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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Towards Peace and Reconciliation: Here and Abroad

Today marks the anniversary of a dialogue event I helped organize a year ago. Check out this University of Toronto article for more information.

Organizers of the Dialogue event
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Below is an opinion piece I wrote when I was feeling very passionate and invigorated right after the event. You can also access the opinion piece

Dialogue restores faith

By Safiyyah Ally

I was slowly becoming disillusioned over the past few years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed intractable. Muslims, Arabs and Jews on several university campuses were struggling against each other. Rallies, protests, name-calling, and fistfights characterized the results when these groups collided. My feeble attempts to reason with others seemed to go nowhere. I was becoming very cynical, and quite frustrated with all the parties involved. I saw very little hope.

But I was wrong.

On January 25th, I regained the hope and optimism that I thought was lost forever. The Muslim-Arab-Jewish dialogue, a day-long event that took place at Hart House, was an experience that shattered my naive expectations. To stand and see a packed room full of expectant faces; to see leaders from conventionally opposing communities speaking from the heart; to hear individuals appreciating each other without restraint; to feel the energy pulsating through Hart House-it still moves me to tears. I sat there during the closing circle trying to contain myself, but I was physically trembling.

Who could have anticipated that the hearts and minds of some individuals could change over the course of a day? It was almost unbelievable in some ways. Muslims, Arabs and Jews ate lunch and dinner together. They spoke with each other. They told stories to each other. They wept. They laughed. And most stunning was the fact that there were no angry confrontations; no bursts of violence. It was a feel-good story that had the organizers pinching themselves in disbelief.

It was not just the event itself that moved me. I see the group of diverse individuals who organized the event as a success story on its own. The event was effective precisely because of the strong friendship we shared. When we came together for the first few meetings, we were hesitant with each other, and very careful with our words. Over time, we came to understand, appreciate, and even trust one another. Today, I have a whole new cast of friends-and they're Jewish. This too gives me hope. As a close friend wisely commented, "If we cannot be friends with one another in Canada, far removed from the bloodshed and suffering, how can we expect anything to change for those in the Middle East?"

It will not be an easy struggle. We need only look at the naysayers to realize our worst fears. I recall encouraging an active Muslim student to attend the dialogue. He wasn't interested in coming. "It won't do anything," he replied listlessly. But it did do something. It restored my hope. And it restored the hopes of many others.

One of the most surprising statements I heard came from a participant who wanted to thank us, because he said that the first time he had ever spoken to a Jew was at the dialogue. It is only through speaking to each other that we realize that regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, or even life experience, we share a common humanity.

The dialogue allowed individuals to share their fears, vulnerabilities and insecurities with each other. I recall that sometime during the day, participants were asked to share stories of their experiences with anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia. It is through processes such as this that people come to see 'the other' as human beings, with needs, wants, fears and insecurities like their own.

I include you when I say that we have a collective obligation to ensure that such empowering hope does die down. Jewish-Arab-Muslim relations will not change with one event. The dialogue is the beginning of a long process. But let us remember that we are in this together. Not just Muslims, Arabs and Jews. Not just pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists, but everyone and anyone who cares about achieving peace through the construction of meaningful human relationships.


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