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Category: Eastern Religions

Standing With American Muslims, Upholding American Values

This post was originally published in the Jewish Exponent.

With news from Paris, Copenhagen, North Carolina and Iraq filling the morning papers these days, many of us are wondering: What is going on in the Muslim world? How are Muslims in America responding and, most importantly, how can Jews and Christians ally with Muslims to help uphold the values of religious pluralism on which America is based?
 
The Islamic Society of North America, known as ISNA, the largest membership organization of Muslims in America, has partnered with Christian groups and, more recently, with Jewish ones — including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — as together they address the challenges of integrating Muslim Americans into the religious landscape of our country.
 
Now, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has joined that effort, establishing a new partnership with the organization. For five years, RRC has been sponsoring retreats for emerging Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum.
 
Going forward, these relationship-building retreats will be co-sponsored by ISNA. Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the founder and former executive of ISNA, now in charge of its office of interfaith relations, was in Philadelphia recently to “shake hands” on the collaboration and to meet with our interfaith leaders and guide our thinking about these issues.
 
The meeting brought together rabbis, ministers, imams, professors of religion and interested citizens as we all pondered how to meet the challenge of yet another religious minority finding its place in the American story.
 
There are now some 6 to 7 million Muslims in this country, around the same number as Jews. Like Jews, they represent only 1 to 2 percent of the American population. A recent Pew study showed that only 38 percent of Americans actually know a Muslim.
 
Many Americans are left to rely on the media coverage of events outside this country, such as the rise of ISIS, a group that has terrorized Muslims themselves because they consider all Muslims who do not agree with them to be apostates.
 
But the media has been less effective at reporting the fact that these groups have repeatedly denounced ISIS and other Muslims who commit terrorist acts.
 
It is a sad irony that a recent tragedy — the killing of three Muslim graduate students in North Carolina last month — has had an unexpected side effect. Many Americans saw the story of these morally earnest, accomplished young people — committed to their faith and their lives as American citizens — and found a different face of Islam than that of the Middle Eastern fanatic with a gun. These three students were typical second-generation American Muslims and their stories are the ones more Americans need to hear.
 
A report from the Center for American Progress, “Fear, Inc.,” documents how a small but well-funded “Islamophobia Network” churns out much of what we hear about Islam on Fox News and other media outlets.
 
No wonder that in that same Pew study last summer, when Americans were asked to rate religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 1 to 100, the public viewed Muslims coldly. In fact, they received the lowest rating of all groups. The good news here is that these ratings can change over time. Jews may be surprised to learn that they were rated highest of all the groups. That would not have been true 60 years ago.
 
And there is more good news. Just as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927 to respond to anti- Catholic sentiment in this country, later did important work in combating anti-Semitism, so, too, allies from diverse religious traditions are striving to promote a more robust pluralism in this country today.
 
I am proud to join Jews from across the denominational spectrum as an active member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a project of ISNA that was established in 2010 with the help of a coalition of Jewish and Christian organizations in response to anti-Muslim sentiment expressed around the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero.”
 
As our meeting at RRC was concluding, participants were exchanging email addresses and making plans to educate themselves and their communities. A board member from Masjidullah, a mosque in West Oak Lane, just minutes from RRC, invited everyone to join them at their weekly Friday afternoon services.
 
Our high school students can meet one another through Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia. Scores of examples of successful Muslim-Jewish programs of engagement can be found in the online resource book Sharing the Well.
 
Meetings like this one are just a beginning. As Jews, our experience as a religious minority in this country makes us a valued partner. Even more importantly, our ethics and our religious teachings compel us to join the struggle.

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The Best Revenge Is Reconciliation

Here is a post about our Ali Abu Awwad event by our multifaith colleague, Krystin Komarnicki:

Ali-Abu-Awwad-10.10.14I had the enormous privilege today of hearing the radical Palestinian peacemaker Ali Abu Awwad speak at a synagogue in Philadelphia. The son of woman who belonged to the PLO, Awwad was raised in
the highly politicized atmosphere of Israeli-Occupied Palestine and participated in the first intifada. But after four years of imprisonment during which he discovered, via a 17-day hunger fast, that nonviolent
resistance holds a mirror up to one’s enemy, his journey to peacemaking had begun.

“It’s not about taking sides,” he said. If you are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, you are not helping. You need to be pro-solution. “It’s not about being right. It’s about willing to succeed.”

After his release from prison, an Israeli citizen shooting at Palestinians from his car shot Awwad in the knee, leaving him severely injured. Hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, Awwad learned that his older brother had been violently murdered at an Israeli checkpoint, leaving behind two young children. The grief and anger Awwad experienced felt bottomless and “as big as a planet,” and he realized that no revenge—no number of Israeli deaths—could ever make up what had been taken from him. “I knew then that I couldn’t kill anyone,” he said.

One day several members of the Bereaved Families Forum asked his mother for permission to come see her. They were Israeli parents who had lost children to the conflict and wanted to meet with Palestinian parents who had survived similar losses. To Awwad’s surprise—”Israelis were always in Palestine and they were not welcome. Now here were Israelis asking permission to come see us!”—his mother agreed to receive them. He saw an Israeli person cry for the first time in his life, and something shifted within him. Awwad and his family soon joined the bereavement group, partnering with Israelis in spreading a message of reconciliation and calling one and all to the hard work of nonviolence.

The best revenge for his brother’s death, says Awwad, is to reconcile with the enemy. “The men who killed my brother wanted to bury my humanity along with my brother,” he said. By refusing to use violence, by working instead toward partnership and political solutions, Awwad and his friends of both nationalities are choosing a very different path.

Learn about the Roots project, of which Awwad is an important part. Roots seeks to build trust between trust and partnership between Israelis and Palestinians.

Read or listen to Krista Tippett’s 2012 interview with Awwad on Public Radio International.

(Special thanks to our peacemaking, bridgebuilding partners at Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for hosting this talk.)

2014 Evangelicals for Social Action

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To Bigotry No Sanction

This post was coauthored by Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Pamela Geller's "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" ad campaign arrived in New York subway stations this month. The campaign strives to be as clever as it is malevolent. Geller claims it is simply a pro-Israel political statement. But the ad's text is a calculated echo of Ayn Rand'sslur that Israel's opponents, and indeed all Arabs, are "primitive…savages."

Not missing the point, the New York City transit authority first rejected the ad as demeaning, only to be forced by a Federal District judge to accept it because of the First Amendment right of free speech.

The issue of free speech is, however, a red herring. The campaign aims to distract and confuse Americans. Geller has played that game before. Concern for sensitivity to victims' families served as a cover for the anti-Muslim agenda in Geller's last major initiative, the controversy she helped create around what she misnamed the "mosque at Ground Zero."This time, Geller wants to link her ad campaign and its legal battles with free speech in America and backlash in the Middle East. She claims opponents of the ads are un-American. She is wrong. Opposition to bigotry is as much a core American value as freedom of speech. It is Geller's effort to set the two at odds that flies in the face of our ideals.

Geller's ads seek to provoke the behavior she claims to fear, and to provoke enough of it to create fear in others. Like Geller's other pet project, "Stop Islamization of America,"the campaign is designed to stoke anxiety that American Muslims do not understand and support America's freedoms. Geller posts provocative ads. She then reports on her blog---with great satisfaction---any examples of Muslim Americans reacting in ways that fail to appreciate the complex, messy business of freedom of speech in this country. At this, she cries, "The sharia-ization is beginning!"

Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!In fact, major Muslim American spokesmen responded to the ad altogether appropriately. CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper said, "The First Amendment grants everybody rights, including to be a racist and a bigot."But you won't find that statement reported on Geller's blog. Nor will you find the pictureof an orthodox rabbi and a Muslim protesting the ad with a sign stating "Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!"

As Jews, we regularly expect Muslim and Christian friends to denounce anti-Semitism and terrorism within their own communities. In fairness, it is our duty to join others in stepping up when Jews are the ones promulgating hate. Geller knows well that apparent support for Israel is one way to package an anti-Muslim message that makes it tricky for Jewish leaders to offer unequivocal and unified denunciations. Her tactic, however, does not seem to be paying off across the board. Even Jews who do not usually agree on matters related to Israel are refusing to be distracted. The Anti-Defamation Leaguecarries on its website a condemnation of Geller, for "consistently vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam." On September 21, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Say No!issued a statement condemning Geller's ad .The same day, the Jewish Council for Public Affairsdecried Geller's ads as "Bigoted, Divisive and Unhelpful." Rabbi Rachel Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights North Americahas spoken out, as has the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

In his famous letter to the first Jewish synagogue in America, George Washington wrote that the United States government grants "to bigotry no sanction."But because our government does grant to all its citizens freedom of speech, it will protect the right of Pamela Geller to post her bigotry, just as it allows over 900 hate groups, including anti-Semitic groups, to operate. In America, the work of giving bigotry no sanction devolves on citizens. We are the ones with the liberty---and the obligation---to speak our own truths in the face of hate mongering. And Geller isn't clever enough to stop us.

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