"My work as Director of the Commission for Inter-Religious Affairs has made for some interesting travels," said Mark Pelavin, addressing the December 16 plenary session of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention, held at the San Diego Convention Center. "I took an 18-hour trip to Rome for Pope Benedict's first meeting with Jewish leaders. I spent a bizarre and memorable 36 hours accompanying [URJ President] Rabbi Eric Yoffie to visit Jerry Falwell at Liberty University.... But none of those trips were as interesting or exciting as my time in Chicago's Rosemont Convention Center last August." There, Rabbi Yoffie had addressed the Islamic Society of North America -- "the first major Jewish leader" to do so. Historic as the speech may have been, Pelavin said that Yoffie's "was not the most interesting speech I heard that day. That distinction goes to our next speaker, Dr. Ingrid Mattson" -- the first female and the first convert ever to serve as president of ISNA. "Those of us in the religious communication field often say that we shouldn't judge someone by what they say to us, but rather, by what they say when they're speaking to their own people. Listening to Dr. Mattson...made clear the wisdom of that approach. She spoke clearly and forcefully about the challenges facing the American Muslim community, including the need to make it as clear as humanly possible that those who engage in terror in the name of Islam profane the religion."
Mattson opened with an account of her organization's makeup and purpose. "We are an umbrella organization for Muslim individuals and organizations.... One significant feature of the American Muslim community is that it is dynamic...interested in expanding our understanding of what it takes to be an ethical and balanced Muslim in contemporary America." This diversity and dynamism, she said, had given rise to dialogue in which "Muslims have been forced to confront the reality that many cultural practices and beliefs contrary to our faith have been integrated into many traditional understandings of Islam.... Sometimes, the Islam that is taught...is not always in harmony with the ethical teachings of the Qur'an and the Prophet Mohammed, but in fact are misogynistic, authoritarian, or extremist views antithetical to true Islam."
She noted that immigrant Muslims today have much in common with immigrant Jews and "have instinctively turned to the example of Jews in America to understand how to deal with the challenges we face as religious minorities," including that of combating prejudice. "It is our responsibility," granted Mattson, "to reclaim Islam from the terrorists and extremists.... We have published fatwas -- religious verdicts -- proving that suicide bombing, vigilante operations, terrorism, and hate-mongering is prohibited in true Islam." Still, she said, "no matter what we do, there are some who will choose to continue to characterize us and our religion as essentially evil.... Newspapers, cartoons, and films have continued to produce hateful images of Muslims, as they did with Jews before. Sometimes, the caricatures are almost identical. Medieval and modern images of Jews -- as deceptive, conspiring to overthrow Christian rule, odd in their manner and dress -- dehumanized Jews, thereby softening the ground to allow the atrocities of the Holocaust."
Mattson said that she did not fear "that such a crime could happen to the American Muslim community." But she was "worried that it is politically correct to mock and insult Muslims in the media and in public." She recounted hearing an accusation that Muslims were all working together for the same goal, like ants in a colony. "These ideas are necessary to allow atrocities. It is, I believe, why most Americans have not protested waterboarding, sensory deprivation, and other forms of torture of Muslim detainees -- even if they are guilty, and even if they are Muslim-American citizens. I believe that hatred and intolerance are easily transferable. I am not surprised that some young men who responded 'Happy Hanukkah!' to 'Merry Christmas!' were attacked in the New York subway. I am happy it was a Muslim who jumped in to defend the Jewish men." The room broke out in applause.
"This small incident," she continued, "highlights our common threat at the same time as it highlights our common interests and shared humanity." In light of this, she said, she was delighted that ISNA and URJ were entering into dialogue, "to rid ourselves of the ignorance we have of the other, and move on, God willing, to work together for the greater good."
Mattson acknowledged that "there are ambitious political rulers in the Muslim world who manipulate religious sentiment against the Jewish people to extend their authoritarian rule. At the same time, Jewish Americans need to hear the concerns that Muslim Americans express about the suffering of the Palestinian people as genuine and justified.... I have seen the tears of elderly Palestinian men as they spoke about being forced to leave the homes of their fathers and their fathers' fathers.... If religion is about anything, it should be about the ability to extend empathy beyond our own family -- our own tribe, our own religious community -- to humanity at large.... The question is, will the teachings that we impart to our children serve to expand their empathy and encourage solidarity with each other at the same time that these teachings serve the very important purpose of giving them a deep sense of attachment to their specific communities and traditions?"
She closed with a quote from the Qur'an: "To each among you we have prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you.... The goal of you all is God. It is He who will show you the truth of the matters in which you now dispute. Let us strive for good, to improve each of us, and to improve all of us. May God help us in this effort."