Sari Nusseibeh: Thoughts On Arab-Israeli Conflict genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Sari Nusseibeh

Sari Nusseibeh has been an advocate for a two state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which has dominated the Middle East for many years. Nusseibeh, a long time advocate for a peaceful solution to the conflict between the Israeli's and the Palestinian’s based upon mutual coexistence, is the author of a new book titled, Once Upon A Country.

The Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life has published an interview with Nusseibeh that offers great insight into the dynamics that underlie both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the growing religious tensions that trouble the region and pit Islam against Christianity. I have included a few excerpts below but I strongly recommend that readers take the time to follow the link to the full interview. Nusseibeh is an important voice of reason.

Forum: In recent public talks in the United States, you've remarked that when people ask whether it's possible to resolve tensions between Islam and other faiths in the Middle East, they're asking the wrong question. You've instead said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could embody the solution to the larger religious conflict. What do you mean by that?

Sari Nusseibeh: First -- in my mind, people control their own destiny, and therefore people can make things happen. As to whether things turn out for the better or for the worse, I think it's normally because of our own doing. The second point is that therefore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shouldn't be looked upon as something that, independently of our will, can be a forerunner of a major clash between Islam and Christianity or between Islam and the West. That conflict -- that situation -- can be transformed by what we choose to do.

I would use the example of a pyramid, or an iceberg, and say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be regarded either as the tip of an iceberg constituting a major clash between two civilizations -- two faiths if you like -- or it can be the building block. It can be the building block of understanding between the two sides. Whichever it is, I believe it's something that we -- primarily the people of both sides -- can in fact make happen. So it is in our own hands.

Forum: You also write, "Education is a tool to prevent people from passively stewing in their own resentment and either giving up by submitting or lashing out by tossing bombs." Where does religious faith fit into this?

Nusseibeh: You'll excuse me for being very skeptical about religious faith. Speaking from where I happen to be speaking, as I look around I see religious faith primarily being expressed in ways that bring about extreme pain to people and very often bring about degradation and humiliation -- and certainly violence and bloodshed. So I'm very skeptical about religious faith -- about people who claim to have that faith and to speak on behalf of God as they pursue their designs on earth. And therefore, thinking to myself, I decided that perhaps quite aside from the role that religious faith can play, one should perhaps instead focus on something else, which is something I call secular faith, or faith in our own power and in our own abilities or capacities as human beings -- faith in our own values as human beings.

Secular faith needn't be inconsistent with religious faith, but it seems to me that one should be guided by secular faith because it is much safer. You cannot settle a dispute between the protagonists of different religions about whose faith should be applied or implemented on earth. On the other hand, secular faith -- faith in human values or human beings -- is something that people can come to agree upon. [I]t can be made consistent with the essences of different faiths. One should make sure that people's education in religious faith doesn't close the window to seeing the significance of the human values in secular faith.

The Palestinians believe that Israel's creation is the cause of their tragedy, and Israel cannot and will not see its own birth in those terms.

So what can be done? And, you know, something needs to be done. I believe that the Palestinians should somehow come to realize, for example, that it wasn't because Israelis wished to cause a tragedy to the Palestinians that the country was created. Israel was created in response to a more horrific pain that had been caused to the Jewish people.

On the other hand, Israelis should come to recognize that, in fact, a tragedy did occur and that Israel's creation was a cause for this tragedy. There's a need here to separate first cause and second cause -- a need for the Palestinians to realize that Israel was created for Jewish reasons and for justifiable reasons and it should be acknowledged. And Israelis should likewise realize that the creation of their own state created this tragedy for the Palestinians. I think this is psychological territory that needs to be covered by both sides.

I can't help but view Nusseibeh's words as some of the most rational and reasonable statements on the issues that we are currently confronting. More importantly, his views aren't so much a new way of thinking as an admission that the current way will not succeed.

His call for a secular faith is simply a realization that the absolute nature of religions will inevitably compel conflict and the only alternative is to focus on our shared humanity...an attempt to find the place and the points upon which we can find an understanding for each other without the need to impose particular religious doctrine upon each other.

What remains to be seen is whether the tragedies born of adherence to absolutist beliefs can be set aside in order to find the means for peaceful coexistence. More importantly, can those who instigate such violence be convinced that the goal of one singular religious view is unachievable and detrimental to humanity?

The good news is that Nusseibeh's views are beginning to resonate with those who have grown weary of perpetual conflict and may well provide an alternative that can at last bring a measure of peace and coexistence.

If you are interested in viewing a forum featuring Sari Nusseibeh, The Council On Foreign Relations conducted such an event earlier this past spring. The video can be found here. Nusseibeh touches on the notion of exporting democracy; suggesting that it isn't a concept that can be achieved by virtue of a decision or an election...it is a "collection of values"...that grow from the "bottom up".

Tagged as: Christianity, Islam, Israel, Palestine, Religion, Sari Nusseibeh

Daniel DiRito | July 12, 2007 | 1:00 PM
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