09/05/2012 06:39 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

A Curriculum of Tolerance

The world seems to be descending into chaos and violent conflict, from Bali to New York, Moscow to Jerusalem. Forty years ago it was possible for me to travel by car, motorcycle, bus, train, and truck from Paris to Katmandu and back without encountering a single threat. Half the places I visited back then are off-limits now -- unless you have a death wish or arrive in armored Humvees, with a few gunmen from Dyncorp, Triple Canopy. or other security contractors.

Surely there has been some awful mistake. Mankind was on a positive roll for so long. In 1945 we made the French sheep and the German wolves lie down together in Europe. Since then, Japan has demilitarized. Even Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The Soviet bloc dissolved in 1991, and Russia parked its nuclear weapons. Soviet satellites, from Estonia to Prague to Almaty, became independent.

So how is it that war now stalks the Balkans and the Caucasus, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, the Sahara and the Horn of Africa? It seems that peace is the culprit.

After Yugoslavia's dictator Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, the lesser Serb lights cast aside their civilized veneer and tried to subjugate the Catholics, the Muslims, the Slovenes, the Croats, the Bosniaks, and the Kosovars. Sikhs in India achieved the most senior positions in the army, government, law, and medicine, but in the 1980s resentful low-lifes within the Sikh community launched a bloody war of attrition, pulling Hindus off trains and shooting them. Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers launched a similar war against the Sinhalese in 1983. Between 1944 and 1964 some 700,000 Middle Eastern Jews fled Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In 1992 Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington called this "the clash of civilizations."

Then came the Muslim revival. The Iranian Mullahs seized power in 1979 and seemed to hate everyone -- infidels, Christians, Jews, Bahá'ís, and Sunni Muslims. The Sunnis responded in kind, backing Iraq against Iran in the 1980-88 war and then taking on Russia in Afghanistan. Inside Pakistan, Sunni extremists massacre Shiites as well as the small Ahmadi sect. Syria's current revolution seems to be descending into a Shiite-Alawite battle against the Sunnis.

At the root of this violence are two issues:

  1. Weak states let the crazies emerge and seize the wheel, directing society.
  2. Ethnic or religious intolerance is the surest way to step on the gas.

I've seen the awful destruction of Vukovar, Kabul, Ramadi, Baghdad, and other cities, but this is called "collateral damage" and written off by those who want to be the big fish in a small pond. These are bullies writ large.

What can be done to end this senseless violence? I have an idea. My office liked it well enough when I worked for the U.S. government to send it to the Bush White House for consideration. I never heard any more about it, but for what it is worth, I'll present it to you.

The U.S. president must call for a meeting of East and West. Heads of Western countries, such as Russia, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Canada, and the United States, would attend, as would friendly Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Bangladesh. The meeting would take place in Istanbul, in the Hagia Sophia, which was built in A.D. 360 as an Eastern Orthodox basilica and was later converted into a mosque, then a museum. It represents the intersection of East and West, Islam and Christianity, Euro-America and Asia. Each country would also send its minister of education.

The countries would agree to create two-hour lessons on each of the world's religions. Together, these lessons would become the Curriculum of Tolerance and would be taught to 12-year-old students worldwide, over a period of two or three days each year. As objectively as possible, without endorsing anything, the lessons would describe the basic history, practices, and beliefs of each religion. Through video recordings, each religion would also be self-explained by a 12-year-old adherent. This would humanize Hindus and Confucians, Shiites and Sunnis, Jews and Orthodox Christians alike.

Every minister of education would agree to insert this Curriculum of Tolerance into his or her country's teaching program. Leading scholars and journalists would work with religious experts and sociologists to assure that the curriculum is honest and fair and represents the general practices and beliefs of each religion. All the major religions should want to participate, to ensure accurate representation. Every political and religious leader should want to have a chance to explain his or her religion's values and beliefs to the wider world, in the hope of either attracting members or reducing prejudice they face in their own countries or abroad.

Why do I think this will work? In my experience in Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast, Yemen, and India, I've found people to be not so very different from ourselves. They try to keep their homes tidy, and they try to pay the rent. They try to discipline their kids and encourage them to study and get ahead. Many of them had never met an American, a Christian, a Jew, or a white person, but we quickly learned that what we hold in common is far greater than what divides us.

We must try to move ahead and do something about the world's epidemic of ethnic and religious violence in Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, India, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Sudan -- the list goes on and on. It is a collective crime by humanity against humanity. I hope someone who reads this proposal for a Curriculum of Tolerance will be in a position to move it forward.