Friday, December 08, 2006

Muslims, Jews start to heal

Religious leaders bring honest talk on tensions over war

December 8, 2006


Imam Mohammad Mardini of a Dearborn Muslim center thanked a rabbi Thursday for reminding the sides of their deep relationship.

One of the world's leading experts on overcoming religious barriers flew from Israel to Michigan on Thursday to help ease tensions between local Muslims and Jews.

"You have such a remarkable opportunity here in Detroit, because people from so many different cultures live here, to transform clashes into opportunities for enrichment," Rabbi David Rosen, expert on interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee, said Thursday night.

Extreme religious voices were raised during tensions over the war in Lebanon last summer, Imam Mohammad Mardini of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn said. "But, do we blame them, if we are not doing anything to rebuild bridges?" he asked.

This was the first such public dialogue since a rift opened between local Muslim and Jewish leaders last summer. Nearly 200 Christians, Jews and Muslims met at Congregation Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills on Thursday night to listen to two rabbis and four Muslim leaders from metro Detroit.

Rosen moderated the dialogue, which was designed to avoid explosive exchanges by asking the speakers to respond to questions written out by the mostly Jewish audience.

Yet pent-up emotion often surfaced.

Victor Begg, chair of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, said local Muslim leaders are fed up with non-Muslims' demands that that they continually condemn terrorism, as if they are responsible for all such crimes.

"It is exhausting and depressing to be responsible for everyone in the world who uses our faith for evil," Begg said.

In the Jewish community, Begg said, "there is little condemnation heard when there is a death of innocent Palestinians, but Muslims here are expected to condemn any instance of someone being killed by anyone who claims to be a Muslim anywhere in the world."

Najah Bazzy, a nurse and member of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, told the largely Jewish audience, "You have a huge responsibility to extend your hands, too."

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, senior rabbi at Adat Shalom, responded. "This summer was so hard," he said, "but I didn't feel, as a rabbi in Farmington Hills, that I could dictate the policies to the Israeli government," so he said little in reaction to events in the war.

"But I was saddened by deaths on both sides," he said.

It was almost impossible to have that kind of conversation between Muslims and Jews last summer, though, Nevins said. "Sometimes, we can't say what the other person wants to hear."

Long history of tension

Like the other speakers, Bazzy stressed that recent tensions are just one chapter in a much larger history. Islam isn't a new faith that's suddenly arrived in Michigan, Bazzy said, adding that her own family has lived in southeast Michigan for more than a century.

Unfortunately, she said, she's aware that many non-Muslims still fear Islam and its cultural symbols, such as Muslim women wearing scarves over their hair.

"I will be so happy when people finally quit worrying about what's on my head and focus on what's inside my head," she said.

Nevins thanked his Muslim guests and said, "We come from different perspectives. Our hearts hurt over different issues and yet we have to hear from one another."

Nevins and Rosen said that the point of this renewed dialogue was to listen, not debate.

Nevins said, "We have to try very, very hard not to allow ourselves to become warped reflections of hatred. And, I think tonight's dialogue is a part of that."

In turn, Mardini thanked the rabbis, especially Rosen. "Rabbi Rosen came from the Promised Land here to remind us of the deep relations we have back in history," he said.

Sharona Shapiro, the Michigan director of the American Jewish Committee, said she was pleased that the event could be held. "I admire these four Muslim leaders who came forward to accept this challenge in a very difficult time," Shapiro said. "They're heroes, in my view, for doing this."

Building on the opportunity

Rosen said that, although religiously fueled clashes are erupting around the world, the increasing cultural diversity in many countries means there also are new opportunities for building cooperative relationships.

"And that already is happening in many places," Rosen said. "Almost every week, there's a major new interfaith conference somewhere in the world. This work really is turning into an exponentially growing industry.

"Now, here in Detroit," he added, "I don't think you can bring about peace in the Middle East, but what you can do is offer some new models for working together that can be a blessing to the rest of the world."

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