Reflections on My Conversation with Chaplain Omer Bajwa

This past Sunday evening, in front of a full house at the Young Israel of Oceanside, I had probably one of the more fascinating conversations that I have ever had as a rabbi. Chaplain Omer Bajwa, the Director of Muslim Life in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University, sat down with me to discuss a number of hot-button issues relating to Jewish-Muslim relations. For over an hour, I asked him many questions and he responded patiently and openly.  Then we opened up the floor as members of the audience had the opportunity to ask the Chaplain questions, as well. I would like to share with you some of the highlights of the evening and what I learned from our conversation.

I found that Chaplain Bajwa came across as someone who was truthful, authentic and moderate.  He genuinely believes that we can overcome our biases, stereotypes and conflicts through relationship building, and noted that as Chaplain at Yale University, he has an excellent relationship with the Jewish and Christian leaders on campus.

I asked Chaplain Bajwa how he, as a Muslim, deals with the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel from a theological perspective.  He responded that after attending the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute, he gained a deep appreciation for Zionism and the Jewish roots of both the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.  He noted that for hundreds of years, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully side by side, and a number of times he highlighted the Golden Age of Spain as the model for this coexistence.  He doesn’t believe that there are Muslim countries; there are only Muslim-majority countries.  He does not claim to be a politician or have a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but theologically he has no problem with Jews and Muslims living side by side.

Islam is a universalistic religion so when asked, Chaplain Bajwa acknowledged that the goal of religious Muslims is for the entire world to be Muslim.  However, he explained that this is an ideal that is only meant to be reached via persuasion and not through violence.  He recognizes the Jews as the People of the Book, and welcomes peaceful co-existence between Jews and Muslims in Israel, recognizing both peoples’ history and theological claims to the land.

Chaplain Bajwa acknowledged that there is a doctrine called “jihad” in Islam and that there are two broad definitions of this term: (1) a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam and (2) the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin.  In Judaism, we also accept two definitions of strength – both physical and spiritual.  (For example, Pirkei Avot states: “Who is strong?  One who conquers his evil inclination.”)  He asserted that even though there is a concept of armed struggle in Islam according to some interpretations of “jihad,” the mainstream Muslim approach is that many conditions must be met before this armed struggle is carried out.  He asserted that the leaders of many Middle Eastern Muslim countries and terror groups pervert the term jihad by applying it to justify their political armed struggles against their enemies.  I think his view of jihad may be broadly similar to the Jewish view of milchemet mitzvah, or a “war that is a mitzvah.”  There are times that we may wage war, but these times are limited and many conditions are required before we are permitted to do so.  Chaplain Bajwa views sharia law in a similar way.  He asserted that Islamic penal law should only apply rarely and only in healthy Muslim societies, which in the 21st century does not exist.  Therefore, he believes that modern Muslim countries are perverting the application of sharia law.  I told him that his understanding of sharia law reminds me of the Jewish understanding regarding capital punishment.  On the one hand, throughout the Torah we find countless instances where the punishment for a crime is the death penalty.  On the other hand, according to one Mishnaic opinion, a court that implements the death penalty once every seven years is a called a bloody court and according to another Mishnaic opinion, the same is said about a court that implements the death penalty once every seventy years.  In both instances, it seems that on the books, there are severe punishments for seemingly minor infractions (from a modern perspective), but in practice, these severe punishments should hardly be implemented.

Even when challenged, Chaplain Bajwa claimed that his moderate theological stance was the overwhelming dominant Muslim view and one of the proofs was a book written by John L. Esposito in 2008, entitled, “Who Speaks for Islam?  What a Billion Muslims Really Think.”  This book is the product of the Gallup Poll’s massive, multiyear research study.  As part of this project, Gallup conducted tens of thousands of interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have significant Muslim populations.  Among other things, this study found that: (1) Muslims criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion, (2) Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified, and (3) those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population.

I told Chaplain Bajwa that if everything he is saying is correct, then my message to him is that his community has really bad PR.  I provided the following analogy.  Sometimes I receive a call from a Rabbi from a small kashrut agency, whose kashrut is not widely accepted.  When the Rabbi asks me why I don’t accept his kosher certification, I explain that my contacts from nationally recognized kashrut organizations raise concerns as to this Rabbi’s reliability.  That could be for one of two reasons.  Either, indeed, his kashrut standards are not acceptable, or he has not effectively communicated his kashrut standards to the nationally recognized kashrut organizations.  Similarly, even if it is true that most Muslims are moderate, that is not the message that comes across.  Chaplain Bajwa accepted that critique and said that he and others are trying to get their moderate message to the wider public more effectively.  He noted that some Muslims who are critical of certain terrorist regimes have received death threats, which may silence certain moderate Muslims and make it harder to publicly spread a moderate stance.

Someone after the talk suggested that maybe we Jews live in an echo chamber somewhat and we tend to only receive information and statements from Muslims that are critical of Israel and the Jews.  I wonder if that’s true.  I told Chaplain Bajwa after the talk that if most of the Muslims in America are, indeed, moderate, then it is unfortunate that the first Muslim women who were elected to Congress are extremist in their policies towards Israel.  They have become the face for many Jews of Muslim elected officials, and it is assumed that they represent the mainstream Muslim stance.  Bottom line, they certainly don’t help engender positive feelings for the Muslim community from the Jewish community.

I asked Chaplain Bajwa, if he could leave us with one message, what would it be?  He said that when Muslims and Jews talk, we need to talk about the elephant in the room, i.e., Israel, but we should also talk about so much that unites us.  He reiterated that we do have many areas of cooperation, as two faith communities living in a society that so often devalues faith.  His firm belief is that building strong relationships on mutual areas of concern is the key to coexistence.

I think I gained a better understanding of some religious doctrines of Islam from our conversation.  I have not changed my view about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in terms of who bears responsibility for the conflict.  Chaplain Bajwa also agreed that many of the Muslim leaders in the Middle East are bad actors.  I wonder, though, if the extremists in the Middle East are motivated by religion or if they are motivated by politics, and politicians simply use religion to further their cause.  Chaplain Bajwa believes it is the latter and that might be something for me to research more.  Furthermore, if he is correct and the findings in John Esposito’s book about what Muslims really think are correct, then it seems to me that Muslim-Jewish cooperation is an important step in fighting antisemitism and anti-Zionism.  We use a lot of time and resources supporting the state of Israel through supporting organizations like AIPAC, NORPAC, StandWithUs and many other pro-Israel groups.  If the silent majority of over a billion Muslims is indeed moderate and not extremist, and they are fighting Islamophobia just as we are fighting antisemitism, it may be worthwhile to use more time and resources to see if it is productive to make the silent majority silent no more.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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