Jewish Journal

Hebrew Union College funds Muslim scholar’s rescue

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Feb. 21, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Ismail Bardhi

Ismail Bardhi

Students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) were surprised to learn last month that for the first time their professor for a course in contemporary Islam was, in fact, a Muslim.

Ismail Bardhi had arrived as a refugee a few weeks before through the college's Scholar Rescue Fund. The former dean of the faculty of Islamic Studies in Skopje, Macedonia, Bardhi was beaten and stripped of his title because he refused to cede to the vision of Kosovar nationalists, who in rising to power were marginalizing secular Muslims and "Islamic humanists" like Bardhi.

"In 1939 and 1940, Hebrew Union College had a program to rescue a number of scholars from Europe," said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR. "One of these men was Abraham Joshua Heschel. I thought of that when I received [the] initial request to find a place for professor Bardhi. I recalled how HUC had done this for Jewish scholars who were in this kind of situation 50 years ago and felt there really was a Jewish imperative to provide refuge in this case as well."

Reuven Firestone, an Islamic studies professor at the Los Angeles campus and at USC, brought Bardhi to Ellenson's attention, and his efforts went beyond convincing administrators to create a visiting professorship for Bardhi and ensuring that the U.S. government grant him entry. Firestone also needed to secure the funding.

HUC-JIR's scholar's fund matches whatever funds Firestone raises for Bardhi's income, up to $20,000. Some of the needed funds will be provided through honorariums for speaking at a number of Los Angeles congregations, including IKAR, Valley Beth Shalom and Temple Isaiah.

Firestone first met Bardhi in Macedonia six years ago, when the latter was helping organize an international conference on religion and peace, the first to bring together the country's Muslim Albanian and Orthodox Christian Slavs.

The conference coincided with a violent build-up between the two ethnic groups -- including shootings, retaliation shootings and torchings of churches and mosques -- that put the young nation on the brink of civil war. But the dialogue that began with Bardhi and his Orthodox Christian counterpart helped dissolve the tension, and the conflict fizzled.

"In Skopje, Mr. Bardhi was the voice of Muslim moderates who greatly promoted in a nonpolitical manner the process of reconciliation between Albanian Muslims and Macedonian Orthodox," Paul Mojzes, organizer of the conference and co-editor of The Journal of Ecumenical Studies, wrote in a letter of recommendation. (Last March, in an essay titled, "Orthodoxy and Islam in the Balkans," Mojzes identified Bardhi as "the best Muslim proponent of inter-religious dialogue in the Balkans.")

The Macedonian peace, however, was short-lived, and two years ago, when Bardhi was nominated to become president of the Islamic Religious Union of Macedonia, he discovered that the problems had bled into his own religious community. After a former student who had become affiliated with the Muslim nationalists smashed Bardhi's face with the butt of a gun, Bardhi spent weeks secluded in his home, withdrew from the political race and eventually lost his job for political reasons, he said.

"During the latest elections within the Islamic Religious Union of Macedonia, professor Bardhi has been the most prominent and trusted candidate," Ahmet Sherif, a professor at Macedonia's Institute of National History, wrote in a letter to the Scholar Rescue Fund. "But unfortunately, due to the threatening and sinister actions toward him and his collaborators he chose to withdraw his candidacy as an act of protest."

Bardhi's problem was an unwillingness to politicize his faith. He is, as Firestone described him, an "Islamic humanist," a religious progressive willing to see Islam as "the perfect expression of the divine will," but not alone and superior on the world stage.

"My topic is quranic exegesis and how we have to be more open between the Quran and Torah, to see how they could speak together," said Bardhi, 50. "We have spent too long using religion against each other. This is not good for religion or for human beings."

A slight man with light skin, gray hair and a pointed goatee, Bardhi speaks four unrelated languages -- South Slavic, Albanian, Turkish and Arabic -- and is quickly learning conversational and professorial English. HUC-JIR Dean Steven Windmueller said Bardhi will expose students to a different version of Islam, and Los Angeles' most prominent Muslim organization, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), was pleased to hear of his arrival.

"For there to be this visiting professor from the Balkans, which has experienced a lot of ethnic tension, obviously, could be very eye-opening for students at HUC," said MPAC spokeswoman Edina Lekovic, whose family is from nearby Montenegro. "To look at ethnic tensions in unfamiliar settings can sometimes shed new light on old conflicts. His experience of ethnic tensions in the Balkans might allow people at HUC to step back and add another dimension to their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

"If we want people to get a more three-dimensional aspect of faith in the modern world," she added, "especially these days when it comes to Islam, there is no better place to get it than the horse's mouth. Everybody asks, 'Where are the moderate Muslims?' Well, it's great that there is one right at HUC."

Bardhi plans to stay through the spring semester, which ends in May, and then return home. Why? So he can teach his compatriots how to live in an ethnically and religiously diverse community, something he hopes to learn a lot about in Los Angeles.

"We have to clean up religion to get it back to what it should be," he said, "a spiritual endeavor."

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