Drink, Pray, Love: New Yorkers and Pacific Islanders Eschew Interference in Favor of Tolerance.

08/05/2010 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A New York City commission's courageous decision to think past indignant cries to stop the building of a new community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero reminded me of a bizarre tale I came across while researching a book on a remote island chain in Asia.

It is a tale as profound and quaint as any in the South Pacific; one of how local conflicts become global but are invariably resolved locally.

Isolated from the world, Christian and Muslim villagers in the Spice Islands of Indonesia lived in near perfect harmony at the time of Europe's Renaissance. When they looked upon the verdant and bubbling volcano of Mount Nunusaku, they understood that God -- for whom they had the same name, "Allah" -- resided inside the inferno.

Their chieftains reminded them that there were "two paths" wending up the mountain; one the Christian path and the other the Muslim path. This myth persisted in the Spice Islands -- as Dieter Bartels, a German anthropologist explained to me -- largely because islanders were "generally disinterested in dogma and ideology and relatively unaffected by, or even ignorant of, any historical enmity between Muslims and Christians" elsewhere on the globe.

In a ceremony related to their earlier existence as headhunters and cannibals, Muslim and Christian elders from nearby villages would meet to make non-aggression peace deals, or pela. They would dip their swords and spears in a mixture of palm wine and their own blood extracted from their arms. They believed that, should the pact be broken, these same weapons would mysteriously turn upon the offender in punishment for his or her betrayal.

These local peace deals sealed the commitment of Muslim villages to help Christians raise their churches and likewise for Christians to help Muslims build their mosques. Christians were given the final honor of crowning the minaret with a symbol of Islam.

Life was not always without tensions, however. During the Dutch colonial era, the Europeans favored the Christians and Muslims bridled at the outside interference. After independence, the Indonesian government decided to start shipping tens of thousands of Muslim islanders from Java to the Spice Islands, sparking land disputes over nutmeg and clove plantations.

Violence of volcanic proportions erupted between 1999 and 2001. Christian and Muslim villagers were at each other's throats with swords, spears, homemade guns, and bombs. Sensing an opportunity, global-minded jihadists soon entered the fray. Al Qaeda even dispatched its own military chief, Mohammed Atef, to help in the fight against the infidels.

In churches, the Christians sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" as priests dispatched adolescents to the slaughter. Likewise, in community mosques, leaders goaded jihadists to cut off as many Christian heads as possible.

My own guide to the islands described to me how he had participated in the violence, using bomb-making expertise he had acquired in an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Christian militias ethnically-cleansed another village we visited; its only survivors being a fleet-footed few who had plunged into the Pacific and swum for their lives.

The Spice Islands stood smoldering and in ruins. An estimated 5,000-10,000 locals had been slaughtered. In the aftermath of the bloodletting, Christian and Muslim villagers looked at one another across the great ethnic divide and glanced up to Mount Nunusaku in shame.

Alas, they understood that life in the islands had fallen victim to global religious agendas.
They saw clearly now how invaders had stirred their bloody passions to a boil. Wise to their human frailty, they named the conflict for what it really was: "The Great Misunderstanding."

This strange tale from a remote land seems oddly prescient even today, particularly as I think of the cataclysmic violence that rocked New York City nearly nine years ago.

New Yorkers appear to have rediscovered their own long-standing tolerance. As plans for a mosque near ground zero move forward, I'm reminded of their courage and of their own refusal to surrender to the hatreds ginned up by outsiders.