Volume 19 Number 6
The Path to Hope and Dignity
01 December 2006

Despair and fear are the enemies of peace, write Saliba Sarsar (left),a Palestinian American, and Yehezkel Landau, an Israeli American.

OUR GLOBAL society is fast losing its balance and its moderate centre. It is becoming more and more polarised and violent. Human life and dignity are losing their sacred character for an increasing number of people, including those who claim to be religious.

The atrocities perpetrated against civilians on 11 September and since, the ‘war on terrorism’, the horrific slaughter in Iraq, the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict including the latest Israel-Hizbullah war, the unsettling prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran, even cartoons deemed offensive to religious believers—all these factors have dashed any hopes that the end of the Cold War and the onset of a new millennium would generate a peace dividend, with greater international stability and prosperity.

Instead we witness more blatant expressions of authoritarianism, tribalism, religious extremism, terrorism, and militarism, together with a retreat from responsible politics and multilateral solutions. Ideology eclipses realism. Global organisations and initiatives remain hostage to narrow self-interest. The zero-sum game of power politics imposes its ugliness on our lives, mainly as a fearful, even desperate, reaction to terror.

As private and state terrorism continue to plague the world, it has evoked deep pain and revulsion in our psyches. The struggle against this vicious threat has generated a macromyth that divides humanity into the ‘virtuous, righteous, heroic’ fighters against the ‘evildoers’. Such dehumanisation simplifies complex problems and leads us away from effective strategies to counter the real threats we face. Whole populations are estranged from each other, waiting for the least provocation to denigrate and attack. Too often the threat is exaggerated, making the response incommensurate with the real danger.

We can easily succumb to despair when we feel helplessly vulnerable in the face of such horrors and threats. Primal survival instincts are apt to trump compassion, ethical restraints, and legal safeguards regarding human rights. Faith turns fanatic, and morality is sacrificed for short-term advantage. Power turns into brute force and evil deeds, and the weak discover their own strength in evil deeds, as well. Words become weapons, truth is warped into falsehood, and the human face dons the mask of death.

Why are we torturing and killing innocent civilians in the name of security or liberation? Why are warriors bombing residential neighbourhoods and houses of worship, and despoiling God’s creation? Are cartoons mocking prophets and sacred traditions illustrations of free speech or of media insensitivity and irresponsibility? Is denying or belittling the Holocaust and other genocides a result of outright ignorance, or a sad commentary on our inability to face the truth, shoulder responsibility, and demonstrate solidarity with our fellow human beings? Isn’t it sinful when civility, honour and justice are crushed in the name of freedom or security? Isn’t it a grotesque distortion of religion when tolerance, caring, and forgiveness are violated in the name of the Divine?

While the questions are legion, satisfactory answers elude us. What is clear is that we stand at a crucial juncture in human history, between a ‘clash of civilisations’ and affirming the ‘dignity of difference’. Choosing the right path requires responsible leadership and a shared commitment to change negative attitudes and behaviour in favour of dialogue, conciliation, and a culture of peace. Such transformations must first happen within each one of us and in our interpersonal relationships. We challenge ourselves, our compatriots, and our leaders—including religious leaders—to favour compassion over callousness, solidarity over selfishness, and peace with justice over the suppression of dissent.

The Western and Muslim worlds do not have to be like each other, or even like each other, to embrace dialogue and diplomacy as preferred methods of interaction. Muslims in Western countries can serve as cross-cultural mediators if they are enlisted and trusted by the disputing parties. Enlightened self-interest and a concern for our children’s welfare should suffice as motivations to work toward an accommodation of differences.

Westerners and Muslims alike need rational, humane governance and better mutual understanding. Honest engagement with each other will reveal shared values, including a dedication to social justice. We all need political and economic reforms that distribute resources more equitably. We all need to safeguard human rights, increase funding for educational and cultural exchanges, and commit ourselves to resolving conflicts through peaceful means.

Winning the hearts and minds of others, particularly frightened or humiliated peoples, will not be achieved by hard power. Investing in peace-building and in basic human needs like food, medical care, shelter, and education instead of high-tech weapons will create the necessary foundation for sustainable change. Our hope lies in first imagining, then working to create, an interdependent world in which the good of every individual depends on realising the good of all.

Saliba Sarsar is Professor of Political Science and Associate Vice-President for Academic Program Initiatives at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Yehezkel Landau is Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.