Both Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, who participated in this week's interfaith conference in Alexandria, could not contain their admiration at the "great achievements" they attained in that meeting, which came out against terrorism and violence "against innocent people."
One hailed the meeting as a "tremendous breakthrough," the other urged the three faiths involved to "return to the Golden Age in Spain" where all supposedly lived in "harmony and peace."
With all due respect to the host of religious celebrities who attended the conference, and the ceremonial and declaratory communiquŽ emerging from it, one must temper the comments of our respectable representatives in that gathering lest they unnecessarily raise undue expectations that may backfire on our already worn out nerves.
For we are talking about mammoth misunderstandings, which create monumental misrepresentations, in spite of the goodwill evinced by all participants in that august conference.
We have already learned that goodwill on the part of one party does not necessarily produce goodwill on the part of the other.
Many issues are at stake here, and we shall mention only a few of them:
* There is no symmetry between the participants - there are no known Christian or Jewish terrorist organizations which indoctrinate and dispatch terrorists to blow themselves up among citizens of the other two parties to the declaration. The only ones which do are Muslims, and therefore Jewish and Christian religious leaders cannot equate themselves in that regard with Muslims. If anything, the Muslims alone ought to come up with that declaration, and not create the impression that all faiths have agreed to simultaneously desist from terror they did not commit.
* The participants all belong to the religious establishment in their countries. However, while in the case of Israel they are elected, and therefore accountable to their constituents, the heads of the Muslim hierarchy in Egypt and elsewhere are appointed by their governments and answer to them. They neither represent popular sentiment in their countries, nor a permanent moral point of view. Popular Muslim feelings are represented more by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Hamas, or Hizbullah, whose leaders refused, or did not care to participate in that conference.
Moreover, even the established Ikrama Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem appointed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, shunned the conference, precisely because he is aware that popular sentiment among the Palestinians would have risen against him. It is only if Sheikhs Ahmed Yassin or Muhammad Fadlallah, or Yousef Qardawi had participated, would this conference have carried any practical weight at all.
* Even had those popular leaders agreed to participate, they had already taken the precaution of "distancing" themselves from terrorism by claiming that "they are not responsible for their military wing," which could continue to act unabated. Their ploy is clear: they can pursue their doctrinal guidance to instigate terror but escape punishment by claiming that they had "nothing to do" with terrorists. That kind of logic, if accepted, would have exonerated Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Umar of Kandahar from any persecution by the US, since they personally were not active participants in the havoc they wreaked on the world.
* It should be noted that this conference, which had been in the making for many years, did not convene before September 11. It took that act of horror, and the scrambling of Muslim countries to show their nice faces to America in order to escape its wrath, for those illegitimate regimes to dispatch their appointed and docile "establishment" religious leaders to join in the outcry against violence in which innocent people fall victim.
Would that bring an end to violence or to terror? Certainly not. Because the terrorists, even if they would adopt the Alexandria Declaration, will always claim that they are neither violent nor terrorist, since they only act in self-defense, and that their victims are not innocent, being part of the enemy's make up.
* The most na•ve but harrowing part of the optimistic comments we hear about that conference, however, is the declared wish of the participants to revive the spirit of the Golden Age. Do they realize that the Muslims who ruled Spain for 800 years, which never constituted more than one-third of the population, ruled the Christian majority and the appended Jewish minority, as a second-class dhimmi people?
Is this the ideal that the venerable rabbi wishes to return to? This is exactly the declared ambition of Muslim fundamentalists who did not attend the conference. No, thanks, we should say.
* The respectable participants hailed the theme of "tolerance" without realizing that the Western world of discourse is different from the Muslims'.
When the Jew and Christian vow to tolerate the other, they mean to accept him in spite of his difference, without value-judging him. For the Muslim, tolerating others means to protect them in spite of their innate inferiority. Is this the good news and the "tremendous breakthrough" the Western participants wanted to bring back to their communities? One wonders.
Commendable and moving as these conferences may be, and pleasurable and useful as the human and political encounters may sound, one ought to learn some humility, and do one's homework, before one makes ready to please proclamations that are so pregnant with falsehoods and one should realize that, like Oslo and its delusions, their proponents may end up flat on their faces, and encourage, rather than eliminate, pessimism and despair.
(The author is a professor of Islam and the Middle East at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
©2001 - Jerusalem Post