In Kiev, bringing Jews and Muslims together

Editor’s Note:  Omer Salem will enter YDS in the fall as an M.A.R. student.  Following are his reflections on the Muslim Jewish Conference he attended in July in Kiev, Ukraine.  A Muslim, he is the founder of the Ibn Rushd Institute for Dialogue in Egypt and a member of the Worldwide Association of al-Azhar Graduates.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.

By Omer Salem ’13 M.A.R.

It is not often that young Muslims and Jews have an opportunithy to engage one another on the level of mutual understanding, respect and partnership. But that is precisely what happened at a conference I had the good fortune to attend July 3-8 in Kiev, Ukraine, the second annual Muslim Jewish Conference.

SalemIn just its second year, this conference is starting to lay a solid foundation for bridging the cultural and religious barriers that often separate Jew from Muslim.  It is supported by, among others, the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, the University of Vienna, and The Foundation For Ethnic Understanding, all of which lend credibility to the initiative.

Upon my arrival at the conference, I traveled directly to Kiev to join the group of 70 Muslim and Jewish students and young professionals from 25 nations on a boat cruise along the Dnieper River. The Dnieper, which flows through Ukraine to the Black Sea and was part of an ancient trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople, provided a lovely vantage from which to view Kiev at sunset. The comfortable camaraderie I observed among the group was a testament to the strong relationships the participants had already formed.

With my large cloth taqiyah—a traditional head cover for Muslim men that can look like the Jewish yarmulke—and trimmed beard, I was mistaken for an Israeli settler by David, a secular Jewish Israeli participant who started talking to me in Hebrew. I could understand a few words but could not carry a conversation, so I replied in English. I told him that I am a Muslim Arab-American, originally from Egypt. He asked me to take his mistake as a compliment, which I did, and we quickly became friends.

David observed that I was the first Muslim Arab to attend the conference —other Muslims were from Europe and elsewhere—and asked what attracted me to it.  “I am here to liberate myself and other Muslims and Jews from idol worshipping,” I responded.  David said,  “What do you mean? Jews do not worship idols.”

“Worshipping is not merely what Jews do at the synagogue or Muslims do at the Masjid,” I explained.  “Worshipping is what our hearts and minds are focused on and occupied with when we are not in the synagogue or the Masjid. If our hearts and minds are filled with being more observant of the higher morals and ethics taught in the Torah and the Koran, then we will not be worshipping idols—and we will have peace. On the other hand, if our hearts and minds are busy with money, land, oil, possessions and the like, then it is those that we worship as idols—and we will have conflict.”

Maryam, a Muslim from Pakistan, and Ben, a Jew from Canada, facilitated a session on identity, how to tell our stories, and whether we define our own identity or whether our cultural upbringing defines us. They also addressed the question “What is religion? Faith, rituals, spirituality, values, beliefs, customs, heritage, tradition, nationality or dress code?” I learned that religion does not mean the same thing to everyone.
Many difficult issues were tackled at the conference, but one that was touched on only briefly was the Israel-Palestine question.  Daniel, a Jew from New York, spoke about the social, national and religious dimensions of Muslim-Jewish relations and the asymmetry of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While 40 percent of Jews live in Israel, he noted, less than one percent of Muslims live in Palestine. And while there are 57 Muslim countries, there is only one Jewish state. The world Jewish population is equivalent to less than one percent of the world Muslim population.

In a session on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we learned that hate can be a positive, as well as negative, emotion. It is negative when we hate other human beings because of their faith, color or nationality. However, it can be positive when we hate our behavior for not living up to our own higher values.

I led a session covering several topics, including a discussion of the 40 principal names of Jews in the Noble Koran, a contemporary English translation of the Koran.  Most of those names praise Jews for knowledge, wisdom, piety, and patience. However, some of the names admonish and rebuke Jews for disobedience to God and rejection of truth.  We also covered the distinction between B’nai Israel (Hebrew for " Children of Israel") and Jews; and why it is important for Muslims to learn about the Torah and for Jews to learn about the Koran.
We all visited a local Masjid and a local synagogue in Kiev. Then we paid a visit to Babi Yar, where on Yom Kippur in 1941 more than 33,000 men, women and children, mostly Jews, were methodically murdered by the Nazis. Emotions ran high during the visit, and several Jewish members of our group were so emotionally moved that they were visibly sobbing as they mourned loved ones. I was asked by the Muslim attendees to offer a prayer, which I did while fighting back my own tears. I remembered from my Muslim tradition how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) stood up out of respect at the funeral of a Jew in Medina. I left deeply touched by that visit.

At the conference I had an opportunity to reflect also on how religious tensions between Muslims and Jews can have impacts on a broader scale—on the economic side, for example, where instabilities created by the conflict drive up the cost of goods and services, such as energy.

Interreligious disrespect and contempt exacerbates tribal, provincial and ethnic resentments.  To build respect and trust among conservative Muslims and Jewish religious leaders and groups without religious compromise is the goal of this project. If we can succeed, similar successes could occur among religious leaders in the Middle East, and our children will enjoy a better world. But even if we fail we will have the honor and reward of having tried. Reconciliation effort is a reward unto itself.

Posted: 07/29/2011