Part one of a two part article.
Nusantara – an Indonesian word for archipelago, or cluster of islands. Composed of six thousand islands, Indonesia hosts three hundred ethnic groups and seven hundred and forty languages all under one flag. Echoing its all-inclusive connotations, Imam Shamsi Ali chose this term when he founded a Muslim charitable and outreach organization based in New York City.
Founded in 2013, the Nusantara Foundation’s stated purpose is to promote a peaceful Islam, integrate the Muslim community into American society, reach out to non-Muslims to build greater understanding between religious groups, and provide social services to all – Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
An upbeat tone permeates the Nusantara website, and an email forwarded to me beckoned:
“Greetings from the Nusantara Foundation! We are committed to promoting a peaceful and moderate form of Islam….Islam Nusantara is the form of Islam that reflects the deep, universal characteristic of Rahmatan lil-alamin, or “merciful blessing for all humankind.” Islam Nusantara emphasizes friendship, peace, and love. We firmly believe it is time to replace the rigid, narrow, obsolete, and cruel public images of Islam with an alternative -- the Islam that is friendly, sociable, rational, visionary, and capable of advancing friendship and cooperation above antagonism and conflict.”
Imam Shamsi Ali, Nusantara’s founder, exudes a youthful exuberance. Raised in rural Indonesia, he studied in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before immigrating to the United States in 1996 at age 29, whereupon he earned a PhD in political science. His collection of awards and honors includes being named one of the most influential religious leaders in New York City by New York Magazine in 2006, the Ellis Island medal of honor award in 2009 and 2010, and he was chosen as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Jordan, and by Georgetown University.
“I’ve been known informally as the face of moderate Islam in the west,” Imam Ali says, and it was he who was chosen to represent the Muslim community after 9/11 to visit the scene of the attack on the twin towers, hosted by president George Bush.
Rejection of violence
But this all-embracing love and acceptance takes a sharp turn when rebuking any acts of violence that occur in the name of Islam.
“…(ISIS) has risen against the very spirit of Islam and broken every single covenant prescribed by Islam – all while shamelessly calling itself the Islamic State. We call upon all to stand firm against this dark force and to stop them in their tracks, that they may indeed be the “losers” God has condemned them to be.” This follows a quote from the Qur’an: “Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: They are the losers” .
In this same article he severely condemns the murder of Rabbis Moshe Twersky, Calman Levine, Aryeh Kopinsky, and Avraham Goldberg in November 2014, also brandishing Qur’anic verses in his harsh condemnation of an inexcusable act.
This condemnation of violence extends to the murders that occurred at the Charlie Hebdo French newspaper, January 2014
In a discussion between Imam Ali and Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton synagogue, NY, the Imam explains his work in combating violence in the Muslim world. “It is all a matter of education.” He notes that there is nothing in the Qur’an that allows any Muslim to kidnap girls, referring to the kidnappings in Nigeria. Again underscoring the need for education, “Bin Laden never formally learned Islam, he was a business student, he may look like a good Muslim but he never formally studied the religion.” More about the Imam’s efforts in strengthening a peaceful Islam later, now I want to turn to the Imam’s collaboration with Rabbi Marc Schneier.
The above noted interview was one of many projects between the Imam and the Jewish community; his work with the Rabbi had a slow start but turned out to be a very productive partnership, including the advancement of Holocaust education in Austria, the prevention of the threatened ban on circumcision on the European continent, and their joint book, “Sons of Abraham” , which has an introduction by President Bill Clinton.
First stage – building trust
Trust building is an important first step in Muslim-Jewish relations, and the Imam and the Rabbi underwent their own journey before being able to work together. But first a…
She grabbed me by the elbow, I was startled, she was shaking. “You are naïve! I saw you sitting there, you think you can talk to them but they turn around and stab us in the back!” - A Jewish woman hastily whispered as she intercepted me. I had just exited a meeting in a Jerusalem restaurant with Muslim leaders. Raking me with a warning look she nervously walked away.
It would be easy to call her an Islamophobe, or label me naïve. I knew her feelings were coming from a fear I was all too familiar with. And her stance was not foreign to me. How do you move from heart-felt fear to trust-building? And I say trust-building – it is a process.
Imam Ali addresses this; he learned nothing good about Jews during his upbringing in Indonesia. He slowly got to know the Rabbi after 9/11 and the perceived need for some kind of reconciliation between the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Imam Ali notes that his trust for Rabbi Schneier grew out of a few key points:
- As he got to know Rabbi Schneier, he saw that what Rabbi Schneier says in private to the Imam is the same as what he says in public to everyone else.
- He saw Rabbi Schneier’s emphasis on ethics – honesty, friendship, building community.
- He saw that Rabbi Schneier defends and fights for others. The Rabbi’s advocacy for Muslim Americans led to the Imam’s advocacy for Holocaust education in the Austrian Muslim community, which will be illustrated below.
Likewise, Imam Ali’s trust in the Jewish community was encouraged when the Rabbi publicly defended American Muslims in March 2011; Representative Peter King had ordered hearings entitled, "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response." Rabbi Schneier organized a rally and publicly objected that Islam alone was being singled out. Tragically, we have ample evidence that there are other sources of home-grown terror in the United States: the murder of Muslims Deah Barakat, his wife Yusour and her sister Razan in February 2015, the massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston NC and the rise of the neo-Nazi movement in America.All sources of violence and radicalization should be investigated.
The Rabbi a softy? Sellout? Perhaps that is what you are saying after watching the video of the rally.But look where it led!
Imam Ali – “to have Jews supporting the Muslim community and saying that anything that is against Muslims is against us, really boosts our spirits. For me it has become a personal responsibility to say that any anti-Semitism is an attack on me, and any Muslim who denies the Holocaust is denying my rights.”
And Holocaust education in the Austrian Muslim community followed right on its heels, here is how:
November 2013: Rabbi Schneier was invited to speak by the Jewish community in Vienna about the Holocaust. He brought Imam Ali, who in his speech unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism and the silence following Kristallnacht, and it was the Imam who got the president of the Austrian Muslim community, Dr Senya, to promise to introduce Holocaust education to the Austrian Muslim community.
That is the result of fighting for and defending the other. And anyone can do that, in whatever position they find themselves.
I felt it essential to add an addendum about this month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with the Hebrew month Tammuz. This month long daytime fast is binding on all able bodied Muslims from the age of eight years old. Evidently sharing a common root with Sefirat HaOmer, Ramadan corresponds to the Hebrew month Iyyar. After Pesach, the barley offering was brought in the Temple between Pesach and Shavuot, this spans the month of Iyyar, and until it was offered, it was forbidden to eat barley, wheat, spelt, oats, and rye.
Leviticus 23:14 – “And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering unto your God…”
After the Temple was destroyed, the barley offering could no longer be offered, and in a grain-based culture like Arabia, the Sadducean Jews observed this period as almost a total fast. They took the verse, “until the selfsafe day” to mean that the fast occurs during the day.
Rabbinic Jews living in Babylon prohibited new grains but allowed other foods. For them, this period became a time of mourning – some Jews would in fact fast, and weddings and music were forbidden.
“You who believe! Observing As-saum (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become pious….but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the same number should be made up from other days…Allah intends for you ease…and you must magnify Allah for having guided you so that you can be grateful to Him.” Qur’an Al-Baqarah 2:183-185
Note the assumption in this verse that fasting did not start with the ministry of Muhammed, but preceded it.
Renee shares that her women relatives back in Morocco used to cook the iftaar (break fast) for their Muslim neighbors so that they could rest in the afternoon and look forward to a prepared meal. This implies a few things – Islamic law allows members of the People of the Book to cook for them, Muslims can fully accept Jews as Jews by holding that they need not fast during Ramadan, and we had a symbiotic relationship in the past that can be reclaimed.
In my mind the month of Ramadan implies not just a tolerance for, but a need for the presence of non-Muslims in society, as in our need for the “Shabbos goy” who are essential staff in religious hospitals in Israel. The symbiotic, interdependent relationship of Jews in Muslim society is nostalgically recalled by my older Sephardic neighbors, and Muslim leaders like Dr. Omer Salem.
Renee also shares that likewise, in Morocco, Muslims would bring flour to Jewish families to celebrate the Maimouna festival, or what Moroccan Jews referred to as the end of Pesach. Muslims would join in sharing the mufleta (pancakes) with honey and butter, savoring the first taste of chametz, facilitated by their Muslim neighbors.
I would think that western universities can make exam periods flexible to accommodate the fast. We are certainly familiar with the difficulties presented when our Days of Awe conflict with the very beginning of the university semester, breathing a sigh of relief when the Holy Days fall on the weekend. Our need to leave work early on Fridays in the winter, days off for holidays and no work on Saturday even if there is a deadline will of course inspire us to accommodate Muslims – we are not the only ones who have obligations vis a vis the sanctity of time.
Muslim acquaintances have told me that it is okay to eat in front of a Muslim during Ramadan. But help them out by giving a supportive thumbs up and an “alright! You can do it!”
It is just another form of standing up for the other.
 Nusantara Foundation http://nusantara-foundation.org/
 November 18, 2014 – Nusantara Condemns Slaying of Peter Kassig; Jerusalem Violence http://nusantara-foundation.org/?p=233
 Rep Peter King’s Muslim Hearings http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/09/AR2011030902061.html
 Analyst: Charleston Suspect Steeped in Supremacist Sites http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/22/south-carolina-church-killings-writings/29126461/
The Rabbi who got Abbas to Denounce the Holocaust http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4517923,00.html
Rebecca Abrahamson is the editor of “Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims”