Home

Jerusalem Viewpoints


No. 548     10 Heshvan 5767 / 1 November 2006

Managing Conflict: Can Religion Succeed Where Politics Has Failed?
An Israeli Addresses a Global Peace Forum in Malaysia

Ben Mollov

  • Ultimately, religion defines identity among Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and is the basic element upon which the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel is based. In parallel, the Arab political awakening and worldview also draws its own attachment to the same land from religious sources.

  • Quantitative empirical survey data gathered among Israelis and Palestinians at a dialogue held in Khan Yunis in Gaza in 1999 provided evidence that perceptions among those who are most religious and initially negative in attitude could improve as a result of inter-religious dialogue.

  • I was the sole Israeli participating in a Global Peace Forum held in December 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, organized by the Perdana Leadership Foundation headed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed. Malaysia is an important Muslim country which has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

  • I had the opportunity to address over 1,000 predominantly Muslim Malaysians on "Approaches to and the Impact of Israeli-Palestinian Inter-religious Dialogue." The forum itself was a form of inter-religious dialogue. I referred to my first meeting with students in Hebron in which we discussed the meaning of Zionism along with defining elements of the Jewish people's attachment to the Land of Israel, including Jerusalem.

  • The cultures of Japan, China, and South Asia, along with the Arab world, are the most prominent examples of collectivist cultures with an emphasis on respect, where establishing trust and viable relationships usually must precede discussion of concrete issues, while many European societies, the United States, and Israel are examples of societies in which the dominant ethos is individualistic and "getting to the bottom line" as quickly as possible is considered a virtue.



Cultural Differences in International Relations

The importance of the religious and cultural element in international affairs is increasingly being highlighted in the literature of international affairs and the emerging field of conflict management.1 The protests and increased tension between the Muslim world and the West seen in the Mohammed cartoon episode in Denmark is just one example of the importance of the cultural/inter-religious factor in understanding the behavior of different nations in their various cultural mindsets and, accordingly, identifying ways of defusing tensions.

A number of Israelis have been pioneers in the realm of conflict resolution and intercultural communication with relevance for more effective international diplomacy. Most prominent has been Prof. Raymond Cohen, professor of international relations at the Hebrew University, who has built on the work of American anthropologist E.T. Hall, who initially described the difference between collectivist cultures emphasizing group harmony and solidarity versus cultures in which the individual and his/her rights are central.

These two mindsets affect cultural values and communication styles. For instance, in collectivist or respect-based cultures, establishing trust and viable relationships usually must precede discussion of concrete issues. In individualist cultures, "getting to the bottom line" as quickly as possible is considered a virtue. The cultures of Japan, China, and South Asia, along with the Arab world, are the most prominent examples of collectivist cultures with an emphasis on respect, while many European societies, the United States, and Israel are examples of societies in which the dominant ethos is individualistic and the communication style is as direct as possible.2

Cohen (who has applied Hall's work to the Middle East and Arab-Israeli interactions) has argued that when representatives of collectivist and individualistic cultures meet, substantial difficulties can ensue from the very act of communication if appropriate respect is not accorded and one or both parties are not sufficiently aware of the others' cultural mindset and behavior emanating from it.3

However, culture represents far more than communication styles. Culture relates in fact to the values which a group holds most highly and is willing to fight for,4 as well as to the living history of a group, which some term as its "narrative." Samuel Huntington, in his well-known work on the Clash of Civilizations, has argued that since the end of the Cold War, intercultural strife based on non-negotiable values often rooted in religion is likely to become the major fault line of international conflict.5

As a political scientist, I have worked for many years in the context of Bar-Ilan University's Program in Conflict Management as a practitioner and researcher in seeking to utilize religion as a bridge to understanding between Israelis and Palestinians/Jews and Arabs, in opposition to the commonly accepted assumption that religion can only serve to exacerbate the conflict.

Influenced by the work of Cohen, Huntington, and others, I have been heavily involved in the effort to apply inter-religious and intercultural elements in "people-to-people" efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian track. Though religion is perceived as the strongest obstacle to achieving a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, in this writer's view there is no escape from religion in the Middle East as it underlies the collective ways of life of both Arabs and Jews, and, indeed, respective national identities and narratives are ultimately based upon it. Even Huntington has stressed the importance of Western and other civilizations finding elements of commonality with each other.6


Religion as a Potential Bridge in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The activities referred to, which I co-initiated, focused on people-to-people efforts involving students and faculty from Bar-Ilan University and counterparts from Palestinian universities in the area between Bethlehem and Hebron from 1994 until late 2000. These efforts were organized around dialogue in which the similarities in structure and practice between Islam and Judaism served as a foundation for constructive inter-group dialogue and relationship-building.7

As a further step, I worked together with Bar-Ilan University social psychologist Dr. Chaim Lavie in exploring the impact of this and similar dialogues from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint. Indeed, quantitative empirical survey data gathered by this team among Israelis and Palestinians at a dialogue held in Khan Yunis in Gaza in 1999, and reported in the International Journal of Conflict Management, provided evidence that perceptions among those who are most religious and initially negative in attitude could improve as a result of inter-religious dialogue.8 Since late 2000, we have refocused our work on interactions between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel but with a continuing emphasis on exploring the potential of the inter-religious element to improve interactions and perceptions, and we have continued to report on our results.9

However, how can work in micro-level dialogue, which may help in improving mutual perceptions and interactions on the individual or group level, also have an impact on the macro level? Based on our empirical experience and the general approach we have been developing, the inter-religious dialogue, although starting on the inter-group level and helping to improve mutual perceptions, can also take us to a deeper level of discourse necessary for conflict management. Ultimately, religion defines identity among Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and is the basic element upon which the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel is based. In parallel, the Arab political awakening and worldview also draws its own attachment to the same land from religious sources.

With each side recognizing that a fundamental clash of interests, informed by culture, is evident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two sides also recognize that two choices are present. One is to fight to the death; the second is to try and reach some type of accommodation based on an equilibrium of forces and aspirations, which is vital to the stability of any social system in which several actors are present and in conflict.10

Ultimately, a form of "narrative reformulation" will have to take place, with both sides making room for the other.11 Ideally, transcendent points of contact and new interactions could be the basis of long-term peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians in the direction of advocated by various scholars.12

However, can religion serve as a force for dialogue between nations and civilizations rather than only a force for conflict escalation and international discord? Indeed, religion can at times open pathways to dialogue in situations in which narrow secular interests are in direct contradiction. Religion can serve as an indirect and more comfortable form of dialogue and take parties to a more "transcendent" point of contact.


The Kuala Lumpur Global Peace Forum

These areas of endeavor took on greater significance when I received an invitation to participate in a Global Peace Forum held in mid-December 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was the sole Israeli participating in this well-publicized conference, organized by the Perdana Leadership Foundation headed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed.

The uniqueness of this encounter must be viewed against the background of the Malaysian context. Malaysia is an important Muslim country in Asia which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and in fact Malaysian citizens are prohibited by their country's own laws to visit Israel. The presence of an Israeli at such a conference held under the auspices of the former prime minister was unique. Prior to traveling to Malaysia I knew little of what to expect. My first main surprise involved being treated as a VIP immediately upon disembarking in Kuala Lumpur. While all speakers participating in the conference (numbering 25 from approximately ten countries) received similar treatment, both my hosts and I were well aware of the significance of my presence as an Israeli.

Another unexpected element was that at the opening session of the Peace Forum, attended by over 2,000 Malaysians in the main convention center, the Israeli flag was displayed among the flags of the countries from which the speakers originated.

The plenary session in which I participated was devoted to the theme of inter-religious dialogue and involved an archbishop from Latin America, a prominent Egyptian-born American imam, and the Malaysian representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. In a 20-minute presentation I had the opportunity to address an audience of over 1,000 predominantly Muslim Malaysians. As a religious Israeli Jew I wore a kippa. My topic - "Approaches to and the Impact of Israeli-Palestinian Inter-religious Dialogue" - was an overview of much of the work I had been doing up until now. However, the forum was also a rare opportunity to directly engage a large and politically attuned audience in an important Muslim country.

My presentation combined academic and personal perspectives on my work in conflict management. Much of what I presented I described in the form of a personal journey - my meetings with Palestinian students, the clash of both Arab and Jewish-Zionist narratives, and our empirical results pointing to the efficacy of this form of dialogue over and above secular political approaches. I also was aware that in the very act of my participation in this conference in Malaysia as an Israeli, I was continuing a form of inter-religious dialogue and directly engaging my audience.

I referred to my first meeting with Hebron students in which we discussed the meaning of Zionism along with defining elements of the Jewish people's attachment to the Land of Israel, including Jerusalem, along with the concerns and issues which the Palestinian students raised. I also recalled my own interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict which I presented to the Palestinian students and in so doing also presented it to the Malaysian audience. This conflict, which began in the late nineteenth century, took place against the background of attempts by both "Arabs and Jews in their respective national movements...to reclaim a once held but lost dignity and former greatness." I also referred to the cultural baggage of each side involving "identity, aspiration, and trauma," which I contended was at its core rooted in religion.

I then recalled the evolution of the several-year dialogue held between Bar-Ilan and Hebron students, which included comparisons between Ramadan, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur, prayer, charity, and responses to new medical challenges. These efforts appeared to offer "a pathway to a new approach to dialogue not directly focusing on the charged political issues dividing us, but on those elements of our respective heritages - Judaism and Islam - which hold much in common."

Integrated into the description of my own fieldwork in promoting dialogue, and our research results indicating the strong potential for the inter-religious dialogue to change perceptions between Israelis and Palestinians, I tried to weave the macro significance of such efforts from the point of view of identity and collective aspiration. I pointed to "the historic and religious connection of each side's attachment to the land which we call the Land of Israel and is an intrinsic part of Jewish belief and yearning, and you call Palestine."

I then suggested approaches as to how we might deal with the issue of conflicting narratives and move towards mutual accommodation.

Perhaps in such a dialogue we will begin to realize that each side will have in some way to make accommodation for the other in their narrative and worldview. The main Jewish civilization in the Land of Israel during the time of the Bible took place before the rise of Islam, and Islam's control of the area occurred when the Jewish people were no longer an active political force in the area.

My conclusion focused on the present and a transcendent direction for the future to which religious aspiration has the potential to take us.

How can the inter-religious approach help us in this era? Perhaps today we can meet in another way. We can as believers wish each other well in prayer. This is sort of a transcendent point of contact beyond words - even when political positions differ or even strongly differ. But this discourse should take us to a deeper level as well.

Magnified and enhanced in my view, based on the process I have described here, could be a vision that emerges from such efforts. This could be a cooperative vision for the Holy Land where we do not give up our national identities and commitments - as Israelis and Palestinians. I am not naive. In fact, I survived a terror attack with only a minor injury several years ago and have been able to continue my regular work including being here today. But the transcendent vision or direction would be towards making the land which we call by different names a Holy Land (even though we mean slightly different things by it) and worthy of people created in the image of G-d.

My reception by the large audience was favorable along with the positive interactions with representatives of the Perdana Leadership Foundation with whom I was in day-to-day contact during my nearly one-week stay. In fact, when I was introduced by the chairman of my panel and my affiliation with Bar-Ilan University in Israel was noted, part of the audience applauded.


The Malaysian Context

Dr. Mahathir's role in hosting an Israeli in this high-profile event was noteworthy. Indeed, observers may recall the strong opposition by Malaysia to a visit by then Israeli President Chaim Herzog to neighboring Singapore in 1986. Perhaps most memorable were Dr. Mahathir's statements at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) which he hosted in October 2003 which caused concern in the Jewish world. At the OIC gathering he presented a broad overview of the challenges and difficulties facing the Muslim world, much of it emanating from internal sources. In that context, and with some degree of comparison, he referred to the Jews having suffered a Holocaust and now "ruling the world by proxy."13

In preparing for the trip to Malaysia, I tried in some way to understand Dr. Mahathir's remarks within his own cultural context. Based on a full reading of the text, one might have concluded that he was trying to offer the Jewish people a compliment insofar as they had survived the Holocaust, created the State of Israel, and now "even control the world." I explained to high-level Malaysians whom I met at the conference that although this might have been his intent, the myth of Jewish control of the world has served as the basis for the most heinous persecution of the Jews throughout history including the Holocaust, and therefore constitutes an extremely sensitive point in the Jewish cultural background.

However, despite the general background of Malaysian policy towards Israel, some steps toward contact have been made over the years. In 1999 Israel's cricket team participated in an international tournament held in Malaysia. In March 2005 an Israeli delegation including several heads of NGOs involved in peace activities participated in an academic conference in Kuala Lumpur on "Peace in Palestine" and reported a very warm reception.

As one of the speakers I had on-going contact with Dr. Mahathir, who in that context proved a warm and engaging host. It might also be useful to recall that following Malaysia's achievement of complete independence from British colonial rule, Israel supported Malaysia's entrance into the United Nations in 1957, which the Malaysian leadership at the time noted with appreciation.14 Israeli diplomat Moshe Yegar, who sought to strengthen Israel's connections with the Far East during the early 1960s, maintained unofficial ties with many Malaysians and in fact recorded his experiences in a book.15


Malaysia as an Islamic and Multi-Cultural Society

This conference was not only an opportunity to extend my own work in Arab-Jewish inter-religious dialogue to a larger international context, it was also an opportunity to visit and become familiar with aspects of the fascinating society of Malaysia. Several tiers of intercultural elements are combined in this one society which appears to mirror Israel in various ways as a "social laboratory." Malaysia, a country of over 23 million inhabitants, is a Muslim state, with the Islamic symbol of a half moon on its flag, but it is also a multi-cultural society. The Muslim sector is about 60 percent of its total population, with the Buddhist and Christian Chinese community comprising over 25 percent and the mostly Hindu Indian population a bit less than 15 percent.

While the Muslim identity clearly represents the dominant narrative, ample recognition seemed to be given to other religious and ethnic communities. For instance, during the time of the conference, which took place around Christmas, Christmas trees and decorations were publicly displayed in shopping malls, and the Chinese New Year is also a general holiday. At the conference, the theme of Malaysia as an appropriate venue and host for international dialogue was highlighted, given Malaysia's own background as a Muslim state which has synthesized Islam with modernity, its multi-cultural character, and its success in negotiating earlier internal conflicts, particularly involving the enfranchisement and acceptance of its Chinese community. However, the social experiment of Malaysia no doubt is based on complex elements of balance and its national development is being assessed in the scholarly literature.16

Many Malaysians attributed much of Malaysia's development as a stable and prosperous society to the role of Dr. Mahathir, who served as prime minister for over twenty years until 2003. A medical doctor by training, he seemed generally revered by the Malaysians whom I met. From a technical standpoint, the entire conference was run with grace and precision. All speakers were assigned a liaison officer or special escort for the time of their stay. These were professionals - engineers, doctors, and businessmen - who took time off to assist the former prime minister in hosting this conference run under his auspices.

It was also impressive to meet a large cross-section of professionals in Kuala Lumpur who had successfully worked in places such as the United States and Australia, yet returned to Malaysia, attesting to the vitality of the society. Furthermore, Malaysian hospitality was extraordinary and, perhaps as a consequence of their experience with multiculturalism, there was a strong willingness to accommodate my needs as a religious Jew both with regard to food restrictions and the strictures of the Jewish Sabbath.

Malaysia has been active in trying to bridge the gap between the Muslim World and the West, particularly in light of recent tensions, and the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi, told a major international gathering aimed at defusing tensions: "The West should treat Islam the way it wants Islam to treat the West and vice versa. They should accept one another as equals." However he also stated that Muslims had to avoid "sweeping denunciation of Christians, Jews, and the West."17


Taking Inter-religious/Intercultural Dialogue Further: The Cordoba Precedent

What of the potential of the inter-religious element to reduce tensions in the Middle East? It has been suggested that the involvement of the Muslim periphery in dialogue of this sort could help advance the cause of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, as they serve as an important bridge in helping to develop confidence between the sides in the conflict. Furthermore, inter-religious dialogue might be a cautious and responsible approach to determine if there is any common ground or areas of possible negotiation between Israel and the Hamas-led government.18 The most recent escalation of tensions in the Middle East further underscores the potential importance of the inter-religious dialogue.

In the international system, states ultimately make their decisions based on the strength of calculations of power and interest. However, the intercultural and inter-religious elements must not be ignored, and can be called upon as a resource to shape a vision for the future which can help supply impetus for peace-building.

At various times, the tradition of Cordoba, which represented the spirit of constructive Muslim-Jewish-Christian interaction during the "golden age of Muslim Spain," has been advanced as a basis for a new animating spirit between Jews and Muslims today.19 One prominent American Muslim imam has advocated a global Cordoba initiative.20

While such ideas need to be adapted to current conditions in which the State of Israel exists as a sovereign Jewish state, the essential spirit of this period - when Muslim and Jewish religious personalities were able to actively enrich each other and in so doing enable each culture to develop to a greater level of philosophical and spiritual achievement - is a very worthy vision.21I felt that my experience in Malaysia was a unique one, and perhaps constituted one small step on the road to a future Cordoba.

*     *     *

Notes

1. See, for instance, Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000). For perspectives on culture and conflict resolution, see Kevin Avruch, Peter W. Black, and Joseph A. Scimecca, eds., Culture and Conflict Resolution: Cross Cultural Perspectives (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998).
2. E.T. Hall, The Silent Language (New York: Doubleday, 1959).
3. See Raymond Cohen, Culture and Conflict in Egyptian-Israeli Relations (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990); and Negotiating Across Cultures: International Communications in an Interdependent World (Washington, D.C., United States Institute of Peace, 1991).
4. Marc Ross, "The Relevance of Culture for the Study of Political Psychology and Ethnic Conflict," Political Psychology, vol. 18, no. 2 (1997):299-326.
5. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993):22-49.
6. Ibid., p. 49.
7. Harold Saunders has emphasized the importance of "relationship building" in his work, A Public Peace Process (New York: St. Martins' Press, 1999).
8. Ben Mollov and Chaim Lavie, "Culture, Dialogue and Perception Change in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," International Journal of Conflict Management, vol. 12, no. 1 (2001):69-87.
9. Ben Mollov and Chaim Lavie, "Arab-Jewish Womens' Inter-religious Dialogue Evaluated," in Yaacov Iram, ed., Educating Towards a Culture of Peace (Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age Publishing, forthcoming), pp. 247-258.
10. See Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (New York: Knopf, 1967), pp. 162-163.
11. Issues of "reformulation" were explored at an international conference held at Bar-Ilan University in May 2002 in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. See Ben Mollov, ed., Religion and Conflict Resolution International Conference Proceedings (Ramat Gan and Jerusalem: Program in Conflict Management, Bar-Ilan University, and Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 2003).
12. See, for instance, the work of John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1993). Daniel J. Elazar's work in federalism can be most useful in trying to envision future relations, in particular his book Two Peoples: One Land (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991).
13. Speech by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the opening of the 10th Session of the Islamic Summit Conference on October 16, 2003.
14. Jacob Abadi, Israel's Quest for Recognition and Acceptance in Asia (London: Frank Cass, 2004), p. 390.
15. Moshe Yegar, Malaysia - Attempts at Dialogue with a Muslim Country (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1996) [Hebrew].
16. See, for instance, Raymond L.M. Lee, "The Transformation of Race Relations in Malaysia: From Ethnic Discourse to National Imagery, 1993-2003," African and Asian Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (2004):115-139.
17. "Islam-West Divide Grows Deeper," BBC Website, February 10, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
18. Suggestions of such kinds of indirect cultural dialogue were raised as a possible approach in an IPCRI-sponsored conference on March 9, 2006, on the theme: "Should Civil Society Launch an Israel-Hamas Dialogue," in remarks by Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg (see IPCRI website).
19. See, for instance, the work of Joseph P. Montville. See also the work of Mark Gopin for perspectives on religion and transformation, particularly, Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
20. See Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), pp. 274-275.
21. For a Jewish view on the nature of Muslim-Jewish interactions, see the work of Steven Harvey, for instance, "Islamic and Jewish Philosophy," in Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor, eds., Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 349-369.

*     *     *

Dr. Ben Mollov, an Associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is on the faculty of Bar-Ilan University where he teaches political science and conflict management. He is co-author of "Culture, Dialogue and Perception Change in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" and "Federalism and Multiculturalism as a Vehicle for Perception Change in Israeli-Jewish Society," both of which appeared in the International Journal of Conflict Management.


The Jerusalem Letter and Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints are published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 13 Tel Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Internet: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA, Tel. (410) 664-5222; Fax. (410) 664-1228. © Copyright. All rights reserved. ISSN: 0792-7304.

The opinions expressed by the authors of Viewpoints do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.