How interfaith conversations turned our fears into friendships

Dr. Kelly James Clark author of “Raging Fire of Love: What I Learned from Jesus, the Jews, and the Prophet” 

I was halfway through a week-long workshop with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish professors from around the world when it happened. The abstract topics presented by our preeminent professors were heady and foreboding. But the most important challenge, more important than trying to make sense of those topics, was breaking down our imposing national, cultural, and religious barriers in order to build bridges across some of our world’s deepest and most painful divides.

On day one, reenacting deep and lingering animosities, the two Iranian Muslims sat together and whispered asides to one another; on the other side of the room (which might have been the other side of the world) the Israeli Jews huddled together. After a few days together, though, we were growing increasingly comfortable with one another, overcoming our initial resistances.

By day three, after being gently nudged together, the divisions began to crack, the groups began to merge, and friendships began to form.

It happened at the end of day three. One of the Israeli Jews, feeling unduly comfortable, walked up to one of the Muslims and asked, “You want to kill me, don’t you?”

The kind Muslim smiled, looked him in the eye, and said, “No.”

The kind Muslim then patiently proceeded to talk, without condescension, about his feelings towards Jews (favorable), Israel (not so favorable), and violence (opposed). The two of them walked together into the dining room, shared a meal, and talked long into the night.

I knew that those highly trained professors would enter the workshop on science and religion armed with their fears. I also knew that those fears had the power to divide. Yet, the project’s success—working together on issues of mutual concern in science and religion—would depend on working together to face our fears.

A lot of Christians and a lot of Jews believe that Muslims are by nature violent and that Islam is a religion of violence. Such fears are fed by steady streams of media images of violent Arabs. Highly selective and highly unrepresentative images “confirm” the message that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims (Jews, Christians): “They” want to kill “us.”

But they don’t.

If we were better informed, we’d know that. If we were better, we’d know that.

I mentioned that the professors were highly trained for this reason: even the most highly educated are afflicted with and driven by fear. You might think that the highly educated would know better; that professors, of all people, would have overcome their irrational fears. But no.

At the end of our week together, we were all—Muslim-Christian-Jew—milling about, awaiting rides to the airport. Then that Jewish guy—the one who asked that question—walked up to that Muslim guy—the one who showed kindness despite the confrontation—and with a huge grin on his face gave him a big hug. Hugging broke out all over. The Iranians and the Israelis, whose countries are in conflict, hugged. Christians were hugging Jews, who were hugging Muslims, who were hugging Christians. Tears flowed.

We didn’t find ourselves always agreeing with one another (though we learned that we agreed on a lot). Far from it. But love created an island of peace within a sea of fear.

After a week of deliberate and sometimes painful bridgebuilding, of tearing down walls and opening up hearts and minds, of learning to speak little and listen a lot, the magic happened: the love that overcomes fear turned enemies into friends.

My flourishing, I’ve learned, has dramatically increased through loving people who are really different from me. I’ve been invited into their countries and their homes. They’ve shared their food and their stories with me.

I’ve learned about the Ottoman Empire, the al Aqsa Mosque, Sufi dancers, and Rumi’s poetry, on the one hand, and the Wailing Wall, Ashkenazis and IQ, Old City Jerusalem, and the Hassidic mystics, on the other. And I’ve learned that Muslims and Jews, like Christians, are diverse groups. There is simply nothing interesting that one could say that would apply to all Muslims or all Jews everywhere and at all times. I’ve met Muslims who pray five times a day, others who pray three times a day and even some who never pray. I’ve met deeply devout and deeply secular Jews.

My world is bigger and better because I’ve learned how people quite different from me have been raised with beliefs and practices quite different from mine. And I’ve learned a few more important things by reaching out in the love that overcomes fear.

I’ve begun learning to see the world, God’s world, from the perspective of my Muslim and Jewish friends. Taking my own culture’s perspective as definitive, as humans are inclined to do, means that I have a limited view of the world; it’s a form of cultural pride to elevate our social group above other groups of people.

But we are not gods. We are creatures, mired in a particular time and place. So to get closer to God’s perspective on the world, finite creatures need to avail themselves of the perspectives of all of God’s wonderful creatures—even people we fear. Muslims and Jews help me to get closer to God’s view of our glorious world.

By getting to know Muslims and Jews, I’ve also learned how much we’re alike. Like me, they want to live in peace among good neighbors and friends; they want to live a long and healthy life; they want financial security and to be able to share with loved ones in need; they want to work hard at a job they like and fall asleep without anxiety in their own bed with a roof over their head; and they want time to freely relax and play. And, most importantly, they want better lives for their children.

“They” are a lot like “us.”

I’ve learned of the love that overcomes fear from the friendships I’ve developed with Muslims and Jews. I think here of: Ghazala and Bruno, Zahabia and Nuh, and Laila and Enis; and I think of Sam and Silvia, Aaron and Anthony, and Ava and Ariel.

They have let me into their lives and world.

Peace with them is my peace; their flourishing is my flourishing.


Dr. Kelly James Clark is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul. He earned his PhD from the University of Notre Dame. He has authored over 100 articles and written, co-authored or edited over 30 books. His most recent book, “Raging Fire of Love: What I Learned from Jesus, the Jews, and the Prophet” is available on Amazon: