Efforts at Jewish-Muslim Understanding Grow Despite Attempts to Demonize Islam
By Allan C. Brownfeld
DESPITE THE efforts of some Israelis and some in the American Jewish community to demonize the religion of Islam rather than focusing their attention on the minority of extremists within the Islamic community, efforts toward Muslim-Jewish understanding are growing.
Recalls Rabbi Bruce M. Lustig, senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest Jewish congregations in North America with more than 3,000 families served: “Shortly after 9/11, I invited Bishop John Chane (Episcopal bishop of Greater Washington and the National Cathedral) and professor Akbar Ahmed (Ibn Khaldun scholar of Islamic studies at American University) to share with them the idea of starting an Abrahamic faith dialogue. My simple premise was based on what my mother told me as a child: Stay away from strangers. If these two men and their faiths were to remain strangers to me, I would only grow to fear them, not know them. Soon after, we held one of the first Abrahamic faith forums in America. We also forged a friendship that has been transformative. These men are my friends, my mentors, my sounding boards.”
Although “we do not agree on every social or political question,” Rabbi Lustig notes, “we have deep respect for, and a deep honesty with, each other. Having others challenge my ideas and demand clarity of creed is a powerful and uplifting experience. They have helped me to become a stronger Jew and a better rabbi. To my children, the answer to what it means to be Christian or Muslim is not abstract; it is the love they know from John and Akbar, who join us at our table and who teach us by example.”
This past November, more than 50 mosques and synagogues across the country participated in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Weekend of Twinning.
With a stated premise that “we are all children of Abraham,” the weekend brought together synagogues and mosques to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities.
“What we realized is that we don’t know enough about each other,” said Rabbi Gregory Harris of Congregation Beth-El in Bethesda, Maryland. “We’re relatives in the Abrahamic sense, but we’re total strangers in every other sense of it.”
Beth-El paired with the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg to hold “Judaism 101 and Islam 101” classes on the fundamentals of each religion.
The phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with “Abrahamic.”
According to Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who helped establish the weekend, the goal is to “create a paradigm of Jewish-Muslim support that we can export to other parts of the world...We must take advantage of these opportunities, especially within the Muslim world, where we are now beginning to see the emergence of a more moderate centrist voice that has a particular interest in reaching out to the Jewish religion.”
Rabbi Schneier met in New York in November with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a core supporter of the initiative.
The weekend fulfilled a pledge faith leaders took in 2007 at the World Conference of Dialogue in Madrid. Co-sponsors are the World Jewish Congress, the Muslim Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America.
Daniel Spiro, author of the novel Moses The Heretic (Aegis Press), argues that the phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with “Abrahamic.” He notes that although the world faces a real problem of Islamic terrorism, the religion also contains elements that are “uniquely beautiful,” and that “We Jews need to seek them out. Most of us viscerally appreciate Christian ethics as a useful add-on to the foundation of Jewish ethics. But when we think about Islam, most of us don’t appreciate what is profoundly beautiful. We basically see Islam as a violent outgrowth of monotheism. I want that changed.”
In Spiro’s view, “To borrow from another religion, if we want peace in Israel we need to generate good karma. If we embrace what is beautiful in Islam and Muslims begin to embrace what is beautiful in Judaism, we can begin to produce a situation that might lead to peace.”
Bahrain’s Jewish Ambassador
Consider the case of Houda Ezra Nonoo, who in July presented her credentials to President George W. Bush as Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S., making her the first Jew to represent an Arab country in Washington, DC.
In her first interview, with the Dec. 4, 2008 issue of Washington Jewish Week, Ambassador Nonoo explained: “Bahrain is an open and tolerant society and it doesn’t matter what religion you are. I’m Jewish, but I’m also Bahraini. My grandfather served on the Municipality Council as early as 1934, so we’ve always been integrated into society.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as many as 1,500 Jews lived and prospered in Bahrain. “Things changed in 1948,” according to Washington Jewish Week, “with the establishment of the state of Israel. Riots erupted, the sole synagogue was closed and most of Bahrain’s Jews emigrated, leaving for Great Britain...Currently, about 35 Jews live among Bahrain’s 700,000 inhabitants. This is a constant source of pride for Bahraini officials...In November, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, during a meeting in New York, beseeched about 50 Bahraini Jewish expatriates to consider returning home—a move relatively unheard of in the rest of the Arab world.”
“This was something I never expected in my life,” Nonoo said, “to be ambassador in the United States. I think I’ve made a big impact on a lot of people, being female and representing Bahrain in the most important country in the world.” Her reception by fellow Arab diplomats in Washington has been incredibly warm, she reported: “The Syrian ambassador recently hosted a dinner to honor me. The Iraqi ambassador had one...and Oman is having one. They’ve really made me feel at home.”
On Yom Kippur, Nonoo attended Orthodox services. She may not, however, have any relationship with the Embassy of Israel, because Bahrain and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. “Understand that Israel and Judaism are two different things,” she stated. “I’ve never felt any discrimination or anti-Semitism. My father was a very well-known figure. When he died in 1993 in a car accident, the amount of people who came to offer condolences—including the emir, the prime minister and the emir’s other brother—was amazing. They all showed us respect.”
The idea that there has been an ancient enmity between Jews and Muslims is completely ahistorical, and those Jewish groups and individuals who promote such a view seem to be unaware of the long history of cooperation between the two religions. Much has been written In recent years about the Golden Age of Jews in Muslim Spain. Indeed, when Muslim rule came to an end and the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, they were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire. The anti-Semitism which plagued medieval Christian Europe was not to be found in the Islamic world.
In his recent book, Among The Righteous (Public Affairs Press), Robert Satloff, who has served since 1993 as executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, unearths the lost stories of Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust. When the Nazis occupied the countries of North Africa and sought to round up Jews and expropriate Jewish property, Satloff notes, “in every place that it occurred, Arabs helped Jews. Some Arabs spoke out against the persecution of Jews and took public stands of unity with them. Some Arabs denied the support and assistance that would have made the wheels of the anti-Jewish campaign spin more efficiently...And there were occasions when certain Arabs chose to do more than just offer moral support to Jews. They bravely saved Jewish lives, at times risking their own in the process. Those Arabs were true heroes.”
Nor was it only in North Africa that Muslims saved Jews. During the Nazi occupation, the Grand Mosque of Paris provided sanctuary for Jews hiding from German and Vichy troops, and provided certificates of Muslim identity to untold numbers of Jews. Satloff quotes reports describing the mosque “as a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France.” This story is told in a 1991 film “Une Résistance Oubliée: La Mosque de Paris” (“A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris”) by Derri Berkani, a French documentary filmmaker of Algerian Berber origin.
The time has come to understand the real history of Jewish-Muslim relations—and those who are leading efforts to achieve mutual understanding between the two faiths are showing the way in this effort. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is political and should not be confused with religion. Perhaps the day will come when Israel helps makes that eminently clear by appointing as ambassador to the U.S. one of its own Muslim citizens.
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
Friday, 13 March 2009
Sunday, 8 March 2009
The Observer, Sunday 8 March 2009
Rahman Baba, "the Nightingale of Peshawar," was an 18th-century poet and mystic, a sort of North West Frontier version of Julian of Norwich.
He withdrew from the world and promised his followers that if they also loosened their ties with the world, they could purge their souls of worries and move towards direct experience of God. Rituals and fasting were for the pious, said the saint. What was important was to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart - that we all have paradise within us, if we know where to look.
For centuries, Rahman Baba's shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass has been a place where musicians and poets have gathered, and his Sufi verses in the Pukhtun language made him the national poet of the Pathans. As a young journalist covering the Soviet-mujahideen conflict I used to visit the shrine to watch Afghan refugee musicians sing their songs to their saint by the light of the moon.
Then, about 10 years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the shrine. Soon its students took it on themselves to halt what they saw as unIslamic practices. On my last visit, I talked about the situation with the shrine keeper, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists now came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," said Tila. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble.
"They tell us that what we do is wrong. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out - even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually have stopped coming."
"Before the Afghan war, there was nothing like this. But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda, to stop us visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching 'ishq [love]. Now this trouble happens more and more frequently."
Behind the violence lies a long theological conflict that has divided the Islamic world for centuries. Rahman Baba believed passionately in the importance of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God, as a way of opening the gates of Paradise. But this use of poetry and music in ritual is one of the many aspects of Sufi practice that has attracted the wrath of modern Islamists. For although there is nothing in the Qur'an that bans music, Islamic tradition has always associated music with dancing girls and immorality, and there is a long tradition of clerical opposition.
At Attock, not far from the shrine of Rahman Baba, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical madrasas in South Asia. Much of the Taliban leadership, including its leader, Mullah Omar, were trained here, so I asked the madrasa's director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, about what I had heard at Rahman Baba's tomb. The matter was quite simple." Music is against Islam," he said. "Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers."
Nor were Sami's strictures limited to the shrine's music: "We don't like tomb worship," he continued. "We do not pray to dead men, even the saints. We believe there is no power but God. I invite people who come here to return to the true path of the Qur'an. Do not pray to a corpse: Rahman Baba is dead. Go to the mosque, not to a grave."
This sort of madrasa-driven change in attitudes is being reproduced across Pakistan. There are now 27 times as many madrasas in the country as there were in 1947: from 245 at independence, the number has shot up to 6870 in 2001. Across Pakistan, the religious tenor has been correspondingly radicalised: the tolerant, Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now out of fashion in northern Pakistan, especially in the NWFP, overtaken by the rise of the more hardline and politicised Wahhabism.
Later, I returned to the shrine and found Tila Mahommed tending the grave. Making sure no one was listening, he whispered: "We pray that right will overpower wrong, that good will overcome evil. But our way is pacifist," he said." As Baba put it,
I am a lover, and I deal in love. Sow flowers,
So your surroundings become a garden
Don't sow thorns; for they will prick your feet.
We are all one body,
Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.
I thought of this conversation, when I heard that the shrine of Rahman Baba had finally been blown up on Thursday, a few hours after the Sri Lankan cricketers were ambushed in Lahore. The rise of Islamic radicalism is often presented in starkly political terms, but what happened in Peshawar this week is a reminder that, at the heart of the current conflict, lie two very different understandings of Islam. Wahhabi fundamentalism has advanced so quickly in Pakistan partly because the Saudis have financed the building of so many madrasas, which have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of state education. These have taught an entire generation to abhor the gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam that has dominated south Asia for centuries, and to embrace instead an imported form of Saudi Wahhabism.
Sufism is an entirely indigenous Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with its deep roots in South Asian soil. The Pakistani government could finance schools that taught Pakistanis to respect their own religious traditions, rather than buying fleets of American F-16 fighters and handing over education to the Saudis. Instead, every day, it increasingly resembles a tragic clone of Taliban Afghanistan.
• William Dalrymple 's Last Mughal won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Crossword Indian Book of the Year prize.