Conference a Crucial Step in Healing Middle East Divide


In the 25 years that I've served as a leader in the Muslim American community, I have watched and sometimes participated as the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps have put all of their energy into trying to convert each other to their own ways of thinking.

The conclusion I've reached is that agreement can't and should not be a pre-condition for engagement.

As Muslims, Jews and Christians who believe in peace, we must be the drivers of change at the grass-roots level.

I agreed to speak at next month's first-ever J Street conference, titled "Driving Change, Securing Peace." This is a historic occasion on many fronts.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council and J Street both engage progressive thinkers and activists in our respective communities to address tough issues, work on Middle East peace as a priority, and strive to develop mutual respect between Muslims and Jews. For the first time in U.S. history, American Jews and American Muslims who don't agree on the narrative of the Middle East conflict are working together to determine their future –not just in the Middle East, but in the United States.

I am an American Muslim who believes that Islam plays a critical role in shaping the minds and hearts of more than 1 billion Muslims. I believe in one God, one human family and one set of core values that can improve all lives. The values are mercy, justice, peace, human dignity, freedom and equality for all.

MPAC is committed to working with members of the U.S. Congress and government agencies to formulate effective policies to counteract terrorism and extremism. I am proud of our two-decade record of contributions to policymaking, interfaith dialogue, Muslim integration and civic participation. I'm proud that we've played a part in helping Muslim Americans embrace the idea that being American and Muslim go hand in hand.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key issue of U.S.-Muslim world relations.

My position on the conflict — and that of MPAC — centers on the two-state solution: Israel and Palestine exist side by side with security and opportunity. I also believe that the injustices that the Palestinian people have endured for more than 60 years, as well as the ongoing occupation that started in 1967, must be addressed and rectified through negotiation, not violence. Middle East wars have not resolved anything in the 20th century or in the first decade of this century.

This is why a conference like J Street's is so crucial. As leaders of diverse and divergent communities, we have a responsibility to meet, discuss the issues and share our multiple perspectives.

If I've learned anything in 25 years, it's that working across differences is not easy or popular. So it's no wonder that naysayers will question and attack those who are attempting something new and different. I've experienced this myself more times than I can count.

When I was nominated to serve on the U.S. National Commission on Terrorism in 1999 by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, attacks and outright lies began cropping up almost immediately.

Because of my public criticisms of Israeli government policies related to the occupation, I was also labeled as anti-Semitic. When Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the occupation, they, too, were labeled anti-Israel.

The biggest weapon of the detractors? On Sept. 11, just hours after the horrific terrorist attacks, I was interviewed on a local radio show in Los Angeles right after a guest "expert" stated that Islam was the prime suspect. In reacting to that awful stereotype, I made a mistake. I said that if we were going to look for suspects, then we should also put Israel on the list.

It was wrong, and I apologized for it on the same radio show the very next day, as well as directly to Jewish leaders. It is a shame that people today continue to exploit that mistake.

What detractors of the peace process want to do is their business, but the future belongs to those who want to engender hope for America, especially for the crucial role that it can play in the Middle East. What the J Street conference represents is a defining moment.

I aim to follow the following Koranic verse in dealing with hostilities, both here and abroad: "Good and evil are not equal. So repel evil with good and the one with whom you have enmity will become a close friend."

Salam Al-Marayati is co-founder and executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.


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