By Julia Duin
A group of Muslims and Jews who had been meeting secretly in Montgomery County surfaced late last week with the release of a joint statement promising that the two faiths will work together to find common ground.
"We're deeply committed to the idea of pluralism, tolerance, peace, co-existence and one God -- the same God," said Tom Kahn, president of the Washington chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). "A bird needs two wings to fly: a left wing and a right wing."
The statement, which was read aloud during a reception Thursday night at the Potomac home of Muslim couple Aquilur and Rukhsana Rahman, promised to "develop closer ties between our communities" and stand together against "hate crimes and other forms of discrimination against all religious and ethnic communities."
It also supported separate Palestinian and Israeli states and denounced "all forms of terrorism and violence directed at civilians."
"I'm very optimistic," said Islam Siddiqui, a lobbyist who served as an undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration. "With dialogue begins an understanding of our difficult issues."
Representatives of the two faiths have been meeting for about two years, said Roberta Baruch, a member of the AJC board. She had been looking for sympathetic Muslim contacts before then, but groups whose avowed intent was for the destruction of Israel "weren't a place to start," she said.
However, a chance contact between Steven Goodman, a member of the local AJC board, and Tufail Ahmad, a shipping company owner and board member of the Montgomery Muslim Council, led to a breakthrough. A five-point "statement of cooperation" was drawn up during a meeting at Otello, an Italian restaurant near Dupont Circle.
"We've had tough discussions, but the whole idea is to move forward toward peace," Mr. Goodman said. "We're not saying if we just meet over pasta, everything will be OK."
Muslim guests at the reception Thursday night said they want to draw other nationalities into the circle.
"We've talked with the Palestinians, but it will not work," Mr. Ahmad admitted. "We're still trying to bring them in."
An invitation to local Saudis was snubbed, he said, but he still hopes to draw Qatari, Bahraini and Kuwaiti Muslims into the dialogue.
David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the AJC's national office in New York, said Jewish-Muslim gatherings are happening quietly across the country.
"Muslims have experienced prejudice and lack of civil rights, and Jews have already been there," he said. "We understand prejudice and discrimination.
"So we want to help instruct a moderate Muslim community on how to work with Christians and Jews to expand civil and human rights and fight against polarization and extremism that can do enormous damage in this country," Mr. Elcott said.
The 100 persons who met Thursday night in Potomac also worked together to raise $16,261 for Hurricane Katrina relief. The fundraiser, which included food ordered for kosher and halal specifications, attracted Jews from the religion's Reform and Conservative branches and Muslims from Pakistan and India.
The money that was raised went to three charities: the Red Cross, the Islamic Relief Fund and the AJC Katrina Fund. The group will meet next month to observe the Jewish High Holy Days and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Area Jews, Muslims take first steps toward friendship
by Paula Amann
As the calendar conspired this year, Rosh Hashanah ushered in Islam's festival of Ramadan. Muslims marked their first fast day of the month-long observance on the second day of the Jewish new year.
"I've sent out a lot of Ramadan karim cards to Muslim friends ‹ it's like shana tova," said the District's Toby Dershowitz, noting the traditional greetings for the Muslim and Jewish holidays.
Dershowitz, who co-chairs the American Jewish Committee's local committee on interreligious affairs, is among a small but growing number of people from both faiths bent on seeking common ground.
Such dialogue, long sustained between Jews and Christians, gained impetus after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 carried out by a team of Egyptians and Saudis.
The overtures are taking place against the backdrop of widespread anti-Semitism in the Arab world and a struggle within Islam between moderates and extremists.
David Bernstein, Washington area director for AJCommittee, says Jews walk a fine line between openness and caution on the road to genuine dialogue.
"We will work with any Muslim organization that opposes terrorism, including terrorism against Israelis, and supports a two-state solution in the Middle East," stressed Bernstein. "The problem is that many so-called Muslim organizations do not fit that profile."
He flags as problematic such Saudi-supported anti-Israel groups as the Saar Foundation, which is alleged to have funded violence abroad.
On the plus side of the interreligious ledger, however, a dozen Jews with ties to AJCommittee last Sunday joined a like number of Muslims to share a Ramadan break-the-fast at an Ellicott City home.
Over flatbread and sag paneer (a spinach curry), they discussed their faiths' prayers and in a practical vein, how they might respond to a massive earthquake that struck Central Asia the previous day.
Later this month, the District's Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg is due to welcome a similar group to dinner in his sukkah.
"We're sharing religion and cultural experiences that give us an opportunity for dialogue and understanding," said Wohlberg, a rabbi at the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in the District. "It's not all politics."
And notably, the AJCommittee-sponsored Jewish-Muslim dialogue drew close to 100 people to the Potomac home of a Pakistani participant Sept. 15. Together, they raised more than $17,600 for a common cause, humanitarian aid for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
Aquilar Rahman, who hosted the benefit, has seen a year-long courtship between the two groups blossom into friendship.
"There has been on both sides, some hesitation, some reservations, some inhibitions ‹ that's part of human nature ‹ but that's something we're trying to overcome," Rahman said.
That mid-September night, he relates, the ice broke as the two groups united in concern over Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast.
The AJCommittee stalwarts he hosted are not alone in seeking allies across these lines of faith.
For the past three years, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has been nurturing similar ties, first with the Maryland Muslim Council, then with the Montgomery County Muslim Council, Silver Spring's Muslim Community Center and the Islamic Information Center in Burtonsville.
Along the way, behind-the-scenes dialogue has evolved into public events.
As part of last spring's Sukkot in April, for instance, some 45 Muslims and Jews joined to spruce up the Sandy Spring home of a low-income elderly woman and her wheelchair-mobile son.
"It's still fairly early, but we're becoming comfortable with each other," said JCRC assistant executive director Rabbi Sarah Meytin.
One of her counterparts on the Muslim side, Khalid Chaudhry of MCMC, compares the burgeoning friendship to a baby on the way to toddlerhood.
"It's like an infant who's beginning to take some tentative steps," said Chaudhry. "There are people in both the Muslim and Jewish community who see the relationship and the benefits on so many fronts, and they're pulling other people in."
Indeed, Meytin flags a set of joint activities in the works for the new Jewish year. These range from a "December dilemma" discussion with paired congregations from both faiths, a forum on U.S. Mideast policy slated for Feb. 6, a youth day of service and study next April and a summer art exchange.
She notes that "the biggest difficulty is complete lack of knowledge of each other's community."
The JCRC official argues that social ties with moderate Muslims can shatter stereotypes and build a fund of good will between the faith groups.
"As two of the largest religious minorities in the area, it's valuable to both of our communities to build an alliance to work on shared social and political concerns," she said, "as well as grow understanding and, through that, friendships between our two groups."
Two local leaders typify the growing bonds between some Muslims and Jews. American University professor Akbar Ahmed and Rabbi Bruce Lustig, of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, met at a 2002 AJCommittee dinner months after the Sept. 11 attacks of the previous year.
Their acquaintance led to a meal at Lustig's home with both of their spouses, along with Washington Episcopal Bishop John Chane and his wife. The convivial evening in turn sparked the creation of the Abrahamic Roundtable, an ongoing dialogue of 12 Muslims, Christians and Jews that meets at the National Cathedral.
"I have myself, as a practicing Muslim, learned Christianity through John Chane and Judaism through the eyes of Bruce Lustig and renewed my own faith in Islam," said the Pakistani Ahmed, who chairs Islamic studies at A.U.
Indeed, the three walked their talk last month as they led hundreds on a Sept. 11 interfaith Unity Walk in the District, from Lustig's Washington Hebrew Congregation, past the Islamic Center to the Gandhi Memorial. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center (ADAMS) also took part.
Earlier this year, WHC, the ADAMS center and the cathedral also joined forces to raise relief funds for last December's tsunami, Lustig said.
At Lustig's suggestion, the Pakistani scholar is due to speak at the Reform movement's Biennial Convention next month in Houston.
"There's a true sense of friendship between our congregation and the ADAMS Center and the cathedral," Lustig said. "When the Pakistan earthquake hit, the first calls from members of our congregation and myself were to friends and acquaintances at the ADAMS Center and to Akbar whom we know as family."
In such connections lies the potential for bonds between two religious minorities who have suffered persecution, suggests Tufail Ahmad, co-director of the MCMC.
"We should work together and gain by our joint efforts ... on hate crimes, discrimination and civil liberties," said Ahmad, adding, "We believe in the same God. We are the children of Abrahamic faith. We have the same values as you have."
In Northern Virginia, meanwhile, members of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society and Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church are working together as part of McLean Community Connections, a post-9/11 dialogue group.
For the past three years, its annual public events ‹ including a Sept. 29 forum, "When Values and Principles are at Stake, Do We Give Up Community Harmony?" ‹ have drawn 100-140 people, says Jean Wise.
Wise, a Rodef Shalom representative on the MCC steering committee, notes how her contacts with the ADAMS center have changed her views of Muslims.
She says she's become close to Mogitha Alkibsi, an ADAMS stalwart and former county professional.
"I no longer look at her as a pretty woman with a scarf on her head," Wise said. "I look at her as a friend and a grandmother who wants to share grandchildren pictures."
Steven Roy Goodman, an organizer and vice president of the Washington chapter of AJCommittee, cites what he sees as strategic reasons to bond with Muslims.
"The number one reason is that it strengthens the hand of Muslim moderates," Goodman said.
Second, he argues, dialogue now can create the conditions for staving off intergroup problems later.
"We're trying to develop deeper ties with the moderate Muslim world so that when there is a problem, then we have someone to talk to," Goodman explained.
Besides raising funds, Jews from AJCommittee and their Muslim friends also have been pooling ideas.
The Sept. 15 gathering also saw the release of a five-point statement affirming respect for each other's traditions, opposition to ethnic- and faith-based discrimination, support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, ongoing personal bonds, and social justice in the U.S. and abroad.
"We don't want to be perceived as Muslim-bashers and we're not," said AJCommittee's Bernstein. "In order to oppose radical Islam and terrorism in a credible fashion, we need also to be working closely with moderate Muslims who support peace."
For Rahman, it seems a natural alliance.
He says that "the two communities appreciate human rights, civil rights, respect for religion and respect for each other."