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Having faith in peace

Suddenly, after decades of impasse, it seems possible — just possible — that the stars are aligning for a comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East.

Three major developments are happening right now.

Iran's new president, Hasan Rowhani, has made a peace overture after more than three decades of conflict with the United States. President Barack Obama's phone call to Mr. Rowhani was a breakthrough in diplomatic relations with Iran that have been frozen since 1979.

The United States and Russia have brokered an agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons. It is possible that could be the start of some kind of partnership between the United States and Russia to end the civil war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and disrupted the region.

Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to find some kind of accord that would end that interminable conflict.

All three of these are in their nascent stages. Skepticism is high, and for good reason. These conflicts seem to be intractable.

In each of these cases, religion plays a key role in the political calculus. It often is not about theology as much as the power that each religious group perceives it has, or should have and does not.

In Syria, Shia Muslims control with an iron fist the government, military and all of the other power centers in a nation where the majority of people are Sunni Muslims. In Bahrain, it's a Sunni minority ruling over a Shia majority.

Iran is a Shia majority country that supports fellow Shias in Syria and Bahrain. Yet Iranians fear the power of the United States that is allied with Sunni-dominated countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

In Israel, orthodox Jews use Biblical arguments to undermine negotiations with Palestinians that would allow any kind of land sharing.

Even in Egypt and Tunisia, the conflict is between Muslims who want to establish a secular state and those who want to establish an Islamic state.

So whether the arguments are over land in Israel and Palestine or over nuclear weapons in Iran or over who controls Syria, or how Egypt and Tunisia are ruled, religion plays a role. It is important for those who are trying to find solutions to understand what role religious groups can play and to understand the limits of what those religious groups can do.

For example, the 1993 Oslo peace agreement offered a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But it was an agreement between secular leaders. Religious groups were left out. When they did not support it, the agreement failed.

Understanding the fears and aspirations of each religious group as well as the commandments of their religions is essential to working out an end to hostilities. Religious leaders and actors must be enlisted and must be behind any peace agreement. They have to be part of the solution, especially when religion is part of the problem.

When Mr. Rowhani was in New York, I met with him as part of a group of American Muslim leaders. He said, "I am here to learn from you."

We impressed on him that to Americans, the face of Iran is the face is Islam. If Iran upheld the highest ideals of Islam to seek peace and justice, then that is how Americans would perceive Islam.

I reminded him of a verse in the Quran that says "whoever takes a life kills all of humankind, and whoever saves a life saves all of humankind" and told him that it demands that Iran do all it can to stop the terrible bloodshed in Syria. We asked him to bring peace in Syria as an imperative of our faith.

A good faith action on the part of Iran should be met with a similar response from the United States.

We American Muslims want to be a bridge between Iran and the United States, not a wedge, and have worked to present American values in the language of our religion.

That is why at this moment — when we see a sliver of hope — savvy teamwork between American Muslims, Christian and Jews is critical to solving these seemingly intractable problems in the Middle East.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the Founder of Cordoba Initiative, a multi-national, multi-faith organization dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations. He will be speaking in Baltimore on Thursday at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium as part of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies 25th anniversary lecture series. For more information: icjs.org/25th-anniversary/speaker-series.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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