Muslims Are Reaching Out, We Should Reach Back

Saudi King Abdullah’s plan for an interfaith conference that would include Jews, announced last week, was the third Muslim gesture in six months aimed toward a Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogue.

The outreach began in October, when 138 Muslim clerics, scholars, and political leaders presented a document called “A Common Word,” which directly addressed Christianity but implicitly addressed Judaism as well. By now, it has more than 240 Muslim signatures from a broad spectrum of Muslim countries, including Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal; clerics from Indonesia, Nigeria, Italy, and Bosnia; and even U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).

Where most Christian groups responded before the year’s end, the Jewish response, mindful of the situation in Israel, was measured and deliberate — as it should be. In early March the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which represents world Jewry to other world religions, issued a call for Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

In fact, by the time all participating Jewish organizations were on board and IJCIC’s invitation was publicized, there was a new Muslim statement, “A Call to Peace, Dialogue and Understanding between Muslims and Jews.” It was issued in February through the Centre for Muslim-Jewish Relations at the University of Cambridge, England. “Call to Peace” directly addressed the Jews for academic, theological, and political dialogue.

Still, the Jewish response has been criticized by some in the community as hasty — an error in assuming that IJCIC was responding to the new statement, rather than responding slowly to the letter from last fall.

These statements come as the Islamic world seeks to overcome the isolation brought on by the 9/11 attacks, and as the Jewish community is coming to appreciate the impact of five decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Many Jews are ready to be partners to these dialogues. But it is understandable that Jewish-Muslim dialogue would have its Jewish critics.

The critics complain that dialogue is not appropriate when an Islamist group — Hamas — is carrying out warfare against Israel.

These critics fail to appreciate the serious and wide-ranging nature of Islam’s outreach to the Jews, even as they fail to perceive the true nature of the Muslim community. Islam is the faith of 1.3 billion people — 19 percent of the earth’s people. Most are not Arabs or connected to Middle East events. India and China each have more Muslims than the entire Middle East.

Some Jewish organizations clearly accept as one of their basic tenets that one can raise much more money and community support not by diplomacy but by screaming “anti-Semitism.” Many also generate broad guilt-by-association, claiming that no Muslim cleric is ever more than two degrees of separation from a terrorist.

Yet in February, Commentary magazine, not a progressive or liberal journal by any standard, ran an important article, “In Search of Moderate Muslims,” by Joshua Muravchik and Charles P. Szrom. They advocated outreach to Islamic moderates who promote democracy, advocate equal rights, and avoid violence.

American Jews who fail to see an immediate purpose to any interfaith encounter with Islam must remember that dialogue is a long-term process. They should also know that extremists on either side are not part of dialogue; rather, dialogue aims to remove the ground from beneath extremists.

‘Equal footing’

Dialogue does not assume that both parties enter dialogue on equal footing with comparable goals and motives. This approach would have guaranteed that the Jewish community would not have been speaking to Catholics or Protestants in the early days of Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Requiring shared motives is unfair and unreasonable.

After the Holocaust, the Christian communities undoubtedly had more work to do in the dialogue than the Jews. Should we not have engaged in that dialogue until we were “on equal footing”? Yet look at the amazing results from that encounter. When dialogue with Catholics started in the 1950s some Christians entered with a problematic treatment of Judaism. Eventually, the Catholic Church moved from teaching contempt to recognizing Judaism as a living faith. It recognized the State of Israel, and sought to remove anything in Catholicism that can be used to teach anti-Semitism.

Several of the Muslim positions recently circulating, such as the Cambridge statement, are at least equally problematic. They offer to include Judaism under the Islamic polity, as part of the same entity. While a vast improvement over the Islamicist position that Jews are a foreign cancer in the Muslim polity, the statement still seeks to consider Judaism a part of Islam.

Yet, when Jews first engaged Catholics, the immediate narrow focus was fighting anti-Semitism. Over time, Catholics began to address the very nature of their relationship with Judaism, and the problematic elements were overcome. So, too, with Islam, we need to start with small steps. Islam should be given the same chance to show reciprocity and respect. In fact, the Muslim representatives to the Vatican last month to start this round of interfaith activity even included a noted Muslim Zionist.

Many in the Jewish community resist all such endeavors, and we are similarly aware that not all Muslim leaders are themselves prepared to sit with us. The Saudis may not yet be ready for religious tolerance, but right now, Muslims from Minnesota to Malaysia are seeking dialogue as a means of overcoming Western stereotypes of their faith.

We should not kiss every hand extended to us, nor expect every initiative to be successful. But we should not refuse to shake hands with those who have the ability to significantly change the face and future of Islam.

Rabbi Alan Brill holds the Cooperman-Ross Distinguished Professor Chair in Jewish-Christian Studies in Honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University in South Orange. He engages in interfaith encounter under the auspices of the IJCIC.