Conflict & Justice

Where are the religious pluralists and moderates?


A view of Jerusalem's Old City synagogue (L), and the Dome of the Rock mosque.


Ahmad Gharabli

JERUSALEM — Something unprecedented happened in Israel today.

Following the release of the anti-Muslim smear video "The Innocence of Muslims" and the subsequent fatal attacks against American diplomatic missions, Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former member of Israel's parliament, former cabinet minister and a leading public intellectual — and the founder of Mosaica, the Center for Interreligious Cooperation — released a statement decrying both the movie and the killings.

A few hours later, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who chairs the Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations, responded with his own statement, very much in kind.

More from GlobalPost: Clash of civilizations? Not so much.

The exchange became the talk of the nation Tuesday night.

Each spoke exclusively with GlobalPost.

Rabbi Michael Melchior:

GP: What was your reaction to the film?

I believe that films like this only serve the purpose of increasing hatred and xenophobia on Earth. I am a great believer in the sacred principle of freedom of speech and in the First Amendment to the American constitution. I think it is a crucial thing. But the First Amendment doesn't mean you have to say everything, always. You have an obligation to use your head and sense of what's right and what is wrong. To abuse freedom of speech to crush the feelings of hundreds of millions of believers around the world only foments more hatred, more xenophobia and more distance between people. I condemn this with all my heart. As a Jew, I see this as a desecration of God's name, as a human being, I see that it not only does not assist the fight against terror, it assists the terrorists of this world.

GP: And the subsequent attacks?

Needless to say, this kind of filth of a film in no way and never can justify the murders and the killings, what happened today. Can never, ever, in any way be any kind of justification for murder, not of one person and not of four.

What has been very moving for me is that the founder of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Darwish saw the statement I released today and responded saying that that the entire Islamic movement was moved by my statement. He issued an extremely strong condemnation of the murders in Libya. To say that I condemn this is self evident and obvious. But it's the reaction of the Islamic Movement that is so important. The fact that they have responded so forcefully is much more important.

The ambassador, by the way, served here in Jerusalem. I met him here, and what I mean to say is that this was a person who not only served the United States but also served the Libyan people and fought for the cause of freedom, but to say this is almost beside the point.

GP: What does this say about the state of relations between Islam and the West?

Religion is the strongest, largest and most influential NGO in the world. That is true whether we like it or not. The 21st century is one in which the influence of religion is growing and the question we face is whether this influence be one of violence and death and the endangerment of humankind? Or will this influence be something which can give life and hope and build a future for humanity. That's the unanswerable question. We could still go in either direction, and the answer is really in our hands.

GP: How can such tragedies be avoided in the future? What can we do to increase tolerance and understanding on both sides?

Well, we are working here to create the type of coalitions that might help. I hope we can be behind a paradigm shift. The time has come.

Look at the small example of today: a rabbi and the Islamic movement gave us a little taste of what can be done. I think it is possible, and I know it is in our hands. If we leave the discussion, we leave a vacuum the haters will fill up, and we will see terrible incitement like the film and the terrible killings like those in Benghazi.

GP: Do you think pluralists and moderates have a responsibility to be more vocal?

Of course! It depends to a great extent on what responsible religious leaders do. I am among those who think the time has come for leaders of all religions to take the responsibility seriously, and not just on festive occasions where they all wear their nice hats or when they gather at conferences and talk about peace and mercy and then go back home and kill each other or incite. I am not talking about that!

I am talking about taking very courageous steps, including within their own congregations and constituencies, and stand against inciters and haters. They have to be willing to stand up and face the civilizations we live in, and within our own communities and maybe even within ourselves, and take that battle seriously. When I say "brave steps" I also mean joining together to create those coalitions which are necessary and start there, or maybe here, in Jerusalem, and give some hope to the future of humankind.

More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the embassy attacks

Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish:

GP: What was your reaction to the film?

I thought it was another instance of what we hear of all too often either from the United States or from Europe, in which someone used the concept of "freedom of speech" to attack Muslims and Arabs. It is so wrong. I hope that not only that we are outraged, but that the same people who work toward improving ties between the United States and the Arab world, those who claim to be so supportive of the Arab Spring, also are outraged.

After such support, all this nonsense begins again.

GP: And the subsequent attacks?

To go so far as to burn embassies… I am as outraged about these killings as I am about the film.

GP: What does this say about the state of relations between Islam and the West?

There is no problem between Islam in the West! Forgive me, but you journalists should be saying this too. There is simply no problem between Islam and the West. How can there be a problem between one and a half billion people, many of who have deep faith and revere Mohammed and live in the West — and the West?

I heard President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton say that in Libya too, the reaction is that what happened was at the hands of a minority. The Libyan people will arise against this. It is true. But let me say again, I oppose the insult to Muhammad and to Muslims as I oppose the brutal attack.

GP: How can such tragedies be avoided in the future? What can we do to increase tolerance and understanding on both sides?

Well, in the name of the Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations, which I lead, I put out a statement today. And I very much hope that the American leadership will come out and explicitly say, yes, we are for freedom of speech, but also, within the framework of freedom of speech that we can't cross red lines. They have to say this once and for all, that holy books and the prophet are red lines. Why provoke a conflict between a billion and a half people and the rest of the world? Why? What do they get out of it?

If I were in Obama's shoes, I'd say to these people, guys, whoever wants to throw dirt on religions, don't do it in the USA. They should not allow anyone to create conflict or ruin the good relations between the Arab world and America. Especially not after the Arab Spring and the goodwill that it engendered.

GP: Do you think pluralists and moderates have a responsibility to be more vocal?

Yes, yes! Not only yes: I spoke with Melchior and with some sheikhs today. We all feel we haven't done enough to make our voices heard. We have to stand in every place, on every street corner, in every club and mosque and street and make our voices heard loud and clear. Write it: we have to make our voices heard very, very, very loud.

Decoded: 3 questions with GlobalPost's Middle East editor, Peter Gelling: