Muslims, Jews & Hate – Reflections on Limmud Oz by Taha Allam

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I recently returned from a trip to Melbourne, where I spoke at Limmud Oz on the topic of Muslims, Jews & hate alongside my friend and colleague Rabbi Zalman Kastel. I have since been bombarded with questions from people in my community; “What happened in Melbourne?”, “Did you actually present in front of a Jewish crowd?!?”, “What were you asked?” To answer all these questions and more, I’d like to recount some of the highlights of my journey, and the thoughts this trip provoked in me.

After landing in Melbourne on Saturday night, myself and Rabbi Zalman jumped into a taxi and were greeted by a passionate and talkative driver who seemed very interested in our line of work. After explaining to him why we were there in Melbourne, we embarked on a lively conversation that lasted the duration of the ride to the hotel. Our taxi driver, who was called Omar, opened up to us, sharing his experiences of leaving Somalia and travelling to different countries searching for a better life, before finally arriving and settling in Australia. He also had some poignant thoughts on interfaith relations, saying, “…if they talk to each other I guarantee you they will have no reason to hate one another”. The conversation was brought to a close when we arrived at our destination and he summarised by saying “people don’t realise what’s in between them but if they knew… they will find out that they are actually brother and sister.” He then embraced both of us and waved us off with a big smile. Beautiful moment right? But this was just the beginning.

The next morning came, and we headed to Limmud, which was held at the University of Monash. At this point I was thinking “the University of freaking Monash!! Bro this is cool”. After waiting for some time, it was my turn to present alongside the Rabbi. He spoke first, then I gave my presentation, in which I reflected a little on what my life was like growing up.

I recounted how my perspective was shaped in high school as a 15 year old boy who, like all my peers, viewed the world through a very narrow window. We believed we had it all figured out and our way of seeing the world was the only way. My peers and I reinforced each other’s narrow view of the world, creating a situation of the blind leading the blind.

Before I continue on, I’m going to share with you a little activity about perspectives – now we all know we are thinking about Jewish and Muslim people and hatred between the two and we assume we are all sharing the same perspective or viewpoint. However, in reality, we each have our own way seeing things and that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you place your hands in a diamond shape in front of you and look only through this makeshift window, what exactly do you see? Now turn around so you are looking in a different direction, look through your makeshift window again and notice what you see now. You are, of course, seeing something completely different.

When I was younger I viewed things only through my small window and I didn’t know about all of the different angles other people may be using as their perspective. I have since discovered the great variety of outlooks held by different people from all around the world, including that of the Rabbi himself along with Donna, the School Programs Coordinator for Together for Humanity.

I was introduced to both Donna and Zalman by my cousin Lina. She works in child protection and is also associated with Together for Humanity. The organisation was in need of a young Muslim, so Lina put my hand up for me. I had a mini heart attack at the idea but the feeling soon passed and suddenly it was time for me to meet the founder of Together For Humanity, Rabbi Zalman Kastel. To be honest I was scared and horrified and had no idea what to say or do in his presence. I had so many questions running through my mind like “what if it’s true what they say about Jewish people? Maybe I’m going to be their next victim”.

But the response from Zalman wasn’t what I expected. He was genuinely a nice guy. None of my assumptions were true. He didn’t have any harsh words or negative attitudes towards me at all. He wanted to know me! By the time the meeting finished, I came to realise that this guy was actually fonder of Muslims than some Muslims are themselves. And so began a new chapter of my life. I began working with Together for Humanity, going in to schools alongside presenters of Chrisitan and Jewish backgrounds, to talk to them about my beliefs and about connecting with and accepting people who are different. At this point, people from my own community began to approach me, accusing me of being a sellout, asking me “why would you work with the enemy?”, or telling me “you’re going to lose your faith if you take this on” and so on. But my experiences meeting people who were different to me had actually inspired a desire in me to know more about my religion. I felt strongly that it was time for me to learn Islamic law and undertake the deeper practices of Islam. I began to feel the religion of Islam was a way of life I could pursue and not just something that was taught to me when I was a child. I had, in those moments, discovered my purpose in life. To teach others who are not familiar with Islam, what the religion is really about. Not for the purpose of converting them, but for the purpose of peaceful coexistence.

After I had finished presenting my story to the audience at Limmud, I was approached by a few people who thanked me for sharing with them some of the moments in my life which had shaped me and allowed me to see things in new light. One person in particular who stood out was a woman who had written a note on a post-it sticker. I bet you want to know what it said, right? Not just yet, but all will be revealed soon.

The message I want to put forward is simple: don’t allow assumptions and stereotypes to get the better of you. Instead, whenever you’re faced with a question that challenges your way of thinking, go out there and have a yarn with somebody who has a different point of view to yourself. Go on your own journey to discover what people are about and learn from these experiences. Share those experiences with your friends and strangers. As a wise man once told me, take this opportunity to meet people and you’ll learn to find out what their hearts contain, share these experiences with others and be sure not to leave out any details. It’s the details that make an experience meaningful and exciting. You’d be surprised the life-changing impact you can have on someone. Limit your assumptions by sharing details you find along the way. Even if it is just a smile, as our Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) has taught us; smiling is a charity that we must keep as a contagious habit.

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By Taha Allam

Orlando and a Multi Faith Dinner

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For this article to be culturally appropriate for me, I need to start with a silence represented by the few blank lines above. Whatever I might say, it will have little meaning while many families in Orlando, and in other parts of the world grieve for relatives killed out of hate. After a silence, it is appropriate to take the cue from the mourners.

Owen Jones gave his moving perspective as a grieving gay man, that the murderer in Orlando and his hatred will be defeated. Of course he is angry and so am I. Hatred of LGBT people and other prejudices must be eradicated, no matter what the colour or religious affiliation of the haters, violent or otherwise. The challenge is how to achieve this.

 

Many LGBT activists have responded to the anti-islamic sentiment resulting from this attack by reminding us that “…it is our obligation as a queer community to remember that islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia work together.” (Jacob Tobia, Facebook Status.) Yet, many people will throw their hands up in despair and say that as long as certain kinds of religious beliefs exist we will never get along. These terrible events and some of the reactions to them feed a vicious cycle of animosity and division.

 

This cycle must be broken. It’s not easy. In fact when I reflect on the title I chose for this article, I think it might not be right to talk about a Multi Faith dinner after the massacre of LGBT people in Orlando. The pain felt by people identifying as LGBT is raw. I offer my sincere condolences to this community at this difficult time. I’m aware that religious attitudes contribute to homophobia, which was one factor that led to the massacre. As a religious man and a bridge builder, this atrocity and to a lesser extent, some of the hateful comments following it, have disturbed me greatly.

 

Yet, I continue to hope and to press on as a bridge builder. I’m inspired by the efforts of religious people to show solidarity and express empathy. One very moving account is that of Orthodox Rabbi Herzfeld who travelled with members of his congregation from Washington to an Orlando gay club to connect, commiserate and pray. He recounts the wonder of discovering how much they shared in common with those in the club, ‘Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.’

 

I was also moved by the very clear message issued by a group of Australian Muslims  and Muslim organisations which unequivocally rejected the hatred and anger which lead to the violence. They state, ‘The LGBQTI community has a long history of experiencing prejudice, vilification and violence…There is no justification for such homophobia’.’

 

There were some attempts at solidarity that didn’t mention the identity of victims, these caused hurt. The media also drew attention to a comment from another time by a Muslim cleric whose visa was promptly revoked. There is no need to pretend that differences of belief and clashing values are not challenging. On the contrary, because of these difficulties it is vital that people continue to make the effort to interact with those whose backgrounds and beliefs are different to their own. This is why we continue to teach children to embrace the “other”, regardless of difference, be it difference of beliefs, practice or orientation, to tolerate what is uncomfortable but tolerable and to develop relationships of goodwill and trust.

 

By Rabbi Zalman Kastel