Jews and Muslims: How do we ‘bring the temperature down’?

By Frankie Martin This year has not been an easy one for Jewish-Muslim relations. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in … Continued

By Frankie Martin

This year has not been an easy one for Jewish-Muslim relations. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in a state of collapse, apocalyptic pronouncements about Iran’s nuclear program abound, and the plan by a Muslim group to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero was staunchly opposed by venerable Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. (Editor’s note: Read the ADL’s reflection on why it came out against the proposed center here.)

Wherever one looks, the gap between Jews and Muslims appears to be growing.

For the past two years, I have been in a unique position in which to observe relations between the two communities. As a part of a research team led by American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies, Professor Akbar Ahmed, I traveled to 100 mosques in 75 American cities for the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (Brookings Institution Press, 2010). We conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Muslims, in which they often conveyed their opinions of Jews, but also visited many synagogues and institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, speaking with Jews about their opinions of Muslims.

While we saw real efforts on both sides to reach across the great divide, such as the Jewish vice-mayor of Chicago who named a street after the founder of Pakistan and the many imams conducting interfaith initiatives, the relationship remains fraught. Many Muslims told us they feel Jews are on the warpath against Islam and point to the conflict with the Palestinians, while Jews often feel threatened not only by Muslim states like Iran, but by Islam itself, which was frequently described to us as a religion of terror and barbarism. Many Jews and Muslims admitted to us that they had never met a member of the other faith. This lack of communication is dangerous as it can lead to misunderstanding, mistrust, and hatred.

The only solution to this problem is interaction, an exchange of ideas and an exploration of differing narratives. Earlier this week, Professor Ahmed, who has been involved in Jewish-Muslim dialogue for the past two decades, provided a good example on how this can be done in his address to the Beth El synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland. Although we had been to many synagogues on our journey, this was the first orthodox community we had visited and Ahmed was the first Muslim to address the congregation.

In his lecture, delivered from the pulpit next to huge Torah scrolls to an audience of over 300 worshippers in conservative attire, Ahmed gave a basic “Islam 101″ talk, discussed the remarkable theological similarities between the two faiths, assessed the difficulties facing the communities, and explored ways of moving ahead

Ahmed discussed connections between the communities like Prophet Muhammad’s Jewish wife and the “Medina compact” in which the Prophet declared Jews–who along with Christians are honored as “people of the book”–to be a part of the world community of believers. In this context, it is impossible for Muslims to be anti-Jewish, despite the distortion of Quranic passages by both Muslims and non-Muslims who attempt to argue the contrary. Ahmed quoted his friend and former Princeton colleague Professor Bernard Lewis on the rights Jews were afforded in Muslim societies like the Ottoman Empire, where Jews could live according to their own laws. Many are unaware, for example, that several Ottoman Sultans, speaking their capacity as the Caliph of Islam, issued nineteenth century proclamations condemning anti-Semitic blood libels as fictitious and reiterating their commitment to religious freedom for the Jews. At a time when hate literature like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is widely circulated in the Muslim world and prominent politicians in the U.S. and Europe liken Muslims to Nazis, this history must be remembered.

Ahmed answered many of the common questions Jews have about Islam, including the fiction that Islam commands Muslims to die for 72 virgins (neither the figure of 72 or the word virgin appears in the Quran in this context), the false idea that the US Constitution faces an imminent threat from Muslims seeking to overthrow the government in favor of shariah law, and the demonstrably false notion that Islam is a violent religion.

Ahmed also addressed the most common question of all, “where are the moderates?” Noting that members of his wife’s family were killed by militants in Pakistan and pointing to the sacrifice of others like Benazir Bhutto, Ahmed said that the battle is on for a modern, democratic Islam and that there are millions of Muslims who are in the thick of it. By understanding the tensions in Muslim society and not treating Islam as a dangerous monolith, Jews can help improve the situation of the Muslim world.

This understanding and outreach is also in Israel’s interest, Ahmed contended. The global Muslim population is 1.5 billion, one fourth of the planet’s population, and includes 57 majority Muslim states. The Jewish world population by contrast, is 13 million, seven million of which live in Israel. In the near future there could be several Muslim nations gaining access to nuclear weapons, and when coupled with a surrounding hostile Arab population of 300 million, which demographers estimate may double by the middle of this century, it is clear that “bringing down the temperature” between the communities is essential for Israel’s survival.

The response to Professor Ahmed’s talk was very positive. I could see many heads nodding and there were touching moments, as when Ahmed was discussing the difficulties young American Muslims are having balancing their religion with American culture, and the yarmulke-wearing Jewish man in front of me put his arm around his teenage son. I had many discussions with congregation members afterward, including Rabbi William Rudolph, who welcomed us warmly to his house of worship and thanked Professor Ahmed for his “courage” and asked him to design a course to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue based in their respective communities. A Jewish couple described Ahmed as a tzadik, which in Orthodox Judaism is a learned and saintly man, similar to the Arabic designation sadiq.

Before me I could see the goal posts shifting. The tone of the larger conversation had changed. It was a historic step in building bridges between the two communities, which Ahmed argued is “a matter of life and death.”

Despite the gloom of the headlines, I glean hope from my experiences at meetings like that at the Beth El Synagogue and through my encounters with Jewish peacemakers like Judea Pearl, who tours with Ahmed promoting interfaith dialogue. It is also encouraging to see that the Anti-Defamation League has formed a new body, and Ahmed is part of it, specifically to support and protect mosques in America.

Not only are better relations between Jews and Muslims imperative for their respective communities, but they are also of utmost importance for the United States as it attempts to win Muslim “hearts and minds.” The Jewish-Muslim dialogue is also keeping with the interfaith vision of America’s Founding Fathers, who welcomed both communities to the United States with open arms. With so many Jews and Muslims living so close to one another in the United States, America is the ideal place for this dialogue to occur. The dialogue here can make an impact in the Middle East and move the Abrahamic faiths closer to mutual harmony and peace.

Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in a state of collapse, apocalyptic pronouncements about Iran’s nuclear program abound, and the plan by a Muslim group to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero was staunchly opposition venerable Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League.The ADL shifted its position, after endless criticism by major Jewish organisations, Jewish newspapers, Jewish journalists, etc.Mayor Bloomberg (Jewish) defended the Ground Zero Mosq to the hilt and wept as he did so.THe staunchest opponents to the mosq were Christians and Catholics nationwide and they remain so, several of them posting on this web site.If you want the Christians to be more supportive of Muslims, Muslims must stop blowing them up in churches, waging pogroms against them in Egypt, making them Dalit in Pakistan, etc.If you want the Jews to be anymore supportive than they are, if that is possible, you must own up to the recent racist assault against the two hundred that remained of the ancient Yemeni Jewish civilization, resulting in their having to be air-rescued out of Muslim Yemen.If you want Jews, Christians, Hindus to support Muslims, you must repent the slaughter, theft of Jewish property, exiles and deportations of the Middle Eastern Jews–three million now living in exile, the endless attacks, including murder against the B’hai.If you want the world to be more supportive of Muslims, you must condemn the theft by Abbas of millions due to Palestinians following the example set by ARafat. See Al Arabia and Al Jazeera on this.If you want the world to be more supportive of Muslims, you must end the attacks by Palestinian Muslims against Palestinian Christians, finally, after decades, acknowledged by the Pope (LOL) and AP. Also, acknowledged were the thousands of Palestinian Christians who fled into Israel and were given safe haven there.If you want the world to be more supportive of MUslims, you must end the notorious spread of antisemitic filth sponsored by Saudi ARabia and Egypt, not to mention the anti-Christians filth.We donate to Egypt TWO BILLION per annum in addition to the rent we pay (LOL) for use of the Suez Canal. All source funds: approx. FOUR BILLION.Could it possibly have anything to do with the Muslims?

  • Garak

    “HUMANITY has had a rough few decades with Muslims.”Could it possibly have anything to do with the Muslims?”Gee, could it have anything to do with Christians bordering the Muslim world? Could it have anything to do with the Christian West using military force to control the hydrocarbon resources in the Muslim world? Could it have anything to do with the Christian West supporting brutal dictators in the Muslim world? Could it have anything to do with the Christian West creating and supporting Israel even though the Christian West had promised independence to the Muslim Arabs if they supported the Allies against the Ottomans in WW I?

  • FarnazMansouri2

    The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in a state of collapse, apocalyptic pronouncements about Iran’s nuclear program abound, and the plan by a Muslim group to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero was staunchly opposition venerable Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League.The ADL shifted its position, after endless criticism by major Jewish organisations, Jewish newspapers, Jewish journalists, etc.Mayor Bloomberg (Jewish) defended the Ground Zero Mosq to the hilt and wept as he did so.THe staunchest opponents to the mosq were Christians and Catholics nationwide and they remain so, several of them posting on this web site.If you want the Christians to be more supportive of Muslims, Muslims must stop blowing them up in churches, waging pogroms against them in Egypt, making them Dalit in Pakistan, etc.If you want the Jews to be anymore supportive than they are, if that is possible, you must own up to the recent racist assault against the two hundred that remained of the ancient Yemeni Jewish civilization, resulting in their having to be air-rescued out of Muslim Yemen.If you want Jews, Christians, Hindus to support Muslims, you must repent the slaughter, theft of Jewish property, exiles and deportations of the Middle Eastern Jews–three million now living in exile, the endless attacks, including murder against the B’hai.If you want the world to be more supportive of Muslims, you must condemn the theft by Abbas of millions due to Palestinians following the example set by ARafat. See Al Arabia and Al Jazeera on this.If you want the world to be more supportive of Muslims, you must end the attacks by Palestinian Muslims against Palestinian Christians, finally, after decades, acknowledged by the Pope (LOL) and AP. Also, acknowledged were the thousands of Palestinian Christians who fled into Israel and were given safe haven there.If you want the world to be more supportive of MUslims, you must end the notorious spread of antisemitic filth sponsored by Saudi ARabia and Egypt, not to mention the anti-Christians filth.We donate to Egypt TWO BILLION per annum in addition to the rent we pay (LOL) for use of the Suez Canal. All source funds: approx. FOUR BILLION.Could it possibly have anything to do with the Muslims?

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Frankie,This understanding and outreach is also in Israel’s interest, Ahmed contended. The global Muslim population is 1.5 billion, one fourth of the planet’s population, and includes 57 majority Muslim states. The Jewish world population by contrast, is 13 million, seven million of which live in Israel. In the near future there could be several Muslim nations gaining access to nuclear weapons, and when coupled with a surrounding hostile Arab population of 300 million, which demographers estimate may double by the middle of this century, it is clear that “bringing down the temperature” between the communities is essential for Israel’s survival. And as for the multiplying Muslims, this is the source of a huge outcry among in Europe, all over Europe, in fact, and among many, many Christian churches.Is it wise to make publicize this even more?Are you really Muslim, Frankie?

  • FarnazMansouri2

    The temperature could be brought down if a lot of the islamists returned out land, homes, and murder victims to us Jews throughout the Middle East, including Israel.In the meantime, Frankie, awaiting your question on whether you’re suggesting that Israel nuke Arab nations.As you know from wikileaks, your co-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, want either the US or Israel to nuke Iran. Thus far, they have declined to do so.Which Arab nations do you suggest we nuke?Oh, and Frankie, gettin’ ready to post excerpts from your homie, Bernard Lewis. Stick around.

  • abrahamhab1

    Mr. Martin alleges:“…is impossible for Muslims to be anti-Jewish, despite the distortion of Quranic passages by both Muslims and non-Muslims who attempt to argue the contrary.”How many ways can you interpret the following passage.“ Many are unaware, for example, that several Ottoman Sultans, speaking their capacity as the Caliph of Islam, issued nineteenth century proclamations condemning anti-Semitic blood libels …”Starting in 1830 when Mohammad Ali of Egypt conquered greater Syria from the Turks, the Turkish caliphs tried to enlist the support of the West by liberalizing some of the rules pertaining to the non-Muslim minorities living under their control.“…including the fiction that Islam commands Muslims to die for 72 virgins (neither the figure of 72 or the word virgin appears in the Quran in this context).’But is mentioned in the hadith, the alleged sayings of their prophet, which they argue explains the Quran.

  • Secular

    Mr. Martin, the gap you are talking about is not relevant. The gap you need to be talking about is the economic gap. The Islamists proudly claim a membership of 1.5 Billion. And the jewish population of teh world is for sure under 15 million. That is a 100:1 or better advantage in numbers. However, the economic output of the two groups is at least 100:1 in the other direction. Which means the per capita output will 10,000:1 in favor of a Jew to a Muslim. Now that is teh gap you need to worry about. You know why that is? It is cultural. Most Jews have thrown the contents of their scripture on the dust heap of history, where as the Muslims cling to it. The worse they get the more they cling to the vile, stupid, & superstitious texts. then you wonder what’s wrong. I guess it is their Allah’s will to keep them poor and miserable, as that seems to assure that they will cling to that stupid book.

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