Forging New Muslim-Jewish Engagement: Reflections on MLI

Forging New Muslim-Jewish Engagement: Reflections on MLI January 28, 2015
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Muslim Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, has been a topic of great controversy in the American Muslim community and beyond. Altmuslim is publishing a few perspectives this week, and we welcome your comments below.

By Maggie Siddiqi

Last year, I was feeling pretty tired of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue scene in North America. I had been engaging in interfaith collaborations for the past nine years, including three as a part of my work at a national Muslim organization. While I have enjoyed my interactions with rabbis and Jewish leaders from all denominations – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist – I felt like I had reached a standstill in some of those relationships.

It is no secret that relations between Jewish and Muslim communities are often less than cordial, and Jewish-Muslim dialogues are intended to address that. Nevertheless, at some point, no matter how friendly the interactions, no matter how strong the spiritual connection, the ongoing occupation and enduring conflict in Israel/Palestine hindered my ability to go deeper. In nearly all interfaith discussions, the conflict was the elephant in the room, something constantly in the back of the minds of many Jewish and Muslim participants, but never addressed in a clear, constructive manner. And without tackling this issue head-on, I was convinced nothing meaningful could ever really be accomplished.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Although deeply affected by the violence and suffering associated with the occupation, I never considered it relevant in a conversation about religion. In the Christian community in which I grew up, no one had familial ties to the region, nor even an apparent religious attachment to the present-day Holy Land. But after my conversion to Islam in 2005, there was a sudden expectation that I would know everything about the conflict. For better or worse, the issue of Palestine has captured the discourse and imagination of many American Muslim communities. Even after I traveled there in 2006, the conflict did not feel to me to be an integral part of any conversation exclusively about religion. Nor did it feel central to my identity as an American Muslim, except that being a Muslim compels me to advocate for social justice and call out unjust oppression wherever I see it.

Furthermore, by discussing this issue in interfaith settings, I feared I would lose respect for my Jewish dialogue partners if I were to learn they were complacent, or worse, supportive of Israel’s ongoing human rights violations against Palestinians. These feelings, stemming from suspicion and past experiences, significantly undermined the initial trust needed to cultivate any meaningful and challenging dialogue. Even if that dialogue was intended to be only about theology and rituals, I could not develop a real relationship with my Jewish dialogue partners if I doubted their level of commitment to human rights. As a result, in spite of myself, what seemed to be a non-religious question was having an impact on inter-religious engagement.

I was not alone in feeling this way. I once asked an imam for feedback on a Jewish-Muslim dialogue program I helped run. He and other Muslim leaders had partnered with several rabbis in his town over the course of several months, and he responded that they had a great time with the dialogue. They even spoke about the importance of Jerusalem to both Jews and Muslims. Ultimately, he said, “We need more. When I visit the synagogue, there is the Israeli flag. How can I really trust the rabbi if he is killing my brother?”

Given that he had just commented positively on his dialogue experience, I was taken aback. His statement underscored the need to go beyond traditional interfaith dialogue. If we are to make real progress in Jewish-Muslim relations in America, we will need to directly and carefully address the elephant in the room. We need a way to start addressing the traumas impacting our communities that stem from this conflict.

I believe a new path is needed, one that goes beyond the positive but limited dialogues we have encountered thus far. As the imam said, “We need more.”

Forging New Dialogue with the Muslim Leadership Initiative

Fortunately for me, Imam Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University, feels the same way. He was the Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan University when I first started learning about Islam, and as a result, I had and continue to have immense faith in his character, vision, professionalism, and intentions. I knew we shared the same hopes and fears regarding this issue, and so I accepted his invitation to participate in the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a year-long program he co-founded with the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI).

By studying at SHI, I would have the opportunity to learn from one of the most well-respected and prestigious Jewish academic centers about how diverse Jewish communities understand and debate Israel, Zionism, and Judaism. I felt that this knowledge would help me address the conflict from a position of deeper understanding. After all, to improve a relationship, someone has to be willing to take the first step, making it easy for the other to reciprocate. I also valued the chance this opportunity would provide to meet personally with Palestinians on their turf so that I could bear witness to and hear about their daily reality.

I found it refreshing that this engagement was not structured as a traditional “interfaith dialogue” of Jewish and Muslim participants, but rather as a challenging back-and-forth interaction between Muslim participants and Jewish faculty members. We learned from several pre-eminent Jewish scholars, and they in turn learned from us as we asked challenging questions and raised new ideas. There were no conditions, promises or expectations from either side – only sincerity and open-mindedness through difficult conversations.

Unlike my previous trip to Israel/Palestine, in which I naively felt I could contribute as a positive force to creating peace, this time I entertained no such delusions of grandeur. I went in my capacity as an American Muslim with significant experience in interfaith relations and with the intention to improve Jewish-Muslim relations in the United States. By understanding the impact of Israel on various American Jewish identities, I hoped I could better understand and have more meaningful conversations with many of my Jewish dialogue partners. I strongly believe that poor relations between Jews and Muslims in the West contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide as well as anti-Palestinian policies in both the US and Israel.

The program has not disappointed me. After only one day at SHI, I felt I was rapidly getting a better understanding of the many diverse aspects and understandings of Jewish identity, as a combination of faith and peoplehood. I was also gaining a better sense of the many Jewish understandings of Israel and Zionism. This included an inside look at the many flaws and disappointments Jewish people have themselves identified and wrestled with, and the narratives which have been used and abused to the detriment of all.

In fact, apart from our visits with Palestinian leaders, the curriculum was virtually identical to the one offered to rabbis at the institute. I found myself grateful for the opportunity to hear these internal narratives, with all of their messiness, contradictions, and differences of opinions, and I felt comfortable voicing strong, respectful disagreement. In spite of how troubling I found the effects of Zionism to be, I felt I could better understand the ideologies that drove the Zionist enterprise, having learned them from their most noted practitioners. This is truly what dialogue is about. You don’t have to agree, but the exchange allows you the opportunity to understand.

On Criticism and Constructive Dialogue

In the midst of this incredible learning experience, I was disappointed at the vitriol I was encountering from back home. I understood that people might be dubious about the nature of this trip. After all, this issue is a painful one for many in my Muslim community, and I recognize that it needs to be addressed with sensitivity. But the sheer volume of disparaging comments, social media smearing and online harassment was shocking.

While most friends were supportive of my participation, other voices rejected it outright, relying solely on the words of those who did not even bother talking to the participants. Some said this dialogue violated the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement regarding Israel. Rejecting dialogue, even with Zionists, seems bizarre to me as an American who consistently advocates for engagement and diplomacy between individuals, nations, and everyone in between.

Some even believed I was a brainwashed, “Zionist” tool in a conspiratorial propaganda scheme concocted to make American Muslims complacent toward the oppression of Palestinians, an assertion I find absurd. For the record, SHI did not publicize our participation in MLI, nor ask us to believe or do anything as a result of the program. They have continued to remain respectful of our political opinions and defer to us regarding how we publicize and frame our engagement. Ironically, the program is now exceedingly well-known as a result of its detractors and their inflammatory social media campaign.

The idea that by virtue of being an American Muslim I am expected to sign onto every stipulation of the BDS movement is not only religiously invalid, it unilaterally stifles any other strategy for people who are essentially on the same side of the issue. Furthermore, it expends valuable energy isolating and excommunicating allies who share similar goals but choose a different approach to reaching them.

While working for a national American Muslim organization, one of my biggest frustrations was that much of the American public rarely seems to consult American Muslims about what we actually believe. Too often, people get their information about Islam from self-proclaimed anti-Muslim experts whose mission is the vilification and eradication of my religion. As long as people feel it is okay to learn about what a group believes from anyone other than a member of that group, my work in interfaith relations will be of little use. It is because of this principle that I insist on extending the same courtesy to others, to hear from them what they believe.

In every conflict, it is essential for people of conscience to engage in dialogue with those who belong to groups in a position of power. This kind of engagement humanizes the situation, and allows those in power to see nuances and alternatives in ideas they may have taken for granted.

Yehuda Kurtzer, SHI’s North American President, recently wrote on Facebook:

“I have been very moved by teaching in this program and getting to know the participants as peers, colleagues, friends and teachers. It has changed for me my understanding of how and why to have difficult conversations, and has challenged me to refine my own relationship to Zionism and Israel as features of my Judaism.”

I believe this is just the start of what can be a constructive partnership that builds social capital and steers American Muslim and Jewish relations towards healthier terrains.

I am grateful for the openness, self-reflection, and sincerity of faculty members like Yehuda Kurtzer, and for the opportunity to be a part of MLI. I’m also grateful that religion is at the forefront of this conversation. Of course, this conflict is not a “religious” one – it is a political problem and ongoing human rights crisis, and it will require political solutions. However, in some communities, it is often perceived, understood, and communicated through religious framing, and that is reason enough to engage in this wholeheartedly as American Muslims and Jews.

Personally, I believe religion can and should play a heavy role in the broader movement towards a just and peaceful solution – if not in Israel/Palestine, then at the very least between many American Muslim and Jewish communities who operate in isolation and often in opposition to one another. As I have learned, the conflict has a huge impact on how we relate to one another as religious individuals, and it will need to remain a part of that conversation to heal those divides.

As one dear professor of mine said, “We need spiritual remedies for our political pathologies.” As someone who is studying to become an American Muslim chaplain, I feel that spiritual remedies are needed for the traumas of the occupation and its reverberations around the world. And this starts with the hard work that our Prophet (peace be upon him) called us to do when he commanded us to help those on both sides of a conflict, whether they are oppressors or the oppressed, by helping to stop the oppression.

Maggie Mitchell Siddiqi is a graduate student at Hartford Seminary, pursuing a M.A. in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and a Graduate Certificate in Islamic Chaplaincy. Her previous work experience includes three years of interfaith and government relations for the Islamic Society of North America, as well as research assistance for a Washington, D.C.-based government consulting firm, serving as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and interning as legislative staff in the Office of U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. 

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