One of the ugliest expressions of the antipathy between Muslims and Jews is the tendency within both communities to promote each other’s renegades. Some Muslim groups enthusiastically embrace born Jews who spew a form of self-hatred that borders on anti-Semitism, while some Jewish groups sponsor born Muslims who have repudiated Islam and have made a career of exposing their former faith. In each case the message is the same: the only authentic representative of the faith community is one who repudiates its commitments and beliefs.
Brandeis’ decision to rescind its offer of an honorary degree to former Dutch parliamentarian and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, needs to be seen in that context. Ali crossed the line from critic of Islamist extremism to demonizer of Islam itself, repeatedly labeling the faith of more than a billion believers as an enemy against whom war must be waged.
Had the Jewish-affiliated university fulfilled its initial intention to honor Ali, it would have sent a message of contempt to its own Muslim students, to the Muslim American community and to Muslims around the world. And it would have worsened the already grievous state of Muslim-Jewish relations.
In declaring that honoring Ali would negate Brandeis’ inclusivist values, university President Fred Lawrence has provided Muslims and Jews with an essential teaching moment.
This isn’t an issue about free speech, which we support unequivocally. Rather, this is about whether our communities should honor and promote each other’s renegades. What distinguishes a dissident from a renegade is that while a dissident aims at changing aspects of his or her faith community, a renegade simply damns it.
In our work as interfaith partners, we are trying to create a respectful way for Muslims and Jews to interact. We are committed to helping our communities learn to listen to each other’s hopes and fears, and prevent our descent into a holy war which would desecrate our faith and devour us all.
Both of us deeply identify with the ideals and struggles of our communities. Abdullah is devoted to establishing a self-confident Muslim religious presence in American society, and especially on college campuses. Yossi is devoted to defending Israel against those who would deny its legitimacy. We sought each other out precisely because we both wanted dialogue partners who represent the sensibilities of their mainstream communities – Jews for whom Judaism and Israel are precious, Muslims for whom Islam and Palestinian rights are precious.
Our purpose in promoting dialogue isn’t to seek consensus but mutual understanding and respect. We will continue to disagree about many issues, but as friends who hope that the best of the other’s faith traditions will prevail.
We are deeply distressed by the widespread assault on the legitimacy of Jewish history and peoplehood in the Muslim world. This is a moral disaster for Muslims no less than it is a threat for Jews.
And while the dimensions of the problem are hardly comparable, we are also deeply distressed by the public campaign in America by some Jews to discredit Islam with selective quotes from the Koran that ignore the complex reality of Muslim life and traditions. Taunting each other is a medieval form of religious discourse that should have no place in our contemporary spiritual life.
We know, from our own experience, that it is possible for Muslims and Jews, especially in America, to conduct not only civil dialogue but profound discussion on the issues that most divide us.
Precisely because we are engaged in this work of reconciliation, we are under no illusions about the difficulties in creating a new kind of conversation between our communities. That is all the more reason why we feel grateful to President Lawrence for setting a new standard for Muslim-Jewish relations. We call upon our communities to follow Brandeis’ example and refrain from honoring those whose goal is to dishonor the other.