In March 2015, Abdullah Antepli, an atypical Imam from North Carolina, approached me with an invitation to part take in the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) trip to Jerusalem, a program sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute. I was attracted by the idea of traveling to a region whose contentiousness lies at the center of so many conversations and debates amongst friends and foes alike. I was also drawn to Jerusalem, which is known for its great hummus and the Dome of the Rock. After all, what else could an American Muslim want other than a sacred place and great Middle Eastern food? So after giving it some thought, I accepted the invitation to study Judaism in Israel.
During the 18 months of the fellowship, I experienced much controversy and opposition from within my own community. I repeatedly second-guessed my involvement in the program and asked for reassurances from my fellow MLIers. And yet, as a result of my studies with MLI, I gained an understanding of how Jews relate to religion, peoplehood, and Israel. I grew determined to stay engaged with other MLI alumni, with that Imam, with Shalom Hartman, and to continue exploring opportunities to build bridges with people from outside my own community.
Fast-forward to election day. After seeing early results from the mid-west, Trump’s unconventional rise to power was apparent. I struggled to come to grips with the new dynamics that would implicate me and my family due to Trump’s victory. I raced to formulate some early defenses of my community, both as an American Muslim male and as a husband to a wife who dons a hijab. I started to explore precautions to protect my family and my community.
MLI’s alumni retreat was scheduled for that very weekend after election day. During this gathering, the pain became very real as the participants shared their stories and the questions they were fielding from children. At moments, there were tears. The discourse was heavy and took its toll on me and on everyone else in the room. On the second day of the retreat, I found myself mingling with and listening to a number of Jewish communal leaders describing the urgency of alliances to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry towards other minorities. MLI’s importance was becoming clear to me. There was genuine love and cooperation in the room. The retreat felt almost like a big family getting together around the dinner table to discuss a clear and present danger facing the group.
I am devastated by President-Elect Trump’s continued retreat from American values in appointing alt-right personalities and fueling the fears of American Muslims. There is an urgent need for all minorities to build bridges with one another, and to understand and defend the values which brought all of us together that weekend.
As a practicing Muslim, I believe that there is a blessing in all calamities. As one saying narrated by a companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) puts it, “Great reward comes with great trials. When God loves a people, He tests them, and whoever accepts it attains His pleasure.”
As I reflect on the path that led me to this moment, I realize now that I could not have known what I would gain through my participation in MLI. In the end, it is not only what I learned, but who I learned from that mattered the most, and will continue to matter in the future.
Previous: Why Two Top Muslim and Jewish Groups Joined Forces to Fight Bigotry—And Why Some Are Trying to Stop Them
How I Became an Accidental Interfaith Activist—and Learned to Love Disagreement
How This Election and My Research on Extremism Underscored for Me the Need for Muslim-Jewish Dialogue
Trump’s Appointment of Stephen Bannon is a Call to Arms for American Jews and Muslims
Related: I Spent the Shabbat After Trump’s Election with Muslim Leaders from Across America
Yildirim Sivar, M.B.A., is a Turkish-American social entrepreneur in Jacksonville, Florida. He is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, and a former senior adviser to Turkey’s Minister of Tourism and Culture.