Seeking Common Ground in Faith

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

For the first time in five Sundays of gatherings, the small group of Washington area Muslims and Jews around the fireside table seemed like it was about to move from polite chat on religious history to something unavoidably combustible: Zionism.

An imam had taken out a book titled "Palestinian Holocaust" and quoted a tiny ultra-orthodox Jewish sect that opposes the state of Israel. An African American Muslim said Zionism struck him as apartheid-like. A rabbi cited the "billions of dollars" donors give Palestinians.

"This seems like a good place for a period," Khalil Shadeed, one of the two organizers of the three-month-long dialogue group, said gently. "I do recognize this is very challenging."

And with that, Shadeed stopped the two-hour discussion before it plunged too deeply into unnavigable waters. The clock had run out, and it was best, he said, to keep the discussion calm -- a mantra of interfaith dialogue.

Such dialogue is often a balancing act: hopeful yet guarded; genuine yet superficial; teetering on the precipice of the most emotional subjects but often stepping back. Rare efforts such as this one, which ended June 1, go beyond a single mass event and seek more depth and intimacy.

The balance is increasingly being tested across the country as interfaith efforts grow, including an unprecedented push announced in December between the continent's largest Jewish and Muslim organizations. The six-session group led by Rabbi Steve Weisman of Bowie's Temple Solel and Shadeed, a leader of the Islamic Society of Southern Prince George's County, is among 11 groups nationwide picked to try a new curriculum created by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Islamic Society of North America. The organizations have urged their hundreds of thousands of members to use it in what they say is the broadest Jewish-Muslim interfaith effort in North American history.

After Shadeed spoke, people stood from the table at a Camp Springs meeting hall and quickly segued into fruit, cheese, chat about the rain and the middle-ground comments so ubiquitous at interfaith gatherings. One is how religious conflicts are not fundamental to religions or their revealed texts but came later through writings, politics, sociology or economics. In other words, the thinking goes, if God made religion, man made religious conflict.

Even so, Robin Hall, a Jewish participant, asked how a little group like theirs could make a difference. Shadeed pointed her to what he said was a Muslim adage about a man with a pick and a shovel who was going to plant a fig tree, but the world was about to end. "The advice to him," Shadeed said, "was to go ahead and do it anyway."

Weisman became involved in the project through one of his congregants who works for the Reform movement. The gregarious rabbi had teamed up several times in the past for events with Shadeed, a soft-spoken printer who produces and hosts a local cable television show called "Scholar's Chair" about faith and philosophy. Shadeed is a co-founder of the 40-family Islamic Society of Southern Prince George's, which started in 2001 and meets at Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Camp Springs.

When the men began planning in January, their goals sounded lofty. "It's about time we opened up those dark corners," Shadeed said at a breakfast meeting. "I'd like to bring a few bomb-throwers," Weisman said, a few of his provocative members coming to mind.

From the first meeting in March, challenges were clear. That day, 19 people came, with the Muslims sitting primarily on the right side of the sanctuary and the Jews on the left. After that, the group met around a table.

Coming from the most liberal wing in Judaism, the Jews arrived in informal clothing: men in T-shirts (including one on a yarmulked man that said, "Don't follow me, I'm lost") and women in pants with uncovered heads. The Muslim men were largely in suits and the women in robes and nice head coverings.

There was also the issue of format. The curriculum included lessons on the two religions' views on charity, Abraham -- patriarch of Islam and Judaism -- prayer and the hot topic of Jerusalem. The structure turned the gatherings into more of a class than a dialogue, with Weisman and a Muslim representative (picked by Shadeed each time) presenting the lesson, making it easy for people to keep quiet, even when they had lots to say.

At the meeting last month when Zionism came up, almost no one spoke. Sarah Crim, a 58-year-old editor and writer, said later that the six sessions offered too little time to go into detail and challenge people but enough to listen, learn and create relationships that could produce joint social justice work, her real passion.

"Sure, there are things people said here that bother me, but I try to keep my eye on the ball. If you're trying to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and hope you're going to come up with something from six sessions of dialogue, you're not going to do that," she said.

It was hard to get commitments, particularly on the Muslim side. Shadeed's imam wasn't able to come. After the first meeting, Shadeed had so much trouble attracting regular participants that he threw it open, which meant attendance varied widely and rarely included the same faces. Others popped in, including a couple from the Unification Church and a Quaker.

Efforts were made to spur laughter -- corniness was forgiven. A joke about Muslim women liking to shop prompted one about how Jewish women do, too. A comment about "piggybacking" led to a joke about shared dietary restrictions.

Crim's open-minded, listening approach is typical of many people attracted to interfaith dialogue. It mirrors the view of Taalibah Hassan, a retired biology teacher who drove from Dale City. She calls herself a "do-er . . . I don't try to shove dogma down people's throats." She largely listened over the weeks. But she was curious about Jews who are more like her, traditional and modest in dress, and on one recent weekend visited an Orthodox synagogue.

But common ground wasn't always obvious.

On the final day, the group was going over a lesson on religious intolerance with quotes from the Koran and the Torah that the curriculum deemed "problematic." But the Muslim presenter, Lanham imam Karim Mohamed Abu-Zaid, said the Islamic examples weren't intolerant. A chapter in which Muhammad calls Muslims "the best community that has been brought forth for humankind," Abu-Zaid said, doesn't just refer to people who are born Muslim, but to anyone who follows Islamic values and mandates. In his view, intolerance means demanding that people practice only one religion and not tolerating diversity.

No one argued the point.

After two hours, the project was over, and most people trickled out except the regulars, who stayed to eat crackers and admire the green-and-gold Korans given to the Jews as gifts.

Shadeed said he remained focused on the idea that there is a unifying truth for all people, not one that involves certain images or men or women in biblical history, but one divine concept. "We have to keep challenging people to see this."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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