Jewish and Muslim Leaders Meet to Build Bridges and Hope

Luncheon participants listen as Ambassador Akbar Ahmed (center-right) delivers remarks on the importance of improving Muslim-Jewish relations both nationally and globally. Photo by Elisa Frost.

To say Jews and Muslims are in dire straits globally is an understatement. On the one hand, Muslims are the new "other" on the block. In Germany, for instance, an extremist movement called "Patriots Against the Islamization of the West" (PEGIDA) has formed to unleash discontent and threats towards the Muslim community. Messages of hate have even made it to the highest levels of government in Europe, with the Hungarian government placing a fence on its border to stem the flow of refugees. On the other hand, across Europe, anti-Semitism has reached such a fevered pitch in cities such as Marseilles and Paris, that Jews are leaving in droves.

Despite global tensions, on February 11, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, hosted a luncheon of senior Jewish and Muslim leaders, including some of Greater Washington's most senior rabbis and imams and the acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to discuss relations between the two groups. The goal: cultivate a sense of warmth between Jews and Muslims as the safety and sanctity of their respective communities across the world is in jeopardy.

For participants at the luncheon, questions needed answers: How do Jews reach out to Muslims? Do Muslims condemn terrorism and anti-Semitism? How do both communities overcome the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What common heritage in history do Jews and Muslims share? And hanging over all these outstanding matters was the question of, "Why do they hate us?"

To begin, Nanette Levinson, the American University School of International Service Dean of Faculty Affairs, welcomed participants by acknowledging the critical role Ambassador Ahmed plays in including his students in innovative Islamic studies research and interfaith dialogue. Stuart Weinblatt, Rabbi of B'nai Tzedek Synagogue in Potomac, Md., echoed Dean Levinson's words, relaying the imperative of the gathering to dispel any myths regarding Jewish-Muslim affairs.

One key myth hindering relations is the idea that both religious groups have never truly lived in harmony. However, Ambassador Ahmed's acclaimed documentary film, Journey into Europe, a fieldwork-based documentary examining the historic and contemporary state of Muslims in Europe, played in the background, shattering this myth left and right. The film showed Muslims and Jews coexisting in many periods throughout history. In eighth-to-fourteenth century Moorish Spain, for example, Jews and Muslims joined hands with Christians in the mutual pursuit of 'ilm (knowledge). Later on, during the 16th Century, the Greek, then-Muslim-ruled city of Thessaloniki became an interreligious haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Following the film, a dialogue identified common room for growth between the communities. Both Jewish and Muslim attendees recognized ongoing congregation-to-congregation conversations occurring between high-level officials in the Jewish and Muslim communities. The luncheon itself was one of them. They also pointed to successful inter-congregation exchanges among youth. It was the innocence of children that was a blessing for building lasting friendships between Jews and Muslims. At the very least, participants felt content that the potential for dialogue is strong.

Author Matthew Agar (center-left) joins audience members in hearing Ahmed (left) propose new approaches to Jewish-Muslim dialogue. Dialogue participants identified numerous paths forward in strengthening relations, including congregation-to-congregation exchanges between high-level Jewish and Muslim religious officials. Photo by Elisa Frost.

In response to these candid interfaith conversations, Gary Berman, event co-host and congregant of the B'nai Tzedek Synagogue in Potomac, Md., underscored that the questions facing Jews and Muslims are inherent to the demographic realities facing the two communities. "If there are 1.5 billion Muslims, we [Jewish people] better reach out to them", he said. By extending a hand, a "butterfly effect" occurs, where the developments of small steps forward create a large impact.

"I think there is a common hope for Muslim and Jewish people", said Rizwan Jaka, Chairman of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center) in Sterling, Va. Going forward, he said, "there have to be some interesting conversations to kind of peel away the myths and misinformation that may be out there."

So, should we have faith in interfaith dialogue?

A week after this event, I received an email from Ambassador Ahmed to find a picture of Dr. Amineh Hoti, his daughter and Executive Director of the Markaz-e-Ilm Center for Dialogue & Action in Islamabad, Pakistan, speaking at a church in Islamabad. In the photo, there were two men I thought to be Priests and Bishops. In fact, they were Rabbis. One even gave a prayer in Hebrew for the audience members. I smiled, and inside, I cried tears of optimism. To me, this was a sign of a modern sanctuary of peace between Jews and Muslims, where the issues of stabbings and bombings by Palestinians and Israelis did not matter. Neither did the suicide bombings in Pakistan's backyard. All that mattered was Tikkun Olam, the process, however difficult, of healing our fractured world.

We have had peace before. We have it in small pockets now. We know what it feels like, what it looks like, and what it sounds like. We want the laughter enjoyed during the luncheon by Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. We want the prayers of a Priest, Rabbi, or Imam chanting the common beauty we all share. We want the chills that go up our spines when we read a poem by Rumi on the power of universal love. We want peace; by embracing one another, we can have it.

Ambassador Ahmed gathers with his team, including author Matthew Agar (right) and hosts after a screening of Journey Into Europe at the United States Institute for Peace. Photo courtesy of Patrick Burnett.

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