Assessing the Myths of Interfaith Dialogue
Posted Sep 6, 2006

Assessing the Myths of Interfaith Dialogue

David Shasha

Something that struck me while re-reading Maureen Dowd’s past columns about the current Iraq War was her insistent refrain that Americans know close to nothing about the culture of the people in whose country they are now militarily engaged as combatants and occupiers.  This detail seemed odd to me since in the post-9/11 world so many initiatives have been undertaken to promote Interfaith Dialogue in the United States with a tremendous amount of financial and institutional resources having been set aside for this very purpose.

The Interfaith Dialogue movement has congealed around engaging the three Abrahamic faiths; a model most successfully made into a commercial literary reality by the writer Bruce Feiler in his various books and TV documentaries; particularly in his best-seller Abraham, a book that has become the “Bible” of the Interfaith Dialogue movement.

Why then if there are so many resources and groups dedicated to the promotion of Interfaith Dialogue, should there remain, as Ms. Dowd correctly argues, a huge chasm that separates the Arab world from the United States?

We can look at the situation as it applies to the Israeli-Arab conflagration which serves as a larger paradigm for this state of incoherence.  Over the years since the Camp David Accords and the Oslo Agreement, many Jewish and Muslim groups have sprung up to promote reconciliation and a peaceful end to the conflict.  Established groups like Seeds of Peace and newer groups such as Children of Abraham bring Jewish and Arab children together to speak and to share human experiences.  And yet with all that the institutional world, especially the Jewish institutional world, has done to establish this Interfaith Dialogue, the problems we face in the Middle East remain intractable.

After having set up my own institution dedicated to the preservation of Arab Jewish culture about a decade ago, I have begun to learn about this world of Interfaith Dialogue and discovered that its central premise – that of uniting the Abrahamic faiths – is based on a number of confused assumptions.

One of the primary assumptions that Interfaith Dialogue is based on is that Jews and Arabs are separate and mutually hostile peoples.  And for the majority of the world’s Jews who come from Europe, perhaps this is true.  But for many centuries there were in fact Jews who lived in the Middle East and developed a resilient and vibrant culture that was very much a part of its Arabic surroundings. 

That Jews and Arabs share a culture is a fact that stands in stark contrast with the idea that there is a primordial rupture between the peoples that has fed the endemic and corrosive violence that now permeates the region.

It is noteworthy that the figure of Arab Jews has been missing from the picture of contemporary Jewish life.  The role these Arab Jews might have been able to play as indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East with knowledge of the language, customs and values of the region has been wasted.  If only this cultural knowledge had been utilized over the course of the 20th century, the current realities might well have been different.  But sadly, the Arab Jews have found themselves demographically as well as institutionally shut out of the discourse that has emerged from the conflict. 

In my personal experience, I have learned the hard lessons of trying to set out an indigenous Arab Jewish discourse in the face of a world for which Gefilte Fish and Matzo Ball soup and Chopped Liver are all seen as de rigueur parts of the Jewish heritage, while Kibbe, Fassoulia, Kunafa, Mahshi and other Middle Eastern delicacies that are part of the Arab Jewish heritage have been viewed as just so much exotica that does not seem to have any actual role within Jewish culture as it is currently configured.
But music, food and literature are at the very foundation of what separates us from the Arab Middle Eastern world.  Interfaith Dialogue is premised on an uncontested reality – that of ancient Judaism, Islam and Christianity having been formed from the same basic religious ideas and traditions.  But the classical culture of the region, a culture of Religious Humanism – religion fused with the scientific – which subsumes the poetry of Al-Mutanabbi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Abu Nuwwas and Judah Halevi; the religious philosophy of Maimonides, Averroes, Al-Ghazali and Avicenna and the historical researches of Ibn Khaldun and Solomon ibn Verga, is not at all part of the current discourse.  This culture can be understood by what I have called “The Levantine Option.” 

“The Levantine Option” is a cultural formation indigenous to the Middle East – and Islamic North Africa and Spain – that inherited the Scriptural traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and filtered those traditions through the Greco-Roman inheritance which was assiduously translated into Arabic by members of the three faiths in Muslim places like Cordoba, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo creating a complex system whose foundation was Religious Humanism.
The books of Bruce Feiler that are being read in Interfaith Dialogue groups have only examined the ancient Scriptural inheritance and not the humanistic medieval heritage, which at the Iberian nexus of Andalusia brought Europe and Arabia together. 

If these same dialogue groups were assigned the writings of Maria Rosa Menocal and Richard Rubenstein, who in their respective books (note well that the books share the almost exact same subtitle) The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain and Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages have examined the ideas and values of Religious Humanism from the intellectual perspective of the Mediterranean world of the High Middle Ages, perhaps a more effective bridge could be built between the various cultures. 

It is also quite doubtful that modern Arabic culture is part of the curriculum of the Interfaith groups.  And yet the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, the music of Muhammad Abdel-Wahhab and the films of Youssef Chahine, widely regarded in the contemporary Arab world as the bedrock of its culture, would be a far more appropriate context for Jews, Christians and Muslims to learn more about current life in the region.

Attempts to put forward the Arab Jewish case are not well-known to the general reading public.  The most important study of the Arab Jews is CUNY professor Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, published in 1993, which has now been joined by a new book from Tel Aviv University’s Yehouda Shenhav called The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion and Ethnicity.  Each of these rich books recounts a hitherto hidden history of Jewish life native to the Middle East; a cultural tradition that would certainly go a long way in rectifying the current state of cultural blindness and mutual incoherence that has kept us frozen in our tracks.

Interfaith Dialogue must be premised not merely on religious discourse, but must take into account the culture and civilized values of the native Middle Eastern peoples.  As is widely known, Arabs hold their traditions and histories critically important.  The value of the Arabic language, a language that was once shared by all the Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the region prior to the emergence of ethnic and religious conflict, is marked by Arabs as being one of the most important factors in their cultural lives.  Any discussion of Arab civilization that does not treat the matter of its glorious cultural traditions which have mistakenly been separated from the religious context, is doomed to failure – a matter that we have seen in the noble, but unsuccessful efforts of Interfaith groups whose dialogues have done precious little to allay the fears and tensions that continue to beset us in our post-9/11 world.