Representatives of the New-York based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali came to Vienna on November 7th to promote their program for action in Europe. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Novemberpogrom (called "Kristallnacht" by the nazis), the first severe and simultaneous pogroms in Germany and Austria. The two men demonstrated their unity of purpose by presenting their program to improve relations worldwide between their two religious communities.
At a press conference held in the morning, Schneier mentioned the enormous demographic difference: there are a hundred times more Muslims than Jews (1.4 billion to 14 million). It should be possible for each community to speak out when the other is under attack. In this respect it is critically important to realize that 82% of Muslims are not Arabs, and do not support the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, which remains hostile to Jews. As examples, Schneier cited the case of headscarves in France, where Jews demonstrated in solidarity with Muslims, and the communal peace demonstration of Imams and Rabbis after the shooting of Jewish children in March 2012 in Toulouse.
The largest Muslim population in the world is in Indonesia (200 million) where Shamsi Ali was born. Many mosques and synagogues cooperate closely with the FFEU actions: imams speak in synagogues and rabbis in mosques. For Schneier and Ali, their religions are almost identical. They cite the parallels in food rules, halal and kosher, and the practice of circumcision. They recommend joint action by both communities against the latest decision of the European council to condemn the circumcision of infants and children, and launched a massive joint Jewish-Muslim petition which will be handed to the European Council on December 1st. In a more historical perspective, both talked about the positive aspects of their long shared history, evoking the Muslims who saved Jews during the Ottoman Empire, and likening the present difficulties, particularly in the Middle East, to “family disputes” among cousins.
Both religious leaders insisted on the necessity to re-read the holy texts. Ali explained that the Hadiths represent the important oral traditions in Islam. Thus, for instance, the sentence of the Quran which says Muslims shall not “make friend” with Christians or Jews is due to bad translation of the term “wali” the meaning of which is that of a “religious teacher” rather than that of a “friend”. By the same token, Schneier explained that the concept of the term “chosen people” should be interpreted as bearing responsibility to guard and promote monotheism but does not imply being superior to others. The theological peace process they advocate is based on such re-reading of the texts.
Both men promote “rationalization of the understanding of religion”, but Schneier’s explanation may sound like an oxymoron. Asked about their views on homosexuality, both became somewhat unease. The rabbi it clearly an “abomination” in the Torah but that he would accept homosexuals if they have “no other choice” and “born that way” (sic). The Imam seemed a bit more open, avoiding the answer saying he is not interested in the sexual orientation of the mosque-goers. If they really want to rationalize religion, since the capital punishment for adultery has been cancelled and since they are now thinking of considering homosexuals as equal humans, it could be wiser to reconsider the position of both religions regarding disputed topics like the forced circumcision of babies and children or the ritual slaughtering, opposed to basic children or animal rights. The “Muslim-Jewish interfaith luncheon”, they organized in Vienna, presented as the first event of this kind in Austria might not suffice to deepen this approach.
(many thanks to George Wolf for the proofreading and editing of this text)