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Progress through Interfaith Dialogue
The modern era has ushered in tremendous progress in nearly every facet of human life, from science to medicine to transportation to communications. Advancements in technology and global trade have made the world community more connected than at any other point in human history. Yet for all of our unparalleled recent advancements, there is still progress to be made in learning to live together peacefully and cooperatively.
"What we are learning is profound in its simplicity. We are all more alike than different. At the heart of most faith traditions is the desire to seek peace and to love one's neighbor."
Conflicts between people of religious faiths have been around for millennia. In our globalized and interconnected world, these conflicts have the ability to be more severe and more wide-reaching, able to affect people across the world. Thus, the need to work through our religious conflicts is all the more urgent. A glance at the daily headlines demonstrates the urgent need to build bridges between people of different cultures, faith traditions, and worldviews.
As a committed Muslim and Christian, we have found that friendship can serve as the vital bridge to establishing deep and lasting 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.
The two of us met shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, amid a climate of growing suspicions and brewing hostility. Unfortunately, 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 the formerly prized values of compassion and understanding are often viewed with contempt and considered "soft" and irrelevant. We reject the notion that the world is doomed to face what the political scientist Samuel Huntington claims is a "clash of civilizations." Consciously or not, the world is in search of authentic models that engender hope and where genuine faith breeds civility and trust.
After we met, we set out to learn from each other -- two people of strong faith who were willing to learn from each other. We decided to meet regularly to better understand each other's faith traditions and how they have influenced our beliefs and behavior. We decided not to skirt the tough issues but rather take the time to establish a "bank account" of goodwill and respect. As our trust, understanding, and respect grew, we increased our ability to weather the tough stuff of differences. We expanded our regular conversation to include others similarly inclined -- ambassadors, CEOs, policy-makers, senators, military leaders, and journalists. We alternated our dialogue sessions between Muslim and Christian homes, with a rather simple objective -- to create a safe table around which all could express their views and where we could learn to live with our differences.
Knowing that millions are killed regularly in the name of religion, one might conclude that we would avoid the "faith factor" at any price. But it is important in any interfaith dialogue for people to remain true to their own beliefs -- because putting beliefs aside or ignoring them does not make them go away. Rather, the hard work of speaking openly and honestly pays off when we learn from a person that we have come to trust and who is equally true to his or her own faith.
What we are learning is profound in its simplicity. We are all more alike than different. At the heart of most faith traditions is the desire to seek peace and to love one's neighbor. Caring and attempting to understand another's faith journey and perspective are not compromises but rather love in action. Differences need not be threatening; mutual understanding in an increasingly violent world needs to be rediscovered.
Most of the billions of people who are alive today have deeply held religious beliefs. It is only a small fraction of the world's population -- the extremists from every faith -- who cause there to be such devastating religious conflict. It is up to us, the majority who seek peace and mutual understanding, to counter the extremists in our own faiths, by working to build bridges with people of goodwill from other faith traditions. Taking the 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. But our progress as a world community depends on this deeper, more difficult endeavor.
In many parts of the world today, people are fighting over differences. We have decided instead to delight in our differences, 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. We hope to encourage others to seek out personal relationships with people who come from faith traditions different from their own. These dialogues must celebrate candor and free expression in the context of trust and openness. And they may be our only hope for global progress and peace.
Dr. Ahmed holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Holladay is a partner at Park Avenue Equity Partners and a chair of the Buxton Initiative, which facilitates interfaith dialogue.