Breaking Down the Extremist Barriers to Tolerance and Understanding

Racism and bigotry can infect the fabric of a community, leading to a slow erosion of its democratic values and ideals. But what factors contribute to the rise of these judgments of character in the first place?

At a time when incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in particular are on the rise, the newly published paperback version of the book, Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims, explores the erroneous ideas that extremists in each religion use to justify harmful behavior. It tackles one of the greatest and most urgent challenges facing communities around the world -- namely fighting against existing misconceptions of the other.

The two authors are leading religious figures from Judaism and Islam. Together they expose the dark roots of the anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that, tragically, too many young Muslims and Jews are still being taught by their teachers and communities.

Rabbi Marc Schneier was born into an Orthodox Jewish community that was very wary of outsiders. With seventeen generations of rabbis before him, his passion for Israel led him to be suspicious--perhaps even hostile -- towards Muslims. Imam Shamsi Ali was born in Indonesia and attended Muslim schools in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where he was taught unambiguously that Jews intended to destroy Islam and its practitioners. As he progressed along the path to Imam, he continued to hear and absorb this combative viewpoint, expressed with increasing degrees of fervency and anger.

Their individual coming-of-age journeys brought each of them positions as religious leaders in New York, where on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, they, like countless other New Yorkers witnessed up close and personal mass and indiscriminate carnage. Experiencing that traumatic event as well as watching that acts of violence cause bitter and hate-filled responses to smolder around the world -- motivated the two men to realize that it was long past time to step out of their respective comfort zones, and to stop viewing the other side as an enemy requiring force to defeat.

No single religion or the ethnic group holds a monopoly on extremism. The existence of radical and extreme behavior can come from any faith or race. What ultimately ignites the frequently violent and intentionally harmful acts of a small minority, however, can potentially be summed up in one word: ignorance.

Being ignorant of another group's views and history is unfortunate but understandable. Using that ignorance to justify actions that harm another group, however, is not. Take, for instance, the notion of Jews as believe themselves to be "chosen" by God and therefore superior to people of other religions. This is a harmful distortion of the truth -- the truth being that the Jews were "chosen" for and fulfilled the mission of introducing the -- then, mostly pagan - world to ethical monotheism -- the belief in one God. Perpetuating stereotypes of Jews based on the distorted belief that Jews consider themselves above all other peoples only serves to inflame the divides within communities.

Similarly, Jihad and Shari'a are commonly misrepresented by Islam's opponents to depict it as a bloodthirsty, absolutist faith that is bent on domination, tramples women's rights and allows barbaric punishments for seemingly minor crimes. Imam Ali delves into the Qur'an to expose these falsehoods, showing that jihad is in no way a call for violence, and certainly not a justification for terrorism -- rather, it represents the command to strive for a moral life. In his deep analysis of the literal and implied meanings of Shari'a, Imam Ali elucidates the true meaning of jihad from the unfortunate ways some cultures have interpreted it, and reveals jihad as a simple and elegant prescription for living a life of faith, justice and mercy.

Much has happened since the book was first published in 2013 -- from the attack on Charlie Hebdo to the rise of ISIS to the killings in Garland, Texas at an anti-Islam cartoon contest. These efforts to sew the seeds of hate are calculated to produce increased misunderstanding and mistrust between religious communities in general and Muslims and Jews in particular. The necessary antidote to this harmful approach is knowledge. Acknowledging and understanding the fundamental similarities between Islam and Judaism -- and all faiths -- can drive mutual respect, trust and ultimately appreciation for the differences that make us who we are. Sons of Abraham offers a window into these differences and a path towards tolerance and acceptance.

The Sons of Abraham by Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali, published by Beacon Press and with a forward by President Bill Clinton, is now available in paperback.

Russell Simmons is the Chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, of which Rabbi Marc Schneier is the President.