Working against the problem, not each other

In the years since 9/11, war and terrorism have led to much discussion over whether a “clash of civilisations” is occurring between the United States and the Muslim world. This turmoil, however, has inspired many others to work even harder to promote dialogue and understanding between our cultures. Ordinary” Americans and people of the Muslim world have a particularly critical role to play in this process by reaching out to one another in friendship. When we do, we will come to appreciate not only how unique and diverse we all are, but how many of our deepest values we share in common.

Hosting exchange students from Afghanistan, volunteering in Indonesia, studying in Egypt, and working on conflict resolution in Palestine and Pakistan, I experienced firsthand the power of personal and cultural exchange. Real human understanding and lasting friendships can result from such activities. In Pakistan, for example, dialogue with “madrassa” (religious school) leaders allowed us not only to better appreciate our differences, but to see how much we have in common. In sharing feelings about how the war in Iraq and US policy in Palestine hurts Muslims, and how terrorist attacks like 9/11 hurts Americans, we realised our mutual desire to protect all people from violence and to rid the world of hatred and fear.

Indeed, there is no reason for a clash between America and the Muslim world. The values upon which America was founded — obedience to God, respect and equality for all, protection of human rights and freedoms, service to others and to the greater good, and peace — are also fundamental values of Islam. Problems in American-Muslim relations have occurred not because Americans and Muslims adhere to opposing or problematic values, but because some Americans and Muslims have failed to live up to their own values.

Americans who love America and Muslims who love Islam will best serve our societies by helping them to adhere to the values of peace and love upon which they were founded. The Center for Understanding Islam ( ), an American Muslim organization, addressed the question of whether there is a conflict between Islam and America in a befitting manner:

“Our country is America and our faith is Islam… there is no need to choose between them. The reason for this is that the principles that governed and motivated the founders of America are identical with the principles developed by the classical scholars of Islam many centuries earlier…. Both rejected the exclusivism of clerical, ethnic, and class loyalties in order to give birth to new civilizations based on human dignity and on the human rights and responsibilities inherent in every person….”

As a Catholic American who has travelled to Muslim countries in diverse parts of the world, one of the greatest and most tragic misperceptions I have observed between our cultures is the belief that the other hates us or wishes us harm. In reality, this perception is not representative of mainstream opinion in either part of the world.

While extremists who commit violent acts of war or terrorism often dominate the attention of the media, the majority of people in every nation and of every faith want to live in peace and safety, and desire the same for others.

Most Americans and Muslims share the desire to better relations with one another and build a better world. In this spirit, I have started a project called the American-Islamic Friendship Project, in which I collect messages of peace and friendship from Americans to people of the Muslim world and vice versa. These messages are being compiled into a book, which I hope to make widely available.

The terrorist attacks against Americans on 9/11 and throughout the world since, as well as the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine, strike at the hearts of Americans and Muslims as very real threats to our identity, our way of life, and our very existence. Rather than viewing these conflicts as manifestations of a “clash of civilisations”, however, they should be seen as problems that need solving — as opportunities to work together against a common problem, not against each other.


Rebecca Cataldi is program assistant at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy and a master’s candidate at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. To send a message to the American-Islamic Friendship Project, contact [email protected] mail to: [email protected]. This article is written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at