EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written in response to the article "J Street should rescind its invitation to Al-Marayati," by Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America. At the author’s request, the seventh paragraph has been altered to make clear that the reference to occupation was tied to Israel’s territorial gains in the Six-Day War in 1967.
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — In the 25 years I have 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 their energy into trying to convert each other to their own ways of thinking — ideologically, not theologically.
The conclusion I have reached is that agreement cannot and should not be a pre-condition for engagement. As Muslims, Jews and Christians who believe in peacemaking as a social and religious responsibility, we must be the drivers of change at the grass-roots level.
I agreed recently to speak at next month’s first-ever J Street conference, which is 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 issue, and strive to develop mutual respect between Muslims and Jews. For the first time in American 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 America.
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 to serve the divine value of justice. I believe in one God, one human family and one set of core values that can improve all lives. Those 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 also 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 whereby Israel and Palestine exist side by side with security and opportunity. I believe also 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 the one J Street is planning is so crucial. As leaders of diverse and divergent communities, we have a responsibility to meet, discuss the issues and share our multiple perspectives. This exchange will only enrich the national conversation around the prospects for a durable solution to the conflict.
If I’ve learned anything in 25 years, it’s that working across differences is not easy, and certainly not 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 then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, attacks and outright lies began cropping up almost immediately.
Because I stated that we needed to look at the root causes of terrorism, I was accused of supporting terrorism. Yet in 2001, President George W. Bush made exactly the same assertion, which led to the creation of U.S.-sponsored initiatives for democratic reform in Muslim countries and a robust public diplomatic effort led by then-Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes.
Because of my public criticisms of Israeli government policies related to the occupation, I also was labeled as anti-Semitic. When Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the occupation, they were labeled anti-Israel.
The biggest weapon of the detractors? On 9/11, 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 and do not want to accept my apology.
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 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.”
Far too often we find ourselves in the position of calling for cease-fires in the Middle East. It’s high time we call for one now, in the United States, so that we can move on with the important business of working together to explore possibilities that can secure our shared future.
(Salam Al-Marayati is the co-founder and executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.)