Paris and the Case for Muslim Jewish Unity 26 January 2015
Abdul-Azim Ahmed believes Muslims and Jews in Europe must find a common voice against rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
There is a remarkable amount of common ground between Muslims and Jews. The two faiths share a belief in a single God, worshipped and understood through both personal discipline and emotional connection. The two faiths share a reverence for Prophets, often the very same. Moses in the Torah, Musa in the Quran. Practice too is remarkably similar. Kosher meat and halal meat are slaughtered in the same way. Both a Muslim and Jew will hold in reverence a holy book preserved in an ancient Semitic language, recited in the original tongue with soft melodic tones. The Rabbi of Baghdad Ben Ish Hai even developed a method by which Jews could use the Muslim call to prayers to determine the timings for the Jewish daily prayers.
The similarities are not just theological either. Muslims and Jews have a shared experiences of diaspora, of living as a minority religion, often under extreme scrutiny in a hostile environment. The Spanish Inquisition was established to ensure that the forced conversions of Muslims and Jews to Christianity in Spain were genuine – a particular method often utilised was to ask those under interrogation to eat pork, a meat prohibited both in Islam and Judaism.
With such common ground then, I found it heart-breaking to witness the events unfold in January 2015 as a kosher supermarket was taken siege by two Muslim gunmen in Paris. It was perverse that they should target Jews and perverse even more so that they targeted Jews who were purchasing kosher, observing their religion in a way a Muslim should understood deeply.
Some have suggested that the murderers selected Jewish targets as part of some envisaged response to the policies of Israel. If this is the case, the murders have done nothing to help Palestinians and only revealed the murderers own hatred and blind prejudice.
It is particularly poignant that the attack took place in Paris. It was Paris, after all, that was home to an act of Muslim-Jewish solidarity during the dark days of the Holocaust. The Grand Mosque of Paris provided security, safety and certificates of ‘Muslim’ identity to Frances’ Jews fleeing the Third Reich, particularly those of North African descent who could easily blend in with the city’s North African Muslim population.
Modern Europe seems to be facing a spectre of the old far-right, and Muslim-Jewish solidarity is one vital answer to that rising tide. In Sweden, the deputy speaker of the Swedish parliament Björn Söder declared in December 2014 that Jews should shed their religious identity to become true Swedes. His party, the Sweden Democrats, are the country’s third largest party and are noted for their anti-immigration and far-right positions. Söder’s comments on Jewish identity, loyalty and belonging are an eerie and disturbing echo of the 1930s Europe and its anti-Semitism. It’s a type of scepticism with which British Muslims are also familiar, Ukip MEP Gerard Batten has forwarded a “Muslim Code of Conduct” he proposes British Muslims should sign to guarantee a place in Britain.
In contemporary Germany, the circumstances are equally disturbing. On Monday 22nd December 2014, over 17,500 people gathered in the cities of Germany as part of a national anti-Muslim rally. It was the tenth in a series of weekly demonstrations that had been gathering momentum and numbers. The organisers of the protests are the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA).
These are simply a handful of examples of a wider political shift occurring across Europe. Anders Breivik, the murderer and shooter of Norway, or Pavlo Lapshyn, the Ukrainian PhD student who murdered a Muslim in England, are the violent manifestations of this shift. Britain’s Ukip or France’s Front National are the party political representations of this shift.
Dr Matthew Feldman, Professor in Contemporary History at Teesside University, argues “the far-right have coalesced around this anti-Muslim prejudice – as a kind of lowest common denominator that they can all agree on”. However he also notes that this does not mean far-right groups have abandoned their anti-Semitism, “broadly speaking, those further to the west tend to focus on the phenomenon of immigration and perceived ‘Islamicisation’ – while far-right parties further east have tended to be more ‘unreconstructed’ and are often still taken with traditional out-groups like Jews and travellers.”
Muslims and Jews in Europe are equally threatened by far-right politics, their rhetoric, their policies and their scapegoating of minorities. It seems obvious then that Muslims and Jews should redouble their efforts to explore their ample common ground, and together face a politics of fear and hatred.
The siege of a kosher supermarket in Paris is a reminder of the dangers of division and hatred, but the Grand Mosque of Paris stands as a reminder of the power of empathy and understanding. It is the example of the latter I will choose to follow.
This article is from Issue 9 of On Religion. To help support our religious journalism, subscribe to our hardcopy magazine for one-off payment of £19 for the year.