12/26/2010 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jews and Muslims: How Do We Bring Down the Temperature?

This year has not been an easy one for Jewish-Muslim relations. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in a state of collapse, apocalyptic pronouncements about Iran's nuclear program abound, and the suggestion by venerable Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League that a planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero be relocated created controversy.

Wherever one looks, the gap between Jews and Muslims appears to be growing.

For the past two years, I have been in a unique position in which to observe relations between the two communities. As a part of a research team led by American University's Chair of Islamic Studies, Professor Akbar Ahmed, I traveled to 100 mosques in 75 American cities for the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (Brookings Institution Press, 2010). We conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Muslims, in which they often conveyed their opinions of Jews, but also visited many synagogues and institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, speaking with Jews about their opinions of Muslims.

While we saw real efforts on both sides to reach across the great divide, such as the Jewish vice-mayor of Chicago who named a street after the founder of Pakistan and the many imams conducting interfaith initiatives, the relationship remains fraught. Many Muslims told us they feel Jews are on the warpath against Islam and point to the conflict with the Palestinians, while Jews often feel threatened not only by Muslim states like Iran, but by Islam itself, which was frequently described to us as a religion of terror and barbarism. Many Jews and Muslims admitted to us that they had never met a member of the other faith. This lack of communication is dangerous as it can lead to misunderstanding, mistrust, and hatred.

The only solution to this problem is interaction, an exchange of ideas and an exploration of differing narratives. Last week, Professor Ahmed, who has been involved in Jewish-Muslim dialogue for the past two decades, provided a good example on how this can be done in his address to the Beth El Synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland. Although we had been to many synagogues on our journey, this was the first orthodox community we had visited and Ahmed was the first Muslim to address the congregation.

In his lecture, delivered from the pulpit next to huge Torah scrolls to an audience of over 300 worshippers in conservative attire, Ahmed gave a basic "Islam 101" talk, discussed the remarkable theological similarities between the two faiths, assessed the difficulties facing the communities, and explored ways of moving ahead

Ahmed discussed connections between the communities like Prophet Muhammad's Jewish wife and the "Medina compact" in which the Prophet declared Jews--who along with Christians are honored as "people of the book"--to be a part of the world community of believers. In this context, it is impossible for Muslims to be anti-Jewish, despite the distortion of Quranic passages by both Muslims and non-Muslims who attempt to argue the contrary. Ahmed quoted his friend and former Princeton colleague Professor Bernard Lewis on the rights Jews were afforded in Muslim societies like the Ottoman Empire, where Jews could live according to their own laws. Many are unaware, for example, that several Ottoman Sultans, speaking their capacity as the Caliph of Islam, issued nineteenth century proclamations condemning anti-Semitic blood libels as fictitious and reiterating their commitment to religious freedom for the Jews. At a time when hate literature like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is widely circulated in the Muslim world and prominent politicians in the U.S. and Europe liken Muslims to Nazis, this history must be remembered.

Ahmed answered many of the common questions Jews have about Islam, including the fiction that Islam commands Muslims to die for 72 virgins (neither the figure of 72 or the word virgin appears in the Quran in this context), the false idea that the US Constitution faces an imminent threat from Muslims seeking to overthrow the government in favor of shariah law, and the demonstrably false notion that Islam is a violent religion.

Ahmed also addressed the most common question of all, "where are the moderates?" Noting that members of his wife's family were killed by militants in Pakistan and pointing to the sacrifice of others like Benazir Bhutto, Ahmed said that the battle is on for a modern, democratic Islam and that there are millions of Muslims who are in the thick of it. By understanding the tensions in Muslim society and not treating Islam as a dangerous monolith, Jews can help improve the situation of the Muslim world.

This understanding and outreach is also in Israel's interest, Ahmed contended. The global Muslim population is 1.5 billion, one fourth of the planet's population, and includes 57 majority Muslim states. The Jewish world population by contrast, is 13 million, seven million of which live in Israel. In the near future there could be several Muslim nations gaining access to nuclear weapons, and when coupled with a surrounding hostile Arab population of 300 million, which demographers estimate may double by the middle of this century, it is clear that "bringing down the temperature" between the communities is essential for Israel's survival.

The response to Professor Ahmed's talk was very positive. I could see many heads nodding and there were touching moments, as when Ahmed was discussing the difficulties young American Muslims are having balancing their religion with American culture, and the yarmulke-wearing Jewish man in front of me put his arm around his teenage son. I had many discussions with congregation members afterward, including Rabbi William Rudolph, who welcomed us warmly to his house of worship, thanked Professor Ahmed for his "courage," and asked him to design a course to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue based in their respective communities. A Jewish couple described Ahmed as a tzadik, which in Orthodox Judaism is a learned and saintly man, similar to the Arabic designation sadiq.

Before me I could see the goal posts shifting. The tone of the larger conversation had changed. It was a historic step in building bridges between the two communities, which Ahmed argued is "a matter of life and death."

Despite the gloom of the headlines, I glean hope from my experiences at meetings like that at the Beth El Synagogue and through my encounters with Jewish peacemakers like Judea Pearl, who tours with Ahmed promoting interfaith dialogue. It is also encouraging to see that the Anti-Defamation League has formed a new body, and Ahmed is part of it, specifically to support and protect mosques in America.

Not only are better relations between Jews and Muslims imperative for their respective communities, but they are also of utmost importance for the United States as it attempts to win Muslim "hearts and minds." The Jewish-Muslim dialogue is also keeping with the interfaith vision of America's Founding Fathers, who welcomed both communities to the United States with open arms. With so many Jews and Muslims living so close to one another in the United States, America is the ideal place for this dialogue to occur. The dialogue here can make an impact in the Middle East and move the Abrahamic faiths closer to mutual harmony and peace.

Cross-posted with the Washington Post's On Faith