In the age of ISIS, “Interfaith Dialogue” needs to move beyond platitudes.
One day before the terror attacks in Copenhagen, during a Friday, February 13 sermon, Hajj Saeed, the imam of the city’s Al-Faruq Mosque rejected inter-faith dialogue with Jews calling it a “malignant idea”.
There can be no reconciliation with the Jews, said Saeed; it would be like trying to “reconcile Truth with Falsehood”.
It’s easy to dismiss Saeed’s words as the rantings of a hater. In fact, that’s what people involved with interfaith organizations tend to do. Everyone pretends as if Muslim preachers the world over aren’t saying these things.
The only problem is that they’re getting harder to ignore.
These days it seems like a week doesn’t pass without hearing about some hostile imam or sheikh shouting “death to the Jews”, or some angry mob harassing Jews on the streets.
In Europe, the level of anti-Semitism today is shocking. In the Middle East and North Africa, Holocaust denial is ingrained.
The ADL reports that over a billion people on the planet today hold “persistent and pervasive” anti-Jewish attitudes, seeing Jews as power-grabbing and money-grubbing, disloyal citizens in the countries in which they live, and responsible for the terrible things that are done to them.Even in the U.S., nearly 60 percent of religiously-motivated hate crimes are anti-Jewish and they’re on the rise. On American campuses in particular, anti-Semitic incidents are becoming the new normal: swastikas painted on fraternity houses and students organizing fundraisers for convicted murderers of Jewish students.
And so now we Jews need more from interfaith dialogue groups than the typical “fellowship” meetings and conferences which offer up nothing beyond shallow and superficial feel-good commentaries like: “My religion is about peace” or (my personal favorite): “My religion says we should respond to evil with love”.
We need interfaith organizations to stand with us by naming and shaming the enemies of the Jewish people. We need, as Princeton University political theorist Michael Walzer recently notes, for people of goodwill to be more concerned with condemning Islamist zealotry than they are with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia.
Most of all, we need interfaith groups to begin a frank and honest discussion on the theological justifications for murderous Jew-hatred.
This was the gist of my remarks at a recent interfaith panel on “Violence in the Name of Religion: the Crisis of ISIS” held last week in downtown Syracuse, where I was invited to speak about the Jewish perspective on the crisis of ISIS.
My remarks dovetailed nicely with Amy Miller’s recent LI post and Senator Dan Coats’s depressing summary of last week’s testimony from several senior (retired) military commanders before the Senate Armed Services Committee (they made a convincing case that, despite its ability to keep on capturing ever larger swaths of territory, the U.S. still lacks an effective strategy for countering ISIS).
I discussed how President Obama is so adverse to the smart use of American military power that he can’t see how the U.S. armed forces could, if given a clear purpose and goal, “take out terrorists who kill innocent civilians”.
Unbelievably, as ISIS and other radical Islamist jihadist/takfiri organizations perpetrate monstrous crimes against humanity (blunt-knife beheadings, shootings, strapping suicide vests onto disabled kids, burning, crucifying, and enslaving the innocent), we have an American President who refuses to talk about Islamic terrorism.
This makes absolutely no sense because, as Graeme Wood shows in an important new article, ISIS is 100% Islamic. To defeat it we’ll need to understand its theology and strategize accordingly.
Here are some excerpts from my talk on February 10:
In preparing my remarks for tonight, I’ve thought a lot about the crisis of ISIS (also called ISIL, the Islamic State, or Daesh—as it’s known in the Arabic).
But I’ve also thought a great deal about the courageous men and women who refuse to be intimidated into silence and, often at great risk to themselves and to their families, are standing up for a different Islam—one that can co-exist with the fundamental human rights of liberty, freedom, pluralism and the rights of women, of the child, and of all religious minorities.
And so, I’m left asking myself: am I doing enough to help these brave men and women? Or am I just free-riding on their hard work? What is my responsibility—as a Jew, as an American, and as a human being? I’d like to make four general points.
First, what we are witnessing today is a global crisis of much larger proportions than just ISIS.
It would be a relief if we only had to worry about a handful of jihadists involved in terrorism. But it’s time that we stopped living in denial. The first step to defeating Islamic radicalism is acknowledging that there is a problem.
My second point is that we need to recognize that this crisis is not just about religion.
ISIS and other radical Islamist groups view jihad as a religious duty. But it’s important to realize that, even within the writings of the Salafists, the justification for deliberate attacks on civilians, especially those living in democracies, is quite recent.
So today’s radical Islamism represents an unprecedented re-interpretation of jihad. But the current crisis is also about money and power, and marketing a message.
My third point is that unless we empower moderate Muslims to address underlying grievances—the factors that gave rise to ISIS in the first place—we will soon face another permutation of ISIS.
Radical Islam in the Middle East and North Africa won’t be defeated unless the underlying drivers of conflict are confronted: non-representative governments, under-development, and the increasing negative impacts of climate change. But to do that, we’re going to have to give moderate Muslims the help that they desperately need. As Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute recently notes, rhetorical support by the White House and other Western policymakers is just cheap talk that leaves the field free to extremists.
My final point is that we have to stop blaming ourselves for radical Islam.
The notion that radical Islamist attacks are a reaction to provocations from the West is not only patently false, but also plays into the hands of extremists whose ideological underpinnings rest on the claim that Judeo-Christianity represses Islam.
Instead of violent extremism being the West’s fault, terrorism is triggered by a particular framing of contemporary Muslim life as a combination of humiliations at home and militaristic policies abroad: it’s the West that’s bombing Muslims, and the citizens of these democracies who must be punished for it. (But in reality it’s Islamist zealots who are massacring Muslims, and everyone else who doesn’t bend to their will).
To conclude, I’d like to…offer some remarks on violence in the name of religion from the Jewish perspective:
The Torah tells us that when Adam and Eve went against the Lord G-d’s command and ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem called out to Adam and said: [“Where are you?”]
Of course, as Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, tells us: G-d knows everything and knew exactly where Adam was. But He was giving Adam the chance to explain, to take responsibility, to speak up.
The Rabbis of the Gemara teach a similar message: [“Silence is agreement”].
Yet the world, too often during attacks on Jews, is silent.
This is the Jewish perspective.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where she is a research director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration.
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