posted by: Safya Khan-Ruf | on: Wednesday, 30 August 2017, 09:05
There is something "unique" happening at the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC), an annual gathering of young Muslims and Jews held in a different international location each year. You often hear this term – unique – bandied around events, so it is hard to explain my week in Sarajevo. Speaking to the founder of the MJC, Ilja Sichrovsky, I found it was a common problem.
How do you explain the sort of created atmosphere that allows brutally honest conversations between strangers from opposite ends of the globe and religion? Or the efforts made by the volunteer organisers in planning seven 18-hour days for 100 people? Or the close friendships built with people you hadn’t known a week ago?
As a journalist, conferences are comfortably predictable occurrences. Whether I’m covering science, policy or religion, they mostly blur together into half-remembered interesting conversations, very or not so very engaging speeches and copious amounts of mini-sandwiches.
I had no reason to expect anything different when I was accepted as one of the 100 participants of the 2017 Muslim Jewish Conference. I had done some basic research and knew the MJC was a non-profit organisation working on creating dialogue between Muslims and Jews from across the world.
I came to the event in Bosnia and Herzegovina prepared to do what I usually do at an event. To slide into the background, get the right quotes and write about the interfaith initiative from a critical perspective – cutting through the jargon, the self-important announcements and extra fluff.
My scepticism rose on the first night as I heard alumni members of the conference use terms such as ‘life-changing’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘life-lasting friendships’. In my experience, the more dramatically a conference is described, the more overblown the claims.
Besides, I didn’t hold antisemitic views, so what impact was it supposed to have on me?
Learning and Experiencing
It turns out, quite a lot.
First, calling it a conference severely misinforms the reader about what this week-long experience entailed.
The MJC involves getting young professionals and students, most of them from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds, from over 40 different countries and of varying levels of faith into close quarters. The organisers then proceed to intellectually stimulate, physically exhaust and emotionally test the minds through engaging workshops, trips, seminars, and conversations.
I had signed up to the “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” committee, planning to write about whatever solutions could be found in a week. Discussing the hate and discrimination that exists and what to do about it with people from both another religion and from all over the world was fascinating. You can read about it here.
But somehow, despite assuming it would be the main source of knowledge at the conference, I gained so much more outside the committee rooms.
The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself is a reminder of what happens when you allow ethnic and religious divisions to be stoked. I may have known about the thousands of men and boys as young as 12 who were systematically murdered in 1995 while many of the women were raped and tortured by the Bosnian Serbs, but visiting Srebrenica made me realise the scope of the genocide in a way I couldn’t before.
As we were shown the UN building – where thousands tried to escape the Bosnian Serbs in what they believed to be a UN safe area protected by Dutch peacekeepers – by a guide who himself was a 13-year-old boy at the UN gates during the genocide, the sheer recentness of the horror was anchored into our minds.
Cemeteries across Sarajevo are distinctive, both because of the striking white stones set on each grave, but also the multitude of them, tucked between streets and houses, part of their daily lives.
When we reached the cemetery in Srebrenica, the white stones reached beyond the horizon, some graves freshly dug. During the genocide, the Serbs dug mass graves and moved the bodies multiple times in an attempt to hide their crime. Every year, new victims are identified and join the cemetery. Here, Muslims and Jews prayed side by side in a poignant moment of shared sadness at the scope of human horror.
I was intrigued by how the MJC would handle the always-near subject of Israel and Palestine. Would they set aside the topic realising no agreement could be reached or would they allow a heated intellectual debate about the issue, potentially souring forming relationships?
It turned out to be neither.
Instead, they invited Osama from Palestine and Dana from Israel to speak to us. Both are part of a Palestinian Israeli organisation for people who have lost loved ones during the occupation.
There was silence in the room as Dana spoke of losing her father while Osama spoke of losing his grandfather, father, and two brothers-in-law, each describing their path through anger and towards joining the Parents Circle. The group’s slogan states: “It won’t stop until we talk”.
The message was clear: if Osama and Dana, who had lost loved ones, could sit down together and talk, who else could refuse to listen?
They didn’t talk about history or paint the geopolitics of the region. They spoke of their human experience, their painful loss and their hope to create a better world for their children. A different one.
It completely shifted the tone of further discussions.
Dana and Osama did all this without sugar coating the occupation or pretending hate didn’t exist. When Osama was asked how you educate a child living under occupation, he replied: “We do not educate our children, the situation does… Living even one day there; you don’t need to teach a child how to hate, they learn to hate.”
Many of us exited that seminar feeling emotionally raw and gathered together without prompting as people opened up about assumptions they had never even realised they had adopted. People who were on completely different sides of the issue spoke about the misconceptions they had nurtured or narratives they hadn’t questioned.
Our frank discussion was all the more illuminating because of the Palestinian and Israeli voices taking part. In my experience, such discussions involve very set viewpoints and not admitting any weaknesses that could be exploited by “the other side”.
That was what the MJC did right.
Osama and Dana reminded everyone in the room about their shared humanity and lifted the veil of defensiveness to allow honest discussions where “the other” was listening.
Finding your People
Beyond the committees and even the seminars, our days often didn’t finish before dawn the next day because of the people.
I’ve never encountered so many people in a week with whom I wanted to spend another full week grilling and asking intrusive questions about their life stories, or how they saw the world and what they were going to do about it.
Most of the participants were aged between 20 and 35, but the stories they told and experiences they shared made them feel infinitely older. I listened to a man who found his way out of both neo-nazism and Islamist extremism, and to a woman describing the struggle to create a new life away from the war-torn country she fled. I listened to a student trying to stamp out antisemitism in her own community – each held a sense of optimism despite the things they had seen.
Somehow, the organisers managed to create a space where natural shields – especially the one’s that come around religion – were down and people were emotionally brave enough to put themselves forward and express ideas and thoughts usually reserved to their closest.
It wasn’t a liberal festival celebrating how interfaith would solve everything. Rather, there was hope and a willingness to try, edging the exchanges.
I would have breakfast, lunch and dinner with a different person every day and whether they were Jewish or Muslim, whether they were from Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia or Israel, whether they were secular or religious, we would barely acknowledge formalities before falling into deep conversations about power, religion, politics, and why Bosnian ice creams tasted so good.
I did not always agree with the ideas put forward, but I understand why the MJC is sometimes accused of preaching to the choir. Targeting people already “in the network” is often an issue when it comes to interfaith efforts. Surely the people who misunderstand and hate the most – who need the intense MJC experience – would be the last to apply?
Perhaps. But we also need to focus on the impact of MJC on the people who do attend. I gained much, both professionally and personally. I think every MJC-er goes back to their job, their network and their communities with a renewed sense of purpose and a much deeper understanding of the other. You don’t have to be an Islamophobe or an antisemite to have assumptions, or hold ignorant views or to just have something to learn.
Posted: 30 Aug 2017 | There are 0 comments | make a comment/view comments
posted by: Safya Khan-Ruf | on: Wednesday, 30 August 2017, 08:38
“The problem is two-fold; anti-Semitism is declared to be a thing of the past, while Islamophobia is not even acknowledged as a thing that exists.”
This poignant reflection came from one of the participants of the 2017 Muslim Jewish Conference, a week long event I attended earlier this month in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The non-profit organisation works on creating dialogue between Muslims and Jews of every denomination across the world, from Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia to Brazil and the US.
The annual event was packed with workshops, seminars and intense conversations, with around 100 people from 40 different countries, Muslims and Jews, rooming together at night, debating during the day and discussing differences and commonalities from evenings to early mornings.
“People are so excited and surprised to see Muslim and Jews exchanging and working together, but that is bad. Why should it be so strange for us to sit together?”
So said Senaid Koblica, one of the speakers during the week and an imam in the Muslim community of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Norway, summarising why the conference was so needed.
The aim was to engage with the other – many of the participants had never had meaningful exchanges with people from the other faith – and to be able to challenge our own and others’ ideas and assumptions in a safe, neutral space.
One of the activities was asking blunt, sometimes intrusive, questions anonymously to members of the other faith.
[caption id="attachment_2842" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Wall of anonymous questions at the "Islamophobia and anti-Semitism committee.[/caption]
Calling a hater 'a hater'
The “Combatting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” committee that ran throughout the week ranged from understanding why people 'hate, the science behind the emotion, the role of the media in perpetuating harmful stereotypes and ways to tackle such hatred and stereotyping.
One recurring theme was confronting hate and dealing with racist behaviour. We learnt that during conflict – defined as a disagreement with a subjective emotional element – reason becomes irrelevant.
Addressing emotions rather than intellect is much more likely to be effective, as the other person is not operating under a rational context. Rather, the 'reptilian brain' is in control, reacting to the perceived threat, regardless of whether that threat is real of fantasised.
In this scenario, acknowledging the other person’s feelings allows progress, while dismissing irrational arguments and using logic rarely works.
The sheer number of nationalities of the participants meant the spectrum of antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred observed all over the world was wide and varied. As a result, brainstorming ways to combat hate and discrimination covered many different extremes.
Some of the problems identified were the use of religion for political purposes, a lack of accountability for those propagating antisemitic or Islamophobic sentiments, and national legislation introduced in countries like France that curtail the practice of religion in public spaces, which can lead to community tensions.
Intercultural and interfaith communication was identified as an important target to combatting hate, as there is (still) relatively little dialogue between the two communities.
Tackling antisemitism and Islamophobia within the Muslim and Jewish communities was also discussed.
Vladimir Andrle, a member of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, said:
“We have to have the courage to tackle discrimination stemming from our own community. We may be victims of prejudice but we also contribute to it when we don’t talk against it with courage.”
Getting more interfaith dialogue between the communities often involves removing negative assumptions made about the other, too. Throughout the week, we also discussed how ignorance could lead to assumptions, which could lead to fear and then hate.
The rise of fake news and Facebook news have created echo chambers for like-minded individuals. Diversifying the media and the news sources was one of the most important solutions put forward.
Posted: 30 Aug 2017 | There are 0 comments | make a comment/view comments
posted by: Solutions Not Sides | on: Monday, 10 July 2017, 15:17
Following the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque on the 18th June, here at Solutions Not Sides we wanted to show our solidarity with the Muslim Community. During our recent Berlin tour, SNS Assistant Director, Jess, and our Israeli peace activist, Michal, decided to join our Palestinian peace activist, Yasser, and hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, in fasting for a day during Ramadan.
We aimed to raise £400 for HOPE not Hate, to support the extremely valuable work that they do challenging and defeating the politics of hate and extremism within local communities, building resilience against the politics of hate and extremism within local communities, and fighting extremism of all types. We believe in their ability to fight the kind of hate that was involved in the attack.
During our Day of Solidarity in Berlin, we wanted to show that no person, nor group of people, nor community should have to fear for their lives or fear for their dignity, and certainly not during such an important time. The Muslim community’s generosity and empathy stands directly in contrast to the hate, racism and fear that the attacker chose to embrace.
Whilst in Berlin, we were also extremely privileged to visit Wald-Gymnasium School, where we got to work with several Syrian and Palestinian Refugee students, alongside their German counterparts. These students brought fascinating insights on the Israel-Palestine conflict and future prospects for peace in the region. This visit coincided with World Refugee Day, which for us, further highlighted the importance of standing in solidarity with people from all over the world, and the tremendous amount we can gain from listening to, and engaging with, those whose experiences have been so different from our own.
We are incredibly grateful to the students and staff that made us feel so welcome and engaged so enthusiastically on World Refugee Day, and to HOPE not Hate for the admirable work they continue to do.
- Solutions Not Sides, are raising funds for us here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/solutionsnotsides
- You can visit their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/solutionsnotsides/
Posted: 10 Jul 2017 | There are 0 comments | make a comment/view comments
posted by: Vic Paulino | on: Tuesday, 4 July 2017, 20:44
Following the recent spate of terrorism attacks across London and Manchester our local mosque, Sutton Islamic Mosque, suffered from a serious graffiti incident.
Instead of closing up, the mosque opened its doors to the public to share in an iftar (Ramadan fast-breaking meal) and asked that people come with any questions about Islam and the Muslim faith. We felt that this was an opportunity for our local More In Common group to engage and help to dispel some of the misconceptions around Islam.
The imam spoke at length and made us all incredibly welcome, explaining that this was the end of Ramadan, and talked to us about the reasoning behind their fasting month. Once he had spoken, I was invited me to speak about the work we do to help build unity within communities.
By encouraging questions between all parties we felt that some issues were laid open and we found common ground to start building a better understanding between our different groups. We agreed to work together more closely to build a stronger local community and to help people understand that we have far more in common than most people realise.
As a further result of the issues that have dominated our news of late, on Saturday we supported a 'United against Extremism’ march, which included many local Muslims. Again, the More in Common group not only supported the march, but engaged with the various groups that took part in the demonstration and spoke out against the divisions that are highlighted by, in particular, the far right.
Speakers at the event included the local imams, key figures from the Buddhist and Christian faith, the leader of the local council, and representatives of the main political parties, who all addressed the 100+ attendees. As a sign of respect and remembrance flowers were laid.
More events are planned in conjunction with local faith groups and the More in Common team, as our community extends this partnership against extremism.
Posted: 4 Jul 2017 | There are 0 comments | make a comment/view comments
posted by: Harriet Protheroe Davies | on: Monday, 3 July 2017, 16:57
Last weekend Movement for Mental Health Merthyr held its first 'Weekend of Action', with events across the community including a free fitness boot-camp, free landscape drawing session, a session with occupational therapists and a free poetry night.
Vivian Protheroe attended our poetry night with Merthyr's famed 'Red Poets' and tells us why he thinks events like this are important to the local community...
"Saturday’s ‘Open Mic Night’ at Merthyr’s Imperial Hotel, held as part of HOPE not hate’s weekend programme dedicated to mental health issues, proved to be a great success, bringing together professional practitioners, voluntary organisers, the Red Poets, and most importantly those directly affected by mental health problems.
The readings proved to be very moving, both cathartic and creatively stimulating for the participants.
As a lover of poetry who has suffered from deep depression myself, I could readily appreciate their courage in openly communicating their stories in their own terms. What was really inspiring was the positive response of the audience and the tangible empowerment that it demonstrably gave to the stature of the readers.
Not all the readings were directly related to mental health issues, but all were relevant to the undeniable links between poverty, deprivation and mental health, which have for many years been a blight on the people of towns like Merthyr and its neighbouring valley communities.
Inevitably the recent horrific scandalous events of the Grenfell Tower fire in London were also the subject of several readers.
All-in-all the evening proved a valuable forum for informed discussion and with musical interludes was by no means all ‘doom-and-gloom’!
Why not set up your own open mic night wherever you are? Having been to this one as part of the Movement for Mental Health Merthyr, I can certainly say this was a much needed event for people like me who suffer (and have spent many years suffering) from mental health and have few places or outlets to discuss it."
(For anyone in Merthyr or the surrounding area, open mic nights are a regular feature at The Imp – anyone interested in poetry, listening, discussing, or better still expressing theirown story in their own voice should contact Meic Jenkins: [email protected])
Posted: 3 Jul 2017 | There are 0 comments | make a comment/view comments
posted by: John Talbot | on: Monday, 26 June 2017, 10:24
You’re Boring I’m Bored is a new live music night in east London which showcases new talent and promises crowd interaction through ludicrous games and spot prizes.
When the snap election was called in April it felt only natural that we should have a party on the night to watch the result unfold, which eventually no-one could have predicted.
It also felt natural, given the divisive nature of politics recently and some of the more shocking events in the UK, that all profits raised should go to a charity that encourages cohesion in our communities and celebrates what unites us all rather than preying on our fears and perceived differences. As organiser it meant a lot to me to be working to fund HOPE not hate on the night.
The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch was quick to confirm the free use of its venue and team; the night was soon announced featuring DJs and live performances from local musicians.
Giving their time and talents by performing for free were singer & songwriter Harry Pane, Brighton’s The RPMs, stomping rockers Alexis Kings and Britwave upstarts SHINERS. The night was topped off with a last minute secret performance by Youth of the Apocalypse, which features members of Klaxons and Gorillaz as well as boasting for one night only guest rapper DMC (Darryl McDaniels) of legends Run DMC.
It proved an incredibly successful evening. As well as brilliant live music, punters were entertained by a live arm-wrestling contest between the upper and the working classes, plus a graffiti-slash-colouring-in contest that saw a political vision for Britain like never seen before!
With hundreds of £s raised for HOPE not hate, everyone came away feeling connected and confident that community and good times trumps extremism every time.
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 | There are 0 comments | make a comment/view comments
posted by: Mahmooda Qureshi | on: Friday, 23 June 2017, 20:37
We had a great turn out of Quaker friends joining us for a Great Get Together on Friday 16 June, celebrating with food, good company and plenty of fun.
The highlight, which left many quite emotional, was the prayer in the evening.
When the Muslims prayed their evening prayer after breaking their fast, the Quakers and friends of other faith backgrounds formed a semi-circle around them and said the prayer in their own faith.
We had more people turn up than we expected, which led us to pray out in the open – which worked out just brilliantly!
posted by: Mahmooda Qureshi | on: Friday, 23 June 2017, 20:31
Over 100 people created paper doves in memory of Jo Cox last Saturday at St Philip’s cathedral in Birmingham.
We screened a film showing different aspects of Jo Cox's life – as a mother, MP and campaigner – and two huge maps of Birmingham and the world where people played a prayer, showing that no matter where we had all come from, it was Birmingham that had brought us together.
Schools and visitors had been asked prior to the event to make 'a dove 4 jo' and bring it along on the day. There were so many doves hat we didn't have enough time to put them up on the tree which had been planted by Princess Diana more than two decades ago (the team had to put them up the following day to). Others made doves on the day and hung them on a 'special' tree.
We had live music played by different local artists and the Lord Mayor, the Bishop of Birmingham and more than 100 others who attended the event – a fantastic day for all.
posted by: Elisabeth Pop | on: Friday, 23 June 2017, 20:25
Hundreds of people came together in Ely and Cambridge last weekend, to celebrate the life and memory of Jo Cox and enjoy the Great Get Together.
People from across the Fens donated money to the local refugee resettlement campaign and signed up to support HOPE not hate at a stall in Ely market.
Then at a coffee morning in the local Methodist church, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’is, Humanists and atheists joined Ely residents in conversation over a piece of cake and a cup of tea.
Finally at St. Mary’s Church, the main hub of the Ely Great Get Together, residents shared dishes from all over the world, made new friendships, while children drew messages of hope on human paper chains. The event would not have been possible without the support of Chris and volunteers from Ely Community Against Hate.
The next day we met in Arbury, the most deprived part of the city, with the support of the city council, human and migrant rights organisations, ethnic and faith communities, voluntary groups and local supporters.
We had speakers who spoke about why Cambridge is “home” – Shahida Rahman, a writer, spoke about being a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin but her family has called Cambridge home for the past 60 years.
Aisha Shu, a local activist and refugee from Uganda, told of how Cambridge residents raised thousands on pounds to pay for her legal fees and help her settle in the city. Mayor George Pippas shared his own story – of a refugee who came to Cambridge fleeing war in Cyprus – and how he was proof that anyone can make it in the UK and give back to the community.
Also on Sunday, we supported the Ely Muslim Association in organising their Great Get Together Iftar, while Sunday was a picnic on the Peterborough Cathedral Green organised with the support of the Cathedral, Peterborough Council for Voluntary Services, Peterborough Racial Equality Council, ethnic and faith community groups.
Be it in liberal Cambridge, in conservative Fens or in multicultural, but economically deprived Peterborough, the vast majority of people agreed that we have more in common than what divides us and that, as a country, we need to be more united, now more than ever!
posted by: Mahmooda Qureshi | on: Friday, 23 June 2017, 20:22
We had a wonderful, relaxing day in south Birmingham, where people enjoyed the food we had brought in, particularly our organising team member, Glenys, who baked her own scones!
In fact, we didn’t finish the food, but we all relaxed under a shady tree in the scorching hot weather, while chatting with people we’d not met before.
A case of ‘more in common’ than we realised!