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Interview with Dr. Reuven Firestone

For this month’s Pacifica Institute interview series, we sat down with Dr. Reuven Firestone to get his views on the Jewish Muslim relations and inter religious dialogue in general.

Dr. Reuven Firestone is a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.

1.What inspired you to write your book; Children of Abraham, an Introduction to Judaism for Muslims & Introduction to Islam for Jews?

I grew upwithin a Jewish community in America and had very little contact with Muslims. Also, when I was growing up in the 50's and early 60's, there weren't very many Muslims, and certainly not in the region where I lived.

And so, I picked up a kind of general negativity toward Islam and Muslims simply by being American. Muslims were the 'other,' they were somewhere else, they were different, strange. I first encountered Muslims as a teenager on a trip to Israel. Surprisingly to me, I immediately felt a tremendous affinity, a close connection.

I was very curious about that, and so I kept coming back to the question of, 'how different are we?' We are different, right? Islam and Judaism - we are different religions, and Muslims and Jews are different people.

But there's so much about Muslims that just felt natural to me. I enjoyed the connection and continued to be curious through my college years and beyond. I traveled in Turkey and Jordan, and eventually also in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and the Gulf States. It was that first experience of contact that stimulated me to the path that I’m still on today. And so, I studied Judaism, and I became a rabbi. I studied more than was necessary to become a rabbi because I wanted to drink deeply from the well of Judaism. At the same time, I studied Arabic and studied a little bit about Islam. But as soon as I was ordained as a rabbi I went into deeper study of Islam.

I had already learned Arabic, and I was really interested in Islamic scripture - in Qur’an andits interpretation, called Tasfir, and then I became interested also in Islamic tradition literature, the Hadith.As I studied I found that, although we are indeed separate religious communities and we are different, our essential core is so similar. Jews and Muslims strive for the same goals of relationship with God through beliefs and through actions, and we strive for friendship and justice and compassion for all. Our religious sources are different in Bible and Qur’an, and our paths take different courses, but we are seeking the same ultimate.

As I learned more and more I realized that there are lots of people in America who simply do not understand what Islam is about. Like me in my childhood, they tend to fear it, for lots of reasons, some of which go back hundreds or even thousands of years. And I felt a special responsibility to educate the Jewish community, which is my community –to arrive at a better understanding. I felt a special affinity, a kind of brotherhood that relieved my fear, and I wanted to share that with others, too.

2.How do you see the Muslim Jewish dialog in general? What are the biggest challenges we face?

Well, there are a few problems, and there are also some good things. I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks in America to positive Jewish-Muslim dialogue is the interference of certain institutions.I think it's fair to say that institutions sometimes are more interested in supporting their own institutional vibrancy than some of the projects and programs that they claim to espouse.

But there are some wonderful new organizations that are Jewish-Muslim organizations, like this organization called 'New Ground.’ New Ground is an independent organization run jointly by a Jew and a Muslim, who get young people together, and they become interns, where they learn for a full year as a cadre of people, and they study each other's texts, learn each other's traditions... They study each other's practices and they have discussions about what it means to be an American Muslim, what it means to be an American Jew. And, they don’t shy away from studying and discussing Israel-Palestine issues. Everything is out on the table, and they do it in a very effective way. And then they get active in the community, and so, that's been amazingly successful. And there have been other programs - high school programs, mosque-synagogue programs, and they've been very successful, because they have engaged person-to-person and group-to-group, outside the framework of certain established religious institutions. And, when you get beyond the institutions, and you do organizing, I find that Jews and Muslims are very interested in one another and want to learn.

3.What advantages and disadvantages does the young generation have over us in regards to inter religious dialog? What would your advice be to the youth?

The younger generation is more open to difference, I think, than the older generation. And, that relates in all areas, from religious orientation to racial identity to sexual orientation. Younger people are less concerned about difference. I think they celebrate difference more than older people, and I think that is really important. But it is not all about age. If you grow up within a tight community that is insular and closed off from serious engagement with outsiders, the younger people have the same kind of prejudices that the older people have, and that's no better. But, in general, I think we’re seeing in America a general opening up toward differences, in ways that I could never have imagined 40 or 30 years ago.

4. Some people say religion divides us and other says the opposite, what are your thoughts on this matter?

Well, religion can be used to divide people, and it can be used to bring them together. Since religion is so effective in motivating people, it can easily become politicized, but that is natural and happens everywhere. So, the people who are very concerned about the spiritual meaning of religion and howreligion is a vehicle for God to reach out to humanity and be a force for good, have to work to avoid allowing themselves to be caught up in the politics. That is often a difficult thing to do, because we are all political people. Humans are political animals! So, my feeling is that religion, at its core, is generally a very positive force, but it can be used for negative purposes.

5.When talking about Jewish Muslim coexistence Andalus comes to mind. What were they doing right? How can we apply those ideals into our current society?

The Muslim leaders of Andalus were very smart, but they were not in a unique situation. A similar situation to Andalus existed in Baghdad, and in Cairo, and in Istanbul at different times. The most successful periods for the Muslim world were periods where the Muslim leadership recognized that they will advance and have a better world when they take advantage of all the talents that they have available to them.

When you oppress a community, you cannot take advantage of their talents. But when you allow them to engage in society, in science and art and in literature, and in business, then everybody benefits.

The goal should be to celebrate diversity and the contributions of all the communities that you live with. When you have a multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-linguistic community where people are working together, it really works to everyone’s advantage.

6.There is a book titled “My Father’s paradise by author Ariel Sabar. In it, he talks about his father and grandfathers positive interactions with Muslims in Northern Iraq. You are an avid traveler yourself visiting different communities all over the world. Have you witnessed such examples of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims? Can you elaborate?

The story of Ariel Sabar’s father’s childhood raises important issues, some positive and some negative. There was a period in his small community when life was very good and relations between Jews and Muslims were healthy and positive. Eventually, however, the Jews had to leave – when politics interfered with the humanity of personal relations. There are different views – different narratives as to why the Jews of Iraq felt they had to leave, and those narratives are influenced by politics. I will not take a position on this, but in the final analysis, there are now no more Jews living in Iraq.

And where there are no Jews, it's easy to create a monster, because there is nobodywhose very humanity can counter the negativity. In much of the Muslim world where I visited, where there are no Jews at all, there tends to be a heightened prejudice against them, and resentment and fear.

That is a serious problem because without a counter-narrative, prejudice, fear and hatred is left to fester and increase. The same thing happens in the West in relation to Muslims. Where one has no contact with Muslims to prove otherwise, you can read fearful, prejudiced and hateful postings on the internet or in movies and other media that give a negative perception of Islam – and you have no personal experience with the humanity of Muslims that can give you a reality check.

When you have real relationship itconfounds attempts to objectify the other. Right now, there are two issues that have made Jewish-Muslim relations much more difficult in the Muslim world. One is the Israel-Palestine conflict. That is a very deep and long-festering problem, with little hope for a speedy solution.

The other is the association of Jews with Western colonialism, a sense in parts of the Muslim world that there is some kind of “Crusader Zionist alliance” with the goal of weakening or destroying Islam and traditional values. The “Crusader-Zionist alliance” is the negative language used by Jihadis who are bent on defeating the West.

That is of course a myth. Jews and Christians, like Muslims, each prefer their own religion above all others. That is natural, and ultimately there is no argument because every religious person has faith in his or her religion. And some Jews and Christians are fearful of Islam or say hurtful things. But there is no campaign to try to weaken or destroy Islam. That claim is a hurtful and bigoted view that is manipulative, cruel and shameful. Butif you don't know better, you have no contact with the humanity of the religious Other, then it is very easy to buy into those prejudicial stereotypes. So there is a lot of misunderstanding in the Muslim world regarding Jews, and among Jews regarding Muslims. In the Muslim minority world (about 30% of Muslims in the world live in Muslim minority countries such as India, China and Western states) I think there's more opportunity for relationships, and there is afeeling and experience among Muslims that they are a minority too. In my opinion, it is important that everyone have the experience of being a minority.

While not pleasant, it is important to experience being a victim because then you become sensitized to what victimhood means. I've had wonderful experiences with highly sympathetic Muslims in Israel, India and Singapore as well as the West, all of which are Muslim minority countries. I've had wonderful friendships in Egypt as well, but Egypt today has been poisoned by political problems, so it's difficult.

The story of Ariel Sabar’s father is a story about Muslims and Jews living in villages together where they knew each other as human beings. Theydidn’t have to know one another as “the Jew” or “the Muslim” or “the Christian”(because there were Christians in the vicinity as well). They were free to judge one another simply as human beings.

When you have a relationship with people as humans, as people – that transcendsall stereotypes. I consider it a goal of my life to help people transcend the barriers that fear and labels create so that we can experience one another more simply and directly, as fellow creatures,all created by God.

Copyright by Pacifica Institute 2011. All rights reserved.