Transcending false perceptions

Koran teaches Muslim peace, tolerance and self defense towards other religions.

Koran 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Koran 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel must work towards a rapprochement with the Islamic Arab world, based not on necessity but on the desirability of coexistence between Muslims and Jews.
There are obviously impediments to such religious tolerance. The Koran offers Islamist extremists text that they can distort to depict the struggle between Muslims and Jews as eternal and inevitable. Religious reconciliation between the two sides can also not occur unless Israelis and Palestinians reach a two-state solution.
But in Jerusalem and Hebron, Muslims and Jews live side by side and cannot entertain the idea of refusing service to one another or harming each others' holy shrines without incurring unacceptable consequences. Some Muslims argue that this coexistence comes out of necessity, not choice. But there are religious grounds for such amicability. The al-Isra wa al-Miraj at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem portrays the Prophet Mohamed's prayer with all previous prophets, including Abraham and Moses, and implies the inclusive nature of the divine message.
If hardcore Islamists and extreme, right-wing Israeli activists believe that Islamic orthodoxy is inherently anti-Jewish, they must look deeper into the Koran to find that coexistence between Jews and Muslims is natural within Islam.  It is literal interpretation taken out of their specific contexts that undermine Muslim-Jewish relations.  The larger message of the Koran is that the Jews are a nation worthy of respect.
For Muslims, the message of the Prophet Muhammad is a continuation of the message brought by Moses and other Biblical prophets from God (Koran  2:285). It is not only Jews but also Christians who are repeatedly referred to as People of the Book, and the Koran constantly reminds Muslims that among the People of the Book are those who believe and do righteous deeds (Koran  3:113). The word among is an important modifier which is conveniently overlooked by many readers of the Koran today.
The Koran, however, is not a list from which to pick-and-choose. Rather, it presents a coherent message, much like the Old and New Testaments, of peace and resistance to all forms of injustice, including the use of force if deemed necessary. Despite the Koranic permission for Muslims to fight in self-defense, Muslims were warned not to go beyond defending themselves to the extent of transgression:
If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress likewise against him (Koran 2: 194).
Palestinians and other Muslims can use such text to justify their violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. This means that peace will only be possible with an end to the Israeli occupation. According to Islamic teachings, if Muslims learn that their enemy desires peace and is willing to cease all forms of aggression, Islam commands Muslims to agree to their enemy's request.
Islamist extremists might find it comforting to invoke Koranic verses to justify acts of terrorism against the Jews. But committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam – most recently the random killings in Toulouse – is actually an insult to the religion, which consider all life forms sacred and condemns killing innocent people, even in times of war.
On the Jewish side, the continued Israeli occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians to daily indignities does little to enhance the image of Jewish teachings. Religious belief, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim, was not meant to provide cover for injustice. On the contrary, the three monolithic religions strongly advocate brotherhood, justice and peace.
There are many skeptical Israelis who understandably do not believe that an Islamic world mired in internal conflict would accept Israel as a Jewish state. The Israelis point to Muslims butchering one another in the Sudan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria as evidence that violence is inherent to the religion and culture.
I do not subscribe to this proposition for four reasons:
the Koran's teachings consistently point to the  contrary;
neither violence nor extremism is exclusively Muslim (note  European history from the time of the Inquisition to date);
time and circumstances have changed as the Arab youth have awakened and now see despotic regimes rather than Israel as the culprit of their  socio-economic and political plight; and
the Muslim world has, with the exception of a tiny fraction of Islamist militants, come to terms with the unequivocal reality of Israel.
Conversely, Israel must come to terms with the changing political wind by removing the stigma of occupation. The country is powerful enough to take the calculated risk of testing the Arab states' protestation that they will only seek peace if a mutually acceptable solution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indeed, it flies in the face of reality to portray the relationship between Islamic-leaning Arab states and Israel as irreconcilable.  Israel should remember that it was Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative Islamic countries, that advanced the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, and it is Israel that still, a decade later, refuses to embrace the proposal.
To disabuse their respective religions' false perceptions, Jewish and Muslim scholars should engage in an open dialogue. They can use modern communication tools to discuss topics such as the future of Jerusalem and use religious teachings to make their case.
Over time this will provide policy makers, be they religious or secular, the political cover they need to pursue reconciliation. The question now is, how much more anguish and uncertainty will Israel and the Islamic Arab endure before deciding it's time to talk religion?
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.