Jerusalem Bound

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Bismillah ir’Rahman ir’Rahim

I am beginning cautiously; choosing words carefully.  And the best words to begin with are Bismillah ir’Rahman ir’Rahim: In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

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In January I am flying to Jerusalem with a group of ethnically and spiritually diverse American Muslims to participate in a program that was developed through a partnership of American Muslim and Israeli Jewish academics.

To say that this program has been controversial is an understatement. A stormy public debate that tested (and damaged) many relationships within the American Muslim community took place last summer as members of the first cohort engaged on social media with critics of the program.

I’m well aware that my own decision to be part of MLI and to travel to Israel to engage in dialogue at a zionist institution is enough to classify me as a zionist for many Muslims. I know that there are people I care about who will now consider me untrustworthy. I expect that I will lose opportunities, and risk abuse from strangers online (and perhaps even some I count as friends) who feel qualified to insult me, judge my faith, and say cruel things because of my participation.

I know this will happen because it happened to the people who went before me.

And still, I said yes.

Not because I’m a naive, kumbaya-singing interfaith activist willing to gobble up the hasbara just to earn myself a seat at bigger and better interfaith tables. Not because I will profit from it in any way. (This decision is more of  personal & professional liability than anything else I’ve done as an adult).  And not because I egotistically think I will have some influence over matters on the ground in Israel and Palestine.

I am going to participate in this program at one of the most influential Jewish institutions in the world for two very important reasons:

First, I have voluntarily worked as an interfaith activist in a local, state and national capacity for more than a decade. Interfaith work is not (contrary to popular belief) about getting people to agree on everything. Rather, it’s about getting people comfortable with being uncomfortable together so that real conversations about big issues can begin to happen.

While my activism focus has been, and will continue to be here in the U.S., it is laughable to think that one can work with the American Jewish community while divorcing it from the subject of Israel–either spiritually or politically. Similarly, the issue of Occupied Palestine has managed to transcend many of the issues that American Muslims have focused their time and energy on. This relatively tiny spot on the other side of the globe is THE elephant in every room where Abrahamic dialogue is taking place in America. For me to work within these communities right here in the U.S. I feel very strongly that I should go and see it with my own eyes. I want to witness the environment, the interaction (or lack thereof), and the conflict for myself.

During the time I am in Israel with my cohort I will be spending time in both Israel and Palestine. I will have plenty of free time to explore and speak to Palestinians, hear their stories and see how they live. Our group will pass through the checkpoints and spend time in Palestinian homes. We will also be spending time with Israeli families and speaking to them frankly and openly about our perspectives on the Occupation.

We will also have an opportunity to learn about Judaism from a diverse group of highly regarded Jewish scholars–those who have literally influenced the faith and doctrine of millions of Israelis, and Jews worldwide. There can simply be no better way to understand modern Jewry than to hear directly from their most influential teachers.

The second reason I’m going is because I believe in engagement as a way of life.

One of the things that contributed to me embracing Islam was the life story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a statesman and diplomat. Muhammad didn’t live in a bubble. He and his minority community of early Muslims lived side-by-side with different tribes and religions, some of whom were very hostile to the Muslims. Yet he consistently, proactively sought to make peace with them, the very people who attempted to kill him. Muhammad’s humility and cool-headedness in the face of oppression and outright aggression influenced me as I formed my own Muslim identity. This has been the touchstone for how I engage as part of a Muslim minority in this country for fifteen years, and it has served me well.

As a lover of peace and an equal-opportunity humanitarian my soul is burdened by the conflict and deep injustices I see in the world. I often feel simultaneously terrified, helpless and angry at the suffering I see happening all over this planet. But I have come to realize that those who are guilty of perpetuating the violence and conflict are often doing so out of fear, helplessness and anger themselves.

There are no simple answers, but I do know one thing: if there is a way to peace it lies in loosening the knots, not in making them tighter. The answers we seek to the biggest problems of the human family lie in seeing beyond political and religious affiliations–at least long enough to view the reflections of our own humanity even within those we hate and fear the most.

I have been invited to engage. I feel compelled to say yes.

*****

So now, I need to speak frankly about to my friends and family, my co-religionists and my interfaith colleagues. I’m sharing my views about these things not because I am expecting agreement or disagreement, or inviting a debate. I am simply sharing these in the spirit of full disclosure about where I stand, and ask that you read on with the respect I believe I’ve earned from all of you:

I love & respect Judaism as an authentic and beautiful path for learning about The Divine and our own humanity. I cherish the relationships I have with my Jewish friends here in Austin and across the U.S. I acknowledge the tragedies that have haunted Jews throughout their history and empathize deeply with their feelings of insecurity. I understand that for most Jews, the creation of Israel and zionism are ideals that promise them that which they have desperately needed for centuries: the need to feel secure.

However, I am very clear that in the pursuit of these ideals, the state of Israel is currently illegally occupying lands that belong to native Palestinians while engaging in their systemic oppression, ethnic cleansing and the destruction of their heritage.

As an American I can empathize with being part of a system that simultaneously tries to fulfill my highest societal ideals, while being guilty of some of the greatest historical transgressions against them. The theft of land in the name of manifest destiny, systemic ethnic cleansing of native peoples and destruction of their heritage, colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and a host of other evils that have woven themselves into the fabric of American history are all things I disagree with vehemently; yet even when I know that these things happened, it’s hard to face those realities and accept the criticism that America has betrayed itself and continues to do so through policies that erase individual liberties, oppress minorities and exploit the resources of weaker societies. Yet, this is the reality and my humanity demands that I acknowledge it and work to right the wrongs done by my country.

I believe strongly that the people of Israel must also acknowledge the same kinds of transgressions against their ideals and take action to change the system. There can be no other option for a people who claim to value humanity, equality and democracy.

I also understand that the Palestinian people are angry, and that they have been pushed beyond the limits of their humanity to the point that they feel as if they have nothing to lose. They are a people broken and burned by an occupier that is far more powerful and which has the support of the very societies around the world that claim a higher standard of human rights.

But I simply cannot condone terrorism. And by terrorism, I don’t mean ‘freedom fighting’. I mean the use of wanton acts of violence that go against the teachings of my religion by victimizing innocent non-combatants. Furthermore, I cannot support the use of my religion to support those acts and I find it deeply offensive.

Finally, I loudly condemn the opportunistic use of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by fanatical religious groups of all stripes–including Muslims, Jews AND Christians–to achieve their warped political goals. And while I find it awful in all cases, as a Muslim I am particularly disgusted by Muslim groups who would exploit one of the most oppressed peoples in the world to further their own agenda.

I don’t have many other opinions about Israel and Palestine. I don’t feel that I am in any position to prescribe solutions to their conflict or offer suggestions about which outcome is best (one-state, two-state, whatever).  This is their home and they need to learn to share it and find peace with one another. I am happy to do whatever I can to facilitate that process of peace in my own very limited circle of influence, but I simply can’t take seriously those who want to rehash history ad nauseum or ignore the current realities that both of these groups of people are living with.

*****

I’ve decided to blog my about my experience during my MLI fellowship. This is a journey that will last more than a year. I’ll be going to Jerusalem for two weeks in January 2015 and again for two weeks in 2016. In the months between those two trips I’ll be studying, engaging and reading on some of the issues around Israel and Palestine, as well as Muslim-Jewish engagement here in the U.S. I promise to be transparent, to share my thoughts, concerns and fears throughout this process.

I will not be engaging on social media about my participation in the program. I watched in horror as the Muslims from the first cohort spend more time arguing online with critics of the program itself than they did sharing their learnings and the personal lessons of their participation. The fact is, if you disagree with the idea of MLI and disagree with my participation, nothing I can say will change your mind. I am not interested in wasting valuable time & energy; nor am I willing to entertain people who want to rehash circular debates, vent hatred or detract from my experience using my platform to do so. Therefore, I am providing a way for anyone who wants to be updated when new blog posts are available to subscribe. (See below)

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To my Muslims friends, I ask that you respect my decision even if you don’t agree with it and ask that you please make dua that I will be able to speak truth to power when I need to. I do understand many of the legitimate objections to the program and I can assure you that those were weighed into my decision to participate. However, if you truly feel like you can’t respect my decision, I bid you peace and hope you will reconsider our friendship at a future date.

To my Jewish friends, Please pray for me that I will see beauty through destruction, joy through tears, and love through fear while I am in Israel. I ask that you trust me to tell stories that are honest about my experiences during this program, and that I am able to remain respectful of your religion even when I criticize the government of Israel. I look forward to learning from some brilliant Rabbis and finding even more ways in which we can find unity and build friendship as religious minorities in the U.S. I hope you will allow me to ask questions and engage with me openly with the knowledge that I will respect your personal feelings about Israel.

To my friends of other faiths, I ask that you pray for me and ask that I remain focused, humble and open to the experience even during the times when it is emotionally, intellectually and spiritually challenging for me.

And to my Palestinian-American friends, please know that I considered your feelings the longest while as I made the decision to participate. I hope you know that I am carrying your hearts close to me and will do my best to do justice to your families’ histories and losses as I engage and tell these stories.

*****

I am beginning cautiously; choosing words carefully.

I’m taking small steps and testing my footing because for many reasons, this is a scary thing for me to be doing.

I’m proceeding with a humble heart and plenty of good intentions.

I’m leaving my experience in God’s hands, confident that Allah (SWT) Knows Best.

I am beginning cautiously; choosing words carefully.

And the best words to begin with are Bismillah ir’Rahman ir’Rahim: In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

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