Islam can be considered Judaism 2.0.  This statement can also be seen in the context of Islamic sources and traditions that see Islam as a continuation of the Abrahamic message of one true god. Surely, there is much in each religious tradition that is common – as each invites man to submit himself to the creator, create a ‘just society’ and live in peace. There are vast differences too. The question that begs an explanation is, why is there so much tension between Muslims and Jews? Why do we hear so much about ‘anti-semitism’ in parts of the Muslim world and ‘Islamophobia’ among some Jews? I want to suggest in this short piece that while this tension between the two faith groups seems to be about religion, it is in fact a political discourse, in which politics is intruding the territory of religion, rather than religion being the key cause of contention. In this particular case, I would even suggest that religious traditions and institutions can offer solutions, rather than political parties or ideologies. The solution will come from non-state actors, provided they are allowed to build up a critical mass, to influence political decisions.
The easiest way to invite controversy is to indulge in ‘inter-faith’ relations, it seems. Especially, if it has to do with Islam and Judaism in America. While there is nothing in the religious beliefs of each religion against ‘engaging’ with the other, political discourse and power relations have made the environment so vicious that often, just sharing an idea of interfaith dialogue can lead to acrimony and suspicion of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ or a ‘Muslim appeasement’ problem. Despite this underlying tension – which exists largely because of the Israel/ Palestine conflict – there are efforts by sincere people who want to address the tensions. Groups such as Jews and Muslims in D.C., Islamic Society of North America and other local groups in the D.C. metro area have come together to organize events and create dialogue.
The key question in answering the question whether an inter-faith program will succeed seems to be to understand the power relations involved. Who is organizing the debate/ dialogue, who is paying for it and what are the potential benefits for the participants? If these questions are answered, in sincerity and transparently, then much of the suspicion regarding the intentions of such programs can be allayed.
A recent initiative by the Shalom Hartman Institute has received much flak for what critics have called ‘faith-washing’, where a group of American Muslims are participating in an ‘inter-faith’ program and their participation is being perceived as co-optation by the Zionist group. This is a genuine concern and should be addressed, lest the people involved lose their credibility and reputation – the key currency in such efforts. There is a perception that this American Muslim group is being ‘bribed’ into silencing their criticism of occupation and the injustice involved in the name of ‘inter-faith’ dialogue? I don’t mean to analyze this particular incident in too much depth. There are several articles about this online, but the point that I am trying to drive home is about the kinds of questions that we need to ask to ascertain whether an interfaith is genuinely what it claims to be, or is it a façade for buying out dissent?
Religious tradition in Islam invokes the idea of the ‘people of the book’, meaning Christians, Jews and Muslims, who are supposed to be connected through Abraham, the father of the monotheistic tradition. Muslims can marry Jewish women, though there are some apprehensions about Muslim women marrying Jewish men. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the Qur’an or the Hadith that explicitly forbids interactions or friendship with Jewish people. For sure, there have been historical instances where Muslim tradition has treated Jews harshly. But these instances should be seen in a historic context, and should be evaluated for what they are – instances where power struggles and questions of loyalty preceded any notion of ‘human rights’ etc. Further, the golden age of Islam in Andalusia is considered the benchmark of peaceful relations of Jews, Muslims and Christians – all living together under Muslim rule. David Levering Lewis argues in his book God’s Crucible that European civilization emerged after this golden era. As Lewis suggest, the time in Medina during the time of the prophet Muhammad can be seen as one where syncretism ruled, at least in the early part; where Jewish traditions were honored and found place in Islam. Speaking of the Prophet’s mission in Medina, he says ‘For the present, though, syncretism ruled, Jews were spiritual kinfolk, after all, the spawn of Abraham.’ (p.41). Before the shift of the direction of prayer to the Ka’ba, early Muslims faced Jerusalem to pray. The later history of Jewish-Muslim relations went through ups and downs, but overall, one can say that there was accommodation within Islam for Jewish beliefs, and a sense of being co-believers in one God. Of course, later history is more complex than the simple narrative I have provided above. To appreciate this complexity, one can ask the question: Where does one place a historical figure such as Rabbi Maimonides, who was a Jew, but worked in the 12th century Muslim world and contributed to both cultures, as he wrote in Arabic. How does one see a trans-historical figure like him, does he belong to strictly the ‘Muslim’ or ‘Judaic’ tradition? This historical memory is punctured by more recent events, most essentially by the founding of the state of Israel, which seems to have created a discourse of Islam versus Judaism, where no such division actually exists, in the religious imagination.
Speaking of contemporary era and challenges of ‘keeping peace’, Mubarak Awad, who is referred to as the Palestinian Gandhi, talks about the role of the religious establishment in promoting ideas of peace. He speaks of the role of the Mennonite Church and other faith-based organizations that are promoting non-violence in Israel and Palestine, as an antidote to the hateful rhetoric coming from the state apparatus. ‘There are Rabbis and Imams who are joining the call for nonviolent struggle too’, he added; pointing to groups, both in the U.S. and in Palestine who have espoused a message of justice and equal rights, using religion as the framework.
The key factor holding back inter-faith dialogue on an equal footing seems to be Jewish attitudes towards Israel and (many) Muslims’ grievances that the Palestine issue is not being addressed sincerely. While not all Jews in the U.S. support Israeli actions unequivocally, there is certainly an emotional attachment to the state of Israel among many American Jews. As a recent Pew Research Report points out “Six-in-ten U.S. Jews are optimistic that a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, even though about half do not think the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement and three-quarters say the same about the current Palestinian leadership.” The landscape of American Jewish support of Israel is complicated and multi-layered, with many organizations offering a strong, credible intellectual resistance to Israeli occupation policies. While their work is well known, I am not too sure how many Muslims in America are aware of their commendable work. Americans for Peace Now, B’TSelem come to mind, when I think of organizations that are working in the political sphere; while Tru’ah (Formerly Rabbis for Peace) comes to mind in the religious sphere. Islamic Society of North America is the most prominent Muslim group that has consistently led inter-faith work on issues related to Muslim-Jewish dialogue. While these efforts are ongoing, it seems like they need to be scaled up, for impact.
So, to sum up: I think inter-faith work between Jews and Muslims is possible. Not just in the U.S., but everywhere around the world. To see examples of this in action, one just needs to look around, to see the amazing work that several organizations are carrying out. But this enthusiasm should also be tempered with the awareness of sensitivities of who is setting the terms of dialogue, who is benefiting from it and what outcomes do we expect? Without this awareness, ‘dialogue’ becomes part of propaganda and PR – and that is not fruitful.
1. Editor’s Note from Adam Horowitz: When I received this piece I asked the author if this should read “Judaism 3.0” given the chronology of the Abrahamic faiths. He said no and I think his response is worth sharing here: “Islam is a civil code ( governing public life like Judaism) unlike Christianity, which governs private life. Hence, Judaism and Islam are inherently similar. And again, both religions rely heavily on legal traditions, while Christianity relies more on ‘beliefs’ (Reza Aslan has made this point). The concept of Trinity also differentiates Islam from Christianity. Again, I am not a scholar of Judaism, though I study contemporary Islam. Hence, I still think Islam is Judaism 2.0.”