Minority faith communities are undergoing great stress in today’s America. Over the past several months, Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and even a Jewish museum have been vandalized across the country, while Jewish community centers have received a litany of bomb threats. One rabbi in Seattle, whose synagogue of 16 years was graffitied with such slogans as, “Holocaust is fake history,” remarked, “in my time, there’s been nothing like this.” Meanwhile, a number of mosques across the country, from Colorado to Michigan, have been threatened, vandalized, and even torched. Mosques across the country are now even being advised to set up security cameras and hire security guards in response to this disturbing trend. In the same vein, an active-shooter training was recently held in a suburban Baltimore mosque in response to these incidents. Clearly we are barreling down a slippery slope that can only end in disaster if it is unchecked at the highest levels of our society.
Though while the picture may be bleak for minorities across the country, not all hope is lost for our nation’s diverse faiths. In the face of this tension, fear, and angst, an interfaith spirit persists in many corners of America. It was in this light that on Friday, March 24, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, was invited to address Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. as the synagogue’s first-ever Muslim speaker. Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a prominent Montgomery County Conservative synagogue, is led by founder Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who is also the current President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, “the central address of North American Jewry.”
Following a lively Friday evening service and dinner of of challah, chicken, couscous, and salad to welcome the Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, Weinblatt opened the lecture with a very warm introduction of his “friend” of one year, Ahmed, whom he described as a “gentleman” with a “kind heart.” Ahmed reciprocated this embracing introduction, telling of his admiration for Weinblatt and for their mutual friend, American University supporter and B’nai Tzedek congregant, Gary Berman, who introduced these two moral leaders to one another and played a key role in facilitating this Shabbat dinner lecture.
Ahmed’s multifaceted lecture on the Jewish-Muslim relationship began with a reflection on his dialogue series with Dr. Judea Pearl in the early 2000s, pursued in the wake of the vicious murder of Pearl’s son, Danny Pearl, in Karachi, Ahmed’s hometown. Having made a global impact, with high-profile lecture events being held across the US, Canada, and Europe, Ahmed said the lecture series was a huge success in demonstrating to diverse communities how these faith bridges can be successfully built. Ahmed also recounted how the two would travel to college campuses and other areas of high Jewish-Muslim tension and work with the communities to facilitate dialogue and understanding between the faiths.
Ahmed then sought to expand the congregation’s conception of the Muslim world, explaining that Muslim societies can be understood through three lenses: literalist, mystic, and modernist. Whereas the literalists seek to follow the life of the Prophet to a T, Ahmed explained that the mystics focus on a very spiritual vision of the faith, while the modernists strive to both live in the world as it stands and to live out the traditions of their Islamic faith. He explained how Americans, Israelis, and many other Westerners tend to only be familiar with the extremist subset of literalist Muslims, which negatively informs Western policy and attitudes towards the Muslim world, and argued that this exclusive focus on a subset of Muslims must be countered for successful relations to flourish between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. He elaborated that by only focusing on the extremist literalists, such as terrorist groups that seek to get their message across through bombs rather than books, Western leaders of all faiths are actually elevating the extremists’ marginal role in the Muslim world at the expense of the mystics and modernists.
An optimist at his core, Ahmed reminded the audience of the positive signs he is seeing in the Jewish-Muslim relationship. He recounted how Ambassador Jakob Finci, the head of the Jewish community in Bosnia, explained to him while he conducted fieldwork for his Journey into Europe project that anti-Semitism simply does not exist in Bosnia, a majority-Muslim European nation. Given the resurgence of anti-Semitism we are seeing in Europe and around the globe, this fact was remarkable to learn and demonstrated that peace and harmony between the faiths can be a lived reality in the 21st Century.
Ahmed also told of his bridge-building work with Rabbi Julia Neuberger in writing the first-ever report on anti-Semitism, commissioned by the Runnymede Trust in the early 1990s, titled, A Very Light Sleeper. He discussed how, having just arrived in the U.K. from Pakistan, he had not yet learned much about the Jewish community, but he came into the project with a strong desire to work with the community given their common descent from Abraham. Through this work, he began to confront the horrific history of anti-Semitism that has plagued the Jewish people for millennia. As the project progressed, Ahmed also began drawing parallels to the Muslim experience, reflecting on the proliferation of attacks on mosques and synagogues alike and the women in hijab who were constantly being assaulted. Following the completion of this eye-opening and impactful project, Ahmed realized that anti-Muslim discrimination in West, just like anti-Semitism, now needed to be addressed head-on. This led Ahmed to collaborate with Neuberger and the entire Runnymede Trust once again and produce the report, Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All, which actually coined the term, Islamophobia.
However, in a cautionary note for the audience, Ahmed told of how his experience on the Runnymede Trust also solidified for him the slippery slope theory of prejudice - once one minority is targeted by discrimination and prejudice, it is only a matter of time before all minority communities will be targeted by this distaste for the “Other.” Ahmed found through studying the history and interconnectedness of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that should discrimination against any minority group continue unabated, it will slide down a slippery slope that logically can only end at the gates of Dachau and Auschwitz. This is why Ahmed argued that everyone, whether, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise, must become committed to the Jewish mantra of Tikkun Olam, or “to heal a fractured world.” This is the only way humanity can be saved from itself.
The question and answer session quickly lit up with deep questions and debates surrounding Jewish-Muslim relations, particularly within the frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several asked about how one could go about fostering better relations between Israel and Palestine. Ahmed responded by emphasizing that, as discussed in his lecture, the Jewish community needs to reach out and understand the core features of Islam and avoid seeing it in stereotypes. By reducing the Muslim world to mere stereotypes, he explained, it becomes nearly impossible for the Jewish community and all non-Muslims reach out and build bridges. Ahmed added that we all need to aim for a world in which all Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims can live with respect, peace, harmony, prosperity, and security, so as to allow both communities and all humanity to thrive.
Several also asked about why, as they perceived, other modernist Muslims were not out there speaking out. He responded forcefully by telling of Malala Yousafzai, his daughter, Dr. Amineh Hoti, and journalist, Raza Rumi, who was nearly assassinated by extremists in Pakistan, as three of thousands of examples of modernist Muslims fighting for a peaceful, inclusive future in the Muslim world. He also explained that those who are not aware of modernist Muslims out there fighting every day simply need to open their eyes to the Muslims who are living, working, writing, and speaking all around them.
The lecture clearly had a strong impact on the community. Afterwards, many community members came up to Ahmed to discuss his points and ask how they can work to advance interfaith bridge building, with some recounting their own experiences in bridge building to him. One man at the end of the program, after having a brief argument with Ahmed during the question and answer session, even came up to Ahmed in a sign of warm embrace with several slices of the cake just to ensure he had a chance to enjoy dessert as he mingled among the congregants.
Since Trump’s inauguration, many Americans, particularly those in minority communities, have felt besieged by forces of intolerance. There is a great deal of fear and angst in communities all across the country. Yet, in these past two months, Ahmed, as a Muslim, and I, as a Christian, traveling together, have received nothing but the finest hospitality from houses of worship around Greater Washington. Since January 20 alone, I’ve joined Ahmed for church lectures, a visit to D.C.’s leading African-American mosque, where the director himself received us, Jummah prayers at the Islamic Center of Washington, where we were also received by the director, and now Shabbat dinner at a leading Conservative synagogue. It has become clear in our travels that Americans of all faiths remain committed to embracing one another and establishing dialogue and friendship, even in these tense times. This is the American spirit and the Abrahamic spirit at work, and for our country to begin healing these deep divides, we must begin to embrace this spirit in all aspects of our lives once again.