Can the abiding rift between Muslims and Jews ever be repaired? That’s one of the key questions to be answered at an upcoming author’s forum in Forest Hills featuring both a distinguished rabbi and a prominent imam.
Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali, co-authors of the book “Sons of Abraham,” are hoping to challenge Jews and Muslims to get beyond the rhetoric and connect on common ground while confronting important theological and political issues that have all too often kept the two religions at odds.
“Islam and Judaism are the most identical religions in the world,” said Ali, who is the spiritual leader of Jamaica Muslim Center, New York City’s largest Islamic center, as well as a former imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.
“The only difference, I think, in my view, is our understanding of the Middle East conflict in terms of how to get to a solution,” Ali said.
Schneier, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, agrees that there are a “host of similarities” between the two religions.
“We not only share a common faith but also a common fate,” Schneier said.
The two men, now friends as well as collaborators, first met during a CBS television interview in 2005 about outreach initiatives to non-Christian communities, including Jews and Muslims, following the passing of Pope John Paul II.
Schneier recalled that the two “shook hands but didn’t really look at each other,” due to the long-standing tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities.
“As a Muslim born into a majority non-Muslim society, I had studied in a Madrassa and later went to Pakistan to pursue my higher studies on Islam,” Ali recalled.
“I also lived in a very exclusive Muslim society in Saudi Arabia and I used to believe that all Jews want to destroy Muslims in order to rule the world,” he continued.
Such misconceptions, said Schneier, are at the heart of the Muslim-Jewish conflict.
“When Jews refer to themselves as ‘the chosen people,’ this is a source of much controversy and angst within the Muslim world,” Schneier said.
He added that the meaning of the term “chosen” needs to be explained, stressing that it does not mean superior but rather refers to being “chosen by God.”
And, by contrast, Schneier says that Islam refers to itself as “the best nation” in the Koran. The rabbi said that members of both religions need to understand the other’s texts so as not to feel that one speaks disparagingly about the other.
According to Ali, the idea for the book, “Sons of Abraham,” sprang from the two men’s realization that despite their own personal connection, their respective peoples remained doubtful of many religious concepts.
“Muslims often questioned me, saying how it is possible to trust that Jews will mutually respect our community while they believe to be chosen,” Ali said.
The imam said that in response to such doubts, the two decided to put their thoughts into writing.
“But, we think the best way to respond to them is by telling our own journey of transformation from suspicion and mistrust to friendship and partnership,” he said.
Both men report that their efforts have already established an unprecedented dialogue between the two religions.
“Many Muslims have asked me to help them organize events between Jews and Muslims,” Ali said.
Schneier, who founded his Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in 1990 to originally repair relations between blacks and Jews amid tensions from several incidents including the Crown Heights riots and inflammatory remarks by black leaders, now says that blacks and Jews are in a state of “cooperation rather than conflict.”
Further, Schneier adds that about seven years ago, he also joined with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons to try and bring about better understanding between Muslims and Jews, which Schneier described as “one of the major religious conflicts of the 21st century.”
He says that today, “rabbis speak at mosques and imams speak at synagogues.”
Schneier says that the main purpose of the book is to break down barriers between the two peoples by helping Jews and Muslims to better understand each other.
“I think our work is heroic,” said Schneier, making the comparison to the Jews’ biblical journey through the desert for 40 years.
“We’ve only been on this journey (the journey to Muslim-Jewish reconciliation) for six years,” he said. “But, the good news is that the journey has begun.”
The event, Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims, will take place on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, located at 106-06 Queens Boulevard. A minimum $15 donation is requested in advance, or $20 at the door. For more information, call (718) 268-5011 or visit www.cqy.org/tickets.
By Alan Krawitz