When I first saw the story of the two Muslim activists who raised money to restore the vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, I was inspired and relieved. Like a brief rain during a drought, it was a much needed reprieve from the barrage of stories about hate crimes and bigotry. And it shined a light on a pathway to heal the deep divisions in our country – a pathway that is open to all of us, but perhaps none more so than the truly faithful, for whom values and principle supersede political identity and partisanship.
Holy Sites, like Jewish burial grounds, are places where religious leaders and communities can reciprocate support and unity. During a time when religious and racial tensions are high, their leadership and influence can build safer, more secure, and caring communities for all of us.
I am a Muslim American and President of the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, Search for Common Ground. Sharon, my co-author, friend, and colleague, is an orthodox Jew and co-director of our Jerusalem office leading – with a coalition of others – our global initiative, a Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites. Our paths started out differently, but led us to the same conclusion: miracles happen when opposing sides come together on a common goal.
The son of immigrants who were intent upon providing the best education for me and my brother, I grew up comfortably in Connecticut. On weekends, we would drive 40 minutes to the closest mosque and Islamic Community Center in New York to connect with other Muslims. The rest of the week was spent with my hometown friends — virtually all Christian or Jewish – some of whom I grew to love so much that we stay in touch to this day and look forward to any opportunity that brings us together. In college, I attempted my first dialogue between Muslim and Jewish students on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It went disastrously, but I found my passion. I’ve had twenty years following that passion – from heading Search’s programming in Burundi to being appointed by the UN Secretary-General to improve cross-cultural understanding between Western and Muslim-majority societies.
At Search, we see how religious conflict can turn into powerful peacebuilding. It happens in three stages. The first stage is ignorance, suspicion, and tension. Many are living this today in the U.S., where Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are rising to alarming levels. People are being targeted based on their religion in hateful ways I have not seen in my lifetime. It’s distressing, but we can disrupt this cycle of fear and emerge stronger as a society.
Healing begins at the second stage when we come together on a common interest. Protecting Holy Sites is a powerful example. Places like burial grounds, houses of worship, and historically significant sites touch people at the deepest levels of their identity and emotional attachment, which is exactly why they are targeted by those attempting to inflict suffering.
Sharon grew up in London, England with immense pride in her Jewish heritage, daily praying east to acknowledge the centrality of holy Jerusalem in her life. She arrived in Israel with her family at age 17 after the 1967 War, elated to finally be living in the city that meant so much to her and with access to her holiest site. Only after befriending Muslim and Christian Palestinians in college did she begin to understand that there was another people, deeply attached to the land and its sacred sites, who also called this place home.
Realizing that religion can and must play a positive role in solving conflicts around the world, Sharon co-developed a Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites in collaboration with Religions for Peace, The Oslo Center, and One World in Dialogue. The Code strives for mutual respect and protection of religious sites, while promoting inter-religious reconciliation. All religions have an interest in protecting places and symbols that carry spiritual significance for their communities. Therefore, it’s an easy topic to start a dialogue and embrace cooperation.
The third stage is joint action. Those Muslim activists took action when they mobilized to help restore the vandalized Jewish cemetery. And they are not alone. Through our Holy Sites initiative, we’ve seen religious leaders and communities of different faiths in Jerusalem, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia endorse the Universal Code and take part in field projects to protect holy sites. We’ve witnessed Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders set aside their suspicions on Mount Zion and sup together in camaraderie. We’ve witnessed Christian and Muslim religious leaders jointly and publicly condemn attacks at vandalized sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We’ve seen how religious leaders’ principled and courageous action and newfound insights overflow into their communities, easing stigma and suspicion.
Our teams around the world are honored to support these and other religious leaders and communities to build peace in practical and powerful ways. Whether it’s supporting Imams in Kyrgyzstan in their efforts to protect youth in their communities from those seeking to radicalize them, or working across faith communities to create safe spaces using sports, music, and marches to prevent atrocities between Christian and Muslim communities in the Central African Republic—when people gather around shared values and aspirations, trust and healing follow.
Whether it’s coming together around a common interest like protecting Holy Sites or common values like love, kindness and generosity – our religious communities can set an example of how to treat each other and come together as a nation. The drought has gone on long enough—it’s time for growth.
Shamil Idriss is the President & CEO of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, with offices in 36 countries. Shamil is a Muslim American of Turkish and Syrian origin
Sharon Rosen is the Co-Director of Search for Common Ground’s Jerusalem office. Sharon is an Orthodox Jew and Israeli citizen formerly from the UK. Sharon completed her doctoral studies in Religion and Conflict Resolution in Jerusalem’s Holy Basin.