RJ Fall 2001

Can American Jews & Muslims Get Along?

A. James Rudin

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Last September's massive terrorist attack will have serious implications for Muslims in the United States, and their response will shape Islamic-Jewish relations in America for years to come.

Prior to this catastrophic outrage, Islamic organizations in the U.S.--many controlled by political and religious extremists--have never unequivocally condemned Muslim suicide bombers who have killed Israeli civilians. After the World Trade Center and Pentagon assaults, however, eleven leading U.S. Islamic and Arab groups felt compelled to issue a joint declaration denouncing "the cowardly acts of terror against innocent American citizens." But the Islamic/Arab coalition failed to call for U.S. action against the terrorists and the nations that shelter them.

Many of the statements by American Muslim organizations focused on defensive measures against a possible backlash. The Islamic Circle of North America was quite specific: "Sisters are being requested to stay out of public areas for the next few days. We are not suggesting that we lock ourselves in our homes. However, we do need to be cautious and prudent. If verbally attacked in public, remain calm and be patient."

Angered at the organizations' lukewarm response, Tarek E. Masoud, an Arab American Yale graduate student, wrote a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal three days after the bombings urging his fellow Muslims to "Be American!" Muslim organizations, he said, appear to be "oblivious to the fact that it is Muslims, with names like Mohammed and Abdullah and, yes, Tarek, who have committed the greatest hate crime in American history. Instead of trying to think of ways to help the victims, the leadership of the Muslim community would rather wrap itself in the mantle of victimhood."

Will the Muslim leadership finally hear the challenge of Masoud and other moderates and engage its Jewish and Christian neighbors in the spirit of mutual purpose and self-critical introspection? Or will it support extremist elements in the Muslim world? The record is not encouraging.

Why, for example, didn't American Muslim leaders protest last June when Sheik Abdel Munim Zant, a leader of Jordan's militant Islamic Action Front, branded Islamic moderate Professor Khalid Duran an apostate and called for his death? Professor Duran's so-called "crime against Islam" was co-authoring, with Professor Abdelwahab Hechiche of the University of South Florida, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews (KTAV), a book published last May as part of an American Jewish Committee effort designed to foster interreligious understanding between Jews and Muslims. (A companion volume on Judaism for Muslims with the same title was written by HUC-JIR professor Rabbi Reuven Firestone.) Although many Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders, most notably Prince Hassan of the Kingdom of Jordan, warmly praised Children of Abraham (Hassan, the brother of the late King Hussein, called Duran's book "a courageous initiative"), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington, DC-based Muslim group, attacked the work and its author. Without reading either book, CAIR--whose leaders have openly expressed sympathy for Hamas and other terrorist groups--railed against Duran's assertion that "Islamists" (Muslim religious extremists) are using the ancient faith of Islam to advance a strident anti-Western, anti-democratic, and anti-Jewish political agenda throughout the world. CAIR also accused Duran of writing that wearing a veil or headscarf (hijab) promotes infidelity and of offering a distorted view of female circumcision. (In fact, Duran merely challenges veil-wearing as perhaps outdated, and tries to shed light on the falsely held assumption that female circumcision is an Islamic tradition.)

No Muslim organization has stood up to refute these heinous charges and actions, mainly because--with the exception of the Islamic Supreme Council, a Sufi group led by Sheik Hisham Kabbani--there is no official moderate Islamic religious or community voice in America today. Extremist Islamic groups with a radical political agenda, such as CAIR, the American Muslim Council (AMC), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), all of whom support the Islamist cause and Muslim radical states, have exploited the fact that moderate Muslims have no institutional and communal representation. As a result, when the American media, Christian groups, and political leaders seek Muslim perspectives on important issues, they have often unknowingly turned to "Islamist" organizations which openly give political support to countries such as Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. These organizations, in the past, have refused to condemn by name the terrorist perpetrators of actions against both Israel and the United States, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1996 attack on U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa, and the 2000 assault on the USS Cole in Yemen's harbor.

Now, after the September 2001 catastrophe, will moderate Muslims finally demand to be heard? And will it be possible to develop an authentic and respectful relationship between Muslims and Jews--a daunting task which is more important now than ever?

What Divides Us

Understanding what lies behind the issues of distrust between Jews and Muslims is key to mutual respect and dialogue. Jewish-Muslim relations are severely compromised by three key issues: 1. significant differences in viewing the legitimacy and territorial integrity of the State of Israel; 2. theological differences; and 3. the lack of authentic knowledge each group possesses about the other.

The Territorial Conflict: The Arab-Israeli conflict has super-saturated religious significance for both Jews and Muslims. For most Jews, the creation in 1948 of the State of Israel is an ancient promise fulfilled--the ingathering of exiles from more than 120 countries and the creation of a vibrant nation-state based upon Jewish values that would finally guarantee physical and spiritual security. Yet, for many Muslims, the permanent existence of an independent Jewish state in the Middle East is a religious and political aberration that must eventually be eliminated, for it is built on "dar al-Islam," the "abode of Islam"--territory that was once under Islamic rule and law. Most devout Muslims believe that Islamic rule must be returned to that territory, and the Jews who live there must submit to Islamic rule--a concept which completely de-legitimizes Israel on a theological basis and attacks a core belief of mainstream Judaism.

Theological Differences: Although commonalities do exist between Judaism and Islam--both peoples speak Semitic languages that share many word roots, follow prescribed rituals for daily prayer, and practice dietary laws that include the prohibition of pork--the significant differences in theology, custom, and religious law exceed these commonalities. Theologically, perhaps the most significant difference is the Muslim belief that Islam represents the ultimate fulfillment of both Judaism and Christianity.

Lack of Authentic Knowledge: Muslims know practically nothing about authentic Judaism. Three years ago in New York City, a visiting group of prominent professors of Islamic studies from Arab countries were asked which books on Judaism they had read that were written by Jewish authors. Without exception, their startling answer was--"none." The professors admitted that their perceptions and knowledge of the Jewish religion derived exclusively from other Muslims, many of whom are hostile to Jews and Judaism. Such volumes run counter to a fundamental principle of interreligious relations: each faith group has the right to define itself in its own terms.

So, too, most Jews know little about the Muslim faith and community. How many of us know that approximately two millionMuslims reside in the U.S.? (There are no exact figures, but Muslim groups tend to greatly inflate the numbers in order to bolster their claim--for political purposes--that Muslims now outnumber Jews in America.) The American Islamic community is comprised of three diverse groups--African-Americans (many of them converts from Christianity), Arab Muslims, and Indo-Pakistanis. Approximately 40% of the U.S. Muslims are African-Americans, including sports figures Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson, who follow the spiritual leadership of Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Mohammed. The Indo-Pakistanis are immigrants to the U.S. from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia (the nation with the largest numbers of Muslims), India, and Sri Lanka. Most engaged in the Middle East conflict are Arab Muslims, mostly immigrants from the area who seek to enlist African-American and Indo-Pakistani support for the Palestinian cause and frequently impart anti-Israel and anti-Jewish messages in the process.

What Unites Us

When Jews and Muslims do meet, three well-known phrases are often used in order to highlight the positive side of historic relations:

Phrase One: Children of Abraham: Because Jews, Muslims, and Christians all claim a spiritual connection to the first Patriarch, all three groups consider themselves "Children of Abraham." Jews revere Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah; Muslims trace their heritage to Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, even though Islam did not come into existence for another 2,000 years.

Although Jews and Muslims jointly claim Abraham/Ibrahim as their own, including his burial place in Hebron, they symbolically and permanently part company with the births of Isaac and Ishmael--a separation that has had momentous consequences for both faith communities, as the divine covenant is linked to Isaac and his progeny. Although the Bible promises that Ishmael's descendants will be numerous and become a great nation, once Sarah casts away Hagar and Ishmael, little more is heard from them except for the Genesis account that Ishmael's twelve sons became tribal chieftains--a parallel to our own Jewish history one generation later. Unfortunately, some Muslims use the ancient story to buttress their modern anti-Israel position by linking Ishmael's fate with that of the Palestinian refugees.

Phrase Two: The "Golden Age": The second phrase points to an idyllic "Golden Age" that existed for Jews and Muslims in Spain starting in 711, with the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, until the Christian reconquest on January 2, 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews the same year. While Jews living in Islamic Spain were better off than their co-religionists residing in Christian-controlled lands, the "Golden Age" was nevertheless very restricting for Jews. They were forbidden to serve in public positions of authority (this rule was not uniformly followed), carry weapons, or ride horses. Their only means of transport were mules and donkeys, from which they were required to dismount in deference to any Muslim walking on foot. They also were subjected to occasional violent attacks from Muslim mobs. Nonetheless, Jews in Spain produced important and enduring works in theology, poetry, philosophy, science, and philology. Classic works by Moses Maimonides, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, Yehudah Ha Levi, and Solomon Ibn Gabirol, among others, attest to the extraordinary richness of Jewish intellectual and spiritual life during the "Golden Age."

Phrase Three: People of the Book: Muslims often use the phrase "People of the Book" to mean that Jews and Christians, monotheistic minorities living within Islamic societies, must be respected and not harmed because of their identification with texts that are also sacred to Muslims. In practice, however, Jews and Christians, the "Peoples of the Book," lived highly restrictive lives or "dhimmitude" as "protected people" under Islamic rule, beginning in the eighth century and continuing into modern times. As preeminent nineteenth-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz has noted, Jews and Christians could not build new houses of worship, had to sing in subdued tones in synagogues and churches, and were required to wear distinguishable marks.

Each of these three phrases is filled with ambivalences, ironies, and paradoxes that require careful analysis. Clearly, the history of Jews living as a minority under Islamic rule is uneven. In some places and eras, Jews were tolerated, albeit with severe restrictions; but in times of war or societal stress, Jews were mistreated and killed by Muslims. In addition, many scholars note that the Quran includes both hostile references to "Yahud," meaning the Jews of Muhammad's day, as well as favorable references to "bani Isra'il," or the children of Israel who believe in the One God. The paradoxes that underlie our commonalities need to be examined in interreligious dialogue--as does the entire historical scope of Jewish-Islamic relations.

How to Dialogue

Despite all the challenges, Islamic-Jewish relations will necessarily form a key component of future interreligious encounters in the United States. Clearly, the September terrorist attacks have increased the difficulty of successful dialogue, but now such dialogue is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Here are some guidelines to follow:

1. Rules of Engagement: Jews should not meet with Muslims who, either explicitly or implicitly, condone acts of terrorism and the public vilification of Jews and Judaism, or who are unwilling or unable to publicly affirm the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Conversely, Jews in the dialogue should be open to finding a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

2. Allow Ample Time: Participants from both sides need ample time to engage in purposeful conversations about perceptions of one another, personal histories, and shared experiences. Additional time must be allotted to unpack misrepresentations, caricatures, and stereotypes, as well as to gain accurate information about one another's faith.

3. Be Prepared for Conflicting Interpretations: Talented, sensitive leaders must recognize that in an authentic Islamic-Jewish encounter, profound theological differences and sharply different interpretations of historical events, especially in the Middle East, will surface. Jews view Israel's successful War of Independence in 1948-49 as an act of national liberation following nearly 2,000 years of powerlessness and homelessness. Muslims term the same events "The Disaster," a time when an Islamic society was uprooted and became a minority in a land that was once "dar al-Islam." Most Jews do not separate Zionism from its deep religious roots within Judaism. However, many Muslims make a distinction between Zionism and Judaism, failing to recognize that Zionism is an integral component of Judaism and not a "racist" ideology.

4. Begin Step by Step: A foundation of mutual trust and respect is best built step by step. For example, Muslims and Jews in a community might begin with reciprocal visits to synagogues and mosques, followed by developing joint strategies on critical issues such as church-state separation, environmental protection, quality education, affordable housing, fair immigration laws, and discrimination in employment, as well as maintaining a distinctive religious identity in a society that promotes conformity to the majority culture.

New Interreligious Frontier

If the challenges in achieving Muslim-Jewish dialogue in America seem insurmountable, consider the significant advances in Christian-Jewish relations since the end of World War II. Surely one of the great success stories of the late twentieth century, Christian-Jewish dialogue arose despite the profound theological differences between our two religions and the vocal skeptics in both communities who were convinced Christian-Jewish amity was unachievable after so many centuries of alienation and distrust. The fact that we have succeeded, along with Christian leaders, in building mutual respect and understanding does not, of course, mean that this model can be applied to Islamic-Jewish relations with the same positive results. Jews and Muslims today carry far different memories and issues than the historical baggage brought to encounters with Christians. While there have been nearly six decades of fruitful Christian-Jewish dialogue, building positive Islamic-Jewish relations is in its early stages. From an interreligious relations perspective, this represents the new frontier.

Yet the extremism of American-Muslim organizations, so evident in the controversy surrounding the Children of Abraham volumes and the concurrent death threats against Duran, are painful illustrations of the current difficulties in Islamic-Jewish relations. Duran's independent, self-critical, moderate Muslim voice may, in fact, represent the silent majority of U.S. Muslims, but as long as the Islamists remain dominant, it will be highly difficult for American Jews to develop a constructive relationship with their Muslim neighbors. A successful Islamic-Jewish relationship in the U.S. will require a series of carefully crafted small achievements that lead to other incremental gains. Once a trust relationship is established on shared issues, Jews and Muslims, especially members of local synagogues and mosques, can then move on to more difficult questions, including the Middle East conflict and theological issues. There is no "quick fix," but not to try is to hand the Islamists a victory.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, HUC-JIR class of 1960, senior interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee, served as AJC interreligious affairs director from 1983 to 2000. The author of seven books, he writes a weekly column for Religion News Service/ Newhouse Syndicate. He conceived of the Children of Abraham volumes.

Ongoing Dialogue

From University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA to Temple Beth El in Great Neck, NY, Reform congregations have worked for years to build relationships with local Muslim communities. Congregation Or Chadash in Tucson, AZ, for example, has an extensive Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue, which includes working together at a local soup kitchen; and Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of New York's Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has "exchanged" pulpits with local Muslim leaders. On the national level, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism have helped to facilitate Jewish-Muslim dialogue and joint projects. For more information, please contact Mark J. Pelavin at the RAC, (202) 387-2800, e-mail mpelavin@uahc.org.


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