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.
It is well known in the American Jewish community that Yassir Arafat said one thing to the Western world and quite another to his own followers. It is even accepted that this phenomenon is widespread in the Arab world, thus prompting organizations like MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch to document and translate Arabic newspaper materials and Arab television so Westerners can see first hand the kinds of anti-Semitic hate-filled propaganda that pervades the atmosphere of the Muslim Arab world. When it comes to American Muslims, however, the tendency is to hope against hope that things will be different, that when Muslims come to America, they will assimilate easily and forget the tenets of Islam which make assimilation difficult, even though they have singularly failed to do so in Europe and in Britain.

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.
In the second part of the lecture series, Abdelghani Barré, a Somali who has recently been made President of the Islamic Center of Nashville and is a member of several government and private boards dealing with immigration and refugees, including the powerful Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, was received as guest speaker. Barré was directly involved with the Somali Community center scandal that involved the diversion of funds from a Health and Human Services grant. When asked about that, he went on at length about the wonderful transparency in this country and how there had been a thorough government investigation, how the person who had made the allegation had been fired and how he was aided in all this by a good friend at the ACLU. The questioner alleged that at least some of those funds found their way to al Qaeda, but Barré just laughed that off. Neither am I aware of any public document alleging that specific connection. Al Qaeda certainly doesn’t need the money. Bin Laden floated the debt of the entire country of Sudan at one time with his personal bank account.
Shapiro stated there are two ways to understand a religion. One way was from “inside,” meaning to get your information from a believer and the other was objective, meaning, to look at the texts in their historic context. Unfortunately, Shapiro did not know enough about the Koran or its historic context to challenge Barré who effectively had the floor the entire evening and conducted a very effective da’wa session based mainly on questions from the audience. Naturally, his assertions were filled with contradictions, but both Shapiro and much of the audience seemed extremely eager to believe him, to have some hope that Islam is not the irredeemable, mysognist, homophobic and antisemitic creed it proudly proclaims itself to be. Barré had wide latitude to contradict himself many times. For example, he said all Muslims believe the Koran is the perfect word of God, and there is only one version of the Koran which governs all aspects of life including human relationships, but then again he claimed, it is all just “a matter of interpretation.” He knew exactly what his audience wanted to hear and he gave it to them bit by bit.

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.”
Here is the full verse 32 (note the exception):

For this reason We prescribed
for the Children of Israel that whoever
kills a person, unless it be for
manslaughter or for mischief in the
land, it is as though he had killed all
men. And whoever saves a life, it is
as though he had saved the lives
of all men.a And certainly Our messengers
came to them with clear
arguments, but even after that many
of them commit excesses in the land.
And here are the following two verses:
33 The only punishment of those
who wage war against Allah and His
Messenger and strive to make mischief
in the landa is that they should
be murdered, or crucified, or their
hands and their feet should be cut off
on opposite sides, or they should be
imprisoned.b This shall be a disgrace
for them in this world, and in the
Hereafter they shall have a grievous
34 Except those who repent before
you overpower them;a so know that
Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
To his credit, Rabbi Shapiro did quote verses 5:33-34, but he didn’t know enough to interject it when Barré quoted 5:32 out of context.

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
To read the pdf file of the notice at the mosque, click here.*

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”
“Keep giving money to the Kafir ambassadors.”

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)
Eye to Eye – A Poem from Palestine
Look into my eyes
And tell me what you see
You don’t see anything
‘cause you can’t possibly relate to me.
You’re blinded by our differences.
My life makes no sense to you.
I’m the persecuted Palestinian.
You’re the American red, white and blue.
Each day you wake in tranquility,
No fears to cross your eyes.
Each day I wake in gratitude,
Thanking god He let me rise.
You worry about your education
And bills you have to pay.
I worry about my vulnerable life
And if I’ll survive another day.
Your biggest fear is getting ticketed
As you drive your Cadillac.
My fear is that the tank that just left
Will turn around and come back.
American, do you realize,
That the taxes that you pay
Feed the forces that traumatize
My every living day?
The bulldozers and the tanks,
The gases and the guns,
The bombs that fall outside my door,
All due to American funds.
Yet do you know the truth
Of where your money goes?
Do you let your media deceive your mind?
Is this a truth that no one knows?
You blame me for defending myself
Against the ways of Zionists.
I’m terrorized in my own land
And I’m the terrorist?
You think you know all about terrorism
But you don’t know it the way I do,
So let me define the term for you,
And teach you what you thought you knew.
I’ve known terrorism for quite some time,
Fifty-five years and more.
It’s the fruitless garden uprooted in my yard.
It’s the bulldozer in from of my door.
Terrorism breathes the air I breathe.
It’s the checkpoint on my way to school.
It’s the curfew that jails me in my own home,
And the penalties of breaking that curfew rule.
Terrorism is the robbery of my land,
And the torture of my mother,
The imprisonment of my innocent father,
The bullet in my baby brother.
So American, don’t tell me you know about
The things I feel and see.
I’m terrorized in my own land
And the blame is put on me.
But I will not rest, I shall never settle
For the injustice my people endure.
Palestine is our land and there we’ll remain
Until the day our homeland is secure.
And if that time shall never come,
Then we will never see a day of peace.
I will not be thrown from my own home,
Nor will my fight for justice cease.
And if I am killed, it will be in Filasteen
It’s written on every breath.
So in you own patriotic words,
Give me liberty or give me death.
(An Iqra publication from the Council of Masajic, Islamic Center of Hamden, Islamic Center of Connecticut, Islamic Center of New Haven, Faran Club, United Muslim Masjid, Islamic Society of Western Connecticut and Islamic Center of New London)"*
The Iqra organization also states, “We intend to inculcate thinking in our readers that is based neither on nationalism nor on racism or tribalism and especially not Americanism.” Furthermore, Gaubatz informs us that the ICN uses teaching material for children provided by Ahmad Sakr, who advises them not to trust our Congress, or show allegiance to America or our Constitution. He informs the children if they do, they will go to hell along with the Congressmen. A DVD of his lectures can be found here. Gaubatz also discovered that children in the Islamic Academy of Nashville are being taught “pure Sunni Islam” including Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 14th Century Islamic scholar, and others often quoted by fundamentalist movements like the Wahhabis. Remember, Barré told us fundamentalism is fine.
Since, Abdelghani Barré had left the congregation with the impression that his mosque was teaching Muslim children in Nashville how to be good American citizens and to love their Jewish neighbors. I sent the poem to Rabbi Shapiro for a comment and he asked me to bring copies to the next session, which I did, but it is doubtful whether this little ray of reality will penetrate what can only be described as the willful blindness of the congregation who continued to express their faith in “love, unity and compassion.”
Amir Arain, a Pakistani neurologist and assistant professor at Vanderbilt Medical Center, had been present for the first session was again present for session number three. Rabbi Shapiro pulled him aside to talk about the poem, and I do not know what his reaction was in private, but publicly, he denied that it was distributed at the 12th Avenue mosque and pointed out it was not issued directly from the mosque so there was no proof it came from the mosque other than my word. He also tried to characterize New English Review as a “hate site.” There was a young Malaysian man with him who identified himself as the secretary for the Islamic Center of Nashville, who even made the assertion that this kind of material is never found in US mosques and might possibly be found in some rural madrassa in Pakistan, but never here.

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

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.
I believe, sadly, that we will choose the latter. But even as we do, some of us must choose the former. We must resist the call of those for whom God is a puppet to be manipulated; we must resist the lure of ideologies that foment murder in the name of God, king, and country; we must resist those gods, religions, cultures, and individuals who claim hate is better than hope, and fear is better than love, and cruelty is better than justice, and terror is better than talking.
I don’t believe we can mend in time the great brokenness of the human condition, a brokenness that feeds our arrogance and fury. And I fear that this brokenness will soon have the technological capacity to engulf the entire world in a thermonuclear bonfire of theological vanities. Abraham was willing to murder his son, be it Isaac or Ishmael. His descendents have learned their lesson well, and are willing to sacrifice not only their children but all children for a thousand generations.
I choose to resist not because I believe we can succeed, but so I can die knowing I choose life over death. And when I meet God in heaven and find him shattered and shaken that his greatest creation, those to whom he whispered, “Choose life,” have succumbed to worshipping death, he and I will weep together and find some comfort in those who chose life after all.”

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

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