Thank You, Muslim Friend

There are days, many days, when I dread turning on the news. Once in a very long while, though, I'm grateful I did.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Norwegian Muslims create a human peace ring around the synagogue in Oslo, Norway on February 21, 2015.
Norwegian Muslims create a human peace ring around the synagogue in Oslo, Norway on February 21, 2015.Credit: AFP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

There are days, many days, when I dread turning on the news. I don't think that's unusual in Israel. And, like most people here who dread turning on the news, I do it anyway.

Once in a very long while, though, I'm grateful I did.

This weekend, for example. The tragic murder earlier this month of Dan Uzan, a Danish Jew slain while guarding a bat mitzvah at the central synagogue of Copenhagen, inspired a small group of young Muslims in neighboring Norway to do something extraordinary.

They took to social media to call on fellow Muslims to gather outside the synagogue of Oslo while members of the nation's small Jewish community prayed inside. They hoped to create a "ring of peace" around the shul – an enormously powerful redefinition of the concept of a human shield.

In the words of one of the Sabbath worshippers, Norway Chief Rabbi Michael Melchior, the teenagers decided to brave the cold and their own fears and previous notions "in order to convey the message to terrorists that if they want to harm the Jewish community in Oslo, they would have to go through them first."

One of the organizers was quoted as saying they were hoping that as many as 30 people would respond to their call to Muslims and other Norwegians to join them. More than 1,200 did.

"There are many more peace-mongers than warmongers," Zeeshan Abdullah, one of the organizers, told the crowd, as Jewish community leaders and the organizers of the ring of peace stood beside one another. "There's still hope for humanity, for peace and love, across religious differences and backgrounds."

The gathering, broadcast live on television, came amid a rising tide of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks across Europe. Norway's Jewish community, one of the continent's smallest, is around a thousand strong. Estimates of the Muslim community in Norway run from 150,000 to a quarter million.

"One after another, in the freezing cold, the youngsters from the organizing group stood up and called on their brethren to take back ownership of Islam," the Copenhagen-born Rabbi Melchior, a former member of Knesset and a prominent advocate for Jewish-Arab reconciliation and coexisrtence, recalled in a Facebook post.

"Out of faithfulness to Islam," he continued, "they are saying NO to anti-Semitism, as well as NO to Islamophobia and YES to building a shared society. Such a simple, accurate and true message. Each and every one spoke in the name of Allah the Merciful and Compassionate and it was clear they really meant it."
There will be those who will dismiss the ring of peace as meaningless, or worse, as a hoax.

There will be those who will deride the ring of peace by quoting past statements of one of the organizers implying that Jews were behind the Twin Towers attacks – but who will ignore or wave away the fact that the organizer himself recanted his beliefs as having been as "anti-Semitic" and "unacceptable," and took a significant role in helping initiate the ring.

To diminish the ring of peace, however, is to ignore the experience and the insight of people like the head of the Jewish community of Oslo, Ervin Kohn, who called the initiative “extremely positive," adding that it could change the dynamics of minority relations in Scandinavia.

To do that is to ignore the tears of Dan Uzan's father, who on hearing of the ring of peace, told the rabbi that this was the first time he had managed to find meaning in the brutal death of his son.

And to do that is to ignore the words of Rabbi Melchior, speaking to the crowd of Christians, Jews, and Muslims outside the synagogue that night, quoting from the Koran.

Declaring that the actions of the young Muslims were deeply rooted in the Koran, he related the story of an incident in the life of Muhammad, when the people of Mecca threatened to kill the Prophet.

A family of non-Muslims then surrounded the Prophet. The head of the family told the people of Mecca that if they wanted to kill the Prophet, they would need to kill him and his family first.

"In the Circle of Peace the young Muslims created on Saturday night, they continued, through their noble action, the great act that is a basis of Islam, and which the Prophet, when he rose to prominence, praised as the greatest act," Rabbi Melchior wrote on Sunday.

He told the Muslims standing guard outside the synagogue that as a believer, he shared their belief in Allahu Akbar – that G-d, in His Greatness alone, was present in every space throughout the world. And that in particular, He was present in the space between the moving ring and the Jews it was meant to defend.

"For, where there is humanity," Rabbi Melchior concluded, "Allah wants to be more than anywhere else in the world."

True, by itself, the ring of peace solves nothing. But like the very concept of grace, it's a start. People armed only with courage are showing one another the immense might of standing side by side.

To every single person in that ring of peace, especially the eight brave young people who set it in motion, I want to say just this:

I don't know you. But I thank you. And I consider you my friend.

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