Two of New York’s most prominent Muslim clerics have publicly spoken out against antisemitic content in Islamic textbooks used in local Muslim schools, after the issue was brought to their attention by a group of Jewish community leaders.
The textbooks, used in Muslim parochial schools in Brooklyn and Queens, contain claims that Jews “killed their own prophets” and that they “subscribe to a belief in racial superiority.” The texts also claim that many Jews and Christians “lead such decadent and immoral lives that lying, alcohol, nudity, pornography, racism, foul language, premarital sex, homosexuality and everything else are accepted in their society, churches and synagogues.”
The books were the subject of a March 30 article in the New York Daily News.
The books’ anti-Jewish and anti-Christian content was condemned in Friday sermons in mosques last month by two New York City clerics: Imam Omar Abu-Namus, who heads the Islamic Cultural Center on East 96th Street and another large mosque on East 55th Street, and Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, who heads the Al-Farah Mosque in Tribeca.
The condemnations followed an appeal to the clerics by Jewish members of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group that was formed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Among the group’s members are ranking professionals within both communities’ local organizational establishments, including staffers at New York’s UJA-Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council.
The Daily News, which is owned by real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, reviewed a half-dozen textbooks that it said are printed by two publishing companies in Chicago and New York and are distributed nationwide for use in Muslim parochial schools. One of the books, “What Islam Is All About,” has sold more than 40,000 copies, one-tenth of them in New York, the newspaper reported.
The issue was raised with the Muslim clerics several days after the story ran on April 3, at dinner meeting of the dialogue group, said Caroline Katz, a staffer at UJA-Federation of New York who attended the gathering. “We were meeting for the fourth time since we started, about a year ago. We distributed copies of the Daily News expose. We talked about it, and our Muslim colleagues were clearly upset.” In addition to the two clerics, two other Muslims participate in the group.
The next day, in their Friday sermons before hundreds of worshipers, both Abu-Namus and Abdul-Rauf, each in his own mosque, mentioned the books and repudiated their bigoted content.
“I spoke there and I intend to talk about it more in the future, perhaps as early as next week,” Abu-Namus told the Forward. “I made a speech before 1,000 persons at the 55th Street mosque. The speech was well-received, he said, adding that the worshipers seemed pleased to hear that when the Koran talks about “the Jews” or “the Christians,” it does not mean all Jews or all Christians, but only those who opposed the prophet Muhammad during his early career in the Arabian peninsula.
“These brothers understand that there is no alternative to peace, mutual understanding, mutual respect and appreciation of each other’s culture,” Abu-Namus said of his congregants. “In the end we have to live in peace, and we have to lay the ground for that.”
That is the very purpose of the dialogue group, he said. “It built enough confidence, so when the topic of the books came up, we immediately said that it was an error,” he said.
A Palestinian from Jaffa, Abu-Namus was appointed imam of the Islamic Cultural Center, a prestigious mosque built with Saudi funds, several months after the September 11 attacks. He replaced Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, who mysteriously disappeared from Manhattan, only to reappear several days later in Cairo, where he told an Egyptian newspaper that the “Jews were behind these ugly acts [of September 11], while we, the Arabs, were innocent.”
At the dialogue group, Abu-Namus said, “we eat together and joke together in an atmosphere of cordiality and friendship, so we come to understand that we are all the same. We are all human beings, and our interests are so intertwined and interconnected that it is impossible to disentangle Jewish from Arab or Muslim interests without doing a lot of harm to both parties.”
The swift Muslim reaction served as evidence that maintaining healthy Jewish-Muslim relationships is valuable in situations of crisis, said group participant Robert Kaplan, a staffer at the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. “Here is an issue that created quite a stir” in the local Jewish community, Kaplan said, “and these two imams got it and decided to immediately move on it.
“Dialogue in New York will not solve what is happening in the Middle East but it can begin to deal with some of the tensions in our city,” he said.
The New York dialogue group is an example of the boost in local, grassroots Jewish-Muslim cooperation during the last two years, particularly after the September 11 attacks. The rise contrasts with a chill at the national level, where the event created a gulf of suspicion and resentment between Jewish and Muslim organizations.
Major national Jewish organizations, with the notable exception of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, have largely avoided dialogue and cooperation with national Muslim groups. Asked why, spokesmen for the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee said the main national Muslim organizations had refused to fully denounce all forms of terrorism, which made dialogue impossible.
A spokesman for one leading national Muslim organizations, the Council on American Islamic Relations, said his organization and other Muslim groups in the United States had repeatedly denounced terrorism but had been rebuffed on several occasions when they approached Jewish groups in search of cooperation.
But while the national Jewish groups have largely steered clear, local groups are active. “Whatever is happening with Jewish organizations, I can tell you that with people on the ground, in many towns and campuses across the nation, we have seen a tremendous increase in activity,” said Len Traubman, a California pediatric dentist who with his wife, Libby, has facilitated communication between hundreds of American Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. The Traubmans’ “Living Room Dialogue Group” in San Mateo has inspired dozens of similar groups in North America and serves as a resource for organizing and conducting dialogue between Jews and Arabs. The couple now travels frequently, mainly to university campuses, to lecture and run workshops.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that he was encouraged by the increase in interfaith dialogue on the grassroots level, and that he wished other major Jewish organizations would join his center in reaching out to national Muslim organizations. “We can achieve a great deal of understanding and cooperation on matters of mutual interest, such as religious persecution and sex trafficking,” he said, while avoiding divisive issues. “I think it’s a mistake to write off the Muslim organizations and their leaders.”