Two years after I embraced Islam, I watched a group of madmen who claimed to follow my religion fly planes into a densely populated city and murder thousands of my fellow citizens.
At that time, there was only a small, disorganized community of Muslims in Austin, Texas. I started receiving calls from the local Imam looking for someone who could help with community outreach. The demand for Muslims to go and speak to church groups, police, and journalists who were trying to understand Islam and Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 was overwhelming. As a brand new Muslim, I felt unqualified to take on the role of ambassador. I also knew that I couldn’t let a bunch of terrorists define my beautiful faith. So I went, and I met people in my city where they were.
This is how I became an “accidental interfaith activist.” Over the past fifteen years I’ve become engrossed—at first by necessity, but eventually with great joy—in interfaith work. It’s become my true passion and I have met some amazing, inspiring people doing good across religious lines locally and nationally. My belief that the diversity of our nation is what makes it great has only been strengthened through these interactions.
About five years ago I found myself increasingly drawn to Jewish-Muslim dialogue above any of the other interfaith work I was doing. Aside from the common elements in our theologies, I also saw social structures, concerns, and challenges mirrored in the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Both groups are about 2 percent of the total population in this country; both are historically misunderstood by the majority of our fellow Americans; and both are uniquely vulnerable to certain kinds of political rhetoric. Jews and Muslims in America both struggle with the tension between maintaining a unique identity and needing to assimilate. Both our communities face similar challenges living in a society that doesn’t recognize our rituals, holidays, dietary restrictions, and ideals of modesty.
It dawned on me that Jews are well-equipped to handle the very challenges Muslims find ourselves facing right now in America. Muslims can learn a lot from our Jewish “cousins” about how to navigate socially and politically in this country where we’re looked upon with suspicion and profiled just because of our names. American Muslims can also learn from American Jews how to build the kinds of institutions we need to thrive now, and in the future.
Up until two years ago, I felt optimistic that all our Muslim-Jewish dialogue was leading to a golden age of interfaith solidarity between our peoples, the likes of which had not been seen for centuries.
But then, Operation Protective Edge happened in Gaza in 2014 and everything fell apart.
I watched in horror as people I knew and respected from both communities devolved into angry words, racist tropes, political myopia, and a profoundly destructive distrust of one another. It broke my heart. I felt that all the work I’d done over the years was for naught. I was also frustrated by my own ignorance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an American-born Muslim convert. I waded through the endless and seemingly contradictory “facts” that everyone was doling out online. It was during this time that I accepted an invitation to participate in the Shalom Hartman Center’s Muslim Leadership Initiative program, which offered me a chance to see for myself what is happening “over there.”
Through my education and travel with Hartman, my interfaith work has become something wholly different. I realize now that the reason things fell apart so quickly between the Jews and Muslims I know was because the relationships we were building were, in a large sense, superficial. We talked about Abraham and hummus and Eid and Hanukkah. We talked about the things we had in common, and we completely avoided talking about points of disagreement—theological, political or otherwise.
Relationships—real relationships—involve conflict, and that’s not a bad thing. Conflict is only bad when it is destructive. But productive conflict can, and does make us better individually and collectively. I’ve since changed the way I talk with Jews, and even with other Muslims, in my interfaith work. Acknowledging differences and providing space for conflict, disagreement, and even safe confrontation is so much more rewarding than my kumbaya “activism” of years gone by.
I have vowed to talk honestly and openly with my Jewish friends and colleagues, even when it’s hard. I can’t represent the Palestinian people in any way, but I also can’t ignore their plight and pretend that what’s happening to them doesn’t matter to me—as a Muslim and as a person of conscience. It has to be part of the conversation between Jews and Muslims or we’re not having a real conversation.
This past week, I’ve been talking to a lot of Jews and Muslims about the current political climate here in the United States. Some of the smartest people I know in both of these communities are worried. I am, too. In just the first few days after the presidential election, Jews and Muslims have witnessed a spike in hate crimes against our people as well as other minority groups. The men now advising our president-elect trade in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other hateful rhetoric. We have every reason to believe that the climate in America will become increasingly hostile for us.
I know that Jews and Muslims are stronger together, but we can’t ignore the wedge that is between us, and which isn’t going away anytime soon. That wedge can be used to pry us apart so very easily.
The way forward for us (and other marginalized people) is together, but it will require an enormous amount of patience and humility from leaders who are committed to working with one another despite points of deep and passionate disagreement. The way forward will test us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and it will bring pain to even those with the best intentions. All we can do is commit to it, and keep showing up, reaffirming one another’s humanity and our right to disagree even as allies.
The good news? I know quite a few good people from both our communities who are ready for the challenge. We’re here, and we’re prepared to work together come what may.
And that’s a hell of a lot better than hummus.
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