Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
We teach the teenagers in our programs to be curious, to ask questions, to discover and to ultimately respect based on understanding.
I was on the bus after walking by Tony Blair being interviewed and a host of Saudi royalty, the empty seat towards the front was next to a man who looked like your stereotypical image of someone from the persian gulf. All white robe, including over his head, and a black circular band to keep it up. His beard looks like mine.
Three things struck me about my conversation with this guy – who turns out to be the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Bahrain – a small country in the gulf.
1) He asked me why judaism made it impossible to become a Jew, repeating the widely held misconception that we are an exclusive club. It gave me a chance to explain seriousness of study, commitment, conviction. He loved the explanation and said it made sense to him (in spite of the fact this is in stark contrast with the relative ease of becoming a Muslim).
2) He asked me to tell him about the different kinds of Jews since he knew that we did not all have the same beliefs and practices. I was moved by his desire to learn.
3) He then hit a grand slam when he told me about a Jewish professor from DC who was on the committee that examined him when he finished his PhD in Islamic Studies in Edinburgh. He said the fact that a Jew repeatedly referred to him as ‘sheikh’ – a term of great respect – is something he has never forgotten.
He told me meeting one person really can change your view of an entire group of people. This is at the basis of what I do for a living and it gave me goosebumps to hear it from a man from Bahrain in traditional garb.