Stories of experiences of community & solidarity across lines of culture & religion

August 23rd, 2013 1:39 pm

Bashy Quraishy was a speaker at the conference in Velletri. He delivered also a workshop related to xenophobia and situation of Muslim communities in Europe. Below you can find a Q&A with him.

What such experiences can you think of and (how) did they transform the general relationships between broader society and Muslim communities?

I would like to share with the delegates a very personal and emotional as well as practical experience in building co-operation between Jewish and Muslim communities. Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe have been part of the diverse societies for generations. They both have shared ups and downs in the history of this continent.

I had a great personal experience in Israel, which changed my life and was the reason the Jewish organization CEJI and I took the initiative in 2005 to launch the Jewish Muslim Co-operation Platform in Europe. A sort of people-to-people contact.

Which were the specific barriers that existed and that were overcome in these situations?

Since a true understanding between people cannot happen or function in a vacuum, there was a need to fulfil some basic requirements, if the wish to have a long-term friendship and enjoying each other’s cultures had to materialize. Then there was also the question of how could accept and respect be developed between two communities in a cohesive manner?

It was also important to assess, as to what kind of concrete actions would enable both communities to become better acquainted with each other and to discover and communicate their cultures, their customs, their history and their present situation? For that to take place, a coordinated effort was required, as well as certain steps were to be taken, to not only accept and respect the co-existence between Jewish and Muslim people, but also enhance understanding and knowledge about each other. That also required a direct dealing with one’s own prejudices and obtaining a clearer sense of identity and cultural awareness. Examining of self makes it easy to confront the societal prejudices, lay framework for social action and open the doors of respect.

In order to move forward, we looked at the common prejudices and ignorance both communities have.

The most common stereotypical categories of Muslims

• Religions fanatic and militant

• Hard-headed and ill-tempered, uneducated and unsophisticated

• Wear headscarves and keep long beards

• Practice patriarchal family system, oppress women and children

• Culturally traditionalists

• Want to live in ghettos and do not want integration

• Support Jihad and are involved in terrorism

• Hate all non-Muslims and regard their women as prostitutes

• Reject modernity and hate progress

• Want to establish a Muslim empire (Khalifat) instead of democracy

The most common categories of stereotypes of Jews

• Intelligent and arrogant

• Efficient traders and artists

• Greedy and love money

• Hold on to customs & separate identity

• Consider themselves the Chosen Ones

• Look different

• Priggish and scheming

• Are anti-Islam and want to destroy it

• Control the media, banks and the politics in many countries

• Zionists have planted Israel to control oil and built a greater Israel

For a fruitful and lasting dialogue and to create a progressive interaction between Jewish and Muslim people, two vital and controversial factors were looked at closely and agreed upon:

• De-linking of the Middle East conflict from European issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

• Practice of neutrality by intellectuals and academics among Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, when European societies discuss Islam, terrorism or Middle Eastern cultures and Israel

How was that possible and what did it take?

An initial steering group of Jewish and Muslim individuals with experience in dialogue was started in 2005. To find out about developments in the field, CEJI established local contacts. These used a network of activists on the ground to create Mapping Reports, which were completed in 2006 for 5 European countries. It should be noted here that while some mapping exercises and surveys of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been carried out, for example by EUMC, now the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, there was essentially no information on dialogue initiatives between the Muslim and Jewish communities.

The Mapping Reports, while not exhaustive, were therefore an important first step towards discovering grassroots activism. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there are many positive activities. This demonstrated that many Jews and Muslims are eager to meet and discuss issues that concern them.

These examples of practice on the ground were published in the Mapping Reports, to empower and encourage other people, and also to raise attention for them in the European institutions. These reports are intended to be a source of inspiration for what is possible elsewhere, as they can pave the way to the creation of new projects, based on experiences by other activists.

In April 2007, the first-ever European-level Conference on Jewish Muslim Dialogue was held. 70 grassroots dialogue practitioners from the 5 countries participated, coming together in Brussels to network, exchange ideas and conduct dialogue. Good and bad experiences were shared so that existing work can inspire and motivate other initiatives and to help prevent mistakes from being repeated.

Moreover, the conference was a chance to showcase grassroots initiatives to the European institutions, an especially relevant aspect in the run-up to the European Year 2008 on Intercultural Dialogue. Based on the Commission’s interest in the conference, and on the attendance at the November launch of the Platform, we think we have taken a real step towards the goal of raising awareness among European-level officials that local activities are key to promote dialogue and interaction.

Besides the political aims of the platform, we also struck a chord with the delegates, based on their own feedback, leading us to think that the conference should not be a one-off event. Thus, one of the outcomes of the conference was the creation of a Steering Group, which brings together people from all the countries involved, hoping to lead the way to more and deeper collaboration.

We have already established partnerships with Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and we have identified partners in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Building and enlarging the Platform is a slow but necessary process based on consensus. As the saying goes: Rome was not built in one day.

It requires continuous interaction, openness and mutual exchanges between these two groups not only on religious level but on all levels – exchanges between schools, youth clubs, religious leaders, NGOs, literary personalities etc

• A mutual enrichment based on equality between 2 religions and communities

• Fundamental changes in institutional thinking, schools books texts, and individual/ group language terminology

• Correct and objective media portrayal of each other

• Redefinition of social norms, thought processes and actions, which encourage or reinforce arrogance, domination and intolerance

• Provision of necessary conditions, which will allow these 2 communities to practice their civil rights in peace

• Legal protection against discrimination and injustice of all types and forms for both Integration instead of marginalization

How can people be empowered to achieve this? And what does that mean for the home contexts of our participants?

While there are many local dialogue initiatives throughout the European Union between Jews and Muslims, these generally remain grassroots projects with little visibility at the European level. But there has been a lack of sustainability and there was no overview of the activities or exchange of good practices. Keeping in mind the anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe today, this situation required mending. The logical next step was for Muslims and Jews to join forces, for the good of their people and also to create harmony in society.

To fill that gap, CEJI – A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe brought together Jewish and Muslim NGOs and resourceful individuals.

They met and discussed the needs of the two communities and how the communities could support each other, in the meanwhile fighting prejudices and replacing them with respect and acceptance. Since a dialogue was crucial, the suggestion to establish a European Jewish Muslim Dialogue Project was enthusiastically taken on board.

During the discussions, it became clear that partners in this dialogue should come from the whole spectrum of European Jews and Muslims, the main requirement being that they be willing to collaborate. Since it was not intended to be a matter of comparing notes on theology, we had to start with a meeting of hearts to win over the minds.

In short, building alliances with other faiths, supporting of inter-faith work and standing up for discriminated and disadvantaged individuals and groups, no matter who they are, whom they worship and how they look like.

This is the need of the time, this is what humanity is calling for and this will surely make our creator – man or woman – happy.

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