A shared journey

Last fall, Muslim and Jewish students at Princeton began meeting as part of an unusual dialogue group, learning about similarities and differences between Islam and Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Julie Roth and Muslim chaplain Khalid Latif. Over spring break, 20 of the students — nine Muslims and 11 Jews — traveled with Roth and Latif in Spain, where they studied the period of coexistence that existed there during 700 years of Muslim rule. On their return to Princeton, the students continued meeting, and it’s expected that discussion will continue in the fall. Here, Shagufta Ahmed *07, who is Muslim, and Marina Olevsky ’09, who is Jewish, write about their experiences.

Difficult discussions at the back of the bus

By Shagufta Ahmed *07

Shagufta Ahmed *07 received her master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton in June.

One afternoon when I was 12 years old, I was watching television, my eyes fixed on the images on television of tanks entering the West Bank. An escalation of Palestinian and Israeli hostilities was imminent. My father reached over and turned off the TV. He gathered my sisters and me around our dinner table and said something that still resonates in my mind: “Don’t let anyone lead you to believe that Muslims and Jews cannot peaceably coexist. History serves as your example.”

His impromptu lecture had begun. The topic: Islamic Spain.

Although I grew up in a racially diverse southern Californian suburb, I was one of only a handful of Muslims in my community. My father was an immigrant to the United States from Pakistan, where religion was interwoven with the culture. In part owing to the absence of a local Muslim community, my father felt it essential to reinforce my Muslim faith at home. I watched his dedication to Islam as he took on extra hours of work during the week so that he could take Fridays off for the Muslim obligatory congregational prayer. My childhood years included regular attendance at Sunday-school classes at the mosque. At home, my mother taught me how to read the Quran in Arabic. My father supplemented this with regular discourse regarding Islam.

However, discussions of spirituality were not limited to Islam. My father encouraged us to learn about other faiths and to participate in the religious services of our non-Muslim friends. It was through my father’s discussions that I had my first exposure to Judaism. He taught us about the respect accorded to Judaism in the Quran, with both Jews and Christians regarded as People of the Book. He taught us about the underlying similarities of the Abrahamic faiths.

In our kitchen on that day in the early 1990s, I listened as my father described a period of Spanish history that had escaped mention in my European history class. Muslims — or Moors, as they were more commonly known — ruled over much of the Iberian Peninsula for more than 700 years, until 1492. Despite some periods of infighting and persecution, this era, regarded as the Golden Age, was a notable time of tolerance between Muslims and Jews.

When I learned of the opportunity to revisit this period in history as part of a campus Muslim and Jewish dialogue in the fall, I was eager to sign up. The dialogue — along with a spring-break trip to historic sites of Islamic Spain — seemed an ideal opportunity to address the questions I had regarding this period of tolerance in which two groups now at odds were able to flourish intellectually and spiritually. We were a diverse group of students — Jews of the Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox movements and Muslim students of various ethnic backgrounds following either Sunni or Shiite tradition. We were guided in discussion by a rabbi, Julie Roth, and an imam, Khalid Latif. As a student of public policy, I was eager to assess what aspects of governance made the symbiotic relationship possible during this historic era in Spain. Was it due to the overarching Muslim framework? Was it due to a particular rule of law? Could we uncover the lessons and apply them today?

Although I had suspected that these were lofty goals, our time in Spain revealed how far we really were from reaching them. From early on in the trip it was apparent that both groups lacked a basic understanding of the fundamentals of the other’s faith.

Our dialogue sessions were interspersed with stops to visit sublime Islamic architecture, evident in both Muslim and Jewish structures. These sites served as proof of the tolerance that once had been achieved between these two peoples. Olive trees across the Spanish countryside served as a reminder of the greater purpose of our dialogue.

The most revealing discourse occurred during our long hours in transit. Face-to-face on a bus, we could not escape the most pressing and difficult questions. Our exchanges included candid questions by Muslim students to their Jewish counterparts. Muslims asked about the notion of Jews as a “chosen” people and how it is perceived by non-Jews, and about the distinction between Jewish faith and culture. We were fascinated to hear about the Jewish perspective on afterlife, which we learned did not include notions of heaven and hell like those found in both the Christian and Muslim faiths.

Both groups danced around what seemed to be the underlying issue on most of our minds — the conflict over Israel and Palestine. Most of us hesitated to broach this incendiary topic because it could impede other dialogue. For many of us, including me, this trip was about more than just one conflict; it was a chance to learn about the dynamics of a tolerant Islamic Spain and to delve further into each other’s faiths. But in our final group session a student brought up the topic, and in the hours remaining, conversation shifted to the elephant in the room. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominated the dialogue in the back of the bus.

On the whole, both groups trod carefully when it came to asking questions of the other, not wanting to affect friendships that had been forged during the trip. At times, Muslim students were frustrated by questions they felt were provocative and unfair. Despite our ethnically diverse group of nine Muslim students, we felt we could not speak on behalf of the actions and beliefs of 1.2 billion Muslims who spanned many cultures, languages, and more than 1,400 years of history.

In one session, I was surprised by a question addressed to me. Did Islam endorse martyrdom and therefore terrorism? a Jewish student asked. I replied with an answer that I had thought was obvious — that no religion, including Islam, would sanction such an egregious act. It appeared that even at a world-renowned institution of higher learning, perceptions regarding Islam were still vulnerable to distorted images in the media.

This discussion sparked a series of questions regarding Islam’s view on a variety of topics, including the status of women and honor killings. As I tried to dispel myths, I felt compelled to note something that a post-9/11 world had brought into focus for me: Muslims arguably have the worst public-relations campaign in the world.

I explained that although I believe it is each person’s responsibility to seek out the truth about Islam, we have allowed those with the loudest voices, the un-Islamic extremists, to overpower the vast, inherently moderate, Muslim majority. The inability of American Muslims as a group to respond systematically to acts of terror committed in the name of Islam has allowed non-Muslims the opportunity to fill in gaps in their understanding about our faith in their own way. Therefore, Muslims of our generation — especially those with the skills and access that a Princeton education affords — must work to undo the hold un-Islamic radicals have over Islam’s image. At some point, I told the other students, I hope to create a Muslim public-relations organization to help counter media images that distort and hijack the very notion of Islam. Both the Jewish and Muslim students encouraged me in this. Our dialogue underscored its necessity.

In one of our last days in Spain, we traveled to Córdoba to visit what was formerly La Mezquita, or the Great Mosque, an iconic feature of ancient Islam. Despite the grandeur of the Alhambra palace, for me the simple elegance of the Great Mosque was unparalleled. Muslim and Jewish students collectively marveled at the beauty of the endless red and white peppermint-stick-patterned arches. But for all of us, the admiration was accompanied by a moment of reflection.

The ancient mosque was captured from the Moors by King Ferdinand III in 1236 and became a church. While many of the features of the mosque are intact, a Catholic cathedral has been built within it. Muslims wishing to pray at the historic site are denied. This has become a source of tension between the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population of Spain and the fast-growing minority of Muslims. This scene seemed ironic when I considered the purpose of our trip. That is when it struck me — the dialogue should not be confined to our two faiths, but widened to include people of other faiths as well as those of secular tradition.

As we stared at the cathedral within the mosque, it seemed we were all in agreement about one thing — the dialogue had only just begun. 

Despite uncomfortable questions, friendships were built

By Marina Olevsky ’09

Marina Olevsky ’09 is concentrating in the Woodrow Wilson School and studying for certificates in finance, Near Eastern studies, and Russian studies.

Ukrainian Jew traveling and talking with Muslims in Spain — not bad, I thought. The prospect of Princeton University’s Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Alternative Spring Break Trip intrigued me from the moment I had found the advertising flier tucked into my dormitory mailbox.

A spring break’s worth of architectural eye-candy aside, there were more personal, more pressing reasons that enticed me to sign up. I was born in Kiev. When I was 7, my family immigrated to America with the ramparts of the former Soviet Union crashing behind us. We came as religious refugees.

I grew up in a home almost sterile in its secularity. The U.S.S.R. effectively had eradicated the religious practices of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and left them with nothing but an abstract monotheism and a fear of anti-Semitism to show for their Judaism. Those generations yearned to see a measured religious resuscitation in their offspring, and my parents still delight in watching my sister and me chant the Hanukkah blessings.

Environment shapes worldview, and I was no exception. I learned early that religion can lead to victimization — that Jewry has been persecuted worldwide for millennia, and that the existence of Israel is a miracle to be treasured. Still, befuddled by the incessant discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portrayed in the media — or rather, by my lack of knowledge of it — I decided that it was time for me to educate myself about the conflict upon entering Princeton. Never having been to Israel, I grappled with the kaleidoscopic representation of Middle Eastern reality buzzing through TV screens, radio programs, and various Web sites. What did the people actually think? What did the “other side” think?

Perhaps Princeton’s Muslim community could give me an answer. Though most Muslims at Princeton are not Palestinian, their views on the issue would at least paint a clearer picture of the Islamic perspective. So I jumped at the chance to join the dialogue. I wanted to understand the Muslim interpretation of events since 1948 in the region of present-day Israel — and, what’s more, to hear these students’ expectations and desires for the future.

The Spanish historical setting was an apt pick, richly conducive to dialogue between Muslims and Jews, whose histories became intertwined through centuries of Convivencia. During the period of Arab Muslim rule from 711 to 1492, Jews residing in the region of present-day Spain had dhimmi status — protected by law and able to practice their religion relatively freely, yet second-class citizens who paid extra taxes and faced various restrictions on their activities.

We can learn from the past. By drawing on historical proof of Convivencia, we can say that religious tolerance is very possible between Muslims and Jews. Lessons derived from analyzing the Convivencia could help forge a route to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Spain, peppered as it is with places of worship that served as synagogue, mosque, and church, in some order, is draped in a cultural fabric that unites Jews and Muslims. Our group encountered one particularly memorable example of this in the large synagogue in Toledo, which now functions as a museum. It was decorated by Arab architects in the Mudejar style — making the interior of the building resemble that of the Alhambra, its walls bedecked with serpentine intricacies of carved designs. My photographs of wall details in many of the Spanish synagogues and Muslim palaces are virtually indistinguishable.

Upon arrival in Madrid, we dove right into dialogue. Notebooks were distributed with crisp pages of text from the Torah and Quran printed side by side. We read both accounts of similar stories (such as Hagar’s journey from Abraham’s home with her son, Ishmael), and discussed the significance of differences in phraseology between the texts.

This approach was a gentle way of easing the students into conversation, but some of the Jewish students suggested that our largely scriptural discussions were not conducive to addressing the issues affecting the Middle East today. So we switched gears to discuss the realities wracking the Middle East and how we might apply lessons learned from the Judeo-Islamic experience in medieval Spain to the current conflict. Rabbi Julie Roth and her husband, Rabbi Justus Baird (he was a rabbinical student at the time of our trip), asked everyone to write two anonymous questions for members of the other religious group to answer. (Unfortunately, Imam Khalid Latif could not arrive until the third day.) We all curled up on the seats of our tour bus, committing our most pressing thoughts to paper. The purpose was to enable us to ask the sorts of provocative questions from which we might demur in a collective setting.

The rabbi and her husband consolidated our questions into sets of five questions posed to each group. All the questions posed by the Muslim students were thought-provoking. Examples included: “Why do Jews emphasize their victimization so much? Do you think that the State of Israel ever uses the Holocaust as an excuse to commit unjust acts?” and “If my religion allows me to eat kosher food, why can’t a Jew eat halal?” A few minutes into the exercise, however, Rabbi Roth said that the Muslim students did not feel comfortable answering the questions they had been asked.

We were told that the Muslim students felt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which figured prominently in the questions written by the Jewish students — was not the central issue driving the current relationship between Jews and Muslims. In addition, none of the Muslims on the trip was Palestinian, and the students felt that they could not answer for a country that was not their own. Finally, we were told that the Muslim students felt that there were more important issues to discuss, such as our common Spanish history. This view surprised me. Admittedly, the Spanish setting of our trip nicely suited historical discussion. On the other hand, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in my view, is the main reason that Muslim-Jewish dialogues are so necessary today.

Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Baird then devised an alternative — a program called “Get Personal” that paired each student with someone of the other religion. One-on-one, the partners would discuss their views on a range of topics, including religion’s role in their views on premarital sex, their family environments, and their feelings of persecution. This program may not have addressed the most contentious issues, but it helped in a different way: By discussing the intimate details of personal religious observance, we learned about each other on a meaningful level, which bolstered the friendships we were forming along the way.

Eventually, we did get our feet wet. When Imam Latif arrived, he and Rabbi Roth encouraged discussion of some of the more difficult issues. In groups composed of students from both religions, our conversations attempted to explore questions including “What’s your stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and why?” But while this approach was edifying on topics such as religion’s role in our choice of marriage partner, mutual trust, and religious dietary restrictions, it was less fruitful in terms of addressing politically pertinent issues. The Muslim students explained that they did not have enough information on which to base opinions about this central Mideast conflict, and the Jewish students often had conflicting perceptions of the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine, even among themselves.

And yet every program like this one, I imagine, has moments of frustrated dialogue. The important thing is to focus on the gains in mutual trust, and the leaps toward mutual understanding. On our trip, we got to know each other on a personal level and became good friends. We did so many things together, from seeing breathtaking Arab architecture to learning about the different kinds of Islam practiced across different regions.

The meaning of friendship merits underscoring. True understanding can come only as a result of trust — of mutual intellectual acknowledgment. This we achieved in spades, and it will be immensely helpful in future dialogue sessions. To be sure, this trip did not accomplish much real conversation about the conflict that, in my opinion, is the very reason why Muslim-Jewish dialogue is important in the first place. Yet it was well worth the journey. The issues left to be addressed promise to be attended to soon, thanks to the interpersonal foundations that our trip to Spain laid firmly in place. All of the participants came out with stronger ties. I look forward to many more group discussions, and to cherishing the connection we all have developed. After all, anyone with whom you have braved a tapas bar, gone clubbing in Madrid until 3 a.m., and compared Islamic and Judaic laws of feminine hygiene ... is a true amigo