Religious Tolerance, Human Rights and the UN

1859552240-world-leaders-plead-religious-toleranceReps from eighty countries met this past Wednesday at the UN to discuss religious tolerance at a conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia. I’m sure many will invariably claim there is no small measure of hypocrisy when a Wahabi Islamic regime that outlaws all other forms of religion convenes a conference on religious tolerance. For their part, however, many of the speakers from Islamic countries decried the hypocrisy of Western nations preaching individual freedom of religion while promoting social and economic policies that bias against non-Western faiths.

I often wonder if our respective cries of hypocrisy really only mask our inability to break free of our own inbred biases. It’s just so complicated. As a Westerner, I make no apologies in my advocacy for individual civil and human rights – but I will also admit that I will too often stand in judgment of other cultures before trying to understand their cultural viewpoints and their profound frustrations with the prejudices of the West.

That’s why, though I’m sure many in the will be cynical about such a conference, I am heartened that it happened at all and I truly hope it will lead to yet more dialogue. And I am particularly heartened that Israeli President Shimon Peres, a participant in the conference, commented afterward Israeli President Shimon Peres that the event was “unprecedented,” adding that it would have been impossible just a decade ago:

“What we are witnessing today is a new beginning,” Peres said at a press conference. “What was today demonstrated was the will. We now have to work for the way.”

If you’re interested in further reading, check out these articles in Yahoo News and The Daily Star

Muslims are the new Jews

From The Independent, also in JTA and Reuters, Britain’s first Muslim minister Shahid Malik has said that many Muslims feel like “the Jews of Europe”:

Shahid Malik“I think most people would agree that if you ask Muslims today what do they feel like, they feel like the Jews of Europe,” he said. “I don’t mean to equate that with the Holocaust but in the way that it was legitimate almost – and still is in some parts – to target Jews, many Muslims would say that we feel the exact same way.

“Somehow there’s a message out there that it’s OK to target people as long as it’s Muslims. And you don’t have to worry about the facts, and people will turn a blind eye.”

MP Malik speaks to a big truth – a plus ca change truth. Let’s play with this for a sec:

No, Muslims are not having their rights to property or occupation taken away (even if their rights to wear hijabs are under constant threat), even if people do eye them suspiciously. The animosity towards the Islamic bloc countries is rooted also in a fear of East vs. West geopolitical conflict — something the Jews never could claim to have. Further, terrorist acts on a grand scale are also missing from the early 1900s history of Jews and Europe. One might more accurately say that Muslims might be the new Russians. Or the new Communists.

All that being said, does it matter if Islam actually can declare war on the West — or if we just think it has? Jews were accused of running the world, manipulating finances, and so on, which were exaggerations and lies. The “Islam against the West” line is also a bit hazy in the facts area, yes? Islamophobia is a tiny hop, skip and jump away from anti-Semitism, in its pervasive nature, it’s reliance on cultural myths, and appropriation of populist fears. It is a disease of the logic, backed up by credibility and “research.” The target people is different and the trappings are green-tinted not blue, but the portrayal and useage of it is the same.

This statement is more than interesting to Jewschool because it happens to have “Jews” in the article. And this issue is more important than an exercise in backing up or debunking the similarities between Jews and Muslims in Europe. MP Malik’s statement is a hot poker in the butt of the Jewish people asking us if we (and our societies) have not fallen into the same mental traps as our predecessors’ oppressors. And what, other than decrying or debunking the comparison, we’re going to do to prevent the accusation from going any further.

(By the way, the UK’s online resources for members of Parliament are phenomenal — on his overall Parliamentary participation; on terrorism his speeches and votes.)

Union for Reform Judaism and the Islamic Society of North America team up

WaPo reports on a new effort created jointly by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Islamic Society of North America, respectively the USA’s largest Jewish and Muslim organizations. 11 groups nationwide were picked to try this new curriculum, begun last December (WAPo’s local angle is that one of the 11 groups picked is led by Rabbi Steve Weisman of Bowie, Maryland’s Temple Solel and Khalil Shadeed (no title mentioned), a leader of the Islamic Society of Southern Prince George’s County, MD).

The six session group appears to be something of a break from the usual dialogues in that it is not seeking to avoid the difficult topics. Too often, Jewish-Muslim dialogues attempt to keep the peace by focusing away from differences and difficulties. The result being that, while individuals may get to know one another better, or even get to know one another’s religions better, no real progress is made in the area which need to be discussed in order for the members of each faith to really understand the motivations behind one another’s religious differences, political differences and views of those conflicts.

Still, while they are attempting to discuss more difficult topics, there are still some problems to work out about format:

At the meeting last month when Zionism came up, almost no one spoke. Sarah Crim, a 58-year-old editor and writer, said later that the six sessions offered too little time to go into detail and challenge people but enough to listen, learn and create relationships that could produce joint social justice work, her real passion.

“Sure, there are things people said here that bother me, but I try to keep my eye on the ball. If you’re trying to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and hope you’re going to come up with something from six sessions of dialogue, you’re not going to do that,” she said.

Still, any effort is a good effort in this arena. Good luck to them!

Scriptural Reasoning

I spent the first week of June lodging on Jesus Lane at Westcott House in Cambridge, England. (For those for whom the point might be too subtle, there is also a Jesus College, a Christ’s College, a Corpus Christi College, an Emmanuel College and a Trinity College.) reason after revelationI was, along with about twenty other scholars, the guest of the Cambridge Interfaith Program of the Faculty of Divinity. CIP is the gracious host and home of the Scriptural Reasoning-University conference. Scriptural Reasoning is the brainchild of Peter Ochs and Dan Hardy (obm), along with Bob Gibbs, Steve Kepnes, David Ford and other fine folk. SR is an offspring of Textual Reasoning (which, back in the days when communication consisted of hammer, chisel and bitnet was called the “Post-modern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork”). TR, also founded by Ochs, Kepnes and Gibbs was started in the early 90s (back when everybody was deconstructing some binary or another) by Jewish philosophers frustrated by the canon and canonical thinking in the field of Jewish philosophy, and by text scholars (Talmudists, Midrashists, Kabbalists, etc.) frustrated by the perceived straitjacket of the historical-critical method which mostly still defined the field. I was one of the latter folks, along with Shaul Magid, Elliot Wolfson, Charlotte Fonrobert and others. We met once a year at the American Academy of Religion conference, drank beer, studied texts and crossed disciplinary boundaries.

The main move, to my mind, was disrespecting the territorial claims of academic fields. textual reasoningsWhen we studied a Talmudic text, for example, the Talmudist(s) in the room had no greater privilege to define the discourse (beyond, perhaps, defining actual words in the old fashioned dictionary sense) than the philosophers did.

At a certain point some Christian theologians wanted to join the party, followed by some Moslem scholars. Still the main move remained the same. No one was allowed to claim privilege of interpretation over “their” text. This simple move demands an enormous amount of faith, since everybody’s cherished reading of their texts, grounded in centuries of tradition, is up for grabs when someone is invited into the conversation who “doesn’t know the rules.” When it works, the process (which is the point) is amazing. Texts that are usually separated by walls of tradition, and sometimes by actual walls and borders, reverberate with each other. Moslems suggest readings of Rashi’s understanding of the Hagar story and Jews argue about John 4. Razi’s commentary on Sura 4 is used to illuminate Jacob’s relationship with Leah.

SR defies both tradition, which demands its territorial integrity, and academe, which demands that conferences and research be about product. SR is about what happens in the room, around the table, with the texts.

Nicholas Adams, a long time participant in the Cambridge group, describes one of the characteristics of Scriptural Reasoning as follows.

One of the features of scriptural reasoning that make it interesting is the constant surprises that it holds, even for experienced participants.…

Scriptural Reasoning practises a different relation of the past and future, and a different model of causality. To be open to surprises is to deny that the past causes the future in a strong sense. To describe something as a surprise is precisely to deny a narrow conception of causality. In some ways surprises are descriptions of events that give the future priority over the past. … With respect to a politically sensitive practice like scriptural reasoning, where the histories of the three traditions have each other’s blood on their hands, and bones underfoot, this is a significant matter. If there are surprises then the past is allowed to be the past, but it cannot wholly cause the future. … Friendship is made possible not only by repairing the past, if that is even possible, but by being open to the future. (Nicholas Adams, “Making Deep Reasonings Public,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning 47-49)

the promise of SR
We seven or eight or nine men and women, from the US and Canada and England and Pakistan and Turkey, are sitting around this table studying these sacred texts in their original languages and in translation, and we are creating the future.

Ultimately this is a bet midrash whose short term goal is to find a certain comfort in the company of texts that are supposedly not one’s own, in the company of scholars who are supposedly Other. The long term goal is the radical transformation of the role of religion in the world, as a broad highway of hope and peace rather than a cudgel of cruelty and divisiveness.

One of the more exciting aspects of SR in Cambridge is its outreach in civic engagement. Towards the end of the week that I was there, a group of thirty or so Londoners (non-academic Jews, Christians and Moslems) made the trek to Cambridge for a two day intensive on how to do Scriptural Reasoning. They were then going back to London to start SR groups-many of which are already up and running throughout London. Scriptural Reasoning is one of the modes of interfaith work employed at St. Ethelberga’s, an amazing home of peace and reconciliation.

SR now has a website, and a dream for SR groups to be started in one thousand North American cities. Join the party.

Blogging the Omer, Days 27 & 28: Interfaith in Qatar

Week Four, Day Six
Yesod of netzach

Week Four, Day Seven
Malchut of Netzach

Last week a group of rabbis – including two from Israel met in Qatar when that country opened its first scholarly center for interfaith interfaith dialogue as part of a broader push for interfaith relations throughout that region.
Ynet reports

Efforts at interfaith dialogue got one of their biggest boosts when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah met with Pope Benedict XVI last November at the Vatican.

In March, the Saudi king then made an impassioned plea for dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews — the first such proposal from a nation with no diplomatic ties to Israel and a ban on non-Muslim religious services and symbols.

But someone tell the right not to let it affect their opinion of Islam as inherently a religion of all bad things.

Why Dubai Matters

Honor Killings. Hayv Kahraman. Iraq/Italy/Sweden/USA. Kahraman’s work, inspired by Asian motifs, explores minority discourse in the Middle East and Kurdish and gender identity in a region wracked by war.

An extremely complicated policy of religious conservatism and cultural experimentation coexists in Dubai, where wealth allows the multinational population a unique ability to explore, experience and purchase postmodernity in a region long known for its old-fashioned ways. Hayv Kahraman, a Kurdish Iraqi artist living in the US, is currently showing her work in Dubai and Turkey.

Whatever you think about the 37 billion dollar economy in Dubai, the cultural flowering taking place in the Gulf is breathtaking. With galleries and museums sprouting by the day, the gilded emirate is becoming the place where young Middle Eatern artists show, and sell, their work. Jewschool will be introducing the work of artists working in the Middle East in the coming months. In an effort to expose our readers to contemporary Near Eastern visual culture we hope we can be a springboard for new Jewish imaging as well.

What does Muslim pluralism look like?

I had an acquaintance in college, a man whose parents had moved to America from Bangladesh, an observant Muslim with whom I would spend late nights discussing religion and watching the mountain fog coalesce. We lost touch after he moved off-campus and later graduated, but I still remember one comment he made to me after I did my best to explain to him what a “machloket” is and how the halachic system accomodates (or otherwise deals with) disagreements in matters of law.

He was impressed, and complained about the Muslim student group on campus, saying the form of Islam espoused there was too strict and particularistic. Muslims from Bangladesh, he said, don’t practice the religion the same way as Muslims from Arabia, and the Arab students in charge were intolerant of that diversity. He and other non-Arab Muslims were told that their clothing was “un-Islamic” and their observances were faulty. He objected, saying, “I’m not Arab. I shouldn’t have to follow Arab cultural norms to be a good Muslim.”

Apparently, policy clashes between conservative and liberal Muslim students, and between Muslim students with different traditions, are common on college campuses. Sound familiar? But unlike in the Jewish community where Hillels have a set policy of pluralism dictated from on high by philanthropists and “Jewish professionals”, according to this article by the New York Times’ gloriously-named Neil MacFarquhar each franchise Muslim Students Association chapter (there are more than 200 in the US) sets its own rules as to what food/clothes/events/philosophies are acceptable. Depending on where you go to school, your local MSA may alternately scandalize traditional parents or Imams, and shun students who aren’t “Muslim enough”.

The reporter, who apparently attended last weekend’s MSA West Conference in San Jose, got some good anecdotes, including community reaction to the sexes mingling at a barbecue, a potential member driven away because he wore a Budweiser t-shirt, liberal Yale vs. Wahhabist UC-Irvine, and the kinds of sermons given by Imams who visit college campuses.

I’m wondering what can we learn from this article, and what those of us still in school can learn from our Muslim fellow students. And what can we teach them? Keeping in mind the extensive similarities and deep differences between Judaism & Islam and between the Jewish community & the Muslim community, there’s got to be some productive knowledge to be gleaned. What do you think it could be?

New Ground Project

The Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have extended the deadline to apply for their New Ground Project. This is an amazing project to bring LA based Jews and Muslims together to build connections, community, and understanding. This project is unique because it is actually an equal and joint partnership between local Jewish and Muslim organizations.

Angelenos who are interested in working and learning together should apply. Applications are due Feb 8th.

Euphonic Dissonance

From my apartment in [West] Jerusalem, I can hear the Muslim call to prayer through the day (and night). I quite enjoy this, though I find it somewhat surprising given my location: I can’t really figure out where the nearest mosque (and, specifically, its minaret) is.

For a couple Fridays now, my neighbourhood has also been home to weekly teachers’ strike rallies. They successfully block pedestrian traffic (and sometimes car traffic) on both sides of the street, bringing the pre-Shabbat bustle of errands and shopping and chatting with friends on the street down to a snail’s pace. Pedestrians bottlenecking as we try to squeeze past the rallying teachers and their supporters.

I noticed something this morning that I hadn’t during previous weeks’ protests: an additional layer of noise. Sure, the protesters have whistles, drums, and shout slogans. And sure, many drivers honk their horns in support. But there was something else there… The call to prayer in time for Dhuhr. At first I took it for a protester with a megaphone, but I quickly recognized it for what it was. The conflicting noises, strikers and faithful, were great, and somehow complemented each other nicely.

Filed under Islam, Israel


You have now officially been assimilated….

Consumerist reports that,

The annual Islamic Society of North America convention, which was held this past weekend in Illinois, is the largest on the continent—this year approximately 40,000 people attended to take part in panel discussions and seminars. It’s also a bastion of shopping stalls offering every Muslim product imaginable, which leads the UK’s Guardian newspaper to wonder whether it has become “more about shopping than spirituality.”

They quote the Guardian article giving some examples of the necessities of modern American Islamic life: a digital Qur’an audio player, festive Ramadan lights, a pre-packed funeral kit, halal jerky and a mobile phone application that provides daily prayer times for more than 12,000 cities worldwide. Don’t I have the same application on my Treo?

ISNA convention

All I have to say is, that our Muslim fellow citizens are now officially, without a doubt, exactly like every other American. So, the next time there’s some rumbling from the trailer parks about the Muslims amongst us, let’s just let them know that the Borg of American consumer society has won.

Welcome, brothers and sisters.

George W. Ahmadinejad


Hey kiddies,

I’ve finally put up a site with some subtle cartoons, some previously published, others rejected from every publication in the world. Please visit, and remember to leave insulting comments. Extra points for proper spelling of “despicable self-hatred.”

EV Comics

From the “Sometimes People Get It Right” Files

I have a new favorite magazine. Or a new magazine that I love, anyway. It’s called Muslim Girl, and I found it randomly on my local newsstand, and couldn’t resist picking it up. It’s fabulous!

It’s totally as cool as I had hoped it would be–inclusive, flexible, asks its readers, “is your mosque girl-friendly?” (and doesn’t mince words with the answers), profiles Muslim chicks doing cool/unusual things (soccer player, spoken word poet, etc.), seems to consider stuff like how one defines modesty and whether to wear hijab a personal decision (and has a non-hijabi as a cover girl in this last issue), does cute fluffy YM-demographic appropriate stuff like gush about Harry Potter and then interviews women who witnessed the Bosnian genocide without blinking. It seems right on re: navigating the various issues of staying true to your religion (and, sometimes, culture–that came up some) while still integrating as much as possible in the big world (and has at least several features in which some interviewee talks about the importance of, well, kavvanah, and that God wants us to use our brains instead of blindly adhering to stuff). It’s respectful both to people on the more and less traditionally observant end of the spectrum and seems to be offering a nuanced reading of texts and sources. And they had an article on interfaith dialogue, which always makes me happy. This is how religion should be sold to the preteen/teen set, really. Oh, and their fashion spreads are non-sucky.

Now, granted, the fact that I’m 15-20 years too old to be their target demographic and, you know, not Muslim did get in the way of my interest (the former much more than the latter though, really.) It’s not my magazine, but I’m so glad that it exists in the world. I’d give this to my (theoretical) kid over Seventeen magazine any day.

Filed under Feminism, Islam, Media


Disgrace in France

Choose your thugs: The people who perpetrated this brutality, or the French government for being too cowardly (or too nostalgic for Vichy) to call it what it is.

Days before the presidential elections in France, authorities are reluctant to label as anti-Semitic an incident in which 22-year-old Audrey Brachelle was brutally attacked last Thursday in Marseilles.

…According to Brachelle, her attackers began striking her in the head. Then, one of them pulled a knife, cut a tuft of her hair and slashed her shirt. The two men then drew a swastika on her bare chest and fled the scene.

One thing is clear: In light of this latest atrocity, activists across the world will stage demonstrations against racist, fundamentalist butchers.

Unless, of course, they ignore it.

Full story.

Hat tip to DK.

VA Tech’s Unsung Muslim Hero

Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News unexpectedly reports,

A survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre has been describing how a colleague died to protect others.
Although badly injured, graduate student Waleed Shalaan distracted gunman Cho Seung-Hui to save another person from his bullets.

The surviving student, who wishes to remain anonymous, told of Waleed’s heroics through an email to his supervisor.

He describes how he was left uninjured after Cho’s initial round of shots.

Meanwhile, Waleed had been wounded but was still alive.

However, when Cho later returned to the classroom to inspect for signs of life among his victims, the surviving student struggled to remain calm.

He believes he would have been shot dead were it not for Waleed’s “protective movement” that distracted the gunman.

Full story.

Filed under Education, Islam

1 Comment

New Feminist Translation of the Koran

Very interesting. Predictibly, folks in the Muslim world who don’t like it claim she doesn’t know Arabic (she’s Iranian-American) and she, of course, claims that she does, and that her translation is perfectly fair. And back and forth.

Reuters reports,

In the new book, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, a former lecturer on Islam at the University of Chicago, challenges the translation of the Arab word “idrib,” traditionally translated as “beat,” which feminists say has been used to justify abuse of women.

“Why choose to interpret the word as ‘to beat’ when it can also mean ‘to go away’,” she writes in the introduction to the new book.

Full story here.

Filed under Feminism, Islam


I’m Charlie Buckholtz, bitch!

Via Young Manhattanite:

Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, a graduate of Yeshivat Bat Ayin and Yitz Greenberg’s shadow at Michael Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network, got his spot blown up by his sister Alison in a late February column in The Washingtonian. Turns out Rabbi Buckholtz has been life-long friends with Dave Chapelle’s older brother, Sedar, who, like his brother, is a practicing Muslim.

“David and I used to spend the night at people’s houses a lot—Charlie’s family more than any other,” Sedar says. Our household—with two parents, four siblings, and an atmosphere of happy chaos—was, he says, the only stable influence in his life.

It’s a pretty good article, and a pretty serious one at that, taking some of the more challenging questions raised by Charlie’s studies at Bat Ayin head on.

Though many people made assumptions about Charlie’s political beliefs because he lived on a settlement, he says he went there because the yeshiva he attended was the only one compatible with his spiritual interests.

“I didn’t feel comfortable being associated with the extreme and sometimes racist viewpoints of some people in the settlement,” he says. “It was against everything I was about.”

Charlie’s friendship with Sedar has given him knowledge he has used when a Jew makes a negative statement about Muslims. “I say I know for a fact that there are some strong Muslims who aren’t involved in this,” he says, “or that a certain act isn’t representative of Islam—that something is not true down the line.”

Sheeeit, that’s almost as cool as being Sarah Silverman’s brother-in-law. Yossi’s got the one-up on ya, though, cuz his family made it into the routine. ;)

Jewish Teens Wanted for Online Interfaith Dialogue

Children of Abraham’s Global Discovery Program (GDP) is an intensive four-month online seminar that is designed to act as an educational gateway to bring together Muslim and Jewish youth from eleven cities across the world, including Damascus, Dubai, Jakarta, London, Montreal, Marrakech, Moscow, Paris, Riyadh, Tehran, and New York.

Participants investigate a wide variety of topics and go through a journey of mutual discovery. They examine their current, as well as prospective relations, engage in thought-provoking discussions about their common Abrahamic roots, their social and cultural similarities and differences, the globalization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its effects on global Jewish-Muslim relations.

The main goals of the program are:

  • To incubate young Muslim and Jewish leaders in a virtual community that enables them to explore the frontiers of the Muslim-Jewish relationship.
  • To bring young Muslims and Jews together to examine the bases of the past, present and future relationship between Islam and Judaism.
  • To provide Muslims and Jews who do not have the opportunity to interact with each other a forum to do so and thereby gain some of the perspective that living in a pluralistic society brings.
  • To model effective methods of interfaith dialogue so that participants can bring Children of Abraham’s message to their own communities.
  • To transmit the knowledge and confidence to take on leading roles in Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
  • To encourage Muslim and Jewish youth to build empathetic relationships that will be the basis of a broader rapprochement between the two communities.

Children of Abraham is currently seeking more Jewish participants, aged 16-18. If you, or anyone you know, may be interested, apply online today!

New Centrist Palestinian political party

In these times hope springs eternal. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Professor Mohammed Dajani, director of Al-QUds University in East Jerusalem, has begun a new religious political party. His hope is to build a movement like Hamas in the sense that it will have both a social and a political wing, creating jobs and economic opportunities, and fostering volunteerism. He is attempting to woo votes from those who will not vote for a secular political party, but who are tired of violence.

Wasatia — Arabic for “moderation” — is the first Islamic religious party to advocate a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a tolerant, democratic society at home.

In common with the mainstream Fatah movement, the Wasatia platform calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But in contrast to all other major Palestinian parties, it does not endorse the return of the estimated 4 million Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel.

“I would say to the refugees: ‘Move on with your life.’ We cannot let the past bury the future, even though it should always be remembered,” said Dajani.

Among the founders of Wasatia is Bashar Azzeh, a doctoral student in conflict system management who spent seven years studying and working in Kentucky before returning to the West Bank to work for a Palestinian development organization.

“The image of Islam in the United States is that it is extremist, but we have found that hardliners are not the majority among Palestinians,” Azzeh said. “I have been to the villages and talked to people. There is a feeling that people have tried violence, they have tried everything, and this is what we need now. People want a moderate political culture and an end to violence and ignorance. They want a reflection of what we are.”

Full story here