Muslim-Jewish dialogue: A necessity for cohesion

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By Akbar Ahmed
Muslim-Jewish dialogue and better understanding is a genuine need of the present volatile time. On April 11, I had the privilege of speaking in Temple Emanuel, a prominent synagogue in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts. My dialogue was titled, “What Stands in the Way? A Muslim Scholar Reflects on Challenges & Opportunities in Muslim-Jewish Relations” and was organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC)New England.
The evening was marked by hospitality and good will, which was evident in the opening reception. The audience of some 300 Jewish and Muslim community leaders included CEOs, heads of companies, doctors, professors, and engineers. Leading Jewish figures, including Jonathan Dorfman, the President of AJC New England, were in attendance and Rob Leikind, the Director of AJC New England, was our impeccable host.
Some of the prominent Pakistani figures present included Dr. Salman Malik and his wife Romana, Drs. Naheed and Hasan Usmani, and some top leaders of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of New England. Barry Hoffman, the beloved Honorary Consul General of Pakistan in Boston, was in attendance here and throughout my Boston tour, which also included a lecture at Harvard University.
There had already been some dialogue between the Jewish and the Muslim communities in the Greater Boston area, but by addressing the core issues in how the communities perceive one another and how to proceed in a substantial and critical manner, this program broke new ground.
Rob and I sat on the stage in the imposing hall of the sanctuary and he moderated the proceedings.
One of the first questions I was asked concerned the widely held stereotypes of sharia, dawa, and even taqiyya, which many Islamophobes in the West claim is a principle which calls on Muslims to lie about Islam being a religion of peace in order to obfuscate their malicious intentions. As any genuine scholar of Islam will attest, these concepts are extensively misunderstood or, as with taqiyya, not common among Muslims but refer to some arcane sectarian practice.
Another Jewish audience member asked, “What should we be doing in order to improve relations with Muslims? If the Palestinian issue was solved with a two-state solution, and the two states were able to live together as neighbors, how would the Muslim world react?” I said the Muslim world would respond very positively. I emphasized that the Muslim world is not anti-Semitic. Rather, it just identifies strongly with the suffering of Palestinians and seeks justice for the Palestinian people.
One Muslim audience member stood up and actually cried pointing out how miserable, impoverished, and divided Muslims were and how they were to be consoled rather than seen as any credible force. Later he apologized to me for being so emotional. On a more positive note, it is worth noting that several Muslim audience members, especially doctors, discussed how they had been helped extensively by senior Jewish colleagues when they first came to the US. The session was intense and lasted for over two hours. By the end I felt exhausted.
My daughter Nafees, a bright MBA student at MIT, said with a twinkle in her eye,
“Papa I admire you for building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, but it is hardwork and I don’t know what inducement would persuade me to do it.” Jonathan Dorfman complimented me for handling the early question well and said of all the AJC events he had attended this was the best ever. Following the program, I received some fascinating feedback from audience members and organizers alike.
Rob wrote, “I am back at my desk and the first thing I want to do is to thank you for your thoughtful presentation. I measure the success of an event by how long the audience sticks around after and they stayed a long time. The feedback was wonderful and I hope you could sense how engaged the audience was.” Dr. Usmani commented on Facebook, “Ambassador Akbar Ahmed spoke eloquently and handled a Pamela Geller inspired question with great aplomb!”
Dr. Salman forwarded an exchange he had with his friend Khalid Chishti, an engineer. Khalid wrote, “We had a wonderful time at the AJC event with Prof. Akbar Ahmed. He was inspiring to bring us close. It was fun in discussing Jewish leaders their outlook and common threats and racism in America and beyond. We have a lot to learn from them. Thanks Salman!”
Dr. Salman responded to Khalid, “You’re welcome. What I like about his talks is that he will discuss Islam without bringing in fire and brimstone to the conversation.”
Khalid then responded: “He definitely moved the audience. His suggestion was great, if they could broadcast these kind of discussions in Pakistan, Egypt, Israel etc. How civilized people can engage in non-confrontational manner and own up to mistakes committed by few on the fringes. I met Jewish families hosting Syrian refugees. Their support for Israel is same as our love of Pakistan. Similarly, shameful about acts of few politicians & people on extreme right. I was moved by his story about Daniel Pearl’s father and his commitment to carry on to create bonds with Muslims. Gosh, it gives me hope for humanity! I met many extremely successful people there, but with higher missions and greater vision. I just wish we have more leaders like Prof. Ahmed back home!”
After my return to DC, I asked Rob about AJC.”AJC,” he wrote, “was founded in 1906 by a group of concerned people who wanted to do something to stop the tide of anti-Semitism at home and abroad. The organization pioneered the field of intergroup and interfaith relations and quickly became a prominent civil rights organization. It operated with the understanding that the well-being of the Jewish community depended upon securing the rights of all citizens.”
Rob went on to discuss how AJC has been heavily involved with several human rights landmarks in the US and abroad over the last few decades. He also discussed the global reach of the AJC and the impact of this extensive network: “Today we have offices and bureaus in 11 countries and active liaison agreements with 34 Jewish communities on 5 continents, along with 22 offices here in the United States. This global network provides AJC with the wherewithal to advocate for an end to anti-Semitism and other forms of hate; to work for peace and security for Israel and her neighbors; and to promote democratic values at home and abroad.”
Rob also shared what drives him personally: “My parents both survived Hitler’s Europe and immigrated to the United States after World War II. They have an appreciation for American democracy that only those who have suffered the consequences of tyranny can fully know. They transmitted their values to me and my life has been animated by the thought that I might make a small contribution to ensuring that our nation lives up to its creed and that Jews and others may live as equals without fear.”
I will leave the final word to Barry Hoffman, a man who truly symbolizes Jewish-Muslim friendship and who has served Pakistan faithfully for decades. Barry sent a text as I returned to DC: “Thank you for sharing the glory. If there were only 1000 Akbar Ahmeds! It would be such a wonderful world. You are really a wonderful person, Akbar.”
(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)