08/23/2010 12:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Ground Zero Mosque' Controversy and the Pitfalls of the Interfaith Dialogue Movement

Some years ago I was sitting in the office of Columbia University professor Pierre Cachia. The professor asked me if I knew how Princeton professor S.D. Goitein was doing. It appeared that Cachia and Goitein had been in contact with one another over the years, but had not spoken to each other in a long time.

As it turned out, Goitein died a few years earlier and I had the task of passing this news on to his old friend.

Goitein was a German-Jewish scholar whose primary achievement was the extraordinary research he did on the Cairo Geniza. A Geniza is the storage area for many scraps of paper with Hebrew writing that, according to Jewish law, must not be thrown away but formally buried in hallowed ground.

The Cairo Geniza is a well-known repository of historical documents that Goitein used for his epic multi-volume work A Mediterranean Society. Cachia is best known as one of the foremost scholars of modern Arabic literature and language.

The two men were able to connect with each other on the basis of a shared commitment to the culture of the Middle East and its rich legacy.

As I write this article, the hullabaloo over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" continues to percolate and threatens to engulf us. A group including Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Andrew Breitbart and the racist Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders will be participating in a rally on 9/11 to protest the building of the Islamic cultural center. The center was designed as a Muslim version of the 92nd Street Y to serve its members as a multi-use facility which would include a prayer room, but also sports facilities and classrooms for adult education, just like Jewish community centers all over the US.

In assessing the controversy we should take note that over the course of many years, there has been a dual movement in regard to Arabic culture and the three monotheistic faiths.

On the one hand, knowledge of the vast culture of the Middle East -- from the Arabian Nights to the Maqamat of Al-Hariri to the philosophy of the Cordoban Ibn Rushd to the contemporary novels of Naguib Mahfouz -- has appreciably declined. As the late scholar Edward Said noted, Arabic has become a controversial language and all things related to it have fallen into contentiousness.

But along with the elision of Arabic culture and civilization, there has been a renewed interest in bringing together the three monotheistic religions in some form of mutual dialogue.

The interfaith dialogue movement has had a number of different manifestations. Most prominent was the opening of discussion in the early 1960s between Catholic and Jewish groups in the wake of Vatican II. This opening did not come from the Jewish community but from the Church itself, which finally chose to cease its demonization of the Jewish people and attempt to begin the process of normalization and reconciliation.

The place of Islam in this process has been less clear.

In the aftermath of many decades of Western imperialism and the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict, the world of Middle Eastern dialogue has been covered by a grimy film of mutual distrust and ethno-religious hatred.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it looked as if the centuries of minority discrimination in the Arab world was to come to an end. The liberalizing movement known in Arabic as the "Nahda" captured the minds of many of the great intellectuals and politicians of the emerging nations of the region.

But as World War I came to its ignominious conclusion and European nations decided to double down on their control of the region, the liberal trend was countered by nationalist militancy and religious fundamentalism and has struggled to survive.

With the emergence of Israel and oil politics by mid-century, the alienation of Jews, Muslims and Christians became a central part of the Middle Eastern question.

We can look at the situation as it applies to the Israel-Arab conflagration which serves as a larger paradigm for this state of incoherence. Over the years since the Camp David Accords and the Oslo Agreement, many Jewish and Muslim groups have sprung up to promote reconciliation and a peaceful end to the conflict.

Groups like Seeds of Peace and Children of Abraham bring Jewish and Arab children together to speak and share human experiences. And yet with all that the institutional world, especially the Jewish institutional world, has done to establish this interfaith dialogue, the problems we face in the Middle East remain intractable as shown to us by the current "Ground Zero mosque" flap. The failure of this well-funded institutional system lies at the very center of the battle that continues to be waged.

One of the false assumptions of interfaith dialogue is that Jews and Arabs are separate and mutually hostile peoples. For the majority of the world's Jews who come from Europe, perhaps this is true. But for many centuries there were in fact Jews who lived in the Middle East and developed a resilient and vibrant culture that was very much a product of its Arabic surroundings.

That Jews and Arabs share a culture is a fact that stands in stark contrast with the idea that there is a primordial rupture between the peoples that has fed the endemic and corrosive violence that now permeates the region.

It is noteworthy that Arab Jews have been missing from the picture of contemporary Jewish life. The role these Arab Jews might have been able to play as indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East with knowledge of the language, customs and values of the region has been wasted. If only this cultural knowledge had been utilized over the course of the twentieth century, our current realities might be different. Sadly, Arab Jews have found themselves demographically as well as institutionally shut out of the discourse that has emerged from the conflict.

As the founder of a Sephardic cultural institution, I have learned the hard lessons of trying to set out an indigenous Arab Jewish discourse in the face of a world for which gefilte fish, matzo ball soup and chopped liver are all seen as de rigueur parts of the Jewish heritage, while kibbe, fassoulia, kunafa, mahshi and other Middle Eastern delicacies that are part of the Arab Jewish heritage have been viewed as just so much exotica that does not seem to have any actual role within Jewish culture as it is currently configured.

But music, food and literature are at the very foundation of what separates us from the Arab world.

Interfaith dialogue is premised on an uncontested reality -- that of ancient Judaism, Islam and Christianity having been formed from the same basic religious ideas and traditions. What is often forgotten is that each of the religions has its own exclusive claim to the truth which is incompatible with that of the other two.

While interfaith dialogue focuses on this mythic distant past, the more recent culture of the region, a culture of religious humanism -- religion fused with the scientific -- which subsumes the poetry of Al-Mutanabbi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Abu Nuwwas and Judah Halevi; the religious philosophy of Maimonides, Averroes, Al-Ghazali and Avicenna; and the historical researches of Ibn Khaldun and Solomon ibn Verga -- is not at all part of its discourse. This culture can be understood by what I have called "The Levantine Option."

"The Levantine Option" is a cultural formation indigenous to the Middle East -- and Islamic North Africa and Spain -- that inherited the Scriptural traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and filtered those traditions through the Greco-Roman inheritance which was assiduously translated into Arabic by members of the three faiths in Muslim places like Cordoba, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, creating a complex system whose foundation was religious humanism.

If interfaith dialogue groups were assigned the writings of Maria Rosa Menocal and Richard Rubenstein, who in their respective books (note well that the books share the almost exact same subtitle) The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain and Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages have examined the ideas and values of religious humanism from the intellectual perspective of the Mediterranean world of the High Middle Ages, perhaps a more effective bridge could be built between the various cultures.

It is also doubtful that modern Arab culture is part of the curriculum of the interfaith dialogue groups given their exclusively religious orientation. And yet the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, the music of Muhammad Abdel-Wahhab and the films of Youssef Chahine, widely regarded in the contemporary Arab world as the bedrock of its culture, would be a far more appropriate context for Jews, Christians and Muslims to learn more about current life in the region.

Interfaith dialogue must be premised not merely on religious discourse but also on the culture and civilized values of the native Middle Eastern peoples. As is widely known, Arabs hold their tradition and history critically important. The value of the Arabic language, a language that was once shared by the Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the region prior to the emergence of ethnic and religious conflict, is marked by Arabs as being one of the most important factors in their cultural lives.

Any discussion of Arab civilization is doomed to failure if it does not treat the matter of its glorious cultural traditions which have mistakenly been separated from the religious context -- a matter that we have seen in the noble but unsuccessful efforts of the many interfaith groups whose dialogues have done precious little to allay the fears and tensions that continue to beset us in our post-9/11 world.

It is lamentable that the current battle over the lower Manhattan project has not focused on the actual realities of the "Cordoba" that has given its name to the project. There has been too much hollow rhetoric coming from many of those who have spoken out in the matter, and not nearly enough engagement with the historical and cultural realities that encompass the Andalusian-Sephardic heritage which could lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the situation.

It is time that we return to the actual lived realities of the Arab-Muslim world and avoid the static attempts at conflict resolution that now permeate the world of interfaith dialogue. Only by critically engaging with the living traditions of the Middle East will we be able to bridge the differences that have now seemed to overwhelm us.