GUEST COMMENT: Mideast peace won't come by sweeping conflict aside

January 23, 2004

At a recent meeting of Islamic and American leaders held in Doha, Qatar, an exchange on opening night crystallized a core frustration of Islamic-American dialogues today: Among the current political and religious leadership, neither is much interested in discussing the issues that are of primary importance to the other.

The Doha meeting, organized by the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar, opened with Muslim leaders calling on the United States to play a more even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A former senior American diplomat's reaction was blunt: "The U.S. will never turn its back on Israel," followed by an appeal that conference participants focus on areas of potential Islamic-American cooperation, such as the global AIDS crisis.

Though no one had asked that the United States turn its back on Israel, the American message was clear: The issue that many Muslims most wanted to discuss was off the table. The result was predictable.

Even those Muslims who did not want to spend three days talking about Israel and Palestine -- who only wanted the issue to be raised and registered -- would now hammer it for the rest of the meeting, because the Americans clearly didn't get its importance.

Muslim Americans are accustomed to such interactions, but what remains baffling is that topics that are off-limits for discussion in the United States get a much fuller hearing in Israel itself. Compare the diversity of critical opinions that appear in Israel's major newspapers to those in the United States -- you'd think the United States has a greater stake in defending the occupation than does Israel.

In recent weeks, Israel's army chief of staff and four former directors of Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, have denounced Israeli policy in the occupied territories, stating that much of it is not meant to enhance security, but to humiliate Palestinians.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stated what Israelis increasingly realize: Given the demographic realities west of the Jordan River, continued occupation of Palestinian land puts the future of the Israeli state at risk. Yet in the United States hardly anyone of prominence will even entertain the discussion.

The interventions of some Muslim leaders on opening night in Doha were no more encouraging. When asked about interfaith dialogue, the most prominent Muslim religious scholar present responded, "We will not dialogue with the Jews," ostensibly until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

I wondered, what about the Jews who just called on the Israeli government to reform its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians? What about Jewish human rights activists who have spent decades documenting abuses and advocating on behalf of Palestinians? What about Jews who act as human shields, risking their lives to protect Palestinians in the territories? They have risked more to help Palestinians than most Muslims or Arabs.

Like the taboo on criticizing Israeli policies in the United States, the inadequacy of current Islamic leadership is a familiar frustration for Muslim Americans.

The Quran commands us to make peace with Christians and Jews while seeking justice. But when we look for leadership in this, to the homes of many of our ancestors in the Arab and broader Islamic world, we are often disappointed. We are faced with religious leaders who simply state what they won't do, what Muslims shouldn't do, and what everyone else must do.

We are faced with too many who will not reject unequivocally the murder of civilians, no matter how just the cause. In fact, we are faced with one choice, made clear to me by an Egyptian scholar in Doha: "Forget about getting your religious leadership from here -- cultivate your own in the U.S."

For Muslim Americans, such a thing existed decades ago -- in the person of Malcolm X.

On an Ivy League college campus in the early 1960s, Malcolm X was confronted by a white student who, expressing admiration for him asked, "How can I help you?" At the time, Malcolm X viewed whites as harmless at best and dangerous at worst. Brushing by her he responded, "Nothing."

As an older, wiser man, Malcolm X reflected with regret on that experience. He wished he had told her to help by working in her own community -- she had access there and could make a difference there that he could not.

Muslim Americans can take a lesson from Malcolm X and work on our own communities. Both of them.

The political and religious leadership in both the United States and in the Muslim world seems incapable of serious self-reflection, though each bears considerable responsibility for the predicament in which we find ourselves: a state of Islamic-American relations that is terrible and getting worse.

As Muslim Americans, we should get to work on both, and fast.

SHAMIL IDRISS of Washington, D.C., is chief operating officer of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization in Washington, D.C. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.

Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.