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Dear Osama...

Holed up on spiritual retreat in the Sinai Desert, the broadcaster PETER OWEN JONES found himself writing a letter to friends and family -- and an unexpected cellmate...

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Dear Osama,

We are both in a cave. Media reports on where you are (which usually demonstrate where you are not) place you in a cave somewhere on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. My cave is in the eastern desert of Egypt, but even here on the moon you are in the minds of monks; you are there when a mother is taking her child to school in Paris or on the subway in New York; your presence is felt on the train to work from Brighton to Victoria. There you are, coming to kill us in the name of God.

We are both sons of Adam, you a Muslim, myself a Christian. There is the one God, whom you call Allah - the one creative loving force that we both look towards. I find it strange that this one God should be leading you down your course of action and me down mine; that we are both asking for direction and receiving, it would appear, contradictory promptings, words and inspirations. Those contradictions surely centre around what it is to be righteous, a righteous child of God.

I've been reading a book recently about the English Civil War, which tore Britain apart three hundred and fifty years ago. Yes, that war had a lot of the usual root causes - the differences between those who had so much and those who had too little. But the fuel for the conflict - what drove human beings to commit acts of violence - was religion. It was the individual's belief that he or she was acting on instructions from or in the best interests of God.

As I am sure you will agree, both your religion and my religion have justified acts of violence perpetrated by the self-appointed righteous on behalf of God. This behaviour has a long fuse stretching through history and there are several examples of the Israelites behaving in the same way. More recently, of course, there was the conflict in the Balkans between different religious factions.

As one writer recently described it, the history of humanity is the history of catastrophe. Apart from natural catastrophes - meteorological and biological - most catastrophes have been the result of war. And all of those wars have been fought because men believed that they were right and on the side of right. When wars have been waged in the name of God, men and women of all faiths have believed themselves to be on the side of righteousness. In some cases, men and women have believed that their righteous cause would eventually extend across the earth and that the domination of their particular brand of God would guarantee a lasting peace, a holy peace, God's peace. But this could not be achieved unless other human beings were characterised as a force for evil.

In much the same way as you have characterised the piece of land on which I live as being a nest of evil, the society in which I live characterises you and your followers as evil. In doing so, we are given permission to seek an end to your cause - just as you hope for an end to ours - and we are both using violent means to achieve those ends.

Even though the politicians try to persuade us otherwise, my brother, we are at war, aren't we? You and I. I am the infidel and you, you are the Moor once again. How did we end up in this position? My brother, I have never heard a list of your grievances against me. I'm sure there are many and I'm also sure many of them are justified, but I need to understand where and how I have hurt you, and what actions of mine you see as hurtful to others - not so that I can refute them, but so I can appreciate them.

I am brought food here, as I am sure you are brought food - we are both loved in that respect. These mountains, I would imagine, are very similar to the mountains where you are. Here, life exists in pockets: pockets of villages with families and livestock, children playing, gangs of crows, thirsty flies. But the largest part of it all is the cracked and creaking wilderness where grey stones gather the dust of the desert.

But is this not one land simply called by different names? Is it not one sea called by different names? And are we not one human race called by different names? Surely it is a madness to believe that the French are better than the Iranians, or that the Inuit are better than the Americans? Are we not both in this position because we somehow believe ourselves to be better than the other - to be more righteous, holier, closer to Allah than each other? Have we not accused each other of behaving in an unrighteous manner and have our actions and our beliefs not condemned each other equally? Are we both not feeding off condemnation?

In other words, we look for faults in each other which we know we will surely find, because I know they are there in me, just as you know they are there in you: they are there in all of us. And, because that is what we are concentrating on, are we not then engaged in bringing out the worst in each other? Under the spotlight of condemnation, we are both going to appear pretty awful. Worst of all, we might even convince more people to condemn each other as well - those who have never met us, who have no idea what it is to be a Muslim or a Christian. Both perspectives have nurtured some remarkable human beings and some unpalatable ones.

We can both look to scripture to justify our acts, you to the Koran and me to the New Testament. But I ask you: can God in all his goodness really be saying to you and me that we are justified in our chosen course? Would God set his beloved children against one another? Whilst our teachers may be different, their Father is the same and both look to their Father at all times.

The trouble is that both our religions apparently claim supremacy over the other, yet it doesn't feel to me as if God claims supremacy over anything. Can one act of love be more important than another? Is one birth more important than another? One tree greater than another? I feel that it is those who teach religion mainly in order to justify their own positions who have fallen into the trap of saying 'mine is better than yours'. All of which will just go to prove to those who follow neither faith that we are either insane, or that God really does hate them that much.

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That is what happened in the English Civil War: both sides ended up killing each other in the name of a god they both believed in. If God is love then the carnage of a battlefield dismembers that notion completely. Love does not kill another human being; love listens, love endures, love forgives, love seeks peace and love sometimes means that we should lose our lives in defence of its being, but never that we should kill others in its name.

But this isn't about love, is it? If it were, there would at least be some hope, but at the moment there is so very little. No, it's about control or the lack of it. It's about no more than the attempt to impose our vision of freedom on each other, which is supremely arrogant on both our parts. By 'control', I mean the ability to define righteousness and therefore control lifestyles - to impose on others our understanding of what normal is. Here, perhaps, lies the crux: you need to be free to live your way and I need to be free to live mine.

I know that you disprove of my lifestyle and that you see it as something that is corrosive to your family. For my part, I disapprove of your lifestyle and see it as something equally corrosive of much that I hold dear. But, as much as they reflect who we are, our choices surely only represent the visible part of who we have become. They are external manifestations of the decisions we have made about what to believe in. In isolation from each other and separated from infatuations, erosions and corrosions, we have solidified into Christians and Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. The trouble with all these perspectives is that they become hard shells: the more certain of themselves they are, the harder they become and the more impervious to love.

Look at creation, my brother: it moves, it is fluid, flowing between life and death, bud, flower and seed, night and day. In contrast, these perspectives that we both have can hardly be described as fluid. They are fixed to the earth, fortresses made of words. They have solidified - and are we sure our hearts have not suffered the same fate? Once we have become solid we stop developing, we stop exploring.

Underneath the hard shells, you and I know that we are just men and that men can love each other or hate each other. But, trapped within our shells, we believe that don't we need each other and we are able to convince ourselves that we alone are right. It is a surprisingly short step from there to acting as though we have the right to impose our delusions on others.

Surely the truth is we have never been right - that you and I are merely inheritors of the traditions we have chosen? Before us there were other traditions: there were sky gods and river gods, star gods giving fertility and food; and I'm sure men and women swore by them and died for them too.

There is always the door that leads to peace. It is always open and we can walk through it any time we want. Surely, choosing to pass through it is just an individual decision that doesn't involve anyone else - it's simply our response to everyone else.

You have half the world trying to kill you, my brother, which just goes to prove how savage they really are. If they get you, you will become a martyr and the legacy of that will be more killing, more savagery and suffering. There is still time, there is always time - I hope we both die seeking peace, not waging war.

All my love,

Peter

Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Love, Life and The Soul by Peter Owen Jones is published by Rider, price £9.99.