Now More Than Ever, We Must Bridge the Great Divide Between Jews and Muslims

This past week, I had the distinct pleasure of returning to Washington Hebrew Congregation, a house of worship where I always feel a sense of spiritual humility and exuberance. As part of the Congregational Conversations series, I joined my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Bruce Lustig, on stage in the main sanctuary to screen and discuss my newest documentary film, Journey into Europe. It was another opportunity for Rabbi Lustig and I, who have been working together for well over a decade on Jewish-Muslim dialogue, to come together.

My first encounter with Rabbi Lustig came not long after 9/11. My wife Zeenat and I had just moved to the Washington area, and after first meeting him and his wife, Amy, at a function, Rabbi Lustig welcomed us into their home for a dinner. Thanks to the Lustigs’ warmth and hospitality, Zeenat and I no longer felt as strangers in our new city. Shortly after this first meeting, Rabbi Lustig invited me into the sanctuary at Washington Hebrew. Rabbi Lustig even took the time to show me, a Muslim scholar, the Congregation’s sacred Torah ark. I felt honored by this gesture, and that day, I found we both shared a deep commitment to building bridges between faiths.

All one needs to do to see the critical importance of Jewish-Muslim dialogue in this day and age is to turn on the TV. The Middle East continues to be a powder keg for Jewish-Muslim relations, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmers, and violent conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere show no signs of stabilizing. In Europe, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, are increasing rapidly, while here in the U.S., Islamophobia is rampant in our political discourse. As history has warned us, such virulent rhetoric is a slippery slope.

It was appropriate that our evening together this past week was hosted in discussion around Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book, Not in God’s Name, as he features prominently in Journey into Europe. In the film, Rabbi Sacks makes several important comments on the state of interfaith relations, including his insights into the history of la convivencia, or coexistence, in Andalusia, and the impact this great age has had on the world. In particular, Rabbi Sacks illustrated how Rabbi Moses Maimonides interacted with Muslim scholars and considered their ideas in his own work. Just think, thanks to the frequent exchange of ideas between Jews and Muslims in Andalusia, some of the greatest works of Jewish philosophy came to life. History proves Jews and Muslims have before come together in great and productive harmony, and in order for us to build a more peaceful world, we need to remember this history of coexistence.

I deeply regret that I will not be able to join Rabbi Lustig’s interfaith dinner on May 20, which will feature some of the top interfaith leaders of Washington. That week, I will begin a lecture series to promote interfaith dialogue in London, Bradford, and Berlin. On May 20 at SOAS in London, I, with my Muslim-Pakistani background, will begin the trip by speaking in dialogue with my friend of many decades, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, with his Hindu-Indian background.

We must urgently work to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding in a world riven with conflict, misunderstanding, and ignorance. The need to promote dialogue between Judaism and Islam is particularly important. No two religions are so close theologically yet so far apart today. Our laws are similar. Our dietary restrictions are similar. We even share an insider-outsider perspective on living in the West. There is so much to be gained through better relations, including greater harmony and therefore the possibility of peace in the Middle East. As such, the great spiritual leaders of our time, such as Rabbi Lustig, must continue their work building bridges. This is the only path to tikkun olam – healing a fractured world.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University.

To join us on Friday, May 20 at our interfaith service and Dinner of Dialogue please click here to register.