“Are we allies or foes?” promotional material for a community event asks, referring to the relationship between Muslims and Jews.
As far as Azim Shamshiev is concerned, there are many similarities between Islam and Judaism. Both are monotheistic faiths with long, intertwined histories and a strong focus on community identity. “I can’t think of any two religions so close to each other,” he said.
However, Shamshiev, a Muslim who hails originally from Uzbekistan, acknowledged there is more to it than that. Despite the similarities, people of the two faiths are “disconnected from each other,” suffer from mistrust and in some cases, even hatred, he said.
Today, Shamshiev resides in Toronto where he works as executive vice-president of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute of Toronto (IDI), GTA West, an organization formed in 2010 to promote social cohesion and foster respect among people of various backgrounds. He is also a participant in the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a program run at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to foster greater understanding of Judaism and Israel among visiting Muslim leaders.
Shamshiev was joined by MLI program director Yossi Klein Halevi in addressing the relationship between Muslims and Jews, at a community event at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue attended by hundreds of people. The program was sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute and the IDI.
The critical thing for Muslim communities is to try to understand Jews “from their own perspective, their own frame of reference,” Shamshiev said.
Klein Halevi, author of several books, including Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, said the MLI brings North American Muslims to Israel in a program of study. An important part of the program is exposing Muslims to the concept of Jewish peoplehood, something with which they are generally not familiar.
Jews see peoplehood as key to their identity, as well as their connection to the Land of Israel. Muslims don’t. As a result, Muslims see Israel as an artificial creation, he suggested.
MLI does not focus on politics nor does it aim to convince Muslim leaders about this or that policy of the Israeli government. The goal is to create a basis of respectful conversation founded on “knowledge of who we are as a people,” Klein Halevi said.
He said he hoped a Jewish Leadership Initiative might be implemented one day to expose Jews to the Muslim point of view.
In a question-and-answer segment, kicked off by Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, the panellists were asked to address Jews’ fear of Muslims and Muslims fears of Jews.
Klein Halevi said Jews have a long, historical fear of those who wish to do them harm. He said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped into that in his recent reference to the Mufti of Jerusalem’s alliance with Adolf Hitler. That “expresses a fear we have” of “facing genocidal threats coming from the Muslim world,” he said.
Shamshiev said Muslim attitudes toward Jews are framed by two seminal events, its colonial past with the importation of anti-Jewish attitudes, and the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
He said Islam is tolerant, and he pointed to two of Muhammad’s wives who were Jewish to illustrate the point. One converted to Islam, the other did not, yet she was accepted, he noted.
Asked to explain the concept of jihad, Shamshiev said in its most important manifestation – the “greater jihad” – it refers to fighting evil and striving for moral excellence.
A “lesser jihad” referred to a battle fought by Muhammad against idol worshippers, he said.
Asked to respond to Jews’ concerns about anti-Semitism among Muslims, Klein Halevi said it is a fear he understands. But dialogue is something “we have to try.”
He noted that Imam Abdullah Antepli knocked on his door on behalf of North American Muslims who were eager to start a dialogue. That led to creation of the MLI.
Imam Antepli considers himself a recovering anti-Semite who wants to create an indigenous North American brand of Islam while engaging seriously with the Jewish community, he said.