Dr. Omer Salem, A Bridge for Peace?

An Egyptian Muslim sheikh is on his own peace drive.

Rebecca Abrahamson

OpEds Rebecca Abramson
Rebecca Abramson
INN:RB

Determined to pursue peace with the Jewish people, Egyptian Muslim sheikh, Dr. Omer Salem, just completed a whirlwind tour of Israel.  

He spoke in venues including a Young Ambassador’s high school program, yeshivot in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish Agency, and in a wide spectrum of synagogues and mosques. He was presenting a call for peace based upon scripture, and in this regard could almost be mistaken for a Jewish revivalist, with his call to Jewish people to deepen their attachment to Torah and mitzvot. The closer Jews are to their book, he insists, the more they will be viewed as Ahlul Kitab – people of the book – by Muslims, and the more they will earn respect in the Muslim world.

For some background, Salem attended primary schools in Egypt, his homeland, then studied at Berkeley and Stanford Universities, journeyed to India where he is research fellow at Darussalam University, then onto Yale University where he attained a master’s in religious studies, (still lives in New Haven with wife and kids), then a PhD from Al Azhar University in Cairo in which he defended the Jewish people as “Ahlul Kitab”, or “people of the book”.  

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva asked Omer, during his speech there three years ago, “Does their acceptance of your thesis mean a certain amount of agreement?” “Yes, it does,” Salem answered in his mild mannered way. And that amounts to a lot of hope for relations between Muslims and Jews.[1]

As to what motivated him to get involved in Jewish-Muslim rapprochement, Salem sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as central to solving the conflicts in the Middle East. “I have friends and family back in Egypt, I want them and my people to be at peace and to prosper, and I see making peace with the people of Israel as key.” He has condensed his proposals in his new book, The Missing Peace, the Role of Religion in the Arab Israeli Conflict.

He holds that any solution in the region must be based upon scripture, both Torah and Qur’an, as this is what ultimately unites Muslims and Jews both theologically and historically. ”Read!” he insisted to the students at the Young Ambassadors high school program, Petach Tikvah, “check out the sources for yourselves!” “This really impressed me” one student remarked, and the idea that Islam can indeed support a Jewish state was new information to them.

Salem demands recognition by Muslims that Jews are people of the book and deserve the respect and protection of Muslims. Once this is established in the Muslim psyche, all else falls into place – Jews are no longer “kafr” – heretics – but coreligionists. He brandishes the Qur’anic verse 49:13: "O Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other." And 5:48 “To each among you (Muslims and Jews) have We prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues.”

Dr Salem regards this verse as invoking multi-covenantism – Jewish law for the Jews, Islamic law for the Muslims - a teaching demanding more than mere tolerance, but actual acceptance of the other faith community.

Dr Salem emphasizes that the Jewish people's loyalty to Torah will enhance their reputation in the Muslim world, for people of the book must indeed follow their book. He boldly stated at his speech at the Jewish Agency that Muslims will actually help the Jews build their Temple once they see the Jewish people as loyal to Torah.[2]

Salem’s profile is rising; his visit was reported in Olam Katan, Ma’ariv, Israel HaYom, and the Jerusalem Post. Not everywhere was he received so kindly; in fact he was harshly heckled and philibustered for five full minutes during his presentation at the University of Haifa, shouted down by an Arab student who identifies with the Communist party. The student had to be forcibly removed from the auditorium. Omer simply quipped with his trademark even keel, “that student does not like religion and he does not like peace.”

An Example to Other Muslim Moderates, Condemnations of Terror

Few have the talent to be a total lone wolf. You wonder to what extent Salem represents other Muslims, and more so, if it is true that others do share his tolerant vision, where are they? Furthermore, if we are deserving of protection as people of the book, where are the similar Muslim voices condemning terror?  

His courage in meeting with Jewish leaders in a conciliatory way has inspired other Muslim leaders to follow suit. He has inspired Sheikh Ahmad Erdowan of Amman, Jordan and Dr Mohammed Al Fiqui of Al Azhar University to become more active in Muslim-Jewish rapprochement.[3]

During his talk at Kehilat Yedidya synagogue, Jerusalem, Salem explained the lack of vocal condemnations of terror from moderate Muslims that we crave. “Moderate Muslims are between a rock and a hard place. If they condemn the terror attacks publicly, they are at risk of being attacked themselves. So in that regard they are scared.” Salem did concede that yes, the moderates do give some emotional support to the jihadis. Muslims world wide feel hurt, they feel downtrodden and frustrated, so when attacks happen, even moderates do not condemn as they otherwise would. It is also difficult for Sunni Muslims to condemn other Sunnis, a certain intra-religious loyalty exists that precludes loud and public condemnations.

I certainly am not satisfied with his explanation concerning the lack of condemnation of terror, and the crowd at Yedidya responded with unified murmurs of protest. And as to being in fear of one’s rulers, and thus voiceless? Omer clearly got a surprise at the crowd, who again together insisted that fear of the government would not prevent them from speaking their mind!

Author and translator Dr Jeff Green of Kehilat Yedidya remarks about Salem's talk, "Omer claims that religion is part of the solution, and that Muslims feel hurt and downtrodden. Yet when a member of our audience countered that there are Muslim sovereign states, Omer responded that none of the Muslim states are truly Islamic. That was a little hard for me to hear. Still, to think he may be bringing other Muslim leaders to visit and possibly teach in Israel is an accomplishment." And Omer received a few hugs and thanks at the end of his talk. “You are a breath of fresh air,” one listener remarked

At his speech at the Jewish Agency, Salem stated that Islam has no theological conflict with Judaism. He notes that Islam does have a long standing dispute with Christianity over two topics. One – the trinity is viewed by believing Muslims as idolatrous. Two - Christians wish to proselytize to Muslims. Judaism is considered strictly monotheistic, and does not call for proselytizing any more than spreading the Seven Noahide Laws, which Muslims already keep.

Both issues are totally absent vis a vis Judaism, and should serve as another point of conciliation. He was asked if Israel were run according to halakha, would it be more acceptable in the Muslim world? Perhaps even be considered a Muslim state? “Yes!” Salem responded unequivocally. It would show the Muslim world that we are truly people of the book. One student said he left the talk feeling inspired and hopeful.

“Falsehood has been spread on both sides. The falsehood on the Islamic side is to say that all Jews are kafr, the falsehood on the Jewish side is to say that Arabs have no place in this land. It has to be replaced with an alternative narrative, and the alternative narrative must be – Jews are Ahlul Ktab and this land is the Holy Land.”

Caliphate

At his presentation at “Tikkun”, hosted by Meir Buzaglo, professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, Dr. Salem emphasized two points: the importance of jihad al nafs (similar to the Hebrew “nefesh” – soul, the struggle for self perfection) and that this is a higher form of jihad than what is unfortunately being waged nowadays - jihad al sayeef - the struggle of the sword. He invites Muslims to favor what is considered in Islam the higher and more difficult path of ongoing self improvement.

His second point - Muslims are dreaming of a worldwide Caliphate. He declared that in the minds of many Muslims, this is an inevitability and that just like the Jewish people yearned for political emancipation with the Zionist movement, Muslims yearn for a Caliphate. He insists it need not be a threat to the Jewish people, as long as they cleave to Torah and are seen as coreligionists. Efforts such as his thesis at Al Azhar are part of attempts to get the Muslim population to regard the Jewish people in a more favorable light.

“What can we do to ease the situation?” one woman asked. One, cleave to Torah, he said yet again. Two, give a podium to the moderate Muslims (like I am doing right now). “But won’t that just make you appear like a puppet of the west?” she countered. That is a real concern, revealing again the position that moderates are in – their catch-22, between a rock and a hard place. Give them a podium, hear their condemnations of terror and conciliatory overtures, and their own people may just reject them, and worse. Omer has indeed received threats from Muslims who do not appreciate his efforts at normalization.

But Omer Salem is taking that risk. He functions more as a messenger between camps, apparently seeing himself as merely communicating the heart-felt and the inevitable. Indeed there are those who have asked of him to be more preacher than messenger, in terms of condemning terror and in cooling aspirations of political Islam, which certainly are of concern. Can’t he say something to his brethren on these two points? “I cannot stop a moving train,” he can only enhance the status of Jews in the eyes of any future Caliphate, adding that he has never seen a situation in which condemning terror reduces it. [4]

Dr Salem insists that both Jews and Muslims can prosper side by side. They can live and coexist together, it is not a situation in which one side goes up and the other must fall. “Our ancestors prospered in parallel” he declares, “when both sides respected the other. I do not want to rule the Jewish people and I do not want the Jewish people to rule me. We each have our self rule.” And only, he reiterates, when done according to scripture.

Again, he is relaying heart felt messages more than preaching, communicating central concerns between the Muslim and Jewish communities, a role not always popular on either side. But he is, perhaps surprisingly, supporting Jewish observance and revival and bringing more moderate Muslim leaders to the forefront. In this sense he serves as a vital bridge.

Sources:

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSHO-h-MTA

[2] December 24 2015 Jewish Agency  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKJQpmj9Bzk

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0EOH1YZKsc

[4] One example of him relaying a message between camps occurred at an Abrahamic reunion event in Utah, October 2015, when Dr. Salem took the podium unexpectedly and explained the Israeli position on the separation wall, and on increased difficulties for Arabs to travel from the West bank to inside the Green line. This was after the wall had been criticized as an attempt at land-grabbing. Not so, Dr. Salem insisted. “The Israelis see it as necessary for their safety,” he explained. Skip ahead to minutes 48-50: http://livestream.com/accounts/3116574/events/4361388




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