Common faith in a brighter future

July 20, 2007

With Jewish-Muslim relations at a low, academics at a new interfaith centre vow to work for dialogue and understanding.

Cambridge University's new Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations (CMJR) will do more than further a field of study, said founding director Edward Kessler, "it will help to found one".

"There are monographs and researchers here and there, but no field as yet," he said.

The CMJR, which is the first centre of its kind anywhere, will embark on an ambitious plan of teaching, research and dialogue from September, backed by a £1 million grant from the charitable Stone Ashdown Trust. It has just been given the go-ahead to award students a Cambridge University Certificate of Continuing Education in Islam, Judaism and Muslim-Jewish Relations.

Dr Kessler is probably the most prolific interfaith figure in British academia. He was completing his PhD in theology in 1998 when he established the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, sister institution to the new centre.

The CJCR was founded on solid existing dialogue between the faiths, but the fact that this is not the case with Muslim-Jewish relations has not deterred Dr Kessler.

"Look at where Jewish-Christian relations were at 100 years ago, when there was huge ignorance and suspicion," he said. "This has changed. And with the right initiatives, Muslim-Jewish relations - which I believe are not as bad as Jewish-Christian relations were - can do the same."

Dr Kessler and Amineh Ahmed-Hoti, the centre's director, hope the new centre will place Muslim-Jewish relations firmly on the academic agenda and exert a positive influence on relations between the two communities.

Dr Ahmed-Hoti said: "There are existing initiatives that bring the communities together, and academics should be getting involved in these, not staying away. Academia has always been a source of innovation and ideas, and it needs to make a contribution in Muslim-Jewish affairs."

The centre will, Dr Kessler said, teach communities and academia a much-needed lesson - Ethat the more communities know about each other, the easier they will find it to identify common ground and discuss differences.

Backers include Prince el-Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, who celebrated its launch by addressing an audience of Saudi and Israeli diplomats and Foreign Office officials in Westminster. Others are British Muslim leader Baron Hamed; the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks; and the vice-president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet.

Involving communities, not just academics, must be a priority, Dr Kessler said. This is why the centre will bring religious and community leaders together with academics of each faith. The starting point must always be what the faiths have in common, he said, but nothing will be off limits.

"The value of an academic approach is that we can be systematic," Dr Kessler said. "We can discuss the Israel-Palestine issue - but instead of diving straight in, we will do so at the end of a course or discussion on histories of the faiths, including the question of what is important about Jerusalem to each."

From September, trainee imams and trainee rabbis will meet for dialogue days facilitated by academics.

Last week about 100 people - academics, students and community leaders - attended a lecture by Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington DC and former High Commissioner for Pakistan. Professor Ahmed has been travelling around America for the past five years with Judea Pearl, father of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002.

CMJR staff face a serious challenge, as even the basic research and teaching tools do not yet exist.

"The distinctiveness of the relationship between the faiths has long been noted, but there is still no single work that explores and defines the factors making up this relationship," Dr Kessler said. His first task is starting an equivalent of the Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations , which the CJCR published in 2005.

A broader problem, noted Dr Ahmed-Hoti, is that with 9/11 and Middle East tensions fresh in people's minds, both Jews and Muslims feel "under siege".

But instead of deterring her, this makes Dr Ahmed-Hoti more determined to reach as wide an audience as possible. When UK students go to the Cambridge centre to enrol in the certificate in September, others around the world will start an equivalent e'learning course.

The research done to date by the centre will also be disseminated widely. In August, it will publish a teaching resource for secondary schools titled Valuing Diversity , and next year it will take a roadshow to police officers, teachers, social workers, prison service employees, local government workers and journalists.

On a personal level, Dr Ahmed-Hoti admits to difficulty managing her twin desires to speak on behalf of her community while acting as its critic.

She is concerned by the anti-intellectual and extremist tendencies gaining influence in Islam. And she believes that Jews should play a part in forging the direction taken by the Muslim community.

"There is one approach in Islam that sees everything as black and white, but another that emphasises the saying of the Prophet Mohammed that the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr," she said.

Dr Ahmed-Hoti conceded that the centre's remit may be limited to uniting moderates from both faiths. But she rejects the idea that it will preach only to the converted.

"As more people get involved in dialogue it becomes more widely accepted and gathers a momentum of its own," she said.

CMJR SUPPORTERS

  • Theologian Edward Kessler is a fellow of St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and founding director of the CMJR and CJCR.
  • Amineh Ahmed-Hoti is director of the CMJR and executive director of the Society for Dialogue and Action at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge.
  • Islamic law expert Michael Mumisa is the CMJR staff lecturer.
  • Prince Hassan of Jordan is an enthusiastic supporter of the CMJR and has been an interfaith patron for many years. In 1994, he launched the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman for the interdisciplinary study and discussion of religion and religious issues. The CMJR will work closely with this institute.
  • Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is academic adviser and affiliate lecturer to the CMJR.

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