The Muslim-Jewish PeaceWalk, scheduled for Sunday, March 21, could be seen as the end result of months of planning. But the real vision, says Dr. Michael D. Berdine--also known as Muhammad As'ad, administrator of the Islamic Center of Tucson--goes beyond the walk: the creation of an interfaith community.
Racheli Gai, a local Jewish peace activist who grew up in Israel, first talked with other Jewish peace activists about creating an interfaith peace walk modeled on the examples of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (of Congregation Nahalat Shalom in Albuquerque) and Abdul Rauf Campos-Marquetti (secretary general of the Islamic Center of New Mexico).
In April 2002, Gottlieb called Campos-Marquetti, whom she did not know, to ask if he would like to participate in a peace walk from her synagogue to his mosque. Five days later, an interfaith crowd of 350 made the 6.6- mile walk. Members of both communities expressed a desire for ongoing meetings and formed a Jewish-Muslim fellowship that meets weekly. The group also organized walks in Albuquerque in September 2002 and May 2003.
After Campos-Marquetti and Gottlieb returned from a trip to Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine with a Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Builders delegation in January-February 2003, they founded the Jewish-Muslim PeaceWalk to help other communities organize walks and promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue. With small grants from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Interfaith Institute, Gottlieb took a year sabbatical from her work as a congregational rabbi.
Gottlieb and Campos-Marquetti have lead peace walks in New York City and Las Vegas, and walks are in the planning stages in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Canada.
These events are not marches or protests, said Campos-Marquetti, but rather pilgrimages to places of worship.
When Tucson Jewish organizers contacted the local Islamic Center about planning a walk, they received an enthusiastic response from Berdine, the administrator. Jews and Muslims have been partners in the planning from the beginning, and each meeting has been co-facilitated by a Muslim and a Jew.
"The process is the message," said Gai, who started the local process. "It's not easy."
People have been tentative with each other, not knowing what may offend. Meetings have rotated between the Islamic Center and Congregation Chaverim; for some participants, it has provided their first step into a mosque or synagogue.
And neither the Jewish nor the Muslim community is a homogenous group, said Jessica Weinberg, who spent two years in Jerusalem and Nazareth studying Israeli-Palestinian peace activities; she said that she has sometimes found it more challenging to work with members of the Jewish community who don't share her exact political views. Weinberg is building a friendship with a Muslim student in the group, and noted that people make connections around other commonalities.
While Christians and Buddhists are also involved in the process, the requirement that each meeting be co-facilitated by a Jew and Muslim has brought up issues of identity. When Judith Salzman volunteered to be a facilitator, she needed to explain that she was "a Jewish person on a Buddhist path."
Gottlieb and Campos-Marquetti advised that facilitators make space for everyone to speak. When there are disagreements, facilitators work on building consensus rather than cutting discussion short and using a vote as a way to make a decision.
After a meeting at the Islamic Center on Feb. 22, two participants talked about how the process has evolved. "At first, there was a lot of individual contention, everybody into what they wanted to bring. It took a tremendous amount of time," said Ruth Pancoast.
But both she and Rania Hemzawi noted that the contention decreased with each meeting.
"Every time we meet," said Hemzawi, "we get stronger, we know each other more. The small things (are) not so important; we are focusing on one goal."
Pancost added that she has also learned not to use any initial contention "as an excuse to say, 'Oh, it can't work,'" and has noticed that individuals begin to let go and focus on what's more important. She takes this as a "wonderful sign" for Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to dialogue. So have others.
"As a Palestinian, I understand how big the problem is," said Mohyeddin Abdulaziz. "The military and violent solutions have proved very clear that they're no solutions. So we have to change course. And we can only change course by getting to talk 1-on-1, building what we call here 'the community.'" said Abdulaziz.
In building an interfaith community, Muslims, Jews and Christians can draw on their common roots in Abraham's vision of the oneness of God, said Campos-Marquetti. At the walk in Tucson, he and Gottlieb plan to discuss Abraham's message as part of leading prayers and participating in ceremonies planned by the local group. This common ground allows people "to work on peacebuilding and faith conflicts from a position of spiritual strength," said Gottlieb.
People of all faiths are invited to walk the entire 5.6-mile route or join the group along the way. Vans will be available for people who need a ride or a rest.
Since this is a pilgrimage rather than a march, participants are asked to leave political banners at home. So other than water and snacks, what should walkers bring?
"A prayer of peace," said Gottlieb.