It's time to stop simply talking about U.S.-Muslim relations and get down to working together.
That was the message Monday of Ismail Serageldin, executive director of the Library of Alexandria, who opened a three-day conference at Yale University's Greenberg Center with an address — what he called "a roller-coaster ride with many, many images" — praising cooperation between Islam and the West and pointing out how no one is blameless in the tensions and misperceptions each have of the other.
"The question is: Can we build networks among people of good will that will transcend the divisions that exist today?" Serageldin asked the internationally diverse group, which included Muslims, Christians and others from Yale, the Middle East and as far as Indonesia.
The meeting was the first planning session for a major conference scheduled for Alexandria, Egypt, in June, building on President Barack Obama's speech a year earlier in Cairo.
Among cooperative projects Serageldin discussed were translations of classic Arabic literature; increasing applications of the Universal Networking Language, which enables smooth translations over the Internet; and Supercourse, a Web-based project on epidemiology and global health.
To be able to cooperate on a global level, however, Americans and other Westerners, as well as Muslims, must stop demonizing each other, Serageldin said. In his slide show, he demonstrated how stereotypes usually are wrong. The photos included Coptic Christian women wearing veils and Christian architecture mimicking Muslim styles.
Serageldin pointed out Muslim societies "are in a stage of major contradiction" and displayed a slide showing a Turkish man delivering milk while riding a mule and talking on a cell phone.
Serageldin promoted openness in speech, literature and government as roads to understanding.
"In hindsight, my friends, most censorship looks foolish," he said, pointing out portions of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel were "considered pornography" in its time.
Serageldin cited two universal principles that he said are vital to cooperation: equality before the law and the acknowledgment that "laws are crafted by humans."
"We should rethink some of this notion that we can somehow have a government that is governed by divine guidance," he said.
Afterward, C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation in Washington, said, "He sees both the importance of theory and practicality and both culture, government, as well as religion, will benefit if we can find a way to translate common values into cooperative actions."
Dean Harold Attridge of Yale Divinity School said of Serageldin, "I very much appreciate his insistence on practical steps we can take together."
He pointed out that U.S.-Muslim cooperation occurs across the university, including translations by Yale University Press, a peace park straddling the Jordan River designed by people from the School of Architecture and a project of the Global Health Leadership Institute and the National Bank of Egypt to improve health care delivery.
Sallama Shaker, a visiting professor at Yale in Islamic and Middle East studies, said, "To me this is what I call the human touch on President Obama's speech ... and the fact that we can succeed and make a difference — that will be our job."