After denouncing with a rabbi an Islamophobe who was speaking at Stanford University on November 14 through a published letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News in which we stated, “There is room in our community for many political viewpoints, but there is no room for hate…which mischaracterizes, demonizes, and stereotypes Muslims and their beliefs,” the same Islamophobe proved us right by harassing the rabbi through his followers, and writing an incendiary rebuttal in which he said:
“Rabbi, you want an example of mischaracterizing, demonizing, and stereotyping people and their beliefs? Check this out: the Qur’an depicts the Jews as inveterately evil and bent on destroying the well-being of the Muslims.” He goes on to cite a long list of Qur’anic passages that he alleges denounce and slander Jews.
I don’t have space here to respond to each of his Islamophobic, twisted translations of Qur’anic verses, so I will make some general observations.
As a student and teacher of sacred knowledge, I know all too well the science involved in interpreting sacred books:
- how English translations from classical languages such as Arabic and Hebrew are wide open to difference and distortion depending on who is doing the translation;
- how individual statements can be properly understood only by taking into account their context, both textual and historical, and how easily one can twist interpretations by plucking statements out of their context;
- how relevant historical experience and living practice are to the interpretation of sacred books, and how texts are applied to differing circumstances;
- how secondary and tertiary sources play a role in interpretation — in Islam, the example of the prophet Muhammad, and in Judaism, the long rabbinic and post-rabbinic tradition and the example of the practice of different Jewish communities.
Islamophobes (like anti-Semites) and their supporters should take note that this approach to Islamic sacred texts — plucking verses out of context and so distorting their meaning — most closely resembles that of violent extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda among Muslims and Kach and similar groups among Jews. Islamophobes and anti-Semites may not be overtly violent, but they certainly threaten our communities by fomenting divisiveness and hatred against entire groups of people.
I don’t deny that some of my co-religionists stereotype Jews and show bigotry toward them.
Nor do I deny that I have extremist co-religionists who are terrorists.
What I do deny is that my religion is characterized or defined by the small minority of violent extremists. The overwhelming majority of Muslims understand their faith to be a religion exhorting us to love our neighbors, be exemplary in character, and to be the peacemakers in the world. We understand our Prophet Muhammad to be a mercy to humankind through his teachings and example. And that the core texts and traditions of Islam affirm that judgment to any unbiased observer.
My community is all too aware of the dangers of bigotry, whether fomented against American Muslims by Islamophobes or against American Jews by anti-Semites as we witnessed recently in Charlottesville and elsewhere. That is why I choose to work with Jewish Americans for peace and against bigotry for this generation and those that will follow.
I choose to work with Jewish partners to build understanding and relationships, based on our shared heritage and traditions, and to work together on our shared concerns and interests. The deepening relationship between American Muslims and Jews has already borne fruit. Jews have been in the forefront of the protests against anti-Muslim travel and refugee bans, and Muslims have pitched in vigorously to restore desecrated Jewish cemeteries.
Such a mutually supportive relationship between Muslims and Jews has deep historical roots. Many Muslims protected Jews, sometimes at great personal risk, during the Holocaust. The predominantly Muslim population of Albania, for instance, succeeded in saving almost all its Jewish community, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris helped hundreds of Jews disguise themselves as Muslims, and the survival rate of Jews in Muslim North Africa was far higher than that of Jews in Europe.
And, centuries earlier, Jews and Muslims lived for the most part in peace in Muslim Spain, as Jews made vital contributions to a majority-Muslim society. This view has solid scholarly backing. Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University maintains in her 2003 book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain that "tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society," pointing out that Jews under the Caliphate fared better than those in Christian parts of Europe, a view supported by Mark R. Cohen of Princeton University in his seminal Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages.
Yes, I am all too aware of the atrocities that have been committed by my co-religionists and of the venom that is spewed by violent extremists. I respond to it all by choosing to work together with Jewish Americans towards peace, exemplifying the good and the positive of my core tradition, while condemning the hatred spewed by Islamophobes and anti-Semites.
You too can choose to do the same with courage and confidence. Working for peace is never easy, but, in a weaponized world, there is no sane alternative.
Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director of Islamic Networks Group (ING) is co-chair of the Bay Area Muslim-Jewish Connect and a graduate of Stanford University where the Islamophobe spoke.