Ben Kasstan
Stuck in the wilderness years.

The 2015 Muslim Jewish Conference: Rooted in community, striding towards professionalism

Every year I dread what might happen at the Muslim Jewish Conference because it always seems to occur in the midst of tragedy; if it wasn’t the Israel-Gaza crisis in 2014, it was the siege of the Parisian kosher supermarket or the murder of Dan Uzan outside Copenhagen’s Great synagogue earlier this year. We in the organising team never know what to expect and can never foresee how the conference will unfold. But every year the number and quality of our applications increase; signaling, to me at least, that Muslim and Jewish youths are neither content with the status quo between their communities or the attempts of community leaders to address interfaith issues.

The sixth annual Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) brought 160 delegates and team members from 44 countries together for a week of intense and intimate conversations in Berlin. Participants were divided into six different committees – Art & Culture, Living as a Minority, Anti-Semitism & Anti-Muslim Racism, Conflict Transformation, Gender & Religion, and Project Development & Implementation – and were then brought together in a series of open workshops, our hallmark genocide awareness programme, and a discussion on Israel and Palestine.

Not only did the Conference take a leap into the centre of Europe this year, but it boldly pushed the boundaries of its ambitions and capacities as a platform for interfaith and intercultural exchange. Going beyond superficial attempts of interfaith work (which usually explore the similarities between religious traditions over a bowl of hummus), MJC begins with dialogue but welcomes dissent within a physically and emotionally-crafted ‘safe space’. This approach enables MJC to achieve in a week what local communities are either unable or unwilling to do.

Muslim and Jewish youths come to MJC as participants and leave as activists; they are empowered to be the change they want to see in their communities. The conference also has a considerable amount of non-Muslim and non-Jewish team members, as well as participants, who see Muslim and Jewish dialogue as being a vital thread of the wider social fabric.

Our applications team carefully selects participants who together form a mosaic of intra-group religious and cultural diversity, and this ultimately affirms that there is no definitive way to be Muslim or Jewish. The initial encounter between participants at MJC thus proves that ‘the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete’, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has argued. Including a dedicated effort to accommodate intra-faith perspectives across all committees as well as the conference schedule brought internal differences to the table, and then played a central role in undermining and unraveling established preconceptions of ‘the other’.

A fundamental component of MJC is the commitment to raising awareness of violence and genocide, and this year’s programme focused on narratives of survival from the Shoah and Bosnia. The remarkable stories of our guest speakers Rahel Mann and Suvad Ćerić soared through the grandeur of Berlin’s Rathaus and bestowed a personal insight into the experiences of genocide, as well as the vulnerability that marginality and living as a minority can present.

The sharing of historical narratives and the exchange of experiences offers a richer and more tangible understanding of issues that circulate in the media, but might seem too geographically distant to fully understand without the absence of a personal relation or insight. Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed – our Vice Secretary General – recalled the paralysis she felt at the time of the Peshawar school attack which left 132 dead, mostly young pupils. Reflecting on the events as a young Pakistani woman, she asked the delegation ‘how do you breathe with a heart that has holes shot through it? How do you pump air from lungs that were crushed? So brutally. So ruthlessly. On 16th December, 2014 – a little bit of Pakistan died’. As we expect participants to become rising leaders in their respective communities and countries, we can also envisage future bonds that will counter and deplore violence together.

No longer is MJC a youth led annual project, but it is a professionalising organisation that is attracting attention and funding at the highest levels of government and civil society. For instance, the 2015 MJC was hosted at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin and received by US Government Special Representatives, Ira Forman (Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism) and Shaarik Zafar (Muslim Communities). A significant proportion of applicants this year were young professionals and a resolve was to create, for the first time, a dedicated committee on projects development and implementation for the sharing of best practice and skillsets. The conference is therefore constantly evolving and tuning itself to the challenges and needs raised by its participants.

Gender and sexuality were issues that dominated much of the conference floor, and cut across many committees as well as our programme of optional evening workshops. This was a particularly poignant issue for Israeli participants who revealed the lingering scars of last month’s Jerusalem Gay Pride rally, which saw the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki in a Haredi terrorist attack. Much to our surprise, the conference has consequently found itself filling a void for Muslim and Jewish participants whose typical experience of being LGBTQ has ended in institutional disenfranchisement and community rejection. MJC has, perhaps unintentionally, proven to be a leading space and social network for sexual minorities within the Jewish and Muslim communal topographies.

If the conference is to continue offering a safe and supportive space for its participants and the socio-religious challenges they face then it must be forthright in responding to emerging religious movements and controversies. This year MJC invited two respected and esteemed community representatives – Jeremy Jones (Australia) and Sheikh Ibrahim Hussein (Canada) – who held fascinating panel discussions on inter- and intra-faith diversity, but still absent from this discussion were the voices and position of female religious authorities. When presented with the opportunity to legitimise the authoritative knowledge and perspectives of women in religion, MJC cannot afford to miss the call for action it inspires in its participants.

After the closing ceremony, the organising team once again parted ways and contemplated their future with MJC as it continues to grow and be steadfastly regarded as the accredited space for Muslim and Jewish engagement. With Paris in the cards as a possible host city next year, the Muslim Jewish Conference, under the leadership of Ilja Sichrovsky, will need to focus on negotiating its professional image whilst maintaining the sense of community established over the course of previous years.

About the Author
Ben Kasstan is a social and medical anthropologist based at the University of Sussex (UK).
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