Passover Tells a Story Familiar to Both Muslims and Jews

Huffington Post, April 9, 2009

A week before Passover, a local interfaith group called the Table of Abraham organized a Seder event at Congregation Ahavath Chesed, a Reform Jewish congregation in Jacksonville. The goal was to enact all of the rituals that are part of Seder as a way of informing and teaching people who are unfamiliar with this tradition.

Turning the pages of the Haggadah, I was specially struck by the similarity in both Judaism and Islam about this seminal Jewish event of Passover. At a time when so much of the contemporary narrative about Jews and Muslims is written in the context of differences and conflicts, it is useful to mark the solemn occasion of Passover as a mutual reminder about the commonalities between the faiths.

No other story in the Quran is recounted as frequently as the bondage of the Children of Israel in Egypt and their subsequent deliverance from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. God says in the Quran:

O children of Israel! Remember those blessings of Mine with which I graced you, and how I favored you above all other people; .... And [remember the time] when We saved you from Pharaoh's people, who afflicted you with cruel suffering, slaughtering your sons and sparing [only] your women - which was an awesome trial from your Sustainer; and when We cleft the sea before you, and thus saved you and caused Pharaoh's people to drown before your very eyes. (2:47-50)

The genesis of Muslim-Jewish relationship goes back to the founding of a political state in Madinah by Islam's Prophet Muhammad in 622 of the Common Era. Madinah of that time was a city inhabited by primarily polytheist Arab tribes, a few Jewish tribes and some Christians (although not as organized tribes). The Jewish tribes joined the rest of the city in welcoming Prophet Muhammad and upon entering the city the Prophet signed a treaty with all of the surrounding tribes.

This treaty is called the Charter of Madinah. It is perhaps the earliest known constitution in the world, predating the Magna Carta by 600 years. It is also the first known legal document that confers rights and responsibilities upon distinct religious minorities. It particularly recognizes Jews as a distinct nation (or ummah) entitling them to the same rights and responsibilities as any other signatories to the document. The treaty required each to assist the other another against any violation of the covenant. When placed in the context of the socio-economic-political conditions of the seventh century this document was indeed revolutionary.

Azizah al-Hibri, a legal scholar wrote:
The Charter .... declared all Muslim and Jewish tribes of Madinah to be one community. At the same time, each tribe retained its identity, customs and internal relations. The "federal" system of Madinah was responsible, however, for such matters as common defense and peacemaking, purposes similar to those in the Preamble to the American Constitution.... The Charter also contained its own partial bill of rights, ... among the rights that it protected were the right to freedom of religion, and the right not to be found guilty because of the deeds of an ally, a form of guilt by association which was widely practiced at the time.....The Charter of Madinah repeatedly emphasized the principles of fairness and equity for Jews and Muslims....It is readily apparent that there are significant parallels between the concepts expressed in the Charter of Madinah, executed in the seventh century, and those of the American Constitution, drafted in the eighteenth century.

Despite such early documentary evidence of reciprocal respect, relationship between the two communities was clouded by mutual mistrust leading to several bloody conflicts.

And yet there are also many inspiring examples of coexistence and cooperation. It was during the Muslim rule in Spain that Jewish art, philosophy and literature reached one of its golden ages. A recent documentary on PBS characterized that era as, "The fascinating story of a central bureaucracy staffed by elites from all three faiths, with Jews in all but the highest post and Christian scholars outperforming "native" Arabic speakers in their own language and culture, is a fascinating and powerful antidote to our modern stereotypes concerning Christians, Jews, and Muslims."

Which part of our shared history do we want to use as our guide to the future? The part that steers us to presume the worst stereotypes about each other or the part that shows how much we can benefit humanity through our mutual cooperation. How we reminisce the past will dictate how effective we are in building a new future.

By the end of my Seder meal at the synagogue, it was quite apparent that beneath the headlines that scream conflict are Jewish, Muslim and Christian hearts yearning to build a more hopeful future based on mutual understanding. The eternal message of hope was my take-home lesson from the Seder.

Waiting to exhale: Obama visits Turkey

Published in Today's Zaman, April 5, 2009
(Turkey's largest circulating English daily)

Long before Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America, people in Turkey had expressed a sentiment of hope about his presidency. Reporting for The New York Observer in January 2008, Suzy Hansen quoted Omer Taspınar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution, as saying: "Turks know that Obama represents something quite different -- they've seen 'Roots.' They know the history. So an African-American with an African name and a name like Hussein -- the fact that people are willing to give him a chance, despite that he attended a madrasa, and had a Muslim father, would represent a huge change in the US, compared to the Bush-Clinton dynasties." As Turkey prepares to welcome Obama this week, what can they expect from him? And what can Obama expect in return?

A recent poll by the BBC World Service shows a majority of Turkish people believing that Obama will improve America's relations with the rest of the world. However, the number of people in Turkey who believe this (51 percent) is far below the average (68 percent) in the 17-nation BBC survey. Thus, amidst the general optimism there lies a nagging concern: Can Obama deliver on his promise?

Despite being saddled by a once-in-a generation economic crisis, the young American president has shown an uncanny ability to, in his own words, "walk and chew gum at the same time." Giving his first interview as president to the Arab TV station Al Arabiya, sending video greetings to the Islamic Republic of Iran on the Persian new year, quoting a saying (hadith) of the Prophet in one of his speeches, ordering the closing down of the abomination that is Guantanamo, retiring the use of ill-defined terms such as the "war on terror" and refraining from even rhetorically linking Islam to terrorism are all trends that evoke hope. Although these moves are mostly symbolic, they are nonetheless important, as part of leadership is setting the right tone.

How President Obama translates this emergent goodwill into tangible actions will ultimately determine his success. A recent survey by Gallup shows that nearly nine in 10 Muslims, spread across many Muslim-majority nations, support freedom of speech, defined as allowing all citizens to express their opinions freely on all major issues of the day. Overwhelming majorities support women having the same legal rights as men. Similar numbers hold beliefs that their faith ought to inform and guide them in their politics. Yet most do not want sacred religious texts to be the exclusive source of law in their societies. The most common aspiration, all across the Muslim world, is to see America help in reducing unemployment, improving economic infrastructure, respecting political rights and promoting freedom.

To get the Muslim world right, President Obama will first have to get Turkey right. During the Bush years, Turkish sentiments saw some of the most dramatic swings from overwhelmingly pro-American to stridently anti-American. Turkey sits at the nexus of several hot spots, such as Iraq, Syria and Iran. Turkey is eager to play a role in mediating an amicable solution. Turkey is not just a Muslim-majority nation; it is also a secular democracy. Turkey is also trying to grapple with its own version of separation of church (mosque) and state. The ban on students donning symbols of their faith while attending university classes strikes many in the West and across the Muslim world as excessive. But the fact that the Turkish people are continuing to debate this issue is a sign of religious, intellectual and social vitality. President Obama could use his enormous appeal across the Muslim world to prod other Muslim societies to borrow a page from Turkey and enhance their own internal dialogues about the appropriate role of religion and faith in state governance.

Back at home, a poll conducted by the non-partisan group Public Agenda shows that a clear majority of American's express support for using diplomatic and economic means to resolve conflicts, even with Iran. Most Americans want America's top foreign policy priority to be humanitarian, such as helping poor countries move out of poverty, providing more access to education and controlling the spread of deadly diseases.

All around the world there is an emerging consensus of aspiration. People are less interested in ideologies and care more about how governments can better their lives. This creates new opportunities for cooperation through sustained intellectual and diplomatic engagement. Instead of looking at Turkey as just an important geostrategic military ally, President Obama needs to prod European allies to welcome Turkey into the European Union, giving Turkey a more effective platform to act as a bridge between America, Europe and the Muslim world.

Obama tells Turkey: U.S. ‘not at war with Islam’ (AP April 6, 2009)

ANKARA, Turkey - Barack Obama, making his first visit to a Muslim nation as president, declared Monday the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam."

Urging a greater partnership with the Islamic world in an address to the Turkish parliament, Obama called the country an important U.S. ally in many areas, including the fight against terrorism. He devoted much of his speech to urging a greater bond between Americans and Muslims, portraying terrorist groups such as al Qaida as extremists who do not represent the vast majority of Muslims.

"Let me say this as clearly as I can," Obama said. "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical ... in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject."