- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

Decades back, former Sen.George Aiken from Vermont famously observed: “If we were to wake up one morning and find that we were all the same race, religion and nationality…we’d find some other reason to hate each other by noon.” How utterly prophetic and sad. Is human nature indeed that dark, seeming devoid of any true humanity? Is there an antidote to what appears to be a race toward annihilation? Is the growing divide between the West and the rest reversible? President Bush, your main challenges will be terrorism and relations with the Muslim world during your administration. We have something to offer you. By way of example, we — a Muslim and a Christian — declare a resounding “yes,” there is in fact a way forward.

Relationships are the best bridge to real understanding. Whether on the interpersonal level — between two individuals — or on the geopolitical stage — between two nations — understanding and trust grow in the rich soil of friendship.Christians and Muslims need to be encouraged to have real dialogue in their communities, especially during Ramadan, and as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda try to threaten our societies.As our world becomes increasingly intolerant and polarized on the basis of economics, race, ethnicity, culture and, most sadly, religion, we offer an alternative.

Our suggestion is counterintuitive and starts modestly between individuals. Knowing that millions are killed regularly in the name of religion, one might conclude that we would avoid the “faith factor” at any price. Yet we instead offer a simple yet profound proposal: Look to faith and friendship as the vital bridge to establishing deep and lasting understanding. Consciously or not, the world is in search of authentic models which engender hope and where genuine faith breeds civility and trust. The relationships of which we speak don’t skirt the tough issues but take the time to establish a “bank account” of goodwill and respect. The more solid the bridge, the greater the ability to weather the tough stuff of differences. Unfortunately, at present, the airwaves add to the climate of division and mistrust by giving relentless focus to the worst in human nature. Naturally this feeds cynicism, while compassion and understanding, formerly prized virtues, are now viewed with contempt and considered “soft” and irrelevant.

The two of us, one from the Muslim tradition, the other Christian, met shortly after September 11 at the National Press Club in Washington. Each was in search of a “soulmate” to explore, in a climate of growing suspicions and brewing hostility, a way to avoid what Harvard’s Samuel Huntington saw as the inevitable clash of civilizations. While both of us enjoy politics, we prize faith much more. Thus began an unusual journey together.

A decision was taken to meet regularly to better understand our faith traditions and their effects upon our beliefs and behavior. As the trust, understanding and respect grew, we expanded our regular conversation to include others similarly inclined—ambassadors, CEOs, policy-makers, senators, even a few media types and generals. Our objective was really quite simple: to create a safe table around which all could express their views and where we could learn to live with our differences. In many parts of the world today, people are killing over differences. We decided instead to delight in them, concluding that on this small planet, a sustainable model of hope and civility might serve as a light in the midst of so much darkness. Such models must celebrate candor and free expression in the context of trust and openness.

What we are learning is profound in its simplicity. We are all more alike than different. Caring and attempting to understand another’s faith journey and perspective are not compromises but rather love in action. Taking time to be friends is an investment, yet it establishes a climate to challenge and ultimately modify one’s set views and those of others. It is humbling to enter into another’s life and worldview. It is far easier to demonize and make caricatures of those who differ from ourselves.

While the focus on our initiative has been deeply personal, one interesting theological bridge has been the person of Jesus. While one of us reveres Him as the Lord and Savior of the world, the other holds him as a highly revered and loved revelation of God as was the prophet Muhammad. We are working hard to convince one another of the veracity of our views. Differences need not be a threat to another. Mutual understanding in an increasingly violent world needs to be rediscovered.

Must the war on terror be won? Absolutely. Yet the antidote to the prophets of violence is not only to use force but to construct bridges. Simple friendship just might be the “real” ticket.

Akbar S. Ahmed holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington. J. Douglas Holladay is a partner at Park Avenue Equity Partners. Their dialogue sessions alternate between Muslim and Christian homes.

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