By Imam Abdullah T. Antepli
I’m one of only 11 full-time Muslim chaplains on a U.S. university campus, serving at Duke University. It’s the only place I know where it’s kosher and halal to pray for “the Devils.” If one looks for an overarching identity where political, sectarian and religious differences disappear, look toward college basketball. Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are a piece of cake. But the Duke-UNC rivalry, there is no hope.
Unfortunately, the future of Judaism and Islam on American college campuses is not a sports rivalry where it’s trophies that are at stake. I see urgency around Jewish-Muslim relations in general, and in particular on college campuses in the United States.
I have great admiration for leaders like Pope John Paul II and John XXIII – these men moved mountains in repairing Christian-Jewish relations. Christian anti-Semitism took its theological strength from core teachings of Christianity. Unlike Christian anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism in the Muslim world isn’t rooted in Islamic theology and was never fed through core Islamic teachings.
But as anti-Semitism grows in the Muslim world, fueled by political problems in the Middle East, Muslim anti-Semitism is taking root as people turn to Muslim theology to try to find scripture and history that provides religious legitimacy for despicable hate messages.
I know, because I am one of the victims of that anti-Semitism. I’m often asked, “Why are you so obsessed with Jews? Why are you so tirelessly trying to improve Jewish-Muslim relations?” Growing up in Turkey, the first book that I read about Jews and Judaism was at the age of 12 or 13 — a children’s version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was very sophisticated propaganda that put modern pictures of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and atrocities atop verses from the Torah and other Jewish teachings, in an attempt to prove the inherent evil of Judaism.. Not every single Muslim is born and raised as an anti-Semite. But it’s not uncommon.
I spent a number of years believing that something is innately, irredeemably wrong about Jews and Judaism. But believing in a God of love and God of mercy and compassion, I was able to go through a life journey that removed that poison from my system. I still consider myself a recovering anti-Semite because old habits die hard and modern challenges keep scratching the old wounds.
Rising bigotry is not unique nor is it one-way. Islamaphobia among the Jewish community is increasing, too, poisoning many Jewish hearts and minds and taking deep root here in the U.S. as well as other parts of the world.
As Muslims and Jews, we have every reason to be worried about the future of our religions. Vis-à-vis Jewish-Muslim relations, we have every reason to do all that we can to build bridges between our communities. As Jews and Muslims it is in our self-interest.
I see the 20th century as the time when world Jewry came to terms and reconciled with Christianity. I see the 21st century as the time Jews and Judaism can come to terms and reconcile with the global Muslim community.
That brings a moral imperative to America’s shores. Yes, anti-Semitism may be poisoning Muslims around the world and it’s changing us for the worse. But it is American Muslims and American Jews who must model what the 21st century will look like. We live in a country with influence and civil liberties; on college campuses in particular, Jews and Muslims have the room to exemplify a fruitful Jewish-Muslim engagement for the rest of the U.S., world Jewry, and the Ummah, the Muslim world.
An important place to start is to diversify our sources of information about each other. I invite you to consider, when does Islam as a religion and Muslims as people come to your attention? Or when do Jews, Judaism and Israel come to Muslim attention?
When it comes to information on college campuses, we have to stop inviting fringe speakers who only serve to firm up extremist images of the other. There also needs to be bilateral Jewish-Muslim conversation. Interreligious sharing is wonderful, but Jews and Muslims share similarities, a common history, as well as similar theological and judicial foundations. Bi-lateral discussions, especially on U.S. college campuses, are a must if we are to be an urgently needed light for the world.
A Voice from Sinai is calling on American Jews and American Muslims, “If there’s going to be any reconciliation, any coming to terms, it will be you. You will exemplify this to the rest of the world.”
Imam Abdullah T. Antepli is this year’s Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue honorary lecturer; this commentary is distilled from that lecture. The JP II Center is located at The Angelicum Pontifical University in Rome and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City hosted this year’s lecture. Educated in his native Turkey, Imam Antepli is an international leader in Muslim-Jewish dialogue.