In Search of Smiling Islam

As for the present and future, it is clear as day that the basic long-term interest of the State of Israel is to integrate peacefully into the Muslim world while zealously safeguarding its "membership" in Western culture.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan - From the moment the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the United States has been trying with all its might to refute the widespread claim that this attack marked the onset of a "culture war." On the other hand, Osama bin Laden continues to insist - and did so on a new tape broadcast this week - that he has indeed triggered the fearful clash of civilizations that Samuel Huntington cautioned against in his celebrated book.

The American administration has been successful to some extent, in that it managed to enlist the aid of Uzbekistan and other Muslim countries in Central Asia in its military campaign against al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

France and Germany, in their own way, are also doing their bit to prove Huntington's vision to be baseless. They are doing so by stubbornly refusing to help the West defend itself against its Muslim attackers. Along with the NATO split Chirac fomented, France exhibits growing hostility toward Israel and indifference to resurgent anti-Semitism in its midst.

All of this reflects the contention in Paris that the problem is not "Judeo-Christian" culture trying to defend itself against Islamic terrorism, but American imperialism and its Anglo-Saxon (and Jewish) offshoots seeking to seize control of the Islamic world and its resources.

Israel and the Jewish people have become entangled in this bitter and complicated struggle, and it is not to their benefit. Islam, or at least Arabic Islam, is portrayed as our cultural and strategic enemy, while we are bound to the Western world by Judeo-Christian culture. The trouble is, this conflicts with the evidence derived from many centuries of Jewish history - centuries of tolerance and coexistence in Muslim countries versus persecution and bloodshed in many countries of Christian Europe.

As for the present and future, it is clear as day that the basic long-term interest of the State of Israel is to integrate peacefully into the Muslim world while zealously safeguarding its "membership" in Western culture.

In these days of tectonic shifts that are jolting the old world order and heightening new conflicts, a fascinating attempt is being made here in Central Asia to improve the position of the Jewish people and Israel in the intercultural alignment now taking shape.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has gathered here, with the active encouragement of the White House and the U.S. State Department, for a series of political and economic discussions with high-ranking officials from all countries in the region. A religious dialogue is also taking place between Jewish leaders, including several rabbis, and members of the local Muslim clergy who believe in moderation and open-mindedness in relations between monotheistic religions.

Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents and the driving spirit behind the encounter, says the two sides have come together to dispel any notions of a "war of cultures" and to cultivate in its place a dialogue between the cultures. He points out that the central Asian republics, rich in natural resources, are engaged in a constant battle against the subversive fundamentalism exported by Iran, and by Russian attempts to curtail their economic and political independence.

Israeli delegates are joining the discussions, but they are not the ones setting the tone - and not by accident. In chairing this unusual initiative, American Jewry is ultimately trying to draw on its own positive experience in carving out a relationship with the Christian community in the United States, in the hope of creating a similar relationship with Islam.

In the same way that the Jews of America maintain cultural and humanistic ties with Christian churches in their country, they are now seeking out another Islam - an Islam with a smiling face - with which to weave a tapestry of kinship.

If this endeavor succeeds, the Jewish state and the entire Jewish world stands to benefit. In fact, all of Western culture will gain, because a contribution will have been made, modest but meaningful, to ridding the world of the grim doctrine of a clash of cultures.