Few Palestinian families have deeper roots in Jerusalem than Sari Nusseibeh’s. In the 7th century, immediately after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the caliph Omar the Great entrusted one of Nusseibeh’s ancestors with the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. From childhood onward, Nusseibeh, who was educated as a philosopher at Oxford and Harvard universities, couldn’t avoid Middle Eastern history, Palestinian politics or observing the influence of religion on society.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Nusseibeh studied Hebrew, worked on a kibbutz and became a student of both Israeli and Palestinian society. As a philosophy professor, he began his career at a struggling West Bank university where divisions among the teachers and students mirrored tensions within the larger society over how best to respond to Israel’s control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He worked largely underground during the first Palestinian uprising against Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s to try to fashion achievable political goals. An increasingly public figure, he was arrested by Israel in 1991 and released after three months.

Nusseibeh was the chief representative for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jerusalem in 2001 and 2002. For more than two decades, he has advocated coexistence over violence. President of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem for the last 10 years, he is the author of a recently published memoir, Once Upon a Country (2007).

From his office in Jerusalem, Nusseibeh spoke to Forum Senior Editor Robert Ruby by telephone.

Sari Nusseibeh, President, Al-Quds University. His books include Once Upon a Country (2007) and No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (with Mark Heller) (1993).

Robert Ruby, Senior Editor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Forum: In recent public talks in the United States, you’ve remarked that when people ask whether it’s possible to resolve tensions between Islam and other faiths in the Middle East, they’re asking the wrong question. You’ve instead said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could embody the solution to the larger religious conflict. What do you mean by that?

Nusseibeh: First – in my mind, people control their own destiny, and therefore people can make things happen. As to whether things turn out for the better or for the worse, I think it’s normally because of our own doing. The second point is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict therefore shouldn’t be looked upon as something that independently of our will can be a forerunner of a major clash between Islam and Christianity or between Islam and the West. That conflict – that situation – can be transformed by what we choose to do.

I would use the example of a pyramid, or an iceberg, and say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be regarded either as the tip of an iceberg constituting a major clash between two civilizations – two faiths if you like – or it can be the building block. It can be the building block of understanding between the two sides. Whichever it is, I believe it’s something that we – primarily the people of both sides – can in fact make happen. So it is in our own hands.

In your memoir, Once Upon a Country, you write about teaching at Birzeit University in the West Bank in the 1980s. You describe your philosophy students reading the Epic of the Gilgamesh and some of them beginning to wonder whether God had a different form than they originally thought. But the most religious students continued to believe that salvation would only come about after people went back to what they considered an unsullied Islamic way of life. Those students in the early to mid-1980s were opposed to violent confrontation with Israel. How and why did their view about religion and violence change?

At the time, the student body was probably divided into two main parts. One of them was the part that embodied the stirring of the national movement, and this included all kinds of people who identified themselves with the different factions of the PLO. Some people identified themselves with Marxist movements [of the PLO] like the Popular Front or Democratic Front, and then there were those who identified themselves with a secular – or generally secular – movement like Fatah. On the whole, these were the students who were looking at the question of national identity – of liberation of the country from occupation. Most of them believed in the idea of a struggle. And then, on the other hand, was a group of students who identified themselves with religion.

By “religion” I mean Muslims rather than Christians. We had and still have a number – a diminishing number, unfortunately – of Christians in the country. But it was mostly Muslims on the religious side. Because they felt closer to an identification with God – with religion, with the divine plan so to speak – they distanced themselves from the so-called earthly pursuits of other students who were busy trying to achieve national independence. They believed that this pursuit of national independence was not something that people should bother with. They believed that we should really be more focused upon developing ourselves – our sense of what it means to be human beings identified with the divine plan, fulfilling our religious rights and so on.

And because they did not identify themselves with the political struggle that was confronting us, they stood to one side. So this is how it was at that time: people on the one hand who saw the political struggle as the most important thing in their lives, and then those – the Muslims – who believed that what was more important was man’s place in the universe and pursuing religious rights.

How did the people who thought the most important thing was determining man’s place in the universe switch from what sounds like an almost pacifist approach to something very different?

I think it was force of circumstance. I mentioned in the book that one morning I was driving to the university campus with Lucy, my wife. We were stopped, and it turned out that there were demonstrations. In the demonstrations there was a confrontation with Israeli soldiers. I’m not sure whether it was by design or by accident, but two of the students that were shot and killed by the soldiers turned out to be members of this religious group.

I remember at that time thinking, this is a turning point – that from this point on these people will join hands with the other group for whom the political struggle was uppermost. Until that point, [the religious students] did not look upon Israel as an enemy that had to be fought. Maybe it was an enemy, but it wasn’t an enemy that could be fought against. But when the killings happened, I think the students began to change. This is just one example. A couple of years later when the first intifada broke out, those people were already involved in the demonstrations and the violence.

When I say “force of circumstance,” maybe what I mean is that the situation in general just carried everybody with it regardless of what your beliefs were, simply because of the fact that there was a series of such forceful events.

You also write that religious militancy borrows less from the Koran than from what you call revolutionary European nihilism. Would you expand on that?

First of all, I believe that religions are very often what people make of them. For instance, one can read into Islam that it is a religion that is very peaceful, universalist in nature, tolerant. One can also read into Islam that it is a religion that calls upon people to fight, to shed blood and so on. Once when I was watching a television interview with Osama bin Laden, he referred to one specific clause in the Koran that uses an Arabic word that might be used to justify terrorist tactics. This was an interpretation that he chose to give to the Koran, but one could give it other interpretations. This is the case whether we’re talking about Islam or other religions: People very often make things what they want them to be.

Now, the revolutionary tactics – Anarchists in Europe first brought about the idea of using explosions for political reasons. It developed in Europe in the various uprisings of the 18th and 19th centuries. In my mind, these methods were not used in the Islamic period [when Islam first won religious and political influence over a wide region]. These methods weren’t used as a legitimate means, for instance, to change political systems in the Islamic world.

You also write, “Education is a tool to prevent people from passively stewing in their own resentment and either giving up by submitting or lashing out by tossing bombs.” Where does religious faith fit into this?

You’ll excuse me for being very skeptical about religious faith. Speaking from where I happen to be speaking, as I look around I see religious faith primarily being expressed in ways that bring about extreme pain to people and very often bring about degradation and humiliation – and certainly violence and bloodshed. So I’m very skeptical about religious faith – about people who claim to have that faith and to speak on behalf of God as they pursue their designs on earth. And therefore, thinking to myself, I decided that perhaps quite aside from the role that religious faith can play, one should perhaps instead focus on something else, which is something I call secular faith, or faith in our own power and in our own abilities or capacities as human beings – faith in our own values as human beings.

Secular faith needn’t be inconsistent with religious faith, but it seems to me that one should be guided by secular faith because it is much safer. You cannot settle a dispute between the protagonists of different religions about whose faith should be applied or implemented on earth. On the other hand, secular faith – faith in human values or human beings – is something that people can come to agree upon. If you focus on it, you will find that it can be made consistent with the essences of the different faiths. One should make sure that people’s education in religious faith doesn’t close the window to seeing the significance of the human values in secular faith.

Related to the idea of secular faith is, perhaps, your great respect for some of the early Islamic philosophers, particularly Avicenna. You have written that you concluded from them that hatred can be transformed into understanding – that no matter how hopelessly entrenched two parties seem, things can be solved through an act of human will. Is that a realistic paradigm for Gaza, the West Bank and Israel?

It’s consistent with what I believe, which is that we make things happen – that things don’t happen independently or by themselves. At the time when Muslims were beginning to think about the world of essences [in the 10th and 11th centuries] – ideas inherited from Aristotle and others – and pitting that against the question of whether God can create miracles, many of them came up with a solution that the world is not made up of essences in the way that Aristotle thought but rather that the world is made up of bits and pieces that are brought together by the will of God in the first place. So also by the will of God, miracles – or what we understand by miracles, which are things happening in a way that we’re not normally used to – can happen. So God can, through his will, make anything happen.

Given that they denied the existence of essences in the objective world in order to allow God to have the ability to make miracles happen, some of these thinkers applied the same theory to human beings. And in the context of human beings, there isn’t anything out there made up of essences that can run independently of the human world. Anything out there can actually be influenced by the human will – can be made to change from one thing into another.

And from that I took the idea that a relationship of hatred can be transformed into a positive relationship. More generally, my position has been that we don’t come across enemies or friends in the world, for example, but we make friends and we make enemies. And if we have enemies, we can similarly make them into friends. We have to be very careful in how we interact with the world around us. By how we interact with the world around us, we can indeed change enemies into friends.

This is something that certainly we can do in Gaza. Ideologies like [those of] Hamas and Fatah, or Hamas and Zionism, don’t seem to correspond to one another in any kind of understandable way. Nonetheless, I believe that ideologies are ideologies, and human beings are human beings. What one should reach out for are the human beings beyond the ideologies. So one shouldn’t be imprisoned by what the ideologies dictate. One should try to look beyond those ideologies and win the people behind them – win them over to your side or to the same values. I believe that essentially, behind the ideologies, we mostly do have or share the same values. This is getting back to my secular faith.

That fits well with your rereading of the Koran when you were in prison. You concluded that the Koran’s message to man was that he’s on his own – that the era of miracles or divine revelation is over, that there are not going to be any more oracles or prophets, that man is going to have to depend on reason as well as faith. Why does this have such a hard time taking hold in the Middle East?

I think that the circumstances – political and economic – have made it difficult for people to be able to emancipate themselves or to be emancipated. In my view, a lot of people in the Islamic world have committed the very mistake that the prophet Muhammad tried to rectify when he asked people to believe in God and not to believe in human beings – not to believe in men.

Unfortunately, after he died, a lot of people who became Muslims actually became “Muhammadans.” Even in the medieval period, a lot of Muslims were called by that name. In my view, it was a correct appellation in a sense and in another sense a very sad appellation. People who come to place Muhammad as being somehow above – something very special, something that should be sanctified or something that should be looked upon as holy – in fact, they’ve missed the point of Muhammad being simply a human messenger who came basically to reassert the holiness and sanctity and divine nature and unique nature of God.

God, as we know, belongs to everyone – or, if you like, everyone belongs to God. Muhammad only belongs to a certain people, and so do other human beings coming from different religions, different nations or different colors.

I believe that, unfortunately, a lot of Muslims miss the point of Islam. To the extent they are Muhammadans rather than Muslims, I think they fall prey to being fanatic or extremist or intolerant of other religions. And if you ask me the reason, I would say that it’s basically the lack of education – maybe the economic situation, theological or what have you. But I’m not really an expert to know the nature of the cause of this.

You’ve written about the importance of apology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You have said that offering apologies would let the parties feel that their dignity was recognized and allow them to forgive. This is a large question, but for what should each side in the conflict apologize?

Once, I was taken aback when I was talking to an Israeli official and saying that the Palestinian refugee problem wasn’t going to constitute such a major obstacle to peace. What the Palestinian side will insist on, I was telling him, is Israel’s recognition of the principle of the right of return, but the Palestinian side was well aware of the difficulty of implementing that right. It was only asking for the principle to be recognized. I was surprised when, as I was saying this, the Israeli suddenly jumped up and said: But you are asking me to admit, to recognize, that my country, my own country, was born in sin – unlike how I imagined it or how I was brought up to believe it was created – that it is its creation that caused your tragedy.

It took me some time to understand what was being said. But finally I realized that there is a lot of pain or a lot of psychological territory that needs to be covered on both sides in order for the two sides to somehow see eye-to-eye on this particular issue. The Palestinians believe that Israel’s creation is the cause of their tragedy, and Israel cannot and will not see its own birth in those terms.

So what can be done? And, you know, something needs to be done. I believe that the Palestinians should somehow come to realize, for example, that it wasn’t because Israelis wished to cause a tragedy to the Palestinians that the country was created. Israel was created in response to a more horrific pain that had been caused to the Jewish people. This was why Israel came into being; whether it was a good thing to do is another point. But the reason was not to cause tragedy for the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Israelis should come to recognize that, in fact, a tragedy did occur and that Israel’s creation was a cause for this tragedy. There’s a need here to separate first cause and second cause – a need for the Palestinians to realize that Israel was created for Jewish reasons and for justifiable reasons, and it should be acknowledged. And Israelis should likewise realize that the creation of their own state created this tragedy for the Palestinians. I think this is psychological territory that needs to be covered by both sides.