Reaching across the divide

December 26, 2006

The following is an unprecedented exchange of letters between two of the Middle East's most respected journalists: Salameh Nematt, an Arab, and Akiva Eldar, an Israeli. The exchange, which was commissioned by the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org), appears today in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds and here in The Sun.

Dear Akiva,

The ancient Romans used to say: "Ex Oriente Lux," which means: "Light comes from the East." They were not merely referring to the fact that the sun rises from the east. The three main monotheistic religions originated from the so-called Middle East. Indeed, civilization itself started in Mesopotamia. ...

But in today's world, the Middle East is better known for being the world's biggest source of political upheaval and violence that has not only plagued the region's people, but is now threatening global security. The term "terrorism," which is yet to gain a globally accepted definition, has become a common term associated with developments in the Middle East, and, more ominously, linked to people originating from that mainly Muslim part of the world.

When perpetrators of these violent acts, which are mainly committed against innocent civilians, portray their murderous acts as being in the service of God, one is reminded of Christianity in the Dark Ages and of bloody "Crusades" that terrorized people in the Middle East nearly a thousand years ago. Are these self-righteous and self-appointed guardians of Islam - Bin Laden and Co. - just beginning to adopt tactics pursued by Christian leaders in Medieval times ... ?

Judaism is not free of the violent types who use religion as a means to achieve political gains either. A case in point is the terrorism committed by the Irgun and Stern gangs in Palestine during the 1940s movement to establish the state of Israel.

Even if we assume that the Jews and the Christians have succeeded in achieving some of their goals through violence in the past, what do the Muslim extremists, including Hamas and Hezbollah and their Iranian and Syrian backers, hope to achieve today in a world where what you could get away with a few centuries ago, or even a few decades ago, is no longer tenable?

How did the cradle of civilization turn into the cradle of blind political violence in the name of religion?

Dear Akiva, one could go as far back as the Crusades, or much more recently to the times of European colonization of the Middle East and the creation of Israel, with Western backing. One could blame today's miserable state of affairs both on the history of Western involvement in the region and the corrupt and oppressive regimes left behind to rule.

But this alone could not have created the type of terrorism we witness today. For why do Muslims kill fellow Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere more than they target alien, Western invaders?

One must question whether the politics of despair are responsible for the kind of violence we have been witnessing in the last few years. ... Is the absence of hope for Palestinians a recipe for further violence against Israel and among Palestinians themselves? This is a question that needs to be answered if we are to understand what drives these extremist and fanatical groups to wreak havoc in the Middle East and beyond.

It is naive to think that religion is responsible for the violence in the Middle East, even if it is often used as a convenient excuse for achieving political goals. Violence is the product of weak and desperate people suffering unaddressed grievances, real and imagined. The failure of states in the region to provide peaceful means for political change through a democratic process has largely contributed to the growing phenomenon. Threats to regional and global security are the product of current realities in the Middle East that must change before we can hope that the cradle of civilization can once again become a beacon of light upon nations.

But how do we change these realities, dear Akiva?

You know how much influence Israel, the superpower of the Middle East, can exercise over America, the world's superpower. And you know that Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands has been a key factor in igniting and perpetuating a regional conflict that has spread beyond the region and is now drawing us to a clash of civilizations. You know very well that Israel, in defiance of international law, has deliberately and consistently worked to undermine and abort every local, regional or international peace plan that has ever been tabled. The aborting of these plans was also achieved with the help of Palestinian and Arab militants, but isn't it Israel's policies that have undermined Palestinian and Arab moderates?

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