Getting to know each other and learning about other beliefs is essential to peace among people and nations, asserts Souad T. Ali, associate professor of Arabic literature and Middle East/Islamic studies at Arizona State University.
Particularly now, in the wake of the massacre of 12 people in the office of a French satirical newspaper, and four others in a Jewish market in Paris by Islamist extremists, interfaith dialogue is crucial, said Ali, who is also the director of Arabic Studies in the School of International Letters and Cultures.
Following her own dictates, Ali welcomes opportunities to speak at interfaith events, and, several weeks before the recent incidents in France, addressed dialogues sponsored by the Foundation for Intercultural Dialogue in Tempe and the First Baptist Church of Scottsdale.
"Indeed, my conviction is that it is through education and genuine interfaith dialogue that we can build cross-cultural and multicultural understanding between all religions and cultures.
"Conversely, focusing on differences and disagreements is quite unhelpful and has mostly led to conflict and violence. Respecting those differences as we focus on the parallels, coupled with education, will help foster a culture of peace," said Ali.
A devout Muslim who grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, Ali is outspoken on what she sees as distortions of Islam – that Muslims can compel others to follow their religion; that "mockery" of the Prophet Muhammed must be avenged with violence; that drawing likenesses of the prophet prompts violence and death at the hand of extremists.
The assertion that no one can be compelled to follow Islam is "a basic Qur'anic concept," explained Ali. "[The Qur'an] says that religion can only be embraced willingly, and it becomes meaningless if imposed by force or any other means.
"The Qur'an is also clear in instructing the Prophet Muhammad to ignore those who mock him … Thus, those who take the law in their own hands work directly against such peaceful means of the religion."
As far as cartoons or representations of Muhammed go, Ali said it is a matter of respect to avoid picturing him, not a forbidden activity in any text.
She stresses that the name of the religion itself means "peace." "The word Islam stems from the Arabic root 'silm,' meaning peace.
"I have always emphasized the important point that Muslims themselves need to address the distortion and misinterpretation of the religion by radicals and extremists," Ali added. "Equally important, media outlets need to seek out moderate Muslims to emphasize peaceful aspects of Islam … [T]he violence, extremism and terrorism projected by a small outspoken minority of Muslims should and can be defeated by fostering education about these basically peaceful concepts and teachings of Islam."
Ali hopes that ASU's new Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies, of which she is the founder and chair, will help promote understanding between those of different faiths, cultures and countries.
Its mission statement reads: "The council's research and teaching programs seek to promote multiculturalism, diversity, interfaith dialogue, cross-cultural understanding and the expansion of human civilization and cultures through Arabic, as well as other Middle-Eastern languages, including Persian and Turkish."
The council also will "seek to develop constructive academic and cultural interaction and partnerships within ASU and between ASU and similar groups in the Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim Worlds."
For the spring 2015 semester, Ali is a visiting professor at the American University of Kuwait. She will teach and conduct research for one of her current projects, a book on Kuwaiti women in leadership positions.
She is also working on translating Egyptian scholar Abdel Raziq's 1925 book "Islam and the Foundations of Governance" from Arabic into English, and writing a book on modern perspectives on gender issues in Islam.
Ali has already published a book about Abd al-Raziq's book, "Religion, Not A State: Ali 'Abd al-Raziq's Islamic Justification of Political Secularism." In 2014, her second book, "The Road to the Two Sudan," an edited volume with three American professors, was published.