September 21, 2012
Question yourself and ask the other at the Muslim Jewish Conference in Bratislava
One of my casual conversations with a friend came to the point of exchanging “cool world news”:
me: by the way, have you heard that scientists have probably discovered another solar system?
I actually laughed pretty hard and decided that I should begin my report on the 2012 Muslim Jewish Conference with that anecdote. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so many eyes, ears, and news sources feeding it, that it sets the only possible frame for Muslim-Jewish interaction. Or so it seems. The conflict that occupies so many minds and produces uncompromising discussions in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres can no doubt be an important point of entry to understanding the mutual claims and clashing histories that have continued for over a hundred years. But is it the only one?
Did over eighty young Jews and Muslims from more than 35 countries, including Pakistan, USA, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Israel, Palestine, Poland and many others, feel so driven by an urge to express their solid stance on the issue, so as to cross half the globe, come to Slovakia? Or is it possible that the conflict, graciously amplified by its publicity, affect our relationship even more subversively? To be precise, does not it eliminate an excess of other possible topics, questions and interactions? To put it simply, the Muslim-Jewish relationship did not in actuality begin with the conflict between Israel and Palestine. So, why reduce it with our own hands to such?
Having asked all of these questions, I want to suggest another disclaimer for the most persistent pessimists, who would highly doubt the idea of a five-day convention that would end with everybody holding each other's hands and singing "We are the World" in unison. Let me speak on the behalf of those pessimists, especially the ones I identify with: products of academia who stubbornly and persistently come to the conclusion that the world is too complex to allow for naive idealistic optimism. We cling to our pessimism as the most comfortable dark little spot on earth and hurry to throw in our favorite "yes, but", which immediately reveals us to be polished intellectuals. On a positive note, the organizers of the gathering between world Jewry and Muslims were not held back by pessimists like myself, but, on the contrary, carried out their vision.
Gulraiz Khan, a participant from Pakistan and chair of the Business Entrepreneurship Committee, shares his thoughts when comparing the MJC 2012 to previous ones: “This year the conference has become more diverse: you have Muslims, Jews from all over, Palestinians, people who grew up in settlements. With this diversity, the conference became both more interesting and complex, which is a good thing. I have seen the participants getting emotional, as core issues that can be very sensitive are coming up. The discussions are ongoing: during the sessions, during lunchtime, in the corridors. During group work, we try to develop a common vocabulary rather than tackle the “big problems”. So, when participants meet outside the sessions, they at least have a common language. They may not agree and in most cases they do not agree. But that is fine. At least the dialogue has started.”
In the course of five days, panels with selected participants were running concurrently, focusing on the role of women in religion, the roots of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism, positive Muslim and Jewish historical narratives, faithful citizenship, and sustainable inter-communal dialogue. Additionally, two more groups were designed to serve as an incubator for fine artists and entrepreneurs to think through and develop long-term projects.
Joanna Maria Trochimowicz, a participant from Poland who converted to Islam, comments on social bridges created during session time: “In the beginning, we meet each other as young people and students, directly and without any immediate stigma. After all, the commonality to talk and learn about each other brought us together for these five days. I also feel safe here, as I see how in my committee (Women in Religion) people are willing to ask me questions and share their points of view. For sure, there are ideas that I do not accept but I am learning to see them not as a threat but as questions growing out of curiosity to know.”
Many participants came to the conference driven by their professional interests as well. Just to name a few, Symi Rom-Rymer, a free-lance journalist who writes a lot about minority communities, especially about Muslim and Jewish communities in the US and Europe. She came to the conference to be able to talk to a variety of people in situations of intensive interactions and to see what issues, both positive and negative, were being discussed. Last year, Symi with several people in the Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia Committees, initiated a project called The Global Jewish-Muslim Friendship Forum. The idea behind it was to provide a platform for Jews and Muslims around the world to connect. It has successfully become an asset for people to discuss, post articles, arrange local events and to start up public programming. Lotifa Begum, a participant from London, is currently a Development Education Coordinator for Islamic Relief UK. For Lotifa, the conference was a resource for learning, and, upon her return to work she will build a more sustainable relationship across Muslim and Jewish communities based on new perspectives and knowledge.
In the beginning of the report, I was wondering what drove people to come to the conference. Many would not come if a variety of human factors such as curiosity, a desire to prove somebody wrong, or pure interest were not substantiated by one thing alone that deserves veneration. I think it is the courage to confront and challenge oneself, transcending one's own political, social, educational or family background. Also, when it comes to stereotypes in Muslim and Jewish communities, directed at each other in equal measure, it becomes essential to grasp a nuanced understanding: each group is diverse within itself and on its own terms. Each is powered and stimulated by similar dialectics of tradition and reformation; text and life; the religious and the social. Thus, after realizing there is neither a “singular definitive mode of Jewish conduct,” nor a “singular governing body of Muslim behavior,” one cannot continue lightheartedly to hold a grudge against the group as a whole, in all its diversity and irregularity. In short, question yourself and ask the other became an inner motto for me, a challenging and challenged participant of the Muslim Jewish Conference 2012.