Eight thousand miles away from a part of the world where violent confrontations between Muslims and Jews occur on a near-daily basis, a roomful of people from both religions gathered at a mosque to discuss what they perceive to have in common.
The Nov. 5 event at the Islamic Center of Morris County in Rockaway was called “The Concept of Peace in Islam and Judaism.”
It brought together Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, and Rabbi Deb Smith, religious leader of Congregation Or Ha Lev in Mount Arlington. It was one of the events in a “twinning program” cosponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the New Jersey Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee.
The rabbi and the imam both stressed that peace is the centerpiece of their religious beliefs, citing the similarity of the Hebrew word shalom and the Arabic word salaam. But they agreed that controversial excerpts from their holy scriptures might contradict those assumptions.
Such passages — often prescribing draconian punishments for crimes or exhortations to violent military actions — “may not cast each of our faiths in the best of lights,” Smith acknowledged, “but they do exist within the literature.”
She spoke of the ancient tribe of Amalekites, who attacked the Israelites as they fled bondage in Egypt, and she read from the Book of Samuel: “The Lord said, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel…. Now go. Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them. Put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Texts like that, Smith said, “present a problem in how we deal with things and how we look at the world.”
Then Chaudry read aloud verses 190 to 194 from chapter two of the Koran. Critics of Islam, he said, cite lines that say “fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you,” omitting the next line that says “do not commit aggression. God does not like aggressors…and do not fight them unless they fight you.”
“But if they fight you, slay them,” he continued to quote. “Such shall be recompense for those who deny the truth. But if they resist, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace. Hence, fight them until there is no more oppression and all worship is devoted to God alone. If they desist, then all hostility shall cease except against those who willfully do wrong.”
Chaudry said such verses “are often misunderstood because people don’t read the entire section. It contains some of the language you often hear on Fox News.”
“No question is off the table,” he said as he invited some 100 members of the audience, virtually half Jewish and half Muslim, to join the discussion.
One Muslim man rose to point out that the entire membership of ISIS — the extremist Muslim force now making a multi-pronged assault across Iraq and Syria — is so small “they could not fill a stadium or Madison Square Garden.”
“They try to find some justification for their actions by saying, ‘Our children and our wives get raped,’” said the audience member. “But even if what they are saying is right, the method they are using is un-Islamic. They have no right to do what they are doing.”
Following the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, NJ Jewish News asked Smith what impact cordial relationships between Muslims and Jews in the comfortable NJ suburbs could have in calming the perpetual violence in the Middle East.
“I think the work we do in a little corner of the world has to spread piece by piece. I cannot have a larger agenda; my agenda is this community and how I can make a change here. What happens in the larger world is terrible, but I can’t change that. That is my philosophy for how I do what I do.”
Asked by NJJN what his message might be to members of New Jersey’s Jewish community who criticize the brutal ways some Muslim fundamentalists have treated women and nonbelievers, Chaudry responded: “Beheadings are not being done by people who follow Islam,” he said. “There is nothing in the Koran that tells you to behead people…. Islam is the first religion that gave equal rights to women, 1,436 years ago. No other religion had it.
“Did Muslims actually practice what the Prophet Muhammad taught and how he treated women? No. That’s a problem. That is a failure.”
Suggesting that many in the Jewish community fear that Muslims “hate Israel and are out to destroy us,” Chaudry told NJJN: “absolutely not. We recognize that Israel has a right to exist and there is no basis for anybody to come out and say, ‘Israel should be wiped out.’
“Those who do in the Middle East say that as rhetoric because of the conflicts they have. But to generalize that to every Muslim in the world, and worse, to generalize it to Islam, is really unfair.”