Can't We All Just Get Along?


Every week for the past five years, there have been news stories of U.S. soldiers being killed in Iraq or Afghanistan; stories of Israeli Jews either attacking or being attacked by Palestinians; reports of sectarian Sunni Muslims in Baghdad murdering Shiites, and vice-versa; and Muslim militias ravaging the Darfur region of Sudan.

Hardly a day goes by without reports of violence and conflict between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, with the emphasis in the West on acts of violence committed by Muslims and the emphasis in the Muslim world on violence perpetrated by Christians or Jews. But violence is the common theme. As the rhetoric about a looming confrontation with Iran heats up, conflict is promised for the future-so much so that it is difficult to find anyone who either believes that peace is possible or recalls an age when peace was a reality.

What is particularly troubling about this escalating conflict is the degree to which history is invoked as a cause and justification. In the Arab world, it is common for the latest episode of strife between Muslim countries and the West to be described as but one in a long series stretching back to the Crusades; and in the West, it is becoming more common to ascribe the acts of some Muslims to the religion of Islam itself.

Given this climate of opinion, you would never know that there is a past, present, and future of peace and coexistence. That past has never been well remembered, but the consequences of its being forgotten are greater today than ever before.

The history of coexistence-sometimes warm and fruitful, often cold and indifferent (coexistence is the absence of lethal conflict, not the presence of amicable concord)-has survived in history classrooms, but it has had remarkably little traction in the popular imagination. College students can take courses about Muslim Spain, where Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars and mystics worked together to unlock the mysteries of the universe. They can study the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries was a patchwork collection of Balkan Christians, Turkish tribes, Arab clans, and hundreds of languages and ethnicities. The Ottoman sultan was largely indifferent to what his subjects believed, as long they as obeyed. The ruling classes were capable of great brutality, especially when challenged, yet their reprisals against Christian peasants in the Balkans were not notably harsher than the punishments meted out to Arabs or Persians who attempted to defy their will. And many cities of the empire were multicultural melting pots. At the end of the fifteenth century, the sultan welcomed the Jews evicted from Spain in 1492 to help revitalize Istanbul and Salonika. The Ottomans tolerated a range of religious sects, though non-Muslims were forced to pay an annual tax.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the temporal power of organized religion receded in both Europe and the Muslim world, rulers and businessmen worked together to create a future that they naively but sincerely believed would be free of want and war. The building of the Suez Canal, orchestrated by a French diplomat allied with the ruler of Egypt, was one extraordinary example of that cooperation (though in time it became an albatross for the Egyptians and an excuse for British occupation), and there were countless others. The creation of the Suez Canal is a reminder that commerce and trade can help bring about peace and coexistence, a fact supported by the recent celebration of the European Union’s fiftieth anniversary on a continent that had been all but destroyed by nationalistic rivalries in the last century.

Yet, in the United States and even Europe today, there is precious little memory of peaceful interreligious coexistence. Instead, there is a prevailing sense that Islam and war go hand in hand and that war, conflict, and terror will be the norm until Muslims become less Muslim and push Islam into the nooks and crannies of private life. On the other side, in the Arab world, not only does the legacy of the Crusades still resonate, but it is routinely linked to the twentieth-century “Zionist invasion” that led to the establishment of Israel. Whether one is an American watching the body count rise in Iraq or an Egyptian watching the plight of the Palestinians on Al-Jazeera television, one knows only what one sees and hears, and rarely is that enough.

The relentless association of religion and conflict compresses the complexity of human lives into one narrow band. Anyone who travels and speaks with Americans or Arabs or Turks or Iranians quickly recognizes that religion is only one part of their identity and of their lives. How Johnny or Ahmed or Hannah or Leila are doing at school, whether he or she likes me, and how much money will I take home today-such concerns fill the days of people everywhere, even in war-torn Iraq. Praying at a mosque in the morning in Cairo does not preclude playing cards and drinking in the evening, however “un-Islamic” such behavior may be in theory. Like Christianity, Islam is practiced in a variety of ways, and the hypothetical ideal Islamic life is complicated by many nonreligious concerns.

Over the past few years, many religious groups have made Herculean efforts to bridge divisions through educational initiatives as well as gatherings of religious leaders. Seeds for Peace and Search for Common Ground, for example, have brought Arabs and Israelis together to air grievances and develop bonds. Such efforts are vital, but they continue to be overwhelmed by the larger culture of mistrust and animosity.

Part of the problem may be the tendency to view both the current conflicts and their solutions in strictly religious terms. The result is to reinforce the notion that all interaction among people of different faiths is “religious” in nature. That has never been the case. Indeed, when Muslims and Christians have fought, they have often done so for reasons that have little to do with Islam and Christianity. The dynastic ambitions of the Ottomans on the one hand and those of the Austro-Hungarians or Russians on the other were reason enough for those empires to go to war repeatedly between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, and when they were not fighting one another, they were fighting their coreligionists. Religion was sometimes an adjunct to imperial expansion, but rarely the cause of it.

Even today, interaction among people of different faiths-both peaceful and antagonistic-is not necessarily driven by creed. Baghdad is a tragic mess, but five hundred miles to the south, the Gulf emirates are flush with hundreds of billions of petro-dollars and the rulers of Dubai are primarily interested in erecting the world’s tallest buildings and doing real-estate deals with Donald Trump, Boston Properties (run by the very pro-Israel Mortimer Zuckerman), and Kerzner International (a company controlled by South African Jews). Dubai would be difficult to emulate as an economic model. It is a small city-state with a tiny population, but Dubai does offer a different cultural paradigm, one where the benefits of economic growth appear to ameliorate religious conflict. Similarly, in Morocco, the imperative is to bring French tourists to Marrakesh and Fez, and hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Casablanca in the summer of 2004 to protest bombings in that city committed by a fringe sect. In Jordan, King Abdullah strives to build a free-market meeting ground between the Arab world and the West.

Reclaiming the legacy of religious coexistence and recognizing vibrant instances of it even today will not magically make the world whole. Nor will the inherent rivalry among the world’s three great monotheisms suddenly go away. Remembering that Muslim societies have often been models of tolerance in the past will not convert today’s jihadis from hate to love. It may, however, illuminate other paths and directions and support a more stable, secure future. In a world where the very few are increasingly able to do great harm to the many, the consequences of our selective readings of the past are more than academic. We must reclaim both the history and future of peaceful coexistence, or the current conflicts will seem benign compared to what comes next.

About the Author

Zachary Karabell is the author of Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (Alfred A. Knopf).