Before the crusades of the 11th and 13th centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted in the Middle East, according to Dr. Wadi Haddad, founding president of Knowledge Enterprises in Vienna, Virginia.
In fact, even the Qur'an called for moderation during Muhammad's early period in Mecca, according to Dr. Martin Accad, academic dean and director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He quoted the Qur'an:
"And dispute ye not with the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury); but say, We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)'." Qur'an 29:46 (meaning surah 29 verse 46, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, translation).
These were but two rather startling facts shared during a daylong program on Understanding the Middle East from the Inside Out, hosted by Samford University and The Alabama Baptist newspaper in Birmingham April 27.
And, it is the western world's lack of historical knowledge and understanding of the complex political and religious dynamics of the region that stands in the way of peaceful coexistence today, according to the speakers.
After all, Haddad suggested, the first Jihadists were not Arab terrorists but Christians. "For 200 years, the crusaders rode behind a cross, waging war at the expense of the Byzantine Empire which was Christian," he said. "The crusades have tainted Arab Christians forever."
The speakers defined the landscape of the Arab world and outlined the dynamics that shape the region, including religion, history, nationalism, globalization, governance and identity.
"Try to understand the Arab world," Haddad pled, warning against stereotyping all Arabs as terrorists. He called for a proactive engagement of dialogue in an atmosphere of respect.
Also, the former Lebanese government official suggested that an academic environment, which emphasizes discovering truth, is sorely needed.
Likewise, Professor Accad called for a profound grasp of Islam and its history as one way to respond to the current malaise.
"Religious ideology, whether Christian or Muslim, can have a devastating impact on every level of Middle Easter societies, in a way that will seldom be experienced in a western secularized society," he said. "The dichotomy is between deeply religious' societies, where religion is communal, and secularized' societies where religion is privatized."
Accad said the current global socio-political climate is empowering radicalism and silencing the voice of the moderate, who would be heard as siding with the "Western enemy," a situation he labeled as "the tragedy of our time."
Suha Shahin, principal of the Baptist School in Amman, Jordan, told how both Muslim and Christians attend the school with great success, even participating in Christmas pageants and choirs that perform Christian songs. She noted that Arabs make up only 20 percent of the Muslims in the world and that not all Arabs are Muslims. Also, that Arabs gave birth to Islam and Arabs were Christians before Islam was founded.
Shahin has just completed a master's degree in education from Samford as part of a partnership between the schools.
Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development and general secretary for the Association of Evangelical Schools of Lebanon, called Lebanon the gateway to the Arab world, which is made up of 300 million people in 22 countries. Christians make up only six percent of the population.
Costa cited the vast influence of Beirut Baptist School in the Arab world, as well as other Christian education programs. "Working together is the best solution," he said.
Samford has provided several teams that traveled to Lebanon and Jordan to conduct workshops on teacher education training. Currently, Samford is exploring the possibility of establishing a center at Beirut Baptist School to offer teacher training, as well as business instruction.
Samford President Thomas Corts expressed appreciation to the Samford faculty members who volunteered their time to teach in both Jordan and Lebanon and expressed hope that the effort was the start of a better understanding with the Middle East.
"It's time we dispel the myth that Christianity is the possession of the West," Corts said. "God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth."