Forward Thinking

Stereotypes and Similarities at Muslim Jewish Conference

By Aziz Sohail

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Participants of the Muslim Jewish Conference visit the main synagogue in Vienna, Austria. / All photos copyright Daniel Shaked

As a grassroots youth organization, the Muslim Jewish Conference has worked for five years to provide a framework for real interaction and dialogue between young Muslims and Jews from all over the world. The six-day meeting currently underway in Vienna, Austria. It provides many of us participants with unique experiences to meet one another on a personal level. Amongst us are participants who have never met Muslims or Jews before but who are eager to lean and to engage. I am grateful to be part of this project.

There are over 100 people from 38 countries, and it strikes me that so many struggled to get visas. Some were even denied participation. Among them applicants from Sudan and Yemen. I believe their voices need to be heard because each and every one is an enrichment. Now it’s on us, who are lucky to be here and reflect on the need for dialogue.

On the first day of the conference we had to face and discuss stereotypes. Muslims and Jews shared the clichés that others have of them. Many Muslims believe that too often they are profiled as terrorists, backwards and oppressive. Many Jews think they are misunderstood when perceived solemnly loyal to Israel and are considered to be controlling the world. It struck me how similar our problems seem, and I am left pondering over the role of the media in all of this and the steps one can take to counter this stereotyping.

As a co-chair of the arts and culture committee of MJC, I utilize culture and tradition to discuss how they can support social transformation. How can culinary exchange contribute to dialogue? Why do the arts matter in individual expression? What is cultural diplomacy and how can it be best employed? At the Conference, participants have a chance to grapple with these issues and their deeper meaning. It makes me realize that arts and culture are more essential to our lives than we might intuitively think.

It is the little encounters that make this conference so special: a Sudanese Muslim meeting an Israeli Jew who together break challah for Sabbat; the wisdom, optimism and pursuit for peace displayed in a talk by a representative from Combatants for Peace; the space created to discuss many difficult issues.

I went to Brandeis University, where I was lucky to meet Jews that I am very privileged to call my closest friends. At the Conference, I met a Pakistani and an Egyptian who have never met Jews before. This made me reflect back to the time when I was at a similar stage and had no knowledge of Sabbath or the meaning of kosher. At the Conference some Muslims also explain the meaning of prayers to the Jewish participants. To learn so much more about my own religion and the diversity enshrined within it is unique.

Today, I opened The New York Times. I read about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the wars and unrest in Syria, Iraq, Chad, Nigeria, and, so it seems, just about everywhere else. We face depressing times and I worry about the state of the world. But for now, I decide to shut down my laptop and go back to dinner. I still have a couple of hours left to discuss our shared love for travel with one of my new friends. Despite all the misery around the globe I am lucky to know that today we made an effort to change the world for the better, and I am convinced that we will prevail.


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