Interview with Imam Shamsi Ali on Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims, a book that he co-wrote with Rabbi Marc Schneier.
Imam Shamsi Ali is chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria and the director of Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens. He was also an imam at the city’s largest mosque located at 96th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. He is chairman for the Asian Muslim Federation of North America. Rabbi Marc Schneier is the founder and leader of The Hampton Synagogue in Long Island. He has served as a leader of the World Jewish Congress and the New York Board of Rabbis.
Imam Shamsi Ali:
Myself, being born in Indonesia, there are no Jews there. We are bombarded by information about Jewish people hating Muslims, killing Muslims, and Israelis killing Palestinians. Not only that, but conspiracy theorists say that Jews are dominating the world, economically and politically, so I had all that in mind before I came to this country. It remained in my mind. I studied in Pakistan, lived in Saudi Arabia for two years, and then came to this country.
Yet, even before 9/11, I was very much involved in interfaith discussions. But my serious engagement with the Jewish community started later.
I still remember when I met Rabbi Marc Schneier in 2005 after the passing of Pope John Paul II. He and I were invited by CBS television for an early morning interview on Pope John from a non-Christian perspective.
So, I was there sitting in the studio when he came in, and we were introduced. He shook my hand but hardly looked at me. He didn't want to look at me, but we did exchange cards. Seven months later, he called me saying he wanted to meet me over lunch!
The first thing I asked him, why didn't he see me when we shook hands? He was honest enough to tell me he was prejudice: he didn't like Muslims.
But then he said to me, "I think I must acknowledged I am amazed by the Muslim community --the more they are pressured, the more they are developed. So, I want to do something with you." That was the beginning of our engagement. We came up with the idea of organizing the first imams and rabbi summit.
Our serious engagement started in September 2007, when Rabbi Schneier and I organized the first imams and rabbis summit here in the United States. We had over 25 imams and 25 rabbis. As you may imagine, when the two groups came together almost nothing else was on their minds except Palestine and Israel.
When a Muslim comes to talk to Jews, his mind looks at the picture of Palestinians being killed. Similarly, when Jews are talking to Muslims, they have in the back of their minds that these are bombers who kill people on the street -- the innocent and children -- with suicide bombings.
If we can solve the issue of Palestine and Israel, I'm sure--this is my own way of looking at it--more than 75% of the conflicts in the world can be solved, because most conflicts in the world right now, are based or perceived to be based on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In fact, we needed to intervene to remind them that we have other issues to discuss besides Palestine and Israel. So, Rabbi Schneier and I started thinking about what would be possible for Jews and Muslims to do together.
We came up with a program called Twinnings of the Mosques and Synagogues, making them like twins. The format of this program is that on Saturday, imams would bring their congregation to a synagogue to observe the Jewish prayer, dialogue and have lunch -- kosher and halal -- together. In return, the Jewish people would bring their congregation to the mosque to have a similar event at about the same time.
When we started this, a Muslim stood up saying, “Are you kidding? Are you serious about this?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said it is impossible that they will open the door for us, they see us less than them because they are “chosen people.” He added that they are arrogant. There were all sorts of accusations in this Muslim's mind.
I responded by saying, “We consider ourselves the best. There's a verse in the Quran: ‘The Muslim nation is the best nation.’ Let the Best meet the Chosen.” So, we went to the synagogue.
When we came back, the first question I got was, “Did they receive you well?”
“Yes, they did,” I said.
But then again, a person said, “You cannot trust the Jewish people! These people are not trustworthy. They have betrayed us.” The following day, the rabbi came to the mosque.
Before he came, the rabbi announced to his congregation that he was going to the mosque. When he announced that, the people in his congregation said, “Are you going to be safe? Maybe, these people will trap you and kill you!”
When he came back from the mosque, the people asked the same question, “How did they receive you?”
He said, “They received us well.”
Then, some of his congregation said, “Don't trust them.”
So, after this experience, the rabbi and I thought, “What are we going to do?”
The most important result of this engagement is that the Twinnings of Mosques and Synagogue, has become an international phenomenon. Out of 20 something European nations, 21 of them are already engaged, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The second Twinning effort overseas was in Latin America and the Caribbean. Muslim and Jews in those countries are engaged. And now Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, because there are Muslims and Jews in those countries.
There are different formats for the Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues.
Our Indonesian mosque in the past twinned with a synagogue from Flushing, the Free Synagogue on Main Street. They came to us, and we went to them.
In Masjid Al-Hikmah we have the rabbi and myself talk about how Islam can relate to other human beings, and he talks about how Judaism can be the foundation for human partnership. Then we have lunch and conversation.
In Long Island, at Rabbi Schneier’s synagogue, they have twinning in the form of feeding the homeless. So it's not only lectures and talking, but different kinds of activities. This is what we call a weekend of Twinnings.
There are some other forms for students. At NYU, for example, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Jewish campus chaplain, did something more academic because of the students.
We also have our own [Muslim] engagement with the Episcopalian community. We organized, for example, a two day seminar on what the Bible says about non-Christians and what the Quran says about non-Muslims.
Then, we organized a soup kitchen with a Presbyterian church near Columbia University. Muslims cooked in the basement of the church for the homeless. We cooked mostly South Asian style because we had Bengalis coming, mostly Bengali teenagers.
And then with Catholic Church, we organized a seminar about religion and family from Catholic and Muslim perspectives.
I have worked with Hindu temples in Flushing and some Buddhists, a Japanese monk Tenaka. We have been working together with the congregation on Hiroshima bombings.
What is your biggest challenge in bringing together Muslims and Jews?
The biggest jihad for the Muslims, in term of building dialogue with the Jewish community, is to fight against themselves, because they have that something in the back of their heads about the other. It's so negative, so they need to change that first. Unless you change that, you cannot move anywhere, because you come and smile yet you have something in the back -- it doesn't happen. It's the battle within. There's a mindset, a certain preconceived thing in your mind that you need to battle.
I had met some rabbis before him, but with a suspicious mind. Now, I can say that after a long journey of this dialogue and engagement, my suspicions became fewer; trust was growing.
Now, we feel that he and I are not only friends, but we are working for each other. We defend each other. When Islamophobia occurs anywhere, he will be standing on the side of the Muslims defending the Muslim community, also vice versa for me. When any antisemitism happens, I take the initiative to stand up for the Jewish community.
I myself, am still facing tremendous challenge in building this. There's a special website on the internet by certain individuals: they gather all my interviews, and they conclude that I'm not a good Muslim.
I'm just smiling because that's just a normal thing that happens in our lives. The more you do good, the more you're going to be challenged. That's why the prophets are the most challenged people in history. If the good things that we do are not challenged, then the prophets are not challenged. Jesus was crucified, Mohammed was tortured, Moses was...as you can imagine. So that is a good sign, if you find any challenges that means you're okay.
Q: Can you explain why Abraham's sons are crucial in constructing bridges within Muslim and Jewish communities?
A: That idea includes the Christians, certainly, because Jesus was a Jew. We came from the same father. Our initial faith came from Abraham, we're all children of Abraham and we're cousins! There's no reason to hate each other and divide ourselves despite the differences. Most importantly, the teachings of Abrahamic religions are basically from one source.
There may have different interpretations, but initially is one. We believe in one God. The details of that belief in one God might have different ideas and explanations, but initially it's one belief system in a monotheistic faith. That's something we want to underline and that's why we take this name, Sons of Abraham.
Oppression for me is universal, it's against humanity. Also justice is universal, it's for all. Justice is not only for Muslims but for all, including for Jews. So when Jews are oppressed and repressed by anti-Semitic attitude, I have to stand up for them.
Q: I was hoping you can help clarify the concept of interfaith for me. How does interfaith define religious pluralism? Religious pluralism is the understanding that different religious communities participate fully in the dominant society, yet maintain their religious differences. Is this too idealistic? Is it realistically achievable?
We're living in a plural society now, that anywhere, even Saudi Arabia. We used to know that Saudi Arabia is an exclusive society, but in fact the city of Jeddah, over 50% of the population is not Muslim. There are more non-Muslims in Jeddah than Muslims themselves. Yet, they're not allowed to do worship in public. This kind of situation needs to be changed.
For me, interfaith dialogue is an ideal process to change the mindset of the people, to break down that exclusive-ism, to create inclusive environment. What I mean by inclusive, it doesn't mean to bend the religion. Again, religious belief is an individual and people follow certain religion based on their own interest, feelings, and taste.
We cannot blend religion to become one religion, interfaith is not unification. We are blended in our life, we live under the same roof 24 hours. The only way to make that life better is to understand our neighbors. The best to understand our neighbors is by engaging in the interfaith dialogue. So for me, it is achievable and an ideal thing to do.
In fact, from my own theological perspective, Islam commands the Muslim to engage with his neighbors dialogue. There is a verse in the Holy Qur'an that says, "We are created from a pair of male and female." Then, God made international tribes so that we can get to know each other. Getting to know each other is the basis of that dialogue.
Q: How has NYC shape you as a religious leader?
I live in Astoria not that far from the Indonesian mosque, just two blocks. My neighbor is an Irish Catholic, senior citizen. He's 76 and his wife is 78. Every morning, this guy used to clean the driveway. Not only his own driveway, but my driveway, together. So I just watched.
Sometime as a Muslim, this is what I had before, when non-Muslim does something good for you, you think there are motives behind it, so I was suspicious. But then he did it months and months and month. If he didn't see me for three or four days, he would say, “How are you?” I would say that everything is fine.
Every time I brought my kids to the school, he came out and embraced the kids. So we built friendship. Really, he was the one who changed my mind.
I don't remember his name, but if you want you can pass by and I will bring you to his house. He still lives there. Very sweet guy. So he started melting that doubt and suspicious. We invite him to our house; he invites us to his house. My kids even call them grandma and grandpa.
That's the beginning of the changing that happened to me. For Jews not until Marc. The essence of humanity is about kindness. We may have different beliefs and faith, but we have the same thing in term of humanity.
Photos provided by Imam Shamsi Ali.
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