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Building bridges of peace and coexistence

During a lecture at Northeastern on Monday night, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, spoke of the need to build bridges between America and the Muslim world to quell the intensifying tensions that have been marked by the attacks of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the “interminable conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians.

“No matter how pessimistic the landscape seems to be, we must not allow ourselves to concede to the inevitability of a trajectory that ends in the proverbial ‘clash of civilizations,’” Gomaa told 250 people in attendance at Blackman Auditorium. “Further, it is an obligation to respond proactively to the tensions of our world by working actively and methodically to ameliorate them, so as to replace instability with stability, hostility with friendship and animosity with alliances.”

Denis Sullivan, a professor of political science and director of the Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development, moderated the event, which was followed by a Q&A that ranged from topics such as the sectors of religious authority today in Egypt to the role of women in Muslim culture. “I think it was a momentous occasion having the Grand Mufti speak to us here,” Sullivan said. “At the core of the Middle East Center is the desire to have these kinds of dialogues.”

Provost Stephen Director introduced Gomaa as a prolific author and writer who, in his role as Grand Mufti, is a top authority for Islamic legal scholarship and issuing fatwas — which are rulings on points of Islamic law. Later, Director thanked Gomaa for his “thoughtful, stimulating presentation.”

In his lecture, which was given in Arabic and translated into English, Gomaa recognized the efforts of many international forums and institutions — including Northeastern — to bring diverse groups of people together to engage in intercultural dialogue.

Dialogue, Gomaa said, is what can break down barriers to peace, demystify religious differences to the general public and “uncover rays of truth that get buried under the rubble of human biases and tendencies.”

“Constructive dialogue is a powerful tool in conflict prevention, management and resolution,” Gomaa said. “It can defuse tension and keep situations from escalating, and a truly constructive dialogue maintains boundaries of respect and tolerance.”

Spreading this culture of dialogue to ease the “conflictual nature of the times,” he said, is the challenge in today’s world, a challenge that’s compounded when outside commentators take the actions of a small but highly visible and disruptive minority within the Muslim world to represent the beliefs of the majority of Muslims. This is a problem, Gomaa said, that is often reinforced through the presentation of Islam in mass media.

“There will be no progress until we work together, in faith and trust. There is no more powerful a weapon against all sorts extremism than correct education,” Gomaa said.