Over the past few days there has been a lot of criticism of His Holiness Pope BENEDICT XVI who seemingly attacked Islam in a talk with representative of science. Taken out of context, his quotation surely is an attack on Islam. But, my reading of the text makes it clear that the Pope does not agree with this statement. He introduces it twice--once historically and once critically. His historic quotation mention that both Christianity and Islam contain truth: " I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both." His critical introduction adds his feelings about the types of ciriticisms of Islam that were part of his talk: "Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general." (Boldness appears in Vatican Text edition).
That people would take the Pope's citation of an anti-Muslem text as an attack, even when he distances himself from it using strong language shows how fragile the relations are between Christians and Muslims. This relationship, weak as it is, is stronger than the relationship between Jews and Muslims. The strained relationship between Jews and Muslims is evident in popular media and in the media of both communities. Over the past week, I rebuked rabbinic colleagues for being overly critical of Islam. Instead of focusing on the positive and trying to build a better world, I had read a number of critiques of Islam in the mode of "my religion is better than yours."
This weekend starts the Holy Month of Rammadan and the Yamim Noraim--our Days of Awe. As the Shalem Center has been encouraging us for almost a year, we need to use this time to come together and not drift further apart. A holy teacher should be allowed to mention a text that he describes as different from his point of view. Even if he meant to use that text to portray Islam as he saw it, he should be allowed to make the comment (even if its use would break up a dialgoue). Staying true to one's faith is a prerequisite of any dialogue.
In this spirit, I offer my rebuke to my readers (It might not make perfect sense since the discussions are restricted to Rabbinical Assembly Members. Accordingly, I am sharing what I wrote and not what anybody else wrote):
"Today a group of Israelis, Palestinian, and Jordanian students came to talk at Smith. They are all current or former students at the Arava Insittute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura.
Arava is now an approved study abroad option for Smith students and they are traveling to campuses to promote their program.
The program started with a listing of the co-sponsoring departments and organizations at Smith College: Environmental Science and Policy Program, Jewish Studies Program, Department of Government, Hillel, the Offices of the Jewish and Muslim Chaplains, Al-Iman and Hillel at Smith, the Middle East Committee, and the Office of International Study. Talking to an overflow crowd, each of the students told their personal stories of how they came to Arava and what it has taught them about the environment, coexistence, and peace.
More importantly, they spoke about how they have learned about the other and developed first wary relationships and finally friendships with people who are just like them but come from the other side of a political/ethnic divide.
They also addressed the past summer's renewed conflict and how it impacts them individually and collectively. Muhammed--a graduate who is now doing a PhD in Kansas on political science--explained that this summer his families' house in Gaza was destroyed by aircraft. His mother is a UN employee, he is a peace activist, and other family members work for NGO's that deal with food and poverty. No member of his family is part of Hamas or any other group. He said it is justifiable and understandable for him to react out of his anger and for Israelis to react out of their anger, but in the end that only brings people farther apart. It feeds a cycle of hate. Instead, he focuses on the future by building relationships and working for peace one step at a time.
I don't want to deny that there are hateful Moslems. I have heard more than enough hateful Jews (sometimes even on Ravnet) to know that bad apples exist in all communities. And it is true that our community tends to push hatemongers to the fringe more than we have seen from Islamic leaders. But the Muslim leaders I work with day-to-day and the students I share meals with in Smith's kosher and hallal dining (where I will eat in a few minutes) do not promote hate. In fact, I have probably heard more Jews and Christians say hateful things on campuses than Muslims.
In this period of Elul, let's focus on how we can build a better world one step at a time. Colleagues justifiably argue that is not worth the time to reply to the Agudah bash of Conservative Judaism. I say do the same here. Find a Muslim and talk. Find a Palestinian and listen. Tell them your story and listen to theirs. Then focus on the future. If you can't find the right Muslims to talk to in your community, I am sure my colleague Al Hajjah Khalilah Karim-Rushdan (Chaplain to the College and Advisor to the Muslim Community) would be happy to be invited to your shul. She could also help me connect you with like-minded people in your community.
I just think there is too much work to be done to argue about how hateful Islam is and what one group of misguided students did on one campus.
Bruce (JTS '00)
Shanah Tova and (soon) Ramadan Mubarakh