“Why would a Jewish congregation invite a Muslim woman to speak about Muslim women’s issues?” When the journalist who had read the announcement of my talk in a Jewish newsletter asked me this question, I thought, “why not?”
Yet, the presentation “Muslim Women between Liberation and Oppression” that I gave last Wednesday to an audience at Congregation Beth El in Fort Worth was the fruit of a valuable and meaningful experience that not many people have the opportunity to have. That experience is interfaith dialog.
My friendly relations with the Jewish community at Congregation Beth El started almost three years ago when I became a member with the Daughters of Abraham, a women’s interfaith group that was founded after 9/11 to build bridges of compassion and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims. Then last November, I participated in an interfaith dialog series developed by the Multi-Cultural Alliance, MCA, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims met and discussed different topics of faith and culture. It was during those sessions that one of the members of Congregation Beth El, Edythe, suggested my name to her group’s board. She told them that she had met this Muslim woman who is “modern and well spoken.” The goal behind this invitation was to present the audience with an enlightening topic which was not too controversial as Edythe said.
Congregation Beth El is a Reform Jewish community. Reform Jews follow the Torah while questioning and arguing about controversial issues. Hence, their perspective about women’s participation in religion reflects their interest in finding out the status of women in Islam. As a matter of fact, most of the audience expressed that they had always perceived Muslim women to be oppressed. Many expressed how their perspective has changed after the presentation. (I will write more about the presentation’s content in an upcoming article.)
So, going back to the question I was asked about why would a Jewish congregation be interested in listening to a Muslim woman discuss women’s issues in Islam, I must say that the reason says much more about this particular congregation than about the speaker. It is certainly encouraging and uplifting to see this liberal and rational attitude towards reaching out to the others. The members of this congregation realize that they live in a diverse and pluralistic community and that maintaining healthy relations with their neighbors benefits their community. When there is a lack of knowledge or understanding and perhaps there is some prejudice, then the rational thing to do is to educate one’s community and fight fear with knowledge.
This interfaith and cultural exchange demonstrates the high civility of its participants. For a Muslim like me, it shows hope that we can co-exist just like we did in previous centuries elsewhere in the world. And while Congregation Beth El is not the first or last community of faith reaching out to build bridges with Muslims, and while Muslims too have been highly active in the DFW area to reach out to their neighbors (coincidentally, a member of Congregation Beth El has spoken to a Muslim crowd about Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, only a few weeks earlier), every little efforts is a stepping stone towards understanding, and hopefully reconciliation and peace.