The Current Inter-religious Scene - A Muslim Perspective
by Abdul Cader Asmal
The only sign of hope in a world power-brokered by religious zealots on one side, and a broad-based coalition of neoconservative forces on the other, has been the recent intense flurry of activity calling for a meaningful inter-religious dialogue between the members of the Abrahamic communities. From the document entitled, “A Common Word Between Us”, exhorting the embrace of commonalities between Christians and Muslims, to the epochal address by Rabbi Eric Yoffie President of the Union of Reform Judaism at a convention of the Islamic Society of North America, to the reciprocal presentation by Dr Ingrid Matson, president of ISNA at a convention of the URJ, these were all ground breaking events. The latter speeches led to a joint statement by ISNA and Union of Reform Judaism underscoring the importance of a comprehensive program of dialogue between the two communities ( http://urj.orj/muslimdialogue ). The very recent communique by the Pontifical Council for inter-religious dialogue (Vatican 6/14/08) highlighted the theme ‘Christians and Muslims as witnesses of the God of Justice Peace and Compassion in a world suffering from Violence’, and butressed the imperative for meaningful interaction and for religions to take the lead in the betterment of all humanity.
In this mini-symposium my directive is to present a Muslim perspective. I will do so from three angles focusing primarily on Muslim Jewish relations in which tectonic forces are the most precariously poised.
The first angle includes excerpts of a speech made in 1994 as a guest of the JCRC at a forum titled,“Friends for the Future”.
The second attempts to provide a general framework of what Islam is and what it is not.
The third reiterates a plea made nearly a year ago when it seemed that the US was imminently close to bombing Iran, an action that would have precipitated irreparable ill-will between the Muslim and Jewish communities apart from the global devastation that would have followed. (“That Muslims and Jews coexist is not an option but an Imperative”).
I would like to begin with remarks I had made in 1994 at the JCRC forum. I quote, “For a Muslim to address a Jewish audience is to face the inevitable risk of being misunderstood. Irrespective of what he says, there will be some Jews who will construe his remarks as ‘Anti-Semitic’, and some Muslims who will view him as a hypocrite or sell-out!”
At the outset it should be emphasized that while the bedrock of both religions is a radical and unshakable belief in the Oneness of God, there is also an immutable disagreement as to the path that leads to the One God. From a Muslim perspective Jews have distorted God’s message and therefore follow a misguided path. From a Jewish viewpoint Islam is based on imposture and therefore Muslims themselves are misguided. Muslims have been repeatedly cautioned not to follow the way of the Jews, or to seek legitimacy for their own religion from them; but Muslims are nonetheless enjoined to treat Jews, (as well as Christians) as ‘Peoples of the Book’ with utmost respect and dignity. In his 1946 classic, “Essays on Anti-Semitism”, Pinson conluded that despite isolated episodes of anti-Jewish sentiments, Jews were tolerated and protected, albeit as second class citizens - a status they preferred to the repressive hostility they encountered in non-Muslim lands. On this point Bernard Lewis concurs, “Persecutions though not unknown were rare and atypical, and there are few if any equivalents in Muslim history to the massacres,forced conversions the expulsions and the burning that are so common in the history of Christendom before the rise of secularism”. It is thus evident that Islam did not create anti-Semitism. The acceptance of Jews by Muslims was ascribed to both the Qur’anic injunction, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ and to the Prophet’s exhortation,” He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his indicter on the day of Judgment”.
That was then,what of today. Again, as early as 1946, noting the evolving tensions between Muslims and Jews, Pinson observed, “All these antagonisms have nothing to do with the religions of Islam or Judaism. Rather they are due to political expediency and economic rivalry.” Bernard Lewis arrived at a similar conclusion 50 years later,” self-styled fighters of Islam, who claim to be acting in the name of their faith, have brutally maltreated hostages and other innocent victims ...their actions are in total violation of Islamic morality and law.”
The evolution of Muslim anti-Semitism today has nothing to do with Judeophobia which formed the cornerstone of early Christian anti-Semitism. Rather it is based on the Eurocentric version of anti-Semitism, with its most virulent exponents being in some Arab countries constantly mindful of the repression and corruption at home and of the indelible humiliation suffered at the hands of the Israelis. Other criticism of Jews and Israel is framed within the context of ‘Zionism’ - a word that means different things to different people. Most Muslims reject the view that the criticism of the policies of the government of Israel is an expression of ‘anti-Semitism’.
So much for Muslim goodwill and anti-Semitism, what of Jewish anti-Islamism and Jewish goodwill. In the post cold-war power vacuum Muslims watched with dismay as certain Jewish intellectuals joined the rising tide of anti-Islamism with their own systematic disinformation about Islam. Thus, with an astonishing amnesia of his previous views on Islam, Bernard Lewis wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” whose thesis was why Muslims hate America and whose rebuttal was changed to why Americans hate Muslims. At about the same time A Jewish columnist (Don Feder) saw fit to equate Islam with Nazism, and a respected Jewish publisher (Mortimer Zuckerman) equated it with Stalinism. Such depictions not only vilify Islam, but also desecrate the very memory of hapless Jews who were the victims of such abominations. Marginalization, dehumanization and demonization of a segment of society can unleash consequences the likes of which no other people in the annals of history can attest to more eloquently than members of this respected audience.”
This was the gist of my speech to the JCRC in 1994 which was a call for rapprochement as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and for the promotion of goodwill between Muslims and Jews in general. Ironically, since 911 just the contrary has transpired. Islam-bashing has become highly fashionable at all levels in society—with malicious talk-show hosts and columnists demonizing Islam with total impunity; so-called religious leaders making the most reprehensible accusations against Islam, and worse still in a secular democracy, opportunistic Republican presidential wannabees highlighting the most contemptible charges of ‘Islamofascism’ as talking points in their campaigns. Perhaps the most vicious forms of systematic anti-Islamism have been orchestrated by arch Islamophobe David Horowitz who propagated a nationwide ‘Islamofascism awareness week’ and, by the producers of the odious ‘documentary’ called ‘Obsession’ that has no other goal than to instigate hatred toward all Muslims.
From the Jewish perspective an equivalence of such malevolence can be found in the universally contemptible remarks and acts of Binladen, and the provocative remarks of the president of Iran in which not only did he come close to denying the holocaust but made remarks that were interpreted as’Israel should be wiped off the map’- though his apologists and proponents claim that he merely questioned the ‘right’ of Israel to exist in the Mid East. Be that as it may he squandered every opportunity to clarify what he does mean,thereby indulging in a brinkmanship that could easily lead to a catastrophic war provoked by nothing but machismo.
If anti-Semitism is the scourge that Jews had to struggle with over several millennia, Islamophobia is the reality that Muslims face today. To understand the origin of Islamophobia one must first understand what Islam is and what it is not. More importantly one must distinguish between the principles of a religion, and the aberrant if not totally heretical actions of a fraction of its adherents, in its name.
ISLAM is fundamental belief in the ONE GOD. GOD is the creator, sustainer, infinite,eternal, omniscient, omnipresent,gender neutral, beneficent, merciful,law maker and the ultimate judge.
The God of Adam Abraham Moses Jesus and Mohammed is the One and the Same.
God has provided universal divine guidance - designed toward the promotion of good and prohibition of evil. Adhering to the guidance woulld allow a Muslim to find PEACE - with him/herself, with society at large, with the environment and with his Maker; and would secure sanctuary in the Afterlife.
The essence of Islam is a God -given free will and a God -given guidance. Individual accountability is the cornerstone of justice in Islam. It is based on the choices made by the free will in the light of the guidance provided.
What Islam is not, is terror, fascism, antisemitism, anti democracy, antiprogress,anti free speech and suicide. There is a world of distinction between anything that is ‘Islamic’ and that which is Muslim. Muslims can be fascists they can be heretics they can be terrorists. What Muslims do that contravenes the principles of Islam cannot be blamed on Islam.
Polemicist have repeatedly taken certain ‘troubling’ passages from the Quran and have presented them totally without historical or moral context to depict Islam as a religion of hate and violence:
1, “O you who believe , do not take the Jews and Christians as allies. They are allies of each other, and he amongst you who becomes their ally is one of them. Verily, God does not guide the unjust”, 5: 51.
Muhammad Asad in his, “The Message of the Quran”, ( 1980), has repeatedly emphasized that,” Every verse of the Quran must be read and interpreted against the background of the Quran as a whole,” taking into consideration its historical and moral context. Khaled Abou El Fadl has amplified on this notion, “Any text, including those that are Islamic, provides possibilities for meaning, not inevitabilities. And those possibilities are exploited, developed and ultimately determined by the readers efforts. It would be disingenuous to deny that the Quran and other Islamic sources offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation. But the text does not command such intolerant readings” ( The Place of Tolerance in Islam,2002). This passage must be viewed within the historical context of a fledgling Muslim community struggling to establish itself. It is warned against seeking legitimacy for its existence from allying itself with Christian and Jews who would have little incentive to be sympathetic to an upstart religion that proclaimed that they, the Jews and Christians, had deviated from the original version that God had delivered to them. In today’s society it is exploited by jihadists bemoaning the demoralized status of the Muslim world and seeking to find justification in acts of unmitigated and totally unjustifiable violence against those whom they perceive as the perpetrators of the Muslim plight viz. the “Western’ or “Judeo-Christian’ civilisation that they view as driven to emasculate Islam.
2. ” Fight the unbelievers until there is no more tumult or oppression, and until faith and all judgment belongs to God “, 8:39
3.” Fight those who do not believe in God and the Hereafter, who do not forbid what God and His Prophet have forbidden, and who do not acknowledge the religion of truth ( even if they be people of the Book); fight them until they pay the poll tax with willing submission and feel themselves subdued”, 9:29.
These verses too have to be interpreted within the entire contextual framework of the Quran the essence of which is peace through justice.According to Muhammad Assad,” In accordance with the fundamental principles of the Quran—all of its statements and ordinances are mutually complimentary and cannot therefore be correctly understood unless they are considered as parts of one integral whole; these verses too must be read in the context of the clearcut Quranic rule that war is only permitted in self-defence”. A similar notion is expressed by Fadl, ” Puritans (aka jihadists) construct their exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading the Quranic verses in isolation ..as if moral and historical context were irrelevant to their interpretation. It is impossible to analyse these and other verses except in light of the overall moral thrust of the Quranic message’. Thus the above verses would permit Muslims to take up arms against any communities that prevented them from the free exercise of their religion in what would be described as a ‘just’ ( not holy) war by virtue of its defensive nature. However, contrary to the spirit of the Quran and “despite the prohibition against transgression and the condemnation of unlimited warfare, early imperialistic orientation supported expansionist wars against unbelievers, ” Fadl. Today these passages have been grotesquely distorted and abused by heretical jihadists to promote a reign of terror against Muslims and non-Muslims alike whose world view is at variance with theirs.
4. “If one desires a religion other than one of self-surrender to God, this will not be accepted of him, and in the life to come he will be amongst the lost”, 3:85
The verse that immediately precedes this states, ” We believe in God, and that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael,and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed by their Sustainer unto Moses and Jesus and all the other prophets: we make no distinction betwen any of them. And unto Him do we surrender ourselves” , 3: 84 ,
This verse clearly places all the Abrahamic religions on one footing. The following verses amplify on this theme and do not make it impossible for the plurality of His creation to receive God’s Mercy and Salvation which He can dispense as He wills :
1. “O humankind, God has created you from male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous” ,49:13
2. “If thy Lord had willed , He would have made humankind into a single nation, but they will not cease to be diverse”, 11:118
3. “To each of you God has prescribed a law and a way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God ( in the Hereafter), and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree, ” 5:49
4. “Those who believe, those who follow the Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabeans, and any who believe in God and the Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief”, 5:69
5. “There is no compulsion in religion”, 2:256
Despite the Quran’s overwhelming message of promoting pluralism diversity and tolerance, Muslim extremists in pursuit of establishing God’s perfection in this corrupted world, a perfection that only they can understand and feel obligated to impose on the rest of misguided humanity, have chosen to extract selective verses that ‘justify’ their purposes to formulate an intolerant, exclusive and supremacist albeit a heretical version of Islam that is at the heart of today’s Islamophobia.
In 1994 I was invited as a friend of Israel to address the JCRC. To this day I remain so. My position has not changed with the changing realities on the ground, even though the wilful and merciless strangulation of Gaza and the mindless and vengeful acts of terror whether in a Jerusalem yeshiva or a Haifa nightclub have caused me grave anguish. Sadly violence and vile acts will never provide freedom and security and must both be recognizes as evil, eroding our common humanity and the core of our religions. I remain committed to a safe and prosperous Israel living in peace and harmony with Palestine and all of its neighbors including Iran. But instead of the prospect of harmony and peace all I can see is the impending mutual attrition. This is because the opinion makers and power brokers have chosen a path of fear mongering and confrontation.
The current antipathy is in stark contrast to the coexistence that existed between Muslims and Jews for over a millennium.Since the time of their historic accord as both Pinson and Lewis have emphasized, the scriptures of Islam and Judaism have not changed, but life for the Muslims and Jews has. From the pinnacle of their civilisation Muslims have plummeted to a nadir and see themselves as the victims of post colonialism. Once the pariah of society, Jews have now become a powerful and influential global community( Vanity Fair, 2008 ) that has staked a claim in ancient Israel. Thus has arisen a political struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the inalienable right to live in if not own the Holy Land.The goodwill of yesteryear has been replaced by the acrimony of war with the intensification of propagandist Muslim anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-Islamism. Thus the support of Palestinian rights or aspirations for independence, especially by Muslims is portrayed as espousing terrorism as a tactic to achieve this, or as anti-Semitic scheme to negate the legitimacy or existence of Israel. Such reductionism is as much an affront to Muslims as it is to Jews to have their unqualified support of Israel be interpreted as ‘anti-Islamic’.
If ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘anti-Semitism’ were merely expressions of contempt for the ‘other’ and bore no consequences, they would not be as frightening as they are. But they are lethal threats manipulated and exploited by extremists on all sides. From the Jewish perspective there is real fear that fanatical Muslims would do anything in their power to eradicate Israel and the ill-advised remarks by the president of Iran, and the truly heretical acts by Bin Laden in the name of Islam do nothing to help to restore confidence in the Jewish psyche that this is not the real agenda of all Muslims.The assault by Bin Laden on 911 on innocent civilians with a targeted preference for ‘Jews and Christians’ injected a heresy into Islam that has since served as an inspiration for mindless fanatics to brand all who disagree with them, whether Muslim or not, as enemies of God’ thereby helping the media to transform the mantra in the ‘global war on terror’ from ‘Muslims are our enemies’ to our ‘enemies are Muslims’. However, what Jews and every other non Muslims who are terrified of Bin Laden’s agenda should understand is the following - he represents no country; he is no accredited religious or nationalistic leader; he is not qualified to issue any religious edict ; and the so-called edict or fatwa he did issue was totally antithetical to the principles of Islam and therefore represents a heretical pronouncement that no true Muslim can follow. Besides, Muslims are as horrified by, and vulnerable to his terror as are any other sane civilized persons.
What BinLaden with his initial cult of Muslim deviants was able to do was to sow the seeds of Islamophobia - an irrational fear of the religion of Islam- a religion which played no role in Bin Laden’s diabolic act. Islamophobia blossomed overnight as all those with their latent racism and bigotry found that after 911 Islam-bashing was an act that could be conducted with complete impunity. There was no need for any pretense of civility toward Muslims. Their cultures,their traditions, their customs and their beliefs and off course even their book of spiritual guidance could be treated with absolute contempt.Those with an anti-Islamic agenda represent a diverse array of liberal and conservative, religious and secular constituents, molding into a mainstream ‘neocon’ cabal. But perhaps the most virulent amongst these toward not only Muslims but also Jews are a cult of Christian extremists, who foresee armageddon between the forces of ‘good’ ( symbolized by the marriage of convenience of a ‘Judeo- Christian’ civilization ) and of ‘evil’ ( represented by the demonic Islamo-fascist counter- culture). On the side of the victors would be the ‘Messiah’ with the rapturous redemption of these Christians, with Jews and lesser mortals being presented with the option of conversion or damnation.If Jews had labored under any misapprehension that their acceptance into the reassuring inclusiveness of a Judeo-Christian society, would immunize then from the virulence of such fundamentalists they were given a rude reality check by long time Islamophobe, Anne Coulter, who recently declared that the only way Jews could attain perfection would be by embracing Christianity! Muslims of course are no strangers to such religious denigration with the crusading polemicist Robert Spencer constantly berating Muslims that if they just abandoned the Quran as their book of beliefs and guidance they would be welcome into the community of nations!
Notwithstanding the blatant malice expressed by the ‘end of time extremists’ represented most vocally against them by the likes of Rev John Hagee and Minister Parsley, it is ironic that Muslims, in an almost knee-jerk reaction to every woe they experience, see a conspiratorial Jewish hand behind it. Muslims see the Jewish control of the media, influence in Congress and their passion for Israel as being the driving motivation to marginalize and demonize Muslims who they(the Jews) perceive as the biggest threat to the existence of Israel. It is the same irony that prevents the Jews from recognizing the ‘Triumphalist ideology as the supreme threat to the very foundation of their tenets of Judaism. It is also ironic that while Jews are exquisitely sensitive to the existential threat posed to Israel by vastly superior Muslim masses, what they do not see is the consternation that Muslims have of Israel’s ability to systematically dismantle the infrastructures of every potentially hostile Muslim country that questions Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. With the 4th most powerful military in the world it would not take Israel long to vaporize any serious threat in any or all of its borders.
A lesson that must be learnt by both Muslims and Jews is that the battle for the Holy Land also involves an overwhelming majority of Christians who bear no ill-will toward either. All would favor an equitable settlement that provides peace justice and harmony for the inhabitants of the area. All that is, except the radical fundamentalist cult of Christians who trumpet their unqualified support for Israel based on their own self-serving interest, with a distorted version of the end of time which has less to do with the future well-being of Israel or its people than the fulfillment of their own fantasy of rapturous redemption.Thus the challenge that both Muslims and Jews face is to dismantle the layers of distrust and fear, get beyond platitudes and begin to build bridges of true understanding. From the Muslim perspective, condemnation of ‘terrorism’ is not enough:certainly not when so many innocent lives have been sacrificed to an ideology(Binladenism) that promotes the slaughter of innocents as Islamically acceptable. Only Muslims can and must, expurgate the heresy that terrorizes Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and undermines the very essence of their spirituality. There is nothing more pressing for Muslims than to regain the respect for their religion - tarnished by heretics of their own, and demonized by Islamophobes of every stripe. But they need help in arresting the further radicalisation of their religion. They cannot do it alone,certainly not with the neo-cons’ relentless demonization of Islam. They need the help of all fair-minded people to repudiate bigotry. Islamophobia and anti-Islamism are expressions of hate, no less so than anti-Semitism, and civil society has a responsibility to display zero tolerance toward all. As the quintessential victims of bigotry the Jews have learned to deal with the hate-mongers in society. Perhaps they can reach out to Muslims in their hour of need, in the same way as Muslims had provided sanctuary for Jews from the pogroms of the ‘Dark Ages’. In a sense the conciliatory calls by three diverse leaders in the Jewish community, Rabbi Yoffie, President of The Union for Reform Judaism, Avraham Burg,( ) previous speaker in the Knesset ( Who wrote of the Jewish Peoples new Task),and Rabbi Arthur Washkow of the Shalom Center, are just such timely gestures not just for a dialogue between the Muslim and Jewish communities but an appeal to Jews to rally to the defence of true Islam.
If Muslims reciprocate to the hand of friendship stretched out by segments of the Jewish community such dialogue will expose the fear-mongering hate-filled Bin Laden cloned neocon confrontational agenda which masquerades as though it were in the national interest of the US, and a path to peace for Israel. The neocon agenda should be unveiled as the ultimate threat to both. Instead, if a new policy of rapprochement toward the Muslim countries is developed, there is real hope for the prospect of peace. If on the other hand the neo-con agenda prevails, and Iran is ‘nuked’ pre-emptively while Cheney is still in office, or delayed till trigger happy John McCain gives the order, the consequences would be catastrophic. Were this to happen literally all hell will be let loose, with predictably foreseeable ramifications. With a drastic global shortage of fuel the economies of stable countries would crumble; with food supply rapidly diminishing the specter of famine in third world countries would loom larger; social chaos will ensue. While Muslims will be portrayed as the trigger for the immediate and catastrophic collapse of global society, when the dust settles, the Jews,recently vaunted in Vanity Fair for their disproportionately impressive political and economic clout, will be scapegoated as the silent accomplices to the neocons’ Machiavellian scheme ( It certainly took much less than this for Cheney to reprimand AIPAC last year for not endorsing unconditionally the Administration’s neocon war which he bluntly remarked was launched in the interest of Jews and Israel (Forward 3/16/07). With global chaos, and instability and mayhem on all its fronts, Israel will be a lost dream. It would face an endless army of people with no hope. No power on earth can stop those who must believe that salvation in death is the only solution to a life of endless oppression.The only people who will rejoice in mankinds ultimate misery are the those who believe that a man made apocalypse could twist God’s arm and uplift them to the path of redemption.
The time to ratchet down hostilities is now. The coming together of typecast foes may not be easy. On the other hand allowing fascists to chart the future of humanity is not a viable option. Rapprochement is the only answer to Israel’s survival and Islam’s renaissance. There is nothing incompatible between Islam and Judaism that prevents Muslims and Jews from living together again. They have a moral imperative to do so, resting on the Muslim belief of a divinely-assigned stewardship of God’s creation, and the Jewish belief of ‘Tikkun’ or healing of God’s creation. This is why the joint statements by Rabbi Yoffie and Dr Mattson of such seminal importance, have such an urgent appeal. With the afore-mentioned credentials Muslims and Jews should not only be able to coexist but respond to the call of the majority of our true Christian friends, in what may sound like a cliché paraphrasing the life of the"Prince of Peace”, ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’, but which is a timeless message with a universal appeal, we can all live with.