It has been one year since the election of President Donald Trump, and minorities in America are facing an onslaught. Anti-Semitic attacks have sharply risen this past year according to the Anti-Defamation League, with a 92 percent increase in New York City alone. Meanwhile, a recent US Department of Education investigation confirmed very disturbing reports of anti-Semitic harassment in one Colorado school, while a Muslim student in Tennessee recently had her hijab ripped off in her classroom. Her teacher allegedly posted the video of the incident on social media.
It is in this context that on October 20, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a longtime champion of Jewish-Muslim dialogue, delivered a Shabbat dinner lecture at Temple Beth Ami, a Reform synagogue in Rockville, Md. Ahmed spoke at the invitation of Rabbi Baht Weiss, a former student of Ahmed’s in his online course, Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter, taught in conjunction with Dr. Edward Kessler, Director of the Woolf Institute at Cambridge.
After Weiss warmly introduced her former teacher, Ahmed delved directly into the heart of the evening: the importance of dialogue and friendship in strengthening the Jewish-Muslim relationship. He began by sharing the story of his friendship with Dr. Judea Pearl, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and killed in the spirit of hate while reporting in Karachi, and how their legendary dialogue series, branded as "two grandfathers on a stage," made a huge impact wherever they traveled.
Pearl had first approached Ahmed several months after Danny’s death in a genuine effort to grapple with his son’s brutal murder. Ahmed was unsure how to even begin responding to Pearl, remarking, “How do you talk to a man whose son has been killed in the city where you grew up?” Following this first meeting, Pearl told Ahmed that he wanted to begin a lecture series to promote interfaith peace, and that he wanted Ahmed to come on stage with him. The lecture series became a global phenomenon, and Ahmed and Pearl went on to win an inaugural Purpose Prize in 2006 for their work. The friendship has transcended any and all differences between their families and their faiths.
After thanking the evening’s prominent attendees for their presence, including Andra Baylus, the president of the Greater Washington Muslim-Jewish Forum, Imam Benjamin Abdul-Haqq of Washington, DC, and Professor James Goldgeier, the former Dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, Ahmed shifted into a discussion on the essence of Islam and how it runs strongly counter to the media narrative. He shared how the two most prominent names of God in the Quran are Rahman and Rahim, or merciful and compassionate, and expressed his continued bewilderment as to how groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS could possibly grasp Islam in such a violent and unjust manner.
He also explained how he is constantly amazed by the familiarity he feels as a Muslim when interacting with the Jewish faith and Jewish community. The dietary laws are similar, many of the customs are similar, and the values of knowledge and charity are shared. Jews and Muslims hold the nature of God, the Ten Commandments, and the prophets like Abraham and Moses all in common. As such, he finds it to be a disturbing paradox that Muslims can be anti-Semitic and Jews Islamophobic.
Ahmed also shared the story of his daughter, Dr. Amineh Hoti, who after earning her PhD from Cambridge had been requested by Dr. Edward Kessler to serve as the founding director of the first-ever Jewish-Muslim center there, the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations. She went on to serve for five years as director before returning to Pakistan to pursue interfaith work, and now frequently invites American rabbis to her center among other global faith leaders. She even recently met a Jewish community in North Pakistan and sat with them to learn more about their background and their traditions.
Ahmed concluded his presentation by expressing his fear that we are drifting into World War III, but that unlike the first two World Wars, it would be an amorphous war in which asymmetrical aggressors attack anyone anywhere. He shared, “We within the Muslim community are the first victims.” With anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on the rise and deep racial tensions boiling to the surface, Ahmed warned a rise in paranoia and hatred will quickly slide down a slippery slope if left unabated and take in a variety of other minority groups.
After screening a segment of Ahmed’s recent documentary film, Journey into Europe, which is about Islam in Europe and the place of Islam in European history and civilization, members of the congregation came out in force with questions. One woman expressed her frustration that her Muslim neighbors of fifteen years seemingly have no interest in reaching out to her or to others nearby. Ahmed recommended she remain patient and keep trying to connect through friendship. One man discussed his past attempts to read the Quran, which he has found to be impenetrable. Ahmed advised him to keep trying, noting that the Quran is similar to all other sacred texts in its complex nature, as ultimately “who can penetrate the mind of God?” He also advised that the rewards of understanding the Quran are great for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Another audience member discussed the ongoing European elections and how he finds them to be deeply concerning. Ahmed said that through the Journey into Europe project he has become deeply disturbed by the trends and statements made by far-right European leaders. Some Eastern European leaders are actually saying that Islam is the enemy and that the flow of Syrian refugees represents the return of the Ottomans. He has also come across far too many deeply disturbing anti-Semitic statements from all across Europe. As he put it, given their deep tribal identities and allegiances, if we have far-right protesters in the US yelling out “Jews will not replace us,” what depths could Europe be plunging into?
Ahmed also expressed his worry that while human societies are advancing rapidly in terms of technology, we are quickly losing any sense of a common humanity. He acknowledged that even with global trade and technology allowing knowledge to spread more easily than ever before, we are seeing vast inequalities that are giving sharp rise to chaos, anger, and violent acts such as the harvesting of organs from refugee children which defy all logic and decency. Ahmed did end on an optimistic note, referring specifically to this “incredible young generation,” which he believes, with some serious guidance, will change the world.
Attendees reacted very positively to the program. Andra Baylus remarked in the days following the event: “I cried all the way home wondering what in God's name I could do to help raise consciousness among my fellow Americans of our ethical responsibility as privileged citizens to help those suffering around the planet which we all share and call home. Ambassador Ahmed gave us hope, reminding us that our respective faith tradition teach us to be compassionate and merciful and to put these teachings into action every day of our lives.” Imam Abdul-Haqq was also quite moved, remarking, “The evening with Ambassador Ahmed at the Temple Beth Ami Shabbat dinner was great in the sense that people of various faiths are able to come together for such an enlightening occasion, enjoying the fellowship with others and learning from one from another. Many thanks to the temple members and Rabbi for hosting.”
Knowledge, compassion, understanding - these principles, underlying Ahmed’s presentation and broader mission, are central to all of the world’s major faiths. Tragically, these values are also the very ones under constant assault in America and throughout the world today. Yet, as programs such as this Shabbat dinner remind us, we Americans, as do indeed all peoples, thirst to learn about one another and extend a hand of friendship. If we are to save our societies, we must all make a stronger effort to reach out in friendship and open our minds to learning about the other. Until every Muslim girl can enter her classroom without fear of her hijab being torn away and every Jewish student can go to school without fear of having swastikas drawn on their arms, we will have to keep pushing forward in the spirit of dialogue and understanding.