Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Imam Shamsi Ali and Rabbi Schneier: Reuniting Muslims and Jews

Candid conversation:: Rabbi Marc Schneier (left) and Imam Shamsi Ali (right) engage in a dialogue on issues that divide and unite Jews and Muslims highlighted in their book, Sons of Abraham, at the @america center in Pacific Place, Jakarta. (JP/Awo)
Imam Shamsi Ali and Rabbi Marc Schneier on the stage.

The death of a beloved pope is the bridge that connects two men from two worlds tormented with rage, anger, hatred, bloodshed and prejudice.

The first man is Imam Shamsi Ali, a Muslim scholar born in Tana Toa, South Sulawesi, in 1967. Growing up, he resented Jews as he was taught as a child that all of them were “evil”.

“Whenever there was a naughty kid, we always called him ‘you Jew brat’,” Shamsi said during a discussion in Jakarta.

Shamsi’s sentiment was further fuelled when he attended Muslim schools in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where he was taught that Jews intended to destroy Islam and its practitioners. As Shamsi progressed his education to become an imam, he continued to view Jews with hostility.

Shamsi eventually moved to New York in 1997 to lead the Indonesian Muslim community and to act as an imam in a newly built mosque. While his move to the US gave him a much more open-minded view of other beliefs, he still could not let go of his resentment of Jews.

On the other side of the spectrum is New York-born Jewish rabbi Marc Schneier. 

Like Shamsi, he also grew up in a very orthodox community wary of outsiders, particularly Muslims. With 17 generations of rabbis before him along with his passion for Israel, he became suspicious or even hostile toward Muslims.

Shamsi and Schneier’s paths finally crossed when they were both invited by a television station to comment on the impact of Pope John Paul II’s life on communities of all religions after his death in 2005.

Shamsi said he remembered the first time he met Schneier. They only loosely shook hands and were unwilling to look each other in the eye.

During that first meeting, both Shamsi and Schneier only talked about the pope and had no interest in talking further.

“I had no relationship with the Muslim community. I saw Muslims as the enemy. I did not trust Muslims. I thought Muslims were out to destroy Jews and the state of Israel,” Schneier said as he recalled his first meeting with Shamsi.

However, a few months later, Schneier suddenly contacted Shamsi by phone and asked for a meeting to chat. This was the start of reconciliation and a journey filled with brotherly love between the two men.

Schneier said he contacted Shamsi because he wanted to learn more about Islam and its tradition following an eye-opening visit to an Islamic school.

“I had been invited to speak in the largest Islamic high school in New York. That was the first time they ever had a rabbi,” he said.

“I accepted the invitation but I was a little anxious, I’d never been in a Muslim institution before and when I walked in, it was such a genuine, sincere exchange between the students and me.”

Schneier added that he also saw in the school a similar dynamic between the tradition of Islam and Judaism.

“The [similarity] peaked my curiousity and I began to reach out to some Muslim leaders,” he said.

During their second meeting, Schneier and Shamsi agreed that they needed to do something so that they could not only free themselves of their mutual suspicion but also free their respective communities.

“When we met for the second time, we decided to launch a conference of imams and rabbis in the US. We managed to gather 25 imams and 25 rabbis. The conference was not easy as most of them only debated the issues of Israel and Palestine,” Shamsi said.

“The rabbi and I then decided we needed to do something that went beyond the conflict. So we formulated a program called ‘weekend of twinnings’.”

In this program, they exchanged visits to mosques and synagogues. 

“On Saturdays, I brought my mosque members to synagogues and on Sundays, the rabbi brought his Jewish congregation to my mosque,” Shamsi says.

“During visits, each community observed how the other conducted prayers and rituals. Afterward, we ate together. As time went by, this activity consistently erased all suspicions between Muslims and Jews in our communities.”

Shamsi said he faced a lot of resentment from his own community when the program first started.

“The biggest challenge we faced was from my own community. I was accused of being a traitor to Islam and to the struggle for a free Palestine,” Shamsi said.

Schneier, on the other hand, said he too faced the same challenge when he tried to convince his congregation members to visit Shamsi’s mosque.

“I remember the first time I took my congregation to the Imam’s mosque, I heard questions like ‘will we be safe, rabbi?’ or ‘are we going into the den of terrorists?’. You can imagine the comments,” Schneier says.

Despite of the resentment from their own communities, Shamsi and Schneier persevered and now their program has been adopted in over 30 countries where Jews and Muslims live side by side.

To chronicle their journey in understanding and respecting with each other, Schneier and Shamsi co-authored a book titled Sons Of Abraham in which they shared stories about their experiences dealing with their own inner suspicions and eventually found a passion to build tolerance.

Schneier said his friendship with Shamsi and their work to reconcile Muslims and Jews had transformed them into better religious leaders and better human beings. He said their relationship could only be described in one word: “Brothers”.

“I went through my own personal transformation and today I’m a great defender of Muslims, particularly in the US. I’m very blessed to have the imam as one of my closest and beloved friends,” Schneier said.

“Our work goes beyond dialogue. Our work is about fighting for the other. Our work is about Jews speaking out against Islamophobia and is about Jews against anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s about Muslims speaking out against anti-Semitism and holocaust denials.”

“When American Muslims are attacked in the US, that is not [only] the imam’s fight but my fight as a Jew. Just like when American Jews are attacked in the US or anywhere around the world, imam Shamsi Ali has made it his fight to defend and protect Jews.”

Contributor : Hans David Tampubolon
Source       : The Jakarta Post

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