Opening the Gates to Jewish-Muslim Dialogue
By Sarah Harpaz, Class of 2016
Sarah is a junior at the School of Arts and Sciences and Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, majoring in planning and public policy.
Tuesday night I attended an event hosted by the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement, “Examining Human Rights Violations against Minorities in the Islamist World.” The talk, attended by a standing-room-only crowd of Jews, Muslims, and other Rutgers students, was given by two women: human rights attorney, author, and award-winning filmmaker, Brooke Goldstein, and physician, author, and human rights activist, Dr. Qanta Ahmed.
With earnest importance, they presented human rights issues affecting minorities across the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, based on their own experiences living, working and researching in those areas. Issues they discussed included the indoctrination of children and coercion of societal outcasts to become suicide bombers in the name of religion; the separation of children from their homes to force them into terrorist groups; and harsh bigotry and murder that incited stifling fear through minority populations. At the core of their arguments was a tragic reality.
Goldstein spoke of a child with Down Syndrome to whom terrorists strapped a remote-controlled bomb that they set off at a polling station during an Iraqi election. She recounted her interviews with Palestinian children who declared that they wanted to become suicide bombers. Dr. Ahmed told the story of a Christian woman declared a blasphemer and imprisoned for asking for water from her Muslim fellow fieldworkers. All of their stories signaled critical issues of a scale and seriousness I had not previously realized and that resonated with me powerfully.
Both Qanta and Brooke made an extensive effort to point out that the groups responsible for these human rights violations do not represent Islam, but are a perversion of the religion. However, the Q and A session rapidly escalated into a fiery argument over the use of the term “Islamists” to label these terrorists who act in the name of their religious beliefs.
Though Dr. Ahmed argued that the term is commonly used in political science and academic literature, used to differentiate a violent religious ideology, many Muslim students argued that the term “Islamist” itself, referring to murderers and terrorists, villainizes all Muslims.
The argument got out of hand. Questions that became focused solely on attacking the credentials of the speakers left Ms. Goldstein and Dr. Qanta Ahmed feeling personally attacked, and they left unceremoniously before calm returned. This saddened me because, as a consequence, the very real issues of human rights abuses being discussed that evening were not addressed.
But one positive thing that came out of the evening was a discussion among a few Muslim and Jewish students that took place once the speakers left. In our Hillel building I witnessed, for the first time since I have been on campus, a productive dialogue between students with clear differences. A handful of students stayed afterwards, and we began to inch towards a level of understanding between the groups and a mutual eagerness and willingness to listen and communicate.
That evening I learned of and became sensitive to the attack many Muslims feel when “Islamist” is used to describe people and actions that are demonstrably evil. The term is often heard differently than the program’s speakers defined it.
I sympathize with this concern articulated by many of the Muslim attendants because I love Israel and believe the Jewish people, like all other peoples, have a right to self-determination in our own national home. This makes me a Zionist. Yet many, including some Muslim students in that room, define that term differently and villainize it.
Though I left unhappy with many aspects of the event, I left reassured. Most of the students at Rutgers are still young and shaping ourselves and our views. It is great to be in college, where we are encouraged to open up to different views and challenge many things that we once accepted without question. In the end, Hillel created an environment that pushed students to dispel close-minded thoughts and beliefs.
We live in an era where conflict often promotes one-sided arguments from both sides. Students often talk over each other, rather than to each other. I am elated that the event fostered productive conversation that I hope will continue in the future.
All students are welcome to come have a free dinner on Sunday, October 12th where we can discuss the joy of celebrating holidays with friends and family in a student-to-student dialogue.
This event is being co-sponsored by several incredible groups including Rutgers Hillel, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, The New Jersey Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee and the Sisterhood of Shalom Saalam.
Visit the Muslim Jewish Dinner Facebook event for more information.