ISNA President’s Address to the Union for Reform Judaism

ISNA President’s Address to the Union for Reform Judaism

Address to the Union for Reform Judaism

By Ingrid Mattson, PhD
President, The Islamic Society of North America

Good morning and greetings of peace from the members of the Islamic Society of
North America.

It is a great honor to have this opportunity to speak to the members of the Union
for Reform Judaism at this wonderful convention.

Almost four months ago, Rabbi Yoffie stood in front of a general audience of
attendees at the 44rth annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America,
the organization of which I have been President since 2006. Our membership is
diverse: it includes Muslims with origins from all parts of the world, men and
women from different schools of thought and practice within Islamic tradition.
We are an umbrella organization for Muslim individuals and organizations who
wish to identify with and contribute to a larger vision of what it means to be a
Muslim in North America, and who cooperate to develop strategies for achieving
that vision. In the 44 years since we held our first convention, our umbrella has
expanded and the voices included in dialogue have diversified: more women,
more scholars representing different schools of Islamic thought, both modern
and traditionalist, as well as leaders from other religious traditions.

Indeed, one significant feature of the American Muslim community is that it is
dynamic, open to learning new ideas, and interested in expanding our
understanding of what it takes to be an ethical and balanced Muslim in
contemporary America. There are two major factors that have contributed to the
positive transformation of the immigrant Muslim community especially:
First, the important role that religion plays in American history and culture.
Muslims in the United States, unlike many Muslims in Europe, have found that
religious affiliation and practice, in general, is valued in America. True, it was
not and is not always easy finding ways to accommodate our specific religious
practices in an overwhelmingly Christian society, but at least religion itself is not
derided and marginalized. Muslims therefore are indebted to those who have
championed the two twin pillars of religious vitality in American society:
freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. We also are should
be grateful to faithful believers, to Christians and Jews, who have demonstrated
through their good works the positive power of faith in American society. The
second major factor that has contributed to the dynamic transformation of the
American Muslim community over the past few decades is the diversity of our
community. As Muslims from different parts of the world came together in
America to worship and fulfill the tenets of their faith, they did not always find
themselves in agreement about the true Islamic position on many issues. Indeed,
sometimes, the conversations became rather heated – and those disagreements
have not yet ended in many places. Still, engaging in that conversation yielded
two positive results. First, Muslims were forced to confront the reality that many
cultural practices and beliefs contrary to our faith have been integrated into
many traditional understandings of Islam. By confronting the differences, we
became aware that sometimes the Islam that was been taught in Muslim societies
was not in harmony with the ethical teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet
Muhammad, but were, in fact, misogynistic, authoritarian or extremist views
antithetical to true Islam.

Secondly, the very act of discussing these differences, in a free society with no
state‐enforced religion, encouraged more respect for diversity within Islam, less
support for authoritarian tendencies and a greater feeling of responsibility on the
part of the ordinary Muslim to learn more about his or her religion.

I have to emphasize that not all Muslim Americans have embraced this
perspective. We continue to receive new immigrants from other countries, some
of whom are still deeply attached to their customs, and we have others who are
simply ideologically opposed to dialogue and change.

It is because that many members of the Islamic Society of North America have
gone through this process of transformation that our community is now ready to
engage in a meaningful way with Jewish communities in this dialogue project. I
suppose I should not have been surprised then, when the Muslims assembled in
the hall at our annual convention on August 31 gave Rabbi Yoffie not just a polite
response, but a standing ovation. In the weeks following the convention, I was
approached by many people who were excited by our engagement with the
Union for Reform Judaism. Many of our members have already established
some connection between their local congregation and a nearby Jewish
community – some of these relationships began a number of years ago. Others
have been interested in reaching out, but did not know where to start. Most of
our communities are severely limited in resources to develop such programs.

Indeed, as we move forward with our dialogue project, I ask our Jewish partners
to keep this in mind. Muslims are not new to America – indeed, a significant
number of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves were Muslim, but of
course, they were neither allowed to practice their religion, nor to transmit it to
their children. It is only in the last few decades, therefore, that our community
has been able to begin to establish institutions that support our religious life and
allow us to teach our children our practices and values. We are still in the early
stages of our development. Many communities are still building mosques, while
others have moved to other basic facilities like community centers and schools.
Our human resources are even less developed. We are blessed to have many
wonderful people who volunteer to serve our communities, but, of course, they
are limited in their time as well as the expertise needed to minister to and
support American Muslim communities. We do not yet have a full‐time Islamic
seminary in America.

Although this lack of development might seem to be a drawback, because it
limits the capacity of many of our communities to fully engage with neighboring
Jewish congregations, in fact, the very existence of this gap in development
provides a wonderful opportunity for constructive engagement. Jewish
communities can offer practical advice and suggestions at this formative stage of
the institutionalization of Islam in America. In many cases, Muslims have
instinctively turned to the example of Jews in America to understand how to deal
with the challenges we face as religious minorities – whether these challenges
involve securing the right to religious accommodation in public institutions, or
dealing with workplace discrimination.

At the same time, I believe that the Jewish community will also benefit from
having Muslim partners in the struggle to uphold the Constitutional separation
of church and state, to promote civil liberties, to extend religious accommodation
to minorities, and to counter prejudice and hatred.

In his speech at our convention, Rabbi Yoffie discussed the increasing hatred and
intolerance that is being expressed in public forums, in the media, and even by
politicians towards Muslims. When Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to
congress chose to have his ceremonial swearing of office using a Qur’an, he was
attacked as un‐American and a terrorist sympathizer. Now, during the
presidential primaries, we see candidates being asked to prove that they comply
with an ever narrower definition of what is means to be a Christian – forget
about being a Muslim or a Jew. Alarmingly, many Americans implicitly or even
explicitly are using a religious test for who should be President of the United
States. This and other issues involving the separation of church and state and
religious freedom are important areas of cooperation between American Jews
and Muslims.

The American Muslim community is well aware, after 9/11, that much false
information about our community as well as our religion, has been disseminated
by religious and political ideologues. It is also true that many Americans simply
know little or nothing about Islam and, perhaps, naturally extrapolate from the
nasty figures they see in the news to Muslims in general. Of course, it is our
responsibility to reclaim Islam from the terrorists and extremists. That is why
American Muslims have been public in our views on terrorism and extremism in
the name of our religion. We have published fatwas – religious verdicts –
proving that suicide bombing, vigilante operations, terrorism, and hatemongering
is prohibited in true Islam. We have issued press releases, we have
published articles and books, we have delivered sermons, we have given lectures
to Muslims of all ages, we have held workshops and seminars, we have met with
government officials in the US and abroad – all with the goal of spreading the
message that mainstream Muslims oppose the extremists and we are putting our
efforts, individually and institutionally, to marginalize those who misuse our
religion for nefarious purposes.

The sad reality is that, no matter what we do, there are some who will choose to
continue to characterize us and our religion as essentially evil. There is a long
tradition of anti‐Muslim discourse in European history and culture – from Dante
to Don Quixote to Orientalism. I will never forget my visit to the Cathedral of
Zaragoza a few years ago, where I was confronted with an image of a Muslim
literally being crushed under the feet of Santiago. And on the other side of the
Cathedral was a statue of Saint Dominguito – the patron saint of choir boys, who,
according to our tour guide, “the Jews of Zaragossa conspired to murder;” all the
alleged conspirators – all falsely accused – were executed. This story and these
images are still being told and seen in this European church today. We all know,
of course, what happened to the Muslims and Jews of medieval Spain.

In modern times, other forms of communication: newspapers, cartoons and
films have continued to produce hateful images of Muslims, as they did with
Jews before – sometimes the caricatures are almost identical. Medieval and
modern European images of Jews as deceptive, conspiring to overthrow
Christian rule, odd in their manner and dress, dehumanized Jews, thereby
softening the ground to allow the atrocities of the Holocaust. Six million Jews in
the heart of Europe , in the 20th century, brutalized and killed in the most
despicable manner – how could that happen except by a successful campaign of
propaganda, as well as a ruthless but efficiently rational system of identifying,
classifying, collecting, moving and then exterminating Jewish men, women and
children. This is one of the greatest tragedies of modern history and ISNA will
witness to this truth, anytime and to anyone in the Muslim world who denies it.
Today, I do not fear that such a crime could happen to the American Muslim
community. Yet I am anxious about the level of dehumanization of my
community. I am worried that it is politically correct to mock and insult
Muslims in the media and in public. It concerns me that, when I spoke in a
church recently, one man likened the Muslims of the world to ants in a colony –
saying that, like them, we may be working separately, but it is known that we are
working together for a common purpose. To analogize my community to a
group of insects is deeply disturbing. The implication that we are conspiring
towards a common nefarious goal is upsetting to say the least. But these ideas
are necessary to allow atrocities. It is, I believe, why most Americans have not
protested waterboarding, sensory deprivation and other forms of torture of
Muslim detainees and even Muslim American citizens.

I believe that hatred and intolerance is easily transferable. I am not surprised
that some young men who responded “Happy Hannukah” to “Merry
Christmas” were attacked on the New York subway. I am happy that it was a
Muslim who jumped in to defend the Jewish men. This small incident highlights
our common threat at the same time as it highlights our common interests and
shared humanity.

This is why I am delighted that ISNA and the URJ are embarking on this
dialogue project, so our communities can learn about each other, to rid ourselves
of the ignorance we have of the other, and move on, God willing, to work
together for the greater good.

I am not naïve about the challenges we face as we undertake this project.
Certainly my Muslim community will need to draw upon the skills we have
developed to distinguish true Islam from cultural biases and medieval accretions
to our religion when it comes to the Jewish community. Muslim anti‐Semitism
was never like European Christian anti‐Semitism, but it existed in any case. And
unfortunately, there are ambitious political rulers in the Muslim world who
manipulate religious sentiment against the Jewish people to extend their
authoritarian rule. At the same time, Jewish Americans need hear the concern
that Muslim Americans express about the suffering of the Palestinian people as
genuine and justified, and not assume that such concern originates from a hatred
of the Jewish people. I have seen the tears of elderly Palestinian men as they
spoke about being forced to leave the homes of their fathers and their fathers’
fathers during the founding of the state of Israel. I have been moved by those
tears as I was moved by the site of numbers tattooed on the forearms of elderly
men who survived the Holocaust. If religion is about anything, it should be
about the ability to extend empathy beyond our own family or tribe or religious
community to humanity at large.

Certainly our children know this. Our Jewish and Muslim children meet each
other in school and in sports and they care about other. The question is, will the
religious teachings that we impart to our children serve to expand their empathy
and encourage solidarity with each other, at the same time as these teachings
serve the very important purpose of giving them a deep sense of attachment to
their specific communities and traditions. Polls show that in the last decade,
fewer numbers of Americans identify with any religious tradition, and more
Americans view religion as a negative force in society. If our religious traditions
are going to survive, they have to demonstrate not only that they are good in
themselves, but that they are good all together. That religious difference does
not lead to conflict and disorder in society, but that religious differences only
serve to enrich our collective understanding of the Creator who is beyond the
comprehension of any created being. The Qur’an states, “To each among you
have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have
made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you:
so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God. It is He who will
show you the truth of the matters in which you now dispute (5:48).” Let us
strive for good, to improve each of us, and to improve all of us. May God help
us in this effort.

Address to the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial San Diego, December, 2007.  Source