Tribune: When the 9/11 attacks occurred in the US, I had just begun teaching at the American University in Washington, DC as the new Chair of Islamic studies. As the scale of what had happened became apparent, I knew how important fostering dialogue and communication between Islam and other religions would be. I particularly understood the critical urgency of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue, which I had been engaged in over the previous decade. While I worked constantly in the media, academia, in houses of worship, and at countless seminars and events to promote better relations between religions, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis loomed large and I often felt I was swimming against the tide. The atmosphere was a difficult one and there were high levels of ignorance and anger against Muslims.
One day, I received a truly inspirational gift out of the blue. It was a copy of The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations(2002), the best-selling book by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the then-Chief Rabbi of the UK, with a warm personalised inscription from Lord Sacks himself. While I had been familiar with Lord Sacks’s bold initiatives in fostering dialogue between religions, I had never before had the pleasure of meeting or interacting with him. Yet, here suddenly was a handwritten note of admiration for, he wrote, my wisdom and courage. Lord Sacks even expressed his empathy for the pushback I often faced from my own community in my work. He himself wrote that he faced similar criticism from the Jewish community. Yet it was Lord Sacks’s concluding line that resonated with me the most. “Great spiritual leaders”, he wrote, “are the ones who push their communities beyond their comfort zones to build peace in our fractured world.”