Reflections on a common heritage

HAARETZ
Reflections on a common heritage

By El Hassan bin Talal
21-Oct-07

In many societies, religious festivals and set periods of spiritual reflection have been commandeered by commercial interests and misrepresented by ideologues. Their message of spiritual reflection and communion with God has lost out to the temporal imperatives of greed, acquisition and triumphalism. In our region, this process has been accelerated by very worldly conflicts and man-made sectarian hatred. 

This year, for the third consecutive year, the Islamic month of Ramadan and the Jewish month of Tishrei began on the same day. My own faith's requirements for this holy month must resonate with the spiritually-minded adherents of Judaism and, indeed, Christianity. To abstain from food and drink during daytime hours, and to take special care to pray five times a day, is to free ourselves from the physical, to examine our true relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. 

As Muslims, Jews and Christians, we are all bound by a common heritage of spiritual struggle under one God. The coincidence of Ramadan and Tishrei reminds us that we share similar mechanisms for spiritual renewal. Unfortunately, we also share the sin of departure from true fundamentals. Ironically, in attempting to preserve the traditions and customs of our shared civilization, many individuals are undermining the very foundations on which it was built. The children of Abraham have lost their way. 

In the early years of this new millennium, Man has created a world where difference is celebrated by self-serving politicians and angry mobs. In this age of "spin," we are less inclined to believe that our histories have anything more in common than struggle and division. Yet our shared traditions of spiritual renewal can teach us so much more. Every religion celebrates the concept of "truth" in faith. But for every angry believer who has not taken the time to nurture his soul and examine his spiritual heritage, truth is degraded and violence is sanctioned. Violence and faith are hateful contradictions for Jews and Muslims, and violence justified by a misrepresentation of faith is perhaps the greatest threat to peace in our region and our world. 

The end of Ramadan and Tishrei provides an opportunity to right many wrongs within and between our communities. The Islamic process of tawba is comparable to the Jewish tshuva, or repentance. As adherents of our respective faiths, we are obliged to engage in this process on a personal and collective level, to renew our commitment to faiths with common roots. If we are not to suffer from worsening divisions between our different cultures and traditions, we must reconquer the shared ground of common values we all hold dear. This process must involve a return to the concept of the common good in policymaking. The promotion of policies, not politics, the demand for ethical leadership and just media coverage, and a call for cooperative educational programs will help to renew spiritual bonds and restore an ancient relationship that has so recently been tarnished. 

Restoring "truth" in faith requires difficult concessions on all sides. To ease this essential process, we must learn about our respective faiths and search for common standards. We must teach our children about their true inheritance and provide them with the necessary tools of understanding to separate faith and politics. That is the only way we can survive our present, terrible reality of conflict and build a future of dialogue, understanding and respect. 

To this end, I call on Muslims to separate the actions of the Israeli state from the demands of the Jewish faith. We must all recognize the right of a related faith as demanded by the Prophet and his early followers. We must remember those many centuries of coexistence, respect and united community-building. Similarly, many Jews must question their belief that a "terrorist gene" unites the populations of Gaza and the West Bank. To accept this, they must also believe that this inbred violence affects Jews, and indeed, Christians, for we all share a common DNA of faith. However, I do not believe that God made man with such a fundamental and destructive flaw, nor do I believe his scriptures, any of our scriptures, condone such behavior. As cousins in faith, many of us do not understand each other, but we know each other far too well to excuse continued acrimony. I believe that believers of all persuasions must allow their common veneration of truth to guide their actions. 

The importance of peace for the individual is emphasized many times in the Torah. Psalm 34, for example, advises that the way to a long life and happiness is to "strive for peace with all your heart" (Psalm 34:14). Similarly, Islam places the highest value on social harmony; even its name, which signifies submission to the will of God, is derived from the Arabic word for peace (salaam). The cynicism engendered by three generations of conflict will doubtless draw scorn from members of both our faith communities who read this. But we must remind ourselves that the eternal truths of our faiths are sufficiently powerful to transcend the acts of those who have abused their tenets. 

As we near the end of our respective reflective months, Jews and Muslims must remember their common spiritual roots and recognize the folly of politicized faith. Neither of our communities have a monopoly on truth, but certain shared values, including the honest search for truth itself, must not be subjugated to arbitrary political whims. To lose sight of this imperative is to invite anger and hatred into human relationships. To forget our common imperative to find peace within ourselves and between our communities is to deny the very foundations of our faiths. 

The writer is the brother of Jordan's King Hussein and the president of the Arab Thought Forum.