Dialogue with Muslims: Possible, or pipe dream

At a time when the greatest threat facing the Jewish people and, indeed, the entire world, is from Islamic extremism — its ideological totalitarianism, its use of terror and suicide bombs, its goals of developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction — the question of relations with Muslims in general is at center stage. Recently, after I gave an address on the subject of the Islamic extremist threat, I responded to a question about dialogue by saying that it is a “pipe dream” because “there is no one to talk to.”

As the leader of an organization that is committed to inter-group and interfaith dialogue, with many programs all over the United States and around the globe premised on it, I want to explain what I meant and what I didn’t mean.

I believe dialogue is critical to preventing an escalation of the deadly “clash of civilizations,” which so many are predicting, from becoming a reality. There are many tools and perspectives that need to be employed to move relations in a positive direction, and dialogue is one of them.

We abhor and work daily to counter efforts to stigmatize and demonize an entire religion or people because of the acts of some. Making distinctions is a vital part of our work.

Only days after 9/11, when reports started surfacing that there were a number of attacks on Muslims in this country, the Anti-Defamation League placed ads in major national newspapers urging Americans “not to fight hate with hate.” Blaming all Muslims for the acts of the terrorists is not what America was about and it surely is not what the ADL was about.

Most recently, when a Pakistani Muslim man was attacked in Brooklyn because of his religion, the ADL spoke out forcefully against the hate crime and joined in a dialogue with local community groups.

We know that all the major religions have in common a fundamental moral core that needs to be reinforced and nurtured, particularly in the face of those who want to use religion for evil purposes.

A few years back I tried to get a project off the ground together with a Muslim cleric in Turkey, who has a following of millions, to produce a work citing instances of tolerance in Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious texts. It never happened because — after initial enthusiasm — the Muslim leader didn’t deliver. I have had similar discussions with Jordanians and Saudis, but we are still lacking a Muslim partner.

Not only on a conceptual level, but practically, Muslims represent many different things. There are governments and people around the globe that are predominantly Muslim that do not reflect the Islamic extremism that is the threat. Throughout the country, the ADL and Muslims participate together in coalitions to fight hate and intolerance. When St. Louis’ Interfaith Dialogue celebrated its 20th anniversary, an ADL official was the keynote speaker.

Let us be clear: No one has the right to demonize Islam or stereotype Muslims. There obviously are individual Muslims with whom to dialogue and we need to work to identify more interfaith dialogue. But it must be noted that too many moderate Muslims fail to stand up against the extremists. And millions of average Muslims often buy into conspiracy theories about Jews and the West emanating from extremists.

We are concerned about those who engage in violence rather than dialogue in response to grievances, such as the cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad and the pope’s comments about Islam. We worry about the tendency when Islam is the majority religion for states too often not to respect religious freedom, human rights and equal rights for women.

When I said that there was no one to talk to, I was mostly thinking of the unwillingness of the leading American Muslim groups to do the most basic things: accept Israel’s existence as a legitimate state in the Middle East; reject terrorism unequivocally because no cause justifies terrorism; not view attacks on Israel as legitimate or suggest Hezbollah and Hamas are not terrorist groups; and speak out against the virulent anti-Semitism coming out of large parts of the Arab world.

For us these principles are the sine qua non for dialogue. They have nothing to do with legitimate criticism of Israeli politics. We expect that there will always be different views between us and Muslim groups on issues. That won’t stop dialogue. But rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, rationalization of the terror and the teaching of hatred will.

What to do then when dialogue is important, where smaller dialogues take place but the bigger ones can’t? The answer is to continue to look for and to encourage those Muslims who believe in compromise and who accept Israel, to continue to insist that those who reject the basic principles are not acceptable until they do and to look for those common areas of agreement outside Middle East issues upon which we can build relationships.

We must also give support and encouragement to all the moderates of the Islamic world who are ready to stand up, because their strength can enhance the entire world and move us to a future of hope and progress rather than one of conflict and despair.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of “Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism.”