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A Tucson group convinces that there's hope for humankind after all

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The Foundation for Inter-Cultural Dialogue has been hosting friendship dinners since 2004. This year's event, billed as "Diverse Traditions, Shared Values," was held at the University of Arizona, and for the second year in a row, I came away buoyed by a sense of hope: the hope that Margaret Mead's famous words, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world: Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has," may be realized in a tremendous outpouring of peaceful intentions.

Though Mead's words are most often seen emblazoned on T-shirts worn by activists working for social reform, the fact is, her statement is neutral. Small groups can, and have, rained such horror on the human narrative that many reasonable people are left wondering if there is any hope for us as a species. Organizations such as FID prove there is.

The foundation draws inspiration from the worldview of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish intellectual, scholar, spiritual leader and activist whose ideas are illuminated in B. Jill Carroll's recent book, A Dialogue of Civilizations: Gülen's Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse.

Carroll, a lecturer in humanities and religious studies at Rice University, compares Gülen's worldview with those of several philosophers who are generally considered to fall under the rubric of "Western" thinkers. Her argument is both simple and hopeful: Dialogue, in this case between Islam and the non-Islamic world, is possible because intrinsic human values remain constant across cultures.

If Jean-Paul Sartre--a French philosopher and atheist who lived through World War II in Europe, died in 1980 and whose name is virtually synonymous with existentialism--and Fethullah Gülen--a contemporary Turkish thinker whose worldview embraces all religions--can share common ground in their essential humanism, then surely there is more hope for peace in the world than headlines and political rhetoric would have us believe.

"Both Sartre and Gülen give their complete intellectual energies to highlighting the urgent need in life for people to take responsibility for the world, and to reiterating the fact that the world has always been and will continue to be that which we make of it," Carroll writes.

The challenge is what it has always been: How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be? At least part of the answer is obvious: The imposition of a set of social, cultural or economic systems on one population by another (though it may temporarily produce a semblance of order) is an injustice that never leads to a sustainable peace.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Islam is its early historical development as a force against oppression, a characteristic it shares with other religions. Regardless of how religions evolve over time and how their tenets may be tortured into justification for nefarious deeds, the attraction for many adherents is the promise of a peculiar kind of freedom: one that liberates them by offering relief from a meaningless life and a frightening death.

But this is only part of the story. The other, more important part is that religion is attractive to a large majority of the world's population because no theology is based on the glorification of evil deeds. What makes dialogue possible across what may appear an insurmountable divide is a commonality of beliefs in the superiority and triumph of good deeds.

As an example, consider these passages from the Hadith of Muhammad. The Hadith is a compilation of verses and traditions from the Islamic prophet.

"Faith is a restraint against all violence, let no believer commit violence. What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured." Clearly, these words resonate with Christian and Jewish beliefs, so much so that in Judaism, there is the concept of tikun olam, an obligation to heal the world.

"The warrior is one who battles with his own ego (nafs) on the path of God." Buddhism, anyone? Finally, "Being an honorable Muslim means that people are safe from your actions and words."

Of course it is possible to pluck passages from the Quran, or the Torah, or the Christian Bible, extolling the merits of vengeance or violence. But that's the point. We choose our beliefs, and if we opt for the unmerciful, it's an individual choice, not a religious imperative.

Dr. Alex Nava, a speaker at the friendship dinner and professor at the University of Arizona, quoted a religious scholar who said, "Dialogue is possible when those involved are open to the possibility of transformation."

First, however, we need to believe we can, and then summon the will to do so.

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