U.S. Religious Leaders Seek to Bridge Gap Between Jews and Muslims

Despite recent comments by Palestinian Mufti, Imam Muhammad Shamsi and Rabbi Marc Schneier are encouraging their congregation to see the man behind the faith.

Shlomo Shamir
Shlomo Shamir
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Shlomo Shamir
Shlomo Shamir

Imam Muhammad Shamsi felt hurt and insulted. Considered among the leading Muslim figures in the New York metropolitan area, Shamsi doesn't mince words or try to hold back his rage when reacting to a recent pronouncement of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein who quoted a passage of the Koran, "Just as a Muslim is to worship Allah, behind him is a Jew and he should be killed."

"The Mufti presented a corrupted interpretation of the verse of the Koran and wholly misconstrued its meaning," says Imam Ali. "[The Mufti] has adhered to the literal translation of the verse and completely ignored the necessary interpretation that is given to that passage," he explained, adding: "This is a total error and his words are libelous because Islam is completely opposed to encouraging hatred between fellow man."

Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali.Credit: AP Richard Drew

Imam Ali serves as the spiritual leader of the Manhattan Islamic Center which includes the largest mosque in the area and among the biggest in the United States. He has gone on the record as saying, "The Jerusalem Mufti has lost his right to represent Islam."

Seated beside Imam Ali as he says this is Marc Schneier, a prominent orthodox rabbi who is President of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Vice President of the World Jewish Congress. "Literal interpretations of both text and law are the same tools that drive the notions of the primitive extremists within the Haredi community in Israel," Rabbi Schneier says as Imam Ali nods in agreement.

The rabbi and the Imam might be described by some as the ultimate odd couple, but the friendship and mutual admiration that exists between the two is the result of a common cause, one that deeply unites the two, which is to bring together Jews and Muslims and to create a language of cooperation between the groups.

And most importantly, as they both said, to build and advance "principles and guidelines for mutual trust" between the faiths.

With the background of the various revolutions sweeping the Arab world and intensifying extremism within radical elements of Islam, the rabbi and the imam sound and look like some modern reincarnation of Don Quixote. But in their minds the trends that are sweeping the Arab world and the Middle East only strengthen their belief in the importance of their work.

"Today, perhaps more than ever more, it's essential that religious leaders from our two communities advance messages of tolerance and moderation," Rabbi Schneier said.

"To the outsider this looks complex but when you're deeply involved in this effort, you realize that this goal is certainly attainable," Imam Ali said, adding: "Politicians in the Middle East can work to advance peace agreements, but it's the religious leaders who can really build true and lasting trust."

Imam Ali and Rabbi Schneier are currently co-authoring a book, most of which has already been completed, entitled "Can We Learn to Trust Each Other."

The book explores various relevant issues of faith in both the Bible and the Koran, with a declared objective "to argue that the accepted text-based arguments that describe gaps between our communities are largely a result of misguided and sometimes even hostile interpretations."

Both Shamsi and Schneier have been involved with initiating and organizing a series of events in mosques and synagogues in recent years designed to bring Muslims and Jews together, events in Europe.

They said that numerous fruitful relationships have been built between rabbis and imams and communal leaders in both the Jewish and Muslim sectors.

Next month in Washington, DC, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding is organizing a major Muslim-Jewish conference for religious leaders from seven Latin American countries.

Both clerics deserve much credit for making Muslim-Jewish dialogue in the United States into a popular and accepted trend.

"At the beginning of our work, many of my Muslim colleagues warned me against visiting synagogues and that I would be greeted by hostile responses from the Jewish side," Imam Ali says. "Today, I repeatedly get requests from Muslim leaders wanting to be included in these visits."

"Rabbis and community leaders say that when they meet with Imams they come out of the meeting more encouraged and optimistic than from similar interactions with other minority leaders," Rabbi Schneier says.

The 45-year old Imam Ali was born in Indonesia and spent many years in Saudi Arabia where he underwent his religious training- an aspect of his bio that many fellow Muslims view as a badge of honor.

Rabbi Schneier, 53, was born into a well-known rabbinic family. His public advocacy efforts began several decades ago when he established The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to strengthen ties between the Jewish and Black communities in the US.

"The challenges facing the American Jewish community today is to recognize that we have the potential to act as a leading force in advancing positive relationships with modern Islam."

Shamsi estimated that in the New York area alone, there are between 600,000 and 800,000 Muslims with about 250 mosques led by about 50 trained imams. He stressed his opposition to demonstrations against the New York Police Department, the likes of which took place recently in protest to alleged NYPD practices in immigrant communities.

"I am a strong advocate for dialogue and cooperation with the relevant authorities, he added," noting that the overwhelming majority of young Muslims in the New York area are busy working and making a living for their families and have little or no connection to the events and conflicts in the Middle East.

Imam Ali pointed to communities like Brooklyn and Queens where large numbers of Muslims live right next to Jewish communities without any conflict as an indication that there exists a high quality of life and cooperation and dialogue exists and thrives.



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