Patrick Burnett reflects on the importance of teaching about and supporting Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the important role courses like Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter play in strengthening dialogue and relations between these two faith communities. 

Pluralism is facing a crisis of global proportions today, and our Jewish and Muslims neighbours are caught in the thick of it. Here in the US, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups have suddenly become elevated. During the recent violent protests in Charlottesville, VA, white supremacist protesters could be heard chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Some American Jews are even pursuing exit strategies, alarmed by the escalation of white supremacist rhetoric in Trump’s America. Meanwhile, Muslims across Bradford recently received anonymous letters threatening acid attacks in the lead-up to Eid, reflecting broader trend of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Muslims and Jews alike across Europe. Jewish and Muslim communities across the West are under intense scrutiny and increased pressure from all sides. The pressure is not solely in the West either – just look to Myanmar, where the Rohingya Muslims are once again targeted by genocidal convulses.

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Yet, the remarkable thing about the Jewish-Muslim experience today is that while no two religions are closer together theologically, no two religions are further apart politically. The two faiths share Abrahamic roots. They share rituals. They even share intellectual foundations – one need look no further than the work of Maimonides to understand the shared visions of the faiths. Yet, the two communities around the globe are struggling to engage with one another. Jews in France and across Europe are suffering anti-Semitic attacks at the hands of their Muslim neighbors, the Muslim world is caught amidst endless violence, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fissured the two communities to an extent seen in every corner of the globe today. But in this time of global conflict and crisis, particularly with the resurgence of predator identity not only in the US, but throughout the West, the two communities can simply no longer proceed with the status quo.

In this environment, Jewish-Muslim dialogue could not be of greater importance. This is why I am so delighted to have a role under Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, in helping him run the course he co-founded and co-instructs with Dr. Edward Kessler, Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter. This course and the engagement of its students embodies the spirit of interfaith bridge building that our world so desperately needs today. It is deeply encouraging watching students from Cambridge, Washington, Tel Aviv, Islamabad, and all across the world come together from day one and through their sometimes contentious conversations about the Jewish experience as compared to the Muslim experience in Europe, the US, and worldwide, find points of commonality and seek ways to address the conflicts which have driven a wedge between the communities.

To underline why courses such as Bridging the Great Divide are so vital, it is worth taking a look at the impacts of Jewish-Muslim dialogue in our very own communities and how each interaction can have a major impact in improving relations between the communities.


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Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, left, and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, right, join hands in a moment of true admiration during their November 12 dialogue at American University on countering religious violence. Photo by Joseph Marcus, American University School of International Service.

Since taking this position under Ambassador Ahmed in July 2015, I have had the privilege of coordinating and witnessing a number of powerful Jewish-Muslim encounters in dialogue. In November 2015, Ambassador Ahmed hosted the Former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, for a public interfaith dialogue at American University which attracted an audience of nearly 400. Not only were genuine signs of friendship and admiration shared between these two giants, with Lord Sacks professing his delight for being with his “beloved friend now of many years, Professor Ahmed,” but crucial insights about the historical power of Jewish-Muslim harmony were shared. Lord Sacks reminded the audience that, thanks to the period of la convivencia in Andalusia, we can safely say, “The idea that Jews, Christians and Muslims should live together in mutual respect is not utopia. We have been there before.” Lord Sacks even pointed out that Maimonides, in writing The Mishneh Torah, was inspired in large part by the codes of Sharia.

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Ambassador Akbar Ahmed opens the Spread Hummus not Hate rally at American University with a plea to all faith communities to stand up for one another, as hatred and bigotry in all forms become a slippery slope and affect all when unchecked. Photo by Mahnoor Hussain.

The next fall, in October 2016, Ambassador Ahmed had the privilege of hosting the Spread Hummus not Hate rally at AU, a Jewish-Muslim friendship rally with a wider goal of inspiring all Americans to stand up to bigotry and hatred and defend our neighbors. The chaplains of American University came together with Muslim and Jewish faith and community leaders from all across the Washington region to stand up against the groundswell of bigotry that began re-emerging during the 2016 American presidential candidate. Muslim and Jewish leaders alike came out to celebrate and share their faith very publicly with students of all walks of life. There was even a public azaan and reading of the Fatiha. Yet, it was also here where Ahmed presciently warned, “Today [the prejudice] is against Muslims, but tomorrow it could be anti-Semitism or against African-Americans or even Christians and others.” The Charlottesville rally and attack solidified this truth. But this rally solidified the truth that people are willing and eager to fight against bigotry and build bridges with their neighbours.

Even in the era of the Trump presidency, Ahmed and his entire team have continued reaching out and building bridges between Jews and Muslims. This past March, Ahmed had the honor of being the first ever Muslim speaker at the Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, MD. Senior Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who had invited “friend” of one year, Ahmed, to speak, opened the lecture with a very warm introduction of this “gentleman” with a “kind heart.” Ahmed reciprocated this embracing introduction, telling of his admiration for Weinblatt and his interfaith outreach. Ahmed took this opportunity to explain to this audience the different elements of Muslim society and underline the importance of the faith communities broadening their understanding of the other so they could work together toward creating a more peaceful world. Following the program, one audience member, after having a brief argument with Ahmed during the question and answer session, felt moved to go out of his way to present Ahmed with several slices of cake so he would not miss out on dessert while mingling among the congregants. This October, Ahmed will have the privilege of speaking at another local shabbat dinner, this time at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, thanks to the warm invitation of former Bridging the Great Divide student, Rabbi Bath Weiss. He will be delivering a lecture titled, “Bridging the Great Divide: The Urgent Need for Jewish-Muslim Friendship,” and showing excerpts of his most recent film, Journey Into Europe:

These public lectures and dialogues are remarkable on many levels and serve to remind us of the inspiration and knowledge which can come from interfaith engagement. What is most amazing about these endeavours though is seeing the response of the audience members, many of whom are participating in interfaith dialogue for the first time. Following each lecture, Ahmed receives a litany of questions from curious Muslim and Jewish audience members alike about the other. Admittedly their questions are often premised on prejudicial, stereotypical notions about the other. But these audience members are clearly seeking knowledge about the other, and what often happens is once Ahmed response to these questions, their demeanour shifts and a sense of openness and wonder begins to surface. Many times, these folks will come up to Ahmed once the program has ended to learn how they can begin to help build bridges. In the battle for building interfaith bridges, even small steps are steps forward.

Real change in our societies can only come from engaging with one another on a human level. It is only through these encounters that we can gain knowledge from others and begin to fully understand our shared humanity. As a young Catholic who has had the privilege of engaging in interfaith dialogue under the guidance and direction of Ambassador Ahmed, I am constantly astounded at the transformative power of interacting with people who are different from ourselves. I have learned that most people are by nature open and curious, and that people deep down wish to learn about and reach out to one another. But I am also struck at how the pluralist vision for America has taken such a beating over this past year, and how the discourse and rhetoric on the national level has taken such a dark turn under President Trump. I remain optimistic in the future of America, the West, and the entire world. But I also am acutely aware that our world is sitting on the precipice. History has shown that prejudice is a slippery slope. Once one minority is attacked, as the Muslims and Jews have each been in the US recently, it suddenly becomes permissible for other minorities to be caught in the crosshairs, before no group or community is safe from violence. In this environment, allowing for interfaith conflicts to shape interfaith relationships can only lead to catastrophe.

We have a very stark choice in today’s world – either we pursue the path of dialogue and knowledge, or we slide down the slippery slope toward inevitable conflict and violence. This is why now, more than ever, not only interfaith dialogue more broadly, but Jewish-Muslim dialogue in particular is so vital. This is why Bridging the Great Divide, one student at a time, plays a crucial role in actively bridging this gaping divide. In our interconnected world, each individual encounter matters. May we all work together to shift our world off this looming precipice and work toward restoring interfaith harmony in all our communities.

Patrick Burnett, a 2015 graduate of the American University School of International Service in Washington, D.C., is program coordinator for Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University.


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