Are Muslims and Jews destined always to be enemies?

An initiative seeks to promote interfaith harmony.

Tomorrow the Exploring Islam Foundation (EIF), which organised the "Inspired by Muhammad" poster campaign last year ("I believe in women's rights. So did Muhammad", etc), launches a fresh initiative. "Missing Pages" – the website is due to go live in the next 24 hours – aims to "challenge the misconceptions surrounding the relationship between Muslims and Jews by highlighting historical good practice and examples of peaceful coexistence", says the EIF.

The campaign hopes to "shed light on largely unknown accounts of solidarity and compassion between Muslims and Jews. Through this we hope to build a greater bridge of understanding and harmony, and hope these stories will become a beacon of hope for our future."

Part of this will involve stories of Muslims aiding Jews during the Second World War, such as that of Dr Scarlett Epstein, who was saved from the Nazis by Albanian Muslims. Another element will be to highlight "Quranic and Prophetic principles of coexistence, shared heritage between Islam and Judaism", and "messages of support from the leading members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, including the Chief Rabbi".

No doubt there will be some who wish to dismiss the enterprise from the start. Is anti-Semitism not rife in the Muslim world? Yes, it is. Is it not true that if you hold an Israeli passport you cannot even enter some Muslim countries? Yes, sadly that is so. But what this new campaign might be able to help stress is just how recent this attitude is.

Here is what the distinguished religious scholar Karen Armstrong had to say about it in Muhammad: a Biography of the Prophet: "In the Islamic empire Jews like Christians had full religious liberty; the Jews lived there in peace until the creation of the State of Israel in our own century." Indeed, this guarantee goes all the way back to 622, with Muhammad's proclamation of the Constitution of Medina, which laid down the rights of the Arab and Jewish tribes of the city (then known as Yathrib).

In the past decade or so, however, many have claimed this supposed tolerance is merely a myth. Particularly pernicious has been the use of the word "dhimmi", which refers to the status of Jews and Christians under the caliphate, but understood entirely through the negative prism associated with the writer Bat Ye'or, who popularised the term "dhimmitude" and who is also responsible for that other helpful word, "Eurabia". (See here for a very sensible debunking of Bat Ye'or and her cheerleaders by Johann Hari in the Independent.)

But dhimmi actually means "protected". As Armstrong continues: "The Jews of Islam never suffered like the Jews of Christendom." And it is not only Armstrong – a figure, I am aware, considered to be an apologist for religion in general by some – who argues that "anti-Semitism is a vice of western Christianity not of Islam" that was "introduced into the Middle East at the end of the last century [the 19th, that is] by Christian missionaries and . . . usually scorned by the populace".

The historian and renowned scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis agrees with her. When I interviewed him last summer Lewis told me he thought that "Jews in Islamic lands did have problems", describing the attitude of, for instance, the late Ottomans towards Jews as being one of "amused contempt". But, he said to me, "you would not call that anti-Semitic".

That, he concurred with Armstrong, is a view that came from Europe. Lewis, by the way, is not only Jewish but is suspected in some quarters of being an ultra-Zionist responsible for inspiring American bellicosity in the Middle East. If that is so, why would he state that modern anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is not only a new phenomenon, but one that came from the west?

None of the above, of course, excuses the deplorable and widespread anti-Semitism in Muslim countries that does exist today. The Exploring Islam Foundation's last campaign laudably tried to challenge non-Muslim perceptions of Islam in the UK. It is to be hoped that this one will open the eyes of Muslims who have forgotten that Christians and, in this case, most particularly Jews, are also "people of the Book".

If they, as members of the same Abrahamic faith family, do all believe in the one God, then enmity should be a very last resort, not the default position. There are better examples to follow than the warmongers and hate-spreaders on both sides of the Palestine-Israel conflict.

A reminder of the centuries when greater harmony prevailed between Muslims and Jews is timely and useful, and for many may be the first they hear about a history of which they are not aware – even though it is their own.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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