UK Jews and Muslims can co-exist

Both take pride in being British, both descend from Abraham, and both should be open with each other


By Ed Husain, March 11, 2010
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A few days ago, I listened to a speech by Foreign Secretary David Miliband at the historic Brick Lane Mosque. The mosque was once a thriving synagogue, and before that a Huguenot church. As a child, I remember seeing mezuzahs on door frames, and buying groceries from a Jewish shop with my father. And though it was widely, if erroneously, believed that the local MP, Peter Shore, was Jewish, he spoke regularly at the mosque. There was no animosity between Jews and Muslims in the East End of my childhood. And yet, in the 2005 election, Shore's successor, Oona King - who is Jewish - lost her seat after a campaign in which she faced antisemitic slurs by her opponents and their extremist supporters. There is ample evidence to suggest that antisemitism is on the increase, as is anti-Muslim sentiment. This needs to be tackled urgently.

Gandhi said that a civilisation should be judged by how it treats its minorities. By that standard, Britain's Muslims and Jews have fared exceptionally well. We are uniquely placed to help foster a climate that bolsters our shared, secular, public space, while celebrating our own, distinct religious traditions without fear, embarrassment or curtailment.

During a recent visit to a synagogue, I felt humbled by the religious experience of the gathering. I saw another side to some of Britain's leading politicians, journalists, and academics: contemplating the divine, remembering ancient prayers, and committing to a sense of service to fellow humans. Prayers for the monarch, a defiant Englishness, comfort and confidence in a faith identity are all lessons for Britain's Muslims who are struggling with their own sense of belonging. The Jewish story of successful integration has much to teach us Muslims. But most of us are not prepared to learn

Jews are the children of Isaac, while Muslims descend from Ishmael. We both believe that God promised Abraham that his progeny will fill the earth, and so we have.

We are supposed to be a blessing to other dwellers of this planet. But are we? Too many activist Muslims see a global Jewish conspiracy behind every geopolitical event. A monolithic, confrontational attitude towards Zionism with no understanding of Jewish existential anxieties in a post-Holocaust world makes matters worse. Similarly, among some Jewish communities, an ingrained and sometimes hateful antipathy toward Islam and Muslims creates unhinged hostility.

Our mutual distrust continues to haunt our communities and, worse, the country that is home to us both. Our government fears putting Jews and Muslims in the same room together. And this will continue for as long as we are unwilling to face each other's concerns with honesty.

The elephant in the room is Israel, and specifically its conduct in Gaza, where an entire population is imprisoned. What happens in the Holy Land matters to our communities here, sharing as we do an Abrahamic ancestry. Yet today Muslim extremists wish to destroy Israel, while Jewish extremists refuse to recognise a Palestinian people. Such flawed zeal has no place in Britain.

A practical way forward is for Jews to listen to Muslim views of the Israeli government without simply denouncing them as antisemitic and attempting to silence them. Muslims similarly should avoid conflating criticism of Israel's conduct with a wish to see Israel removed. Israel has a right to exist. It is part of the Middle Eastern mosaic. Period.

As a positive step forward, instituting joint Muslim-Jewish trips to the Holy Land will foster a deeper understanding of some of the above issues and help to create a new generation of British Jews and Muslims free from mutual distrust. This can counter the current, serious problem of radicalisation of young Muslims. Fortunately, older British Muslims remain far more sober and willing to engage with others. But we have not made sufficient use of this. For example, twinning major mosques with synagogues will send a strong message of fraternity in these troubled times and undercut the extremist narrative. Pupils at Jewish and Muslim faith schools, too, ought to visit one another's institutions.

Unless we act now, with sobriety and a vision for a better future then, once the elders that listened with pride at Brick Lane mosque to David Miliband are no longer with us, the university-educated radicals who helped oust Oona King will continue to grow in strength.

The situation is not beyond remedy. With the will and strong leadership, British Jews and Muslims can together eradicate blind prejudice, and be an asset to our country.

Ed Husain is the author of 'The Islamist' (Penguin 2007) and co-founder of Quilliam

    Last updated: 3:35pm, June 3 2010

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