The responsibility of the Muslims and the Jews in the West is tremendous: living together, both citizens of the same countries, they should raise their voices in the name of justice and mutual respect. In France, for example, one finds a unique situation; namely, the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe living together. In America, we find the same situation with two important religious communities sharing the same citizenship. That itself should be an ideal opportunity for people to learn to live in harmony. However, the reality is that problems are on the rise. While tensions have been incidental in the past, the situation has been exacerbated during the second intifada, and more recently, during the upsurge of violence in the Middle East. The trend appears to be that the Muslim immigrants as well as native European and American Muslims are becoming extremely sensitive to the events occurring in Palestine and are demonstrating their frustration quite overtly.
Malicious words, cries of “down with the Jews” shouted during protest demonstrations, and in a few cities in France, reports of synagogues being vandalized. One also hears ambiguous statements about Jews, their “occult-like” power, their insidious role within the media and their nefarious plans. After September 11th, the false rumor that 4,000 Jews did not show up for work the morning of the terrorist attacks against the World Trade center, was relayed throughout predominantly Muslim areas.
It is very rare to hear Muslim voices that set themselves apart from this kind of discourse and attitude. Often, one will try to explain away this phenomena being a result of extreme frustration and humiliation. That may be true, but one must be honest and analyze the situation deeply. Much like the situation across the Muslim world, there exists in the West today a discourse which is anti-Semitic, seeking legitimacy in certain Islamic texts and support in the present situation in Palestine. This is the attitude of not only marginalized youth, but also of intellectuals and Imams, who see the manipulative hand of the “Jewish lobby” at each turn or every political setback,
The situation is far too serious for one to be satisfied by simple explanations based on current frustrations. In the name of their faith and their conscience, Muslims must take a clear position so that a pernicious atmosphere does not take hold in the Western countries. Nothing in Islam can legitimize xenophobia or the rejection of a human being due to his/her religious creed or ethnicity. One must say unequivocally, with force, that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and indefensible. The message of Islam requires respect of Jewish faith and spirituality as noble expressions of “The People of the Book”.
During the initial phase of the Prophet’s settlement in Medina, prior to the conflicts of Alliances, the Prophet Muhammad sternly admonished: “He who is unjust with a contractor (Christians and Jews of Medina), I shall bear witness against him on the Day of Judgment”. Later, during a period of extreme conflict [between Jews and Muslims], eight Qur’anic verses were revealed to absolve a Jew who had falsely been accused of a crime by a Muslim. Mohamed constantly taught respect for all human beings, with all their differences. One day, he stood up out of respect when he saw a funeral procession nearby. When told it was that of a Jew, he replied “Is it not human soul?”
One cannot simultaneously neglect these teachings and continue to feed a tainted portrayal concerning Jews. It is the responsibility of Islamic organizations and Imams to send an unambiguous message about the profound link between Islam and Judaism; the recognition of Moses and the Torah as part of Islamic teachings; on the necessary contextualisation of certain equivocal texts within the Qu’ran; on mutual respect and the rejection of all forms of explicit or implicit anti-Semitism. This also means to acknowledge the horrors of the holocaust, by studying its ramifications, and respecting the pain and suffering which have shaped the Jewish conscience in the 20th century.
In order for all Muslim citizens to understand this teaching, there must be a corresponding set of actions. One has to fight feelings of victimization which colonize the spirit of many Muslim citizens in the West, especially those who are the most marginalized. The frustration within these communities leads to blaming of the other, the state, the police, and, “the Jew who does not like us and who manipulates us…”
It is here that Muslim intellectuals and the public authority should share the responsibility. The first step is to disseminate an Islamic awareness that is coherent and non-literal. It should emphasize personal responsibility and respect of others. As for public authorities, it is important that they encourage concrete actions which break the cycle of economic ghettos and encourage reform of social and urban politics at a local level. Whether we like it or not, unemployment and discrimination are one of the major roots of racism.
At another level, there is urgency for Jewish and Muslim representatives to start communicating and establish an honest dialogue in order to avoid knee-jerk, reflexive community responses that may undermine the principle of living together in harmony. Self-criticism must become a mutual exercise.
If it is necessary to condemn anti-Semitic language of some Muslims, it is also the responsibility of Jewish intellectuals, religious or secular, not to confuse the different spheres. An extreme right-wing Prime Minister, Jewish or otherwise, supports an ideology that must be denounced precisely for what it is. Criticism of Sharon for his atrocious past crimes and his current policy is not a sign of disrespect for Judaism, in the same way that criticism of dictators of some Muslim countries, one by one, is not an attack on Islam.
The respect that we have towards Judaism should not be subject to suspicion once we denounce the unjust policies of the state of Israel. To foster this type of amalgams, we will end up creating chasms between communities and that is certainly to empty the ethical content of our common Western citizenship based on the values of justice and equality.
Muslims and Jews alike should stop feeding sentiments of victimization, and reconsider the discourse that one is creating towards the other. In the name of a common ethics of citizenship, our dignity will be based upon our ability to know how to be critical, transcending one’s creed, a state, or an organization without considering that it “clearly” a manifestation of anti Semitism or Islamophobia. It is exactly this type of intellectual requirement which one must teach and which will help all Jews and Muslims to offer to their faith, and to their respective belonging, the magnitude of a self-conscience based on universal principals, and not a closed-minded ghetto identity.
In Europe and in America, the conditions are right to bring these challenges to light. What remains is the mutual commitment to a constructive self-analysis and to refuse the destructive temptation of selective condemnations.
This text is translation of an Op-Ed published in Le Monde, December, 23 2001