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Panel Diagnoses Schism Dividing Islam and West

May 3, 2007 By:
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For Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the conflict between Islam and the West is centered around religious beliefs, and the actions that adherence to faith can evoke.

"We can craft a legacy of bloodshed in the name of God," he said, "or peacemaking in the name of God."

Hirschfield, the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, appeared April 23 at the WHYY Technology Center in Philadelphia for a panel discussion taped for America Abroad radio.

Talking in general terms about the current standoff between Islam and the West, he said that people must conceive of the schism as a religious conflict -- keeping in mind that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have "footnotes and traditions" that can justify horrific actions, as well as holy ones.

"People try to blame religion unfairly," he continued, "but I'm far more concerned -- as someone who is religious -- that people who are religious try to get religion off the hook too easily," and not face up to the darker current within all faith traditions.

Also speaking at the event was Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, an African-American convert to Islam and the head of the National Association of Muslim Chaplains in Higher Education.

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Abdul-Malik noted a different example of religious fervor from his own direct experience. He reported that after visiting the war-torn region of Darfur in Sudan, he's convinced that issues there are much more material than theological.

"I saw Muslims killing other Muslims," he said. "Their faith, for me, has to be so incredibly low that they would kill their fellow man or woman in exchange for material wealth."

The discussion also featured Peter Steinfels, religion columnist for The New York Times and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. The program itself was hosted by Ray Suarez, senior correspondent on PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," and Maiken Scott, a producer and on-air personality for WHYY in Philadelphia.

To deal with Muslim extremists around the world, Abdul-Malik said that words -- and not military force or action -- is the best plan.

"Say to a person, 'Can I have a discussion with you? I think your attitudes and tactics are way over the top. Can we talk about that? Is that the highest manifestation of, not my understanding of your religion, but your understanding of your religion?' " he explained. "It is not for the West to try to redefine Islam on its own terms."

Suarez countered by saying that he felt any extremist willing to strap a bomb onto himself may be too far gone for any kind of rational dialogue.

Moreover, he added that people who influence and help coordinate suicide bombers are "telling them, 'Yes, this is Islam. What you're doing is sacred, what you're doing is good, what you're doing will help support your families, and what you're doing will further the word of God in the world.' "

Attempting to sum up the situation, Hirschfield said that the problem lies in absolutist views on religion and politics.

"There's going to have to be a way," he insisted, "to address the deepest yearnings we feel, our greatest aspirations and deepest fears, and do so in a way that does not require the destruction or conversion of those with whom we disagree."

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