Are Muslims and Jews destined always to be enemies?

An initiative seeks to promote interfaith harmony.

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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