Editor's note: Leah Ward Sears was the youngest person and first woman to be appointed as the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and she is the first African-American woman to be a chief justice of a state's highest court. She retired from the court last year after 17 years and became a partner at the Atlanta office of Schiff Hardin LLP, where she heads the national appellate practice team. She also is on the board of directors of the Institute for American Values.
Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Ninety-eight new e-mails? I always check my inbox at least once a day when I'm away from the office, and it's usually teeming with new entries. But this was ridiculous. Something was up.
Looking back, I was grateful to be halfway across the world from my Atlanta home in Muscat, the capital of the tiny country of Oman, when those e-mails came in. It gave me some time to digest the news that I was among the finalists to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, a man whose distinguished service on the U.S. Supreme Court began when I was in college contemplating a career in law.
I had been nervous when I first arrived in Oman, given that a sultan rules this Arab country where few women hold positions of power. But my audiences couldn't have been more attentive or gracious. I was there as a retired American judge, giving a series of lectures to students and dignitaries about values inherent in our way of life. I was discussing core values that many of us take for granted and that many of us have worked ceaselessly to achieve -- justice, the rule of law, individual freedom, equal rights; values that we are extremely lucky to have in this country.
I was humbled to have been named to the shortlist. I still am. As an African-American woman, to be counted among the esteemed candidates considered for the high court is more than just an honor.
It speaks to the enormous leaps forward this country has made in the past 30 years, and plants a seed of hope that similar progress and peace might someday reign between the nations of the West and the Middle East, that tolerance and acceptance might someday eclipse hatred and narrow-mindedness.
I'm more optimistic that one day, a mother in Baghdad might be able to make dinner and feed her children without fear of bombs or night invasions, and that she or her daughter might one day become a voice for justice and that leaders might choose to listen. After all, Christians, Muslims and Jews, at a faith level, are all ultimately committed to peace and mutual respect.
The Omani people, like people everywhere today, are attuned to what's going on in the United States, and the news of my possible appointment spread quickly throughout the city. As I walked through the warm, dusty markets of old Muscat, an electric buzz seemed to hover in the spice-laden air. Friendly smiles abounded as the locals parted to let me through, the children, innocent and oblivious, jumping and chattering.
When I went to meet with the Omani minister of cultural and religious affairs, a small man with placid eyes, I was a bit distracted during our meeting. Sensing my internal turbulence regarding the news from the United States, he reminded me that I shouldn't dwell on what was to come because only God knows of the plans he has for my life. "Remember this," the minister said. "Insha'Allah."
The phrase is Arabic for "if it is God's will." His words remained with me, weaving through my thoughts as I made my way back to the hotel. Insha'Allah. If it is God's will. The message is the bedrock of my Christian faith, as well, and long has given me the strength to confront the many courses my life has taken.
The phrase in Arabic sounds so different from its English counterpart, as different as the heat-seared land of Oman is from the dogwood tree-lined streets of Atlanta. In both Arabic and English, the words are used in praise and love. Too often, though, they are invoked in fear and ignorance. But, whether we are Arabs or Americans, Muslims, Christians or Jews, we are all human beings. We must strive toward the lasting peace that is, without a doubt, God's will for us.
Given the heated debate over the building of an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, I now see these words almost as prophecy. Many now mistakenly believe the "war on terrorism" to be the West's war against Islam. The fear and hatred caused by the acts of extremist Islamic terrorists have surmounted people's ability to see that Islam, like Christianity, carries a message of peace and tolerance.
We cannot condemn all Muslims for the violent, heinous acts of those who interpret the Quran solely to further their twisted motives, just as we cannot condemn all Christians for deeds perpetrated by those who interpret the Bible in that same twisted way.
Do we hate and fear all Christians because Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph executed attacks against innocent Americans? Or because of the acts of extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, that also often cloak themselves in Christian biblical rhetoric? Or those who attack abortion clinics and doctors?
I understand the need to defend the freedoms of our great nation and the need to protect our citizens. It is equally important, while doing this, to keep sight of the plights of the people who were affected by those defensive actions. We must seek peace, not bloodshed, in the name of God.
Even after retiring from the bench, I have decided to reach out beyond my house, my community and my country to do what I can -- in however small a way -- to close the gaps that divide us. I am devoted to helping others to do the same. I don't pretend that one trip by me to Oman will change the world, but it's one act of many that, when enmeshed, will begin to take hold.
Meaningful exchanges between and among the world's Muslims and Christians must continue to take place, as it will take a flood of mutual understanding to make the religious soil hospitable to tolerance and inhospitable to terrorism. And the tentative tendrils of peace start with such small actions and, with light and nourishment and diligent care, they will strengthen and take tenacious root.
As it turns out, of course, President Obama chose U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the vacancy on the Supreme Court. She will make a great justice, and I wish her and our high court all the best. As for me, I do not know what the future holds, none of us does. But if the past is any indication, the adventure that has been my life will continue. Insha'Allah.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leah Ward Sears.