these kinds of meetings are becoming increasingly more difficult to arrange these days because travel visas are regularly denied on both sides. Tense political relations in past months and tighter borders in the wake of 9/11 have resulted in stringent travel restrictions and have made such face-to-face visits more difficult.

The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a religion-based non-profit development organisation, first became involved in Iran following the 1990 earthquake. A friendship formed between Ed Martin, the then-director of MCC's Asia desk and the Director General of International Affairs in Iran, Sadreddin Sadr. Working together in disaster relief, they shared a vision to build relationships that would un-demonise Iranians for North Americans and vice versa. A student exchange program was proposed and Toronto, Canada, where a sizeable Mennonite graduate student community could be found, became the venue. The Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) volunteered to host Christian Mennonite students in Qom.

In addition to the student exchange program, which began in 1998, the MCC developed "learning tours" that brought groups to Iran on itinerated programs. Two tours of 10 days each allowed Mennonites and Muslims to meet and learn about each other first hand.

An example of the power of first hand meetings is captured in the remark of an Iranian Muslim, attending a Canadian school: "meeting face-to-face works as a source of miraculous mutual understanding. I can say that people who are afraid of you, as a Muslim or as an Iranian, after 10 to 30 minutes of conversation begin to recognise you as a human being."

As I write this, I am aware that I had been planning on attending a conference, "One God of Abraham, Different Traditions", at Eastern Mennonite University in September 2007. The participants were Mennonite scholars and a guest delegation from the Islamic Republic of Iran led by Ayatollah Araqi, head of the Organization of Culture and Islamic Relations. The delegation included Iranian religious leaders and scholars, Morris Motamed, a Jewish member of Iran's Parliament and Archbishop Sarkissian of the Armenian Church in Iran.

One week before the guests were due to arrive, 4 out of 15 visas were refused for "security reasons", though the US State Department did not send this message in writing. Since Ayatollah Araqi was among those refused entry, the visit was unfortunately called off.

This is not only a US-specific problem. In May 2007, 15 North American Mennonites were denied entry into Iran for a fully itinerated learning tour. During this same time, the Western media accused the institute of having a direct line to President Ahmadinejad's government, and critics accused the MCC of therefore supporting Ahmadinejad's government by association with IKERI.

The notion that dialogue between people of different faiths poses a security risk to their home countries continues to be the underlying theme of this ongoing problem of blocked encounters. N. Gerald Shenk, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University, wonders "whether the freedom protected by 'security' overrides the freedom to build better understanding across these dangerous divides."

Face-to-face encounters, according to contact theories, will break down stereotypes and build the understanding and trust that is greatly needed between the West and Iran. Yet as Martin remarked when the visas were refused, "It is back to 'square one' to figure out how to develop relationships of understanding, trust and friendship between Iranians and Americans that will prevent war between our countries."

While people can criticise the MCC for engaging with IKERI as Muslim dialogue partners, the fact remains that a constructive relationship has developed between the two communities, and if allowed to grow it could influence the stories of those individuals who are touched by it.


* Susan Kennel Harrison is a PhD candidate at the Toronto School of Theology and has been coordinating the Toronto side of the MCC student exchange with Iran since 1998. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 September 2007, Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Talk "Lebanon" first
Michael Young

Beirut - For many Lebanese, Syrian involvement in regional peace negotiations is only desirable if its practical outcome is increased respect for Lebanese sovereignty and independence.

However, the Lebanese are not that optimistic. They fear that once negotiations begin between Syria and Israel, the international community will have little mind to support the international court prosecuting those involved in the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. Syria remains a prime suspect in that crime and has systematically sought to derail efforts to establish the tribunal in Lebanon. And though the UN Security Council approved the tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Syria's peace talks with Israel could earn Damascus a reprieve.

Advocates of Syrian-Israeli talks have underlined the importance of a breakthrough, arguing that Syria and Israel are much closer to a settlement than the Palestinians and Israelis, thanks largely to negotiations throughout the 1990's and unofficial agreements reached in recent years. However, these advocates routinely fail to address the possibility that Syria may not be able to afford peace. President Assad's regime may benefit from a negotiating process, but not necessarily from a peace agreement. After all, peace with Israel would oblige the regime to largely dismantle the military and security apparatus used to prop up its authority. Could Assad, who heads a minority regime, accept a peace that would undermine his Arab nationalist credentials domestically and regionally, and also threaten his burgeoning strategic alliance with Iran?

While many maintain that Syria's interest in negotiations with Israel is to reclaim the Golan Heights, its leadership has shown in recent years that its true aim is to preserve control over Lebanon. As the late Yitzhak Rabin once put it, "Better Syrian troops in Lebanon than on the Golan." It was his indirect way of admitting that though Syria was negotiating a return of the Golan, the late Hafez Assad was also keen to ensure that Syria maintained its hold over Lebanon. And in fact, that was exactly what happened. Lebanon's negotiating track with Israel was fully absorbed into the Syrian track, a move approved by the Clinton administration and all of the main Arab and European states.

Lastly, the promoters of a Syrian-Israeli negotiating track have failed to provide options to protect Lebanon from persistent efforts by Damascus to re-impose its hegemony over its smaller neighbour. The Hariri tribunal remains a major obstacle, so that international conflict resolution institutions have offered convoluted solutions that respect the tribunal but also ensure the protection of Syria's leadership. Their casuistry has failed to take into consideration that a thorough and legitimate trial process might very well point the finger at the same Syrian leaders whom the promoters of negotiations want to spare.

Lebanon should not pay the price for a Syrian-Israeli dialogue, nor should Syria be denied an opportunity to talk to Israel in goodwill. That is why the international community should impose certain conditions on regional peace talks, which can test Syrian intentions while also guaranteeing Syria's respect for Lebanese sovereignty and independence.

The first condition for international backing for Syrian-Israeli talks has to be Syria's formal acceptance of all UN resolutions relating to Lebanon, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which Damascus has repeatedly violated. Syria must specifically agree to end its interference in Lebanon and its arming of Lebanese parties. It must also agree to open an embassy in Beirut, something it has never done on the grounds that Lebanese and Syrians are "one people in two countries", and it must agree on final borders with Lebanon.

Syria must also make a clear statement that it will collaborate with the Hariri tribunal and send any Syrian suspects to Holland, where the court is to be set up, not try them in Syrian courts, as Syrian officials have repeatedly insisted. These conditions are now part of international legislation, since Chapter VII authority obliges all parties to obey the tribunal's requests.

Once these conditions are met, a Syrian-Israeli peace track would be eminently desirable. But there is no reason for Lebanon to be Syria's ticket to a settlement. Until this issue is resolved, Syria and Israel are likely to tiptoe around without going very far.


* Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 September 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


~Youth Views~ Humanity doesn't change with geography
Pensee Afifi and Jane Slusark

Cairo/Iowa City, Iowa - The Arab world and the West represent two sides of the same coin. Though we are from different parts of the globe, we are two parts that make up a whole: we live in the same world. In that respect, though we all have our distinct cultures, it is worth remembering — and strengthening — our universal culture.

The most basic roots of global culture are derived from the fact that we, as humans, experience the same basic feelings — pain, love, anger, fear, etc. We all aspire to avoid pain and maximise pleasure. It is the existence of fear that holds us back from forming relationships or trusting another person, especially one we perceive as different from us. Our mutual understanding of how death, life, war and tragedy affect a person should be a platform upon which we can foster respect and friendship. No one wants to lose a son, a mother or a grandfather, so we should all be able to see the insanity of needless violence.

We also understand the personal connection a person has with his or her home or village — it would pain us to see it destroyed. But the shared culture of the world can become clouded through dehumanisation. War is only possible when we perceive the enemy as being less than human. The rhetoric of politics and overzealous leaders allows the mass populous to forget that they have the same heart as the person they "hate" across the border. If you strip away the external factors, what you have left is the same basic individual with the same basic needs.

There are also values, morals and traditions that are respected and appreciated around the globe, such as the role of the family. The form may differ, but the relationship between family members is important in all communities and cultures. In the Arab world, the family represents the past, present and future. It is believed in the Arab world that individuals are not only educated in schools, but also in the home. With that belief, families exert tremendous effort in shaping their children's personalities. Kinship ties also often bring considerable responsibilities; an Arab individual would be considered less of a person without his or her family's ongoing support and guidance.

In the Western world, the independence of individuals plays a larger role in the development of family ties. In that regard, Western families provide education, guidance and support but also teach independence and responsibility to allow individuals to form their own lives outside the family boundaries.

In both cases, the importance of the family is apparent. Although Arab and American students sometimes argue over the level of responsibility and independence expected by the family in their respective cultures, it is easy to realise that though we differ, we still agree that the family plays an important role in education and support.

Countries define their culture by their history. But one may ask, "The history of what?" Most of what is found in schools' textbooks is the history of politics, the history of conflict. Yet, every country has a period they look back on as a darkened era, in which grave mistakes were made, or as "the good old days" when everything was simple and people were happy. Each has had its share of triumphs and trials. It is important to remember the histories, but it is also important not to read too much into them. The grudges of the past should not prevent two nations from respecting each other in the present, or from working together toward a common goal. By focusing on events, we forget the collective feelings, the human aspects that led to the eventual settlement of the conflict.

To achieve true respect and understanding on a global scale, we must interact and focus on our common human characteristics. We are all human beings, and share the same feelings, needs and values. What we forget most of the time is that even though we disagree, we can't separate ourselves from the other side of the coin; we all have something in common. At the very least, we can share in our thirst to understand one another.


* Pensee Afifi is a student at the American University in Cairo and Jane Slusark studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. They co-wrote this article as part of the Soliya Connect Program's West-Muslim World intercultural dialogue program. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 September 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.