“NATURAL ALLIANCES: MUSLIM AND JEWS SHOULD BE MAKING EVERY CONCEIVABLE EFFORT TO BRING BOTH FAITH COMMUNITIES TOGETHER”
So many blogs, articles and ‘specialist’ pieces make the case that Jews and Muslims are increasingly becoming suspicious and fearful of each other. Polar stories make out that both communities just see each other through the prism and lens of the Middle East and when Gaza’s and Jenin’s take place, both communities increasingly caricature each other. To some members of British Jewry, Muslims are seen as an ‘insular community,’ with extremist voices and messages. ‘The other,’ the narrative goes, promote Anti-Semitism and have taken on the mantle of Christian Anti-Semitism, swallowing it whole and giving life to Muslim Anti-Semitism. Counter to this are the narratives within some Muslim communities, that there is a growing influence politically and socially by members of British Jewry who use extremism to keep Muslim communities under pressure. The narrative goes on suggesting that some anti-Muslim activities come from members of British Jewry and that Israel and the protection of Israel at all costs, is the over-riding agenda for these individuals. Further narratives also suggest that web-sites are being set up that twist core Islamic text and media from Muslim countries so as to promote half truths and to further caricature Muslims.
These narratives are not only dangerous, they perpetuate conflict, are emotional and have little basis apart from basal irrational fears that run counter to the history of Jewish / Muslim relations. Since the issue of Israel / Palestine has come into the discussion space between Muslims and Jews, both communities have attempted to bestialise each other and to create new mental ‘security barriers’ when there should not be any. I for one will not accept these twisted and destructive narratives and I will not have my narrative and my future written by others. My fellow brothers and sisters are not only Muslim ones, but Jewish ones whose rights to life, security and freedom to worship I will defend to the hilt.
Muslims and Jews are far closer in many arenas than they are with other faith communities. The unity of God and the oneness of God is a fundamental principle of both faiths. This is a central point and should not be overlooked. It is powerful and the indivisibility of God is at the core of both faiths. That is why one reason why Muslims can eat Kosher food if Halal is not available since the sacrifice is to a single and all powerful eternal power. Also, our faiths are based on Prophets. Samson, Noah, Isaac, Moses, Abraham and many, many others all play a central role in our faiths. They were the link between God and man, a link which stayed eternal because of their sacrifices. Both faiths also believe that the wisdom and light of God came through the Prophets and each carried messages and the desire to spread these messages from the Almighty. Where Islam differs, is that it places onto Jesus the mantle of a Prophet of God and to Muhammad (peace be upon Him), the mantle of being the last Prophet of God.
When I have visited synagogues, I have found their structures very similar to those of mosques. The lack of stylized images, the rejection of any form of idolatry, the leading of the prayers by the Rabbi or Imam and the pointers towards Jerusalem and Mecca all show a similarity in the structure of worship. There are obviously differences in the number of men that can conduct a service within Judaism, yet even with the prostration elements within the faiths, there are similarities. Prostration had a role within Judaism and continues to do so within Islam to this day. It must also be said that Jerusalem holds a very special place within the hearts of Muslims. Whilst Muslims pray towards Mecca, the fact is that one of the two Qiblas and prayer points is Jerusalem and it will always have a special place within the hearts of Muslims. It is fact that both faith communities and their prayers and thoughts move towards Jerusalem at points in their prayers. Therefore, the beauty of Jerusalem is that it will and should always remain a place where all of the three Abrahamic faiths can find solace, religious rejuvenation and a link with God.
You see, it is not just the faith elements that bind us; it is also our shared histories. Islam in its purest sense means a relationship and submission to God. In essence, this means that Judaism and Christianity fit within the faith. Yet, if I look at the history of when Islam came into being within the Arabian Peninsula around the 6th Century, the fact is that there were Jewish tribes that were present in those regions. Islam and Muslims grew and they came across and shared their futures with these Jewish tribes. Some of these Jewish tribes sided with the Quraysh who were polytheists, yet there were those who worked with and interacted with Muslims. Some tribes made pacts with Muslims and the Prophet himself entered into strategic alliances with some Jewish tribes. Yet, the closeness of our two faiths came into being when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) married a Jewess called Saffiyah who was with him when he died. She converted to Islam and theirs was a marriage based on tenderness and the Prophet (pbuh) confronting some of the xenophobia that was directed against her. On numerous occasions, Prophet Muhammad stood up against the xenophobia of those who attacked Saffiyah because of her heritage and the Prophet time and time again made it clear that those who were closest to God were those whose hearts were clean and without the scourge of hate.
So why have both communities become so fearful of one another? Even in terms of our histories as minority communities in Europe, there seem to be some strong similarities. In fact, one of the events that socially activated me was the genocide in Bosnia against 250,000 Muslims. In the early 1990’s the continuing pictures of attacks on innocent Muslims in Sarajevo, Gorazde, Tuzla and many other villages and cities made it clear that minority communities were not even safe on the borders of Europe. It brought home the fact that two hours away from London, Muslims were being killed because of who they were and because of the faith that they believed in. That for me made me think about what took place over 60 years ago in Europe. For me, this is why it was exceptionally important for me to understand the pain and sense of deep cultural, religious and human loss that Jews felt. This single event activated me to ensure that I came out of my comfort zone and came out to listen to the narratives, feelings and thoughts of others. The pain of other communities should the pain of all of us and if anything, this helps us each to put ourselves in the shoes of those who may be suffering and helping them when they need that support. The mass killings and butchery of Muslims in camps like Manjaca and Omarksa should not be forgotten; so we should also not forget the camps of Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and the many many others that traversed across Poland and the Balkan States, put there by the Nazi war machine.
It is also exceptionally important for both communities to see the diversity of opinions and communities within both faiths in the UK. The singular ‘Muslim’ community concept does not exist and I would also argue the same around the concept of a singular Jewish community. Within Islam, its history is one of diversity. The first convert to Islam was a woman called Khadija who was the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In fact, it was her who informed him that the visitation from the Angel Gabriel (Jibril) was a sign of his Prophethood and she was therefore the key driver to the Prophet understanding that he had a mission. Additionally, the first man to make the call to prayer (the ‘Adhan’) was a Black man in Islam, called Bilal. There are numerous instances in Islam where women led in many areas and today the range of diversity and languages that make up Muslim communities are higher than other faiths. The history of Judaism is also one which has crossed Europe, Asia, Africa and even as far afield as India. Today, one of the few remaining examples of that diversity are the Ethiopian Jews. So our histories and faiths are not monolithic. They are changing, fluid, dynamic and consistently adapting and shifting in order to survive within the different geographical locations of the world.
Moving onto the issue of the threats on the horizon affecting both faith communities, the threat of the Far Right is obvious. No longer can this be regarded as a threat that is non-existent. Who would have thought that today, we would have a London Assembly being represented by the British National Party? Who would have thought that in areas of our country there is a growing tide of disaffection with the mainstream political parties which means that more and more people are regarding the Far Right as an option? Yet, today, there are areas in the North of England where the Far Right is becoming entrenched and playing off one community against the other whilst promoting themselves as ‘mainstream’ politicians. Mainstream they are not, threats to our cohesion and the future stability in our country, they are. We must therefore come together and work towards reclaiming the political landscape. Without that, we are on a slow but slippery slope that will come to haunt us in the future.
Furthermore, our communities should not be brushing against each other and especially so when the Israel and Palestine is thrown in the mire. Both Muslims and Jews are driven within their faiths by a sense of social justice. That social justice is based on the respect of human and civil rights and the protection of life. It is in the core of both faiths. There are many within both faiths in the UK who strive for this within the context of the Israel and Palestine question. There are also those within Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) and Israel. (I have mentioned those within Gaza since there are families that want this peace, if at least to be left alone after the immense social and economic pressures that have been placed on them. Lumping all within Gaza as ‘potential threats’ is counter-productive and simply plays into the hands of those who want to perpetuate a continuing war and heightened tensions.) Yet, the Israel / Palestine question is the only narrative that seems to over-ride our relationships, as if it is all encompassing and all enveloping and it should not be! What happens 2,000 miles away does have impacts, though it should not be the over-riding element that blurs logic and reason. Nor should it be the only lens through which we see each other. If we do that, we build a future of conflict and a future that plays into the hands of the Far Right and others who seek to drive a wedge between us.
Saying that, it is essential that British Muslims engage in a transparent and open manner with the State of Israel and its civil society structures. These relationships need to be built before we attempt to take on the differences on the Israel and Palestine question and we must not shy away from discussing this though for anything to change, the State structures and some within Israel should not lump British Muslims as a threat or a potential fifth column. This will be risky for Israeli politicians but we have to be courageous. For British Muslims interested in playing a role in constructive discussions and for those who want to help, (even if that help is for the Palestinians), personal courage to engage and to listen to narratives within Israel will be required. This will lead to ideas that can generate positive activities or it may lead to disengagement. Whatever the outcome, this engagement must take place since the policy of disengagement with Israel has failed. It is also a fact that disengagement means no chance to play a role in the future of an area that is holy to both Muslims and Jews. Disengagement also helps no-one, least so the Palestinians and it does nothing to better relations between Muslims and Jews.
Now, I know that none of the proposals around engagement are easy, but there has to be another way. We have reached stalemate on the Israel / Palestine question. Pro-Israel social activism merely encourages pro-Palestinian social activism. Demonstrations merely produce counter-demonstrations. Caricatures and racist statements around Palestinians merely produce more grotesque caricatures and racist statements Jews. The ‘middle’ voices simply get drowned out. If we do not see the logic of alliance building, then our tomorrows will not be safer than our today’s. Is that a future that you and I will want for our children? I am also fed up of the voices of division and yearn for those voices that re-enforce the strong links between our communities. Let us together, isolate and alienate those voices of separationism whose only role is to drive that wedge between us. Shine a light on their shadowy resting places we must; for in doing so we sew the seeds of bridge building and therein lies our safety and security.