The Jewish Stake in Combating Anti-Muslim Bigotry

The Jewish Stake in Combating Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Jewish Advocate

October 8, 2010

By Rob Leikind and Michael Tichnor

For more than a century, millions of Jews have come to America to escape relentless persecution and poverty. They came here with a religion, habits of mind, and a cultural outlook that set them apart. Yet, after decades of struggle, our nation has found a way to embrace its Jewish citizens. Will it be able to do the same for Muslim-Americans?

The capacity to embrace “the other” and make them a part of the American tapestry is central to our national self-understanding. Of course, it was not always this way. Our nation is scarred by a history of racial, ethnic and religious bigotry. Yet, with the help of organizations like AJC, over the last century our nation has developed the tools to overcome these impulses. After 9-11, these seemed to be on full display. Rather, than turn against the Muslim-American community, people across the United States reached out in an effort to better understand their Muslim neighbors. What they found, in the main, were ordinary people, who (as Jews had done) were learning to accommodate their religious and cultural norms to an American environment.

It is this sense of the normalcy of the Muslim-American experience that some fear is eroding in a wave of innuendo and suspicion that was ignited by the Park 51 controversy in New York City. The casualties are mounting and some of these are visible here in Boston: Muslim families and children wonder whether they are welcome in their communities; relationships are fraying; and, polarization is increasing, as evidenced by the controversy around a recent visit to a local mosque by a group of public school children.

For Jews in Boston and across the country, the stakes are high. We depend upon an America that is tolerant and respectful of its minorities. The net of suspicion that has been cast across our country has ensnared too many innocent people and, in the process, is diminishing the spirit of freedom and tolerance on which we depend.

It is likely that traditional prejudice, borne of an innate suspicion of that which is different and new, has contributed to misgivings about Muslim-Americans. For centuries, we Jews have felt the sting of this kind of contempt and, as a result, we have a particular sensitivity to the harm it causes. Many of us have responded by vigorously speaking out.

It is also true, however, that some are struggling to reconcile concern about anti-Muslim bigotry with troubling reports that suggest that some Muslim institutions and leaders have associated with or promoted ideas advanced by Islamist extremists. Here in Boston, for example, there has been worry about the influence of Sheik Yusef Qaradawi. Qaradawi is a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has had a special relationship with Hamas, has issued fatwas justifying the murder of Israeli men, women and children, and has been an influential disseminator of anti-Semitic ideas. Similarly, it has also been disquieting to learn that a respected Islamic scholar with strong Boston connections, Dr. Jamal Badawi, has openly called into question the legitimacy of modern secular democracies, while also raising doubt as to whether Muslims living in places like the United States should even participate in democratic processes.

It may be that concerns about Sheik Qaradawi and Dr. Badawi’s influence are inflated. In the absence of greater clarity, however, it would be surprising if association with them by some local Muslim leaders did not prompt questions about their beliefs and aspirations. Raising such questions is not an attack against Islam or our Muslim neighbors. It reflects genuine concern about teachings that appear to be antithetical to American values and threatening to Jewish well-being.

Regrettably, in the current, highly polarized environment in Boston, merely asking questions risks their being used as proof of Muslim perfidy or as an example of efforts to slur Muslim-Americans. Both responses do a disservice to our community by undermining the possibility of serious inquiry that might enhance understanding and blunt prejudice.

There is a need for a center to emerge that recognizes the harm caused by anti-Muslim bias, but also allows for non-polemical discourse about difficult issues. For this to happen we need to affirm that the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans share with us a commitment to American democracy and the values that support it. We need to reject sensationalized claims that undermine prospects for serious engagement, misrepresent complex issues, and risk tarring all Muslims. Finally, we need to affirm the legitimacy of questions that give pause to reasonable people, who otherwise stand firmly against prejudice towards Muslims. 

Should this kind of discourse emerge, we may discover that there are fewer bases for concern then some suspect or we may discover the opposite. Whatever the case, we in the Jewish community should recognize that we have a special stake in defeating anti-Muslim bias. We also have a special stake in better understanding the different beliefs and commitments that guide some Muslim neighbors. This is not a simple task, but we owe it to country, our neighbors and ourselves to pursue it. 

Rob Leikind is director and Michael Tichnor is president of AJC Boston.
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