One of the constant themes repeated ad nauseum by right-wing Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes, Alan Dershowitz and their supporters is that Muslims are uniformly extremists filled with hate. There are no “Muslim moderates.” No imams denounce terror. They all support Al Qaeda, etc. etc.
Walter Ruby in Jewish Week brings yet further evidence of the utter falsity of such claims. He writes about the new interim imam of New York City’s largest and most influential mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center, the Indonesian-born Mohammed Shamsi Ali. The interview with him is wide-ranging, candid and impressive:
[He] declared in a dialogue with Rabbi Schneier at the New York Synagogue earlier this month that it “cannot be accepted to deny the existence of Israel” or to deny the Holocaust. Appearing last week at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Imam Ali delivered a special sermon during Mincha services in which he urged Jews and Muslims to revisit “problematic” passages in the Koran and Torah. Those passages buttress bellicose stances against other religions by understanding them as having been written in earlier times, and not necessarily relevant to today’s world.
Imam Ali also urged his listeners to “look beyond what is presented in the media” about Jewish-Muslim relations in order to create “real connections” based on trust and affection. “Once you get to know Muslims,” he said, “you will ask them, ‘Are you really the people I see portrayed [negatively] on Fox News?’”
Key Muslim leaders in New York praise the Indonesian-born Ali as a charismatic and compassionate leader whose embrace of interfaith dialogue represents “mainstream” opinion within the Muslim community.
It is sad, but somehow reassuring that those in both the Muslim and Jewish communities who reach out to the other side are rebuffed by their respective extremist right fringes:
A shadowy Queens-based militant group known as the Islamic Thinkers Society has attacked Imam Ali on its Web site as an “FBI mouthpiece” and “moderate Uncle Sam Muslim” who has corrupted young people at his mosque in Jamaica by allowing them to have “access to guitars and drums.”
Imam Ali…makes no apology for his cooperation with the FBI and New York City police. “We understand the job of law enforcement [in the post-9/11 situation),” he said. “I myself have said publicly that if anyone [in the Muslim community] sees something suspicious, he has an obligation to report it to the police. At the same time, law enforcement must be careful not to overreact and create a situation where there is an interruption of basic American values when it applies to Muslims.”
This reminded me of one of my own personal experiences on that score. I was the western director of New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s during a time when Alex Odeh, then director of the Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee, was assassinated by a letter bomb probably orchestrated by members of the Jewish Defense League. I received a voice mail message from the JDL’s Earl Krugel threatening our group and reported this to the FBI and agreed to meet investigators in my office. I was excoriated by some Agenda members for doing so. My view is that when my life is threatened I’m going to have to trust somebody. While I don’t see the FBI as necessarily my friend, they sure know a lot more about the JDL and the threat they pose than I do. It was trust them or trust no one. And when I’m in danger I have to trust someone. That’s why I allowed them into my office.
The Muslim religious leader’s views put him squarely in the mainstream of American religious life. This is a man who Jews should be able to “do business with” to quote Maggie Thatcher’s infamous phrase about Gorbachev:
Imam Ali believes that American Jews and Muslims should build a relationship “that is more influenced by religious commonalities than by political differences. We cannot deny the emotional impact of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet we need to ensure that our relationship is not determined only by that.” He added, “We also should remember that there have been bright times in our relationship as well, such as the cooperation between Muslims and Jews in Andalusia during the Middle Ages.”
I’m pleased that Jewish academic institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and HUC-JIR have hosted talks with him and are reaching out to him.
Unfortunately, as I’ve documented here the N.Y. Jewish federation has not taken as forward-thinking a role. In fact, it has backslid into fear and mistrust of the local Muslim community. Federation rabbis have been directed to withdraw from interfaith dialogue projects. Rabbi Michael Paley was once a member of Debbie Almontaser’s support committee and listed as a keynote speaker at one of Rabbi Schneier’s conferences. He backed out of both projects mysteriously.
Also, after enthusiastically endorsing the Other Israel Film Festival devoted to Israeli Arab cinema, the Federation executive Jon Ruskay, abruptly told the festival organizers that they must remove the Federation’s logo from publicity brochures. Festival founder Carole Zabar was taken aback by Ruskay’s change of tack. An ill wind apparently blows through the Federation when it comes to Muslim-Jewish relations in New York.
Unfortunately, the Jewish communal group is missing out on an important opportunity to engage local Muslims in dialogue and debate about issues that divide and link us. Events in the Middle East are too bloody and too catastrophic to miss such possibilities when they arise. To the Ruskays of the Jewish world I say (paraphrasing Hillel): if you will not be for peace, who will be for it? If you are only for yourself, what are you? If not now, when?