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Jewish Journal

Time has come to stress Islam’s positive side

by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

September 8, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The following is an excerpt from a speech Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered Aug. 3 to the Islamic Society of North America's 44th annual convention in Chicago. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious movement in North America, consisting of more than 900 congregations and 1.5 million Jews.
There exists in this country among all Americans -- whether Jews, Christians or nonbelievers -- a huge and profound ignorance about Islam. It is not that stories about Islam are missing from our media. There is no shortage of voices prepared to tell us that fanaticism and intolerance are fundamental to Islamic religion and that violence and even suicide bombing have deep Quranic roots.

There is no lack of so-called experts who are eager to seize on any troubling statement by any Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole. Thus, it has been far too easy to spread the image of Islam as enemy, as terrorist, as the frightening unknown.

How did this happen?

How did it happen that Christian fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, make vicious and public attacks against your religious tradition?

How did it happen that when a Muslim congressman takes his oath of office while holding the Quran, Dennis Prager suggests that the congressman is more dangerous to America than the terrorists of Sept. 11?

How did it happen that a member of Congress, Tom Tancredo, now running for president, calls for the bombing of Mecca and Medina?

Even more important, how did it happen that law-abiding Muslims in this country can find themselves condemned for dual loyalty and blamed for the crimes of terrorists they abhor?

And how did it happen that in the name of security, Muslim detainees and inmates are exposed to abusive and discriminatory treatment that violates the most fundamental principles of our Constitution?

One reason that all of this happens is the profound ignorance to which I referred. We know nothing of Islam -- nothing. That is why we must educate our members, and we need your help. And we hope in doing so we will set an example for all Americans.

Because the time has come to put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.

The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak from their heart and in their own words about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.

The time has come for Americans to learn how far removed Islam is from the perverse distortions of the terrorists who too often dominate the media, subverting Islam's image by professing to speak in its name.

The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst -- the media figures, religious leaders and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes.

And finally this: The time has come to end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans. Yes, we must assure the security of our country; this is absolutely our government's first obligation. But let's not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are America's strength, not our weakness....

....The dialogue will not be one way, of course. You will teach us about Islam, and we will teach you about Judaism. We will help you to overcome stereotyping of Muslims, and you will help us to overcome stereotyping of Jews.

We are especially worried now about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Anti-Semitism is not native to Islamic tradition, but a virulent form of it is found today in a number of Islamic societies, and we urgently require your assistance in mobilizing Muslims here and abroad to delegitimize and combat it.

A measure of our success will be our ability, each of us, to discuss and confront extremism in our midst. As a Jew, I know that our sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible, are filled with contradictory propositions, and these include passages that appear to promote violence, and thus offend our ethical sensibilities. Such texts are to be found in all religions, including Christianity and Islam.

The overwhelming majority of Jews reject violence by interpreting these texts in a constructive way, but a tiny, extremist minority chooses destructive interpretations instead, finding in the sacred words a vengeful, hateful God. Especially disturbing is the fact that the moderate majority, at least some of the time, decides to cower in the face of the fanatic minority -- perhaps because they seem more authentic or appear to have greater faith and greater commitment.

When this happens, my task as a rabbi is to rally that reasonable, often-silent majority and encourage them to assert the moderate principles that define their beliefs and Judaism's highest ideals. My Christian and Muslim friends tell me that precisely the same dynamic operates in their traditions, and from what I can see, that is manifestly so.

Surely, as we know from the headlines, you have what I know must be for you, as well as for us, an alarming number of extremists of your own -- those who kill in the name of God and hijack Islam in the process. It is therefore our collective task to strengthen and inspire one another as we fight the fanatics and work to promote the values of justice and love that are common to both our faiths.

I am optimistic that we can do this. After all, there is much that we share. As small minorities here, we worry how we will fare and if we will survive in the great American melting pot. As committed God-seekers in an age of moral relativism, we are distressed by the trends that pollute our children's lives: incredibly trashy television, high divorce rates and media images that demean and objectify women.

At the same time and without contradiction, we are both beneficiaries of the blessings bestowed by this great and wonderful country. For all of its problems, America provides us with a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different. And despite the prejudice that we still confront, America offers a measure of diversity and tolerance unmatched in any place or time in history.

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