Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in Nashville, Tennessee
by Rebecca Bynum (March 2009)
On October 7, 2004, a 33 year old Iraqi immigrant, Ahmed Hassan Al-Uqaily was arrested in Nashville after threatening jihad against the Nashville Jewish community and having purchased two disassembled M-16 machine guns, four disassembled hand grenades, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an undercover FBI agent. He was sentenced to 57 months in prison and was made to forfeit $38,000 from his bank account which, though he was a recent immigrant and employed by a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, contained over $43,000.
Naturally, this sent a chill through the Nashville Jewish community and security at the synagogues was consequently tightened. I recently attended a gathering at the Temple where no fewer than three police cars were visible outside and there were at least three armed guards inside. Congregation Micah which is involved in outreach to the local Muslim community, also employs two very visible armed guards, one at the door and one in the main congregation room with the assembly. They were also in evidence during the three part lecture series entitled, “Islam: What Every Jew Needs To Know,” given by Rabbi Rami Shapiro who also teaches comparative religion at Middle Tennessee State University.
One might have expected to hear how Muhammad presented himself to the Jews of Medina as the Messiah and was rejected. About how he treated the Jews thereafter as people who had earned Allah's special wrath. About the fate of the Banu Quraizah, the farmers of the Khaybar Oasis, or the rest of the Jews of Medina. About how a Jewish woman is blamed for poisoning Muhammad or about how on his deathbed, Muhammad ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Arabia. One might have expected to hear something (anything) that might explain the deep-seated Islamic antisemitism observed today, why crowds of Muslims routinely chant "Death to the Jews" all over the world, but that was not to be.
Congregation Micah in Brentwood and the West End Synagogue in Nashville are engaged in “outreach to the Muslim community.” As part of this activity, they are sending their children to the Islamic Center of Nashville and helping to tutor some Muslim youths about Judaism in return. I believe these people are all well-intentioned and perhaps actually believe they can reverse 1400 years of Islamic history, but the plain fact of the matter is, they are providing their own children as political cover for people whom they want very much to trust and believe, but who have revealed themselves to be deceivers. And yet, even when presented with hard evidence of this deception, the Rabbi and the congregation seemed to prefer to believe those lies which had been so plausibly and smilingly delivered.
My experience in attending these lessons at Congregation Micah could best be described as a study in the psychology of denial and in what Richard L. Rubenstein calls the “defeated people syndrome,” even a budding dhimmitude. The Jews of the Micah Congregation seemed ever willing to blame themselves and never willing to defend themselves. I caught myself thinking, “No wonder Hitler had it so easy,” and immediately felt ashamed.
It was clear from the beginning, Rabbi Shapiro knows practically nothing about Islam, but he declared his intention early on to save us "from looking stupid," by explaining that people who contend that Allah is a different God from the Judeo-Christian deity are simply mistaking "a different word for another reality," that this is the equivalent of saying the French worship a different God because the word God in French is Dieu. He declared this a laughably silly and obvious mistake and apparently had thought through the issue no deeper.
In the first lesson, Shaprio openly promoted every worn out and discredited Muslim selling point for Islam he could think of and presented it as though it were the truth. We heard everything from "Muhammad lived in the full light of history," to how he was a "wonderful family man and role model" (at which point he went on at length about what a terrible father Abraham was – this Judaism bashing was to be a recurring theme), to the "Golden Age of Islam" in the Middle Ages, to the wonderfulness of the five pillars. He talked about Abraham and Hagar travelling to Mecca, as if this 750 mile trek across the desert supposedly undertaken at a time when people rarely traveled more than 20 miles from their birthplace, was an established historic fact, even though the record contained in the Bible speaks of Ishmail being present at the death of Abraham in Hebron and recounts the lineage of these Ishmailites, or Hagarites, and recalls their fate in Palestine. Rabbi Shapiro explained that Islam accepts all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad and that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and he said this without qualifying remarks.
Shapiro also explained that though his is a rabbi, he does not believe in God. Another rabbi, Laurie Rice, added that she, too, did not believe in "truth with a capital T" and she thought that for most Jews, although Jewishness was central to their identity, God was a peripheral consideration. Throughout all of this, Rabbi Shapiro, laughed and joked and acted as though all religious thought was utterly childish and that, even though he was above it all, he was determined to show how tolerant and understanding he could be. He recounted several irrelevant side stories about his Muslim friends, who he referred to as “reformist Muslims” even though it was pointed out by his Muslim guest presenters repeatedly that there is no “reform” Islam.
Shapiro's main thesis concerning the difference between Islam and Judaism is that Jews argue with God whereas Muslims don't. He used the Muslim story of Muhammad's night journey in which Muhammad meets Moses in heaven and Moses talks him into arguing with God about the number of times people should pray as an illustration. He also spoke of a movie called "God on Trial" in which holocaust victims put God on trial for crimes against humanity and convict him of evil-doing and then afterward, pray. How ironic. His actually said Jews could learn about submission from Muslims. And how.
Since obedience and worship are thought to be equivalent in Islam, those who obey man-made law, as is the ruling principle in democratic society, are often accused of being guilty of idolatry. Therefore, there is a great incentive to replace man-made law with Islamic law.
When someone pointed out that all five schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree on the interpretation of jihad, and that the later war verses abrogate the earlier Meccan verses, Barré agreed that was true, but then went into a long, rambling exposition about “ignorance” and how poor people with no education were being influenced by the evil Wahhabis and how he was a Sufi and how the Sufis concentrate on the spiritual side of things…this seemed to satisfy the audience. It seems all American Muslims have magically turned into Sufis lately. He also used a long and convoluted story about how the drinking of alcohol was first tolerated and eventually prohibited as an example of abrogation.
In another example Barré explained that Muslims must follow the rules of God, not the rules of man, but then went on several times to assert that some things were just self-evidently evil, such as the murder of innocents, being careful never to explain that the Koran defines good and evil and who is innocent and who is not. Of course, just like President Bush, he also quoted verse 5:32, that “whoever takes a life, it is as though he has killed all mankind.”
32 For this reason We prescribed
Nor did he know enough to challenge Barré’s assertion that all Muslim in-fighting today is caused by nationalism or that Arab cultural practices make up pretty much everything that is wrong with Islam. Barré also made the ridiculous assertion that the reason polygamy began in Islam was so that orphans could be cared for. He also went on at length about how there is really only “room in the heart for one wife,” even though he did not deny the allowance of polygamy in Islam, in direct defiance of American law.
In actuality, there is a two page statement hanging on the wall of the Islamic Center of Nashville reminding women in rather threatening tones that 1) they can be beaten by their husbands 2) their husbands may take a second, third or forth wife without their permission and 3) that their husbands may easily divorce them, leaving them high and dry in a strange land, all in accordance with Islamic law. Law enforcement officials should definitely be investigating whether polygamist marriages are being conducted in this mosque and I would hope school officials are on the look out for signs of female genital mutilation in young Muslim girls, especially in our burgeoning Somali community
Barré also made the claim that Muhammad’s last words were “forgive everybody.” A questioner surmised that, according to the law of abrogation, this should bring the religion full circle and back to the Meccan verses, but there is one problem. Those were not Muhammad’s last words. He said three things, one of which is forgotten. The other two were:
“Shall be neither Jew nor Christian left in the Hijaz”
Early in the evening, to gain the confidence of the audience, Barré dropped in a vague story about how he met with some imams somewhere and asserted before them that holocaust denial is a self-evident evil and they (whoever they were) unanimously agreed and that now for the first time holocaust denial is being challenged among Muslim scholars.
Barré conceded that Muslims in Muslim countries, such as Somalia, would most probably retain their hatred of Jews, but that Muslims here, who have the opportunity to know Jews and become educated as he had, could overcome their ignorance. He dwelt at length on education, so much so, that finally an audience member questioned whether education was the answer since “the man who beheaded Daniel Pearl was a graduate of the London School of Economics.” But that didn’t stop others in the audience from proclaiming their faith that “all religions teach love” or that “our hope lies with the children who can learn to live together,” or even that “as in Zen Buddhism, we all can learn to transcend harsh reality.”
At one point Rabbi Shapiro said to Barré, “so, what I hear you saying is that the later verses are only applicable to Muhammad’s time and are no longer relevant today.” Barré, of course did not say that, but he stood silent and allowed Shapiro, and by extension the rest of the audience, to hear what he wanted to hear.
Rabbi Shapiro even offered to send a delegation of rabbis to the Islamic Center to “continue this wonderful dialogue,” after explaining how he wouldn’t presume to ask the Muslims to come to them.
Barré wrapped up the evening after an audience member asked whether the problem was not “fundamentalists of all religions,” by saying that he didn’t think the problem was “fundamentalism, since Islamic fundamentalism brings you back to the pure religion,” but rather that the problem was “radicalism.” Then he said, "Every religion has its extremists, but let’s be honest, we have the highest percentage.” This one meager expression of truth elicited fawning oohs and ahhs from the audience. They were eager to believe him entirely of course, and many of them, including the Rabbi Shapiro, proud in his ignorance, did.
During the week of Barré’s presentation, we were fortunate to be able to obtain documents from the Islamic Center of Nashville and other mosques in the area due to the efforts of Dave Gaubatz (see below). The following poem was being distributed as a handout at the ICN on Feb. 18th, the day before Barré spoke to congregation Micah.
"In Celebration of the martyrdom of thousands of innocent Falasteeni Muslims, Iqra presents a word from the heart of an unknown Falasteeni youth (submitted by G. K Alavi)
On the contrary, Gaubatz’s research has revealed that fully 75% of American mosques are radicalized and actively distribute literature of a much more violent nature than that poem. Even the Malaysian secretary admitted that we might find something of a radical nature at one of the other mosques. He was probably referring to the Somali al-Farooq mosque on 4th Avenue, where violent material is openly displayed and women are expressly unwelcome. The children there are being taught by men straight out of the prison system, where they, in their turn, had been radicalized, and are openly calling for jihad against America. See Gaubatz’s report on American prisons here.
One of the most misleading comments of the third evening came from Rabbi Shapiro himself who said, “[Martin] Luther’s book, [On the Jews and Their Lies (1543)] was central to the Jew-hatred that defined Protestant Europe, and proudly displayed by the Nazis during their Nuremberg rallies.” A few minutes later, this was echoed by the Malaysian ICN secretary when he said, “You shouldn’t call Muslims terrorists, any more than you would call Hitler or Timothy McVeigh Christian terrorists.”
While it would be untrue to say that the Nazi movement did not grow in pre-existing antisemitic German soil, Nazism itself was a profoundly anti-Christian movement. Hitler despised Christianity and openly admired Islam. So, for Shapiro to draw a straight line from Luther to Hitler is certainly intellectually shallow if not intentionally misleading. And of course, Timothy McVeigh was no Christian either. Rather, he was an agnostic, a hater of government, who proclaimed “Science is my religion.” The fact that this young Muslim observed that these two men were born in predominantly Christian countries and simply concluded they were Christians, speaks volumes about the Muslim mindset. It was, however, disturbing that no one challenged such a mindless assertion. I saw several heads nod to the “Hitler was a Christian” claim, which made me very uneasy.
Rabbi Shapiro closed his talk this way:
“We live on the verge of a global apocalypse. We can both face the horror of our situation and resist the call to endless war and genocide against those who believe differently than us, or we can embrace war as the will of God and commit our grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren to a planet roiling with senseless hatred, terror, anger, fear, and death.
His sentiments express a profound fear and sense of hopelessness that I do not share. Islam can certainly be dealt with, but first it must be faced. You will notice that throughout this course, Islam remained carefully undefined. The longer teachers and religious leaders like Rabbi Shaprio allow their own fears to postpone the simple and rational measures needed for self-preservation, the more difficult and dangerous those measures will become.
*All materials used in the story were provided by David Gaubatz of DG CT Publishing www.dgaubatz.blogspot.com.
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