Jewish-Muslim Relations in Britain

Handed to Mr Khatami, Ex-President of Iran

Dear Sir

I am very pleased to have been invited to say a few words about Jewish-Muslim Relations in this country. Despite the popular misconception that Jews and Muslims are constantly at each otherís throat, it gives me great pleasure to report to the contrary as far as Britain is concerned. There are about 1.5 million Muslims and around 300,000 Jews in Britain, and dialogue and interfaith meetings do take place between some sections of the two communities at various levels.

At the top level are the official meetings that take place among the religious representatives of the two communities such as the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and his Muslim counterparts. Dialogue also takes place between The Board of Deputies of British Jew and official Muslim organisations in order to co-operate on shared national issues that affect both communities. For instance on the provision of Kosher and Halal meat, male circumcision, and most notably the right of the Muslim community to have Muslim faith schools. It should be noted that when the Muslim community was lobbying for this right, they did receive support and co-operation from the Jewish community.

The next level of dialogue takes place through the Jewish-Muslim interfaith organisations. These organisations produce programmes which are directed at the professional and educated middle class, the youth, women and Imams and Rabbis. These interfaith organisations are the most productive and influential NGOs in creating dialogue. Lecture series, cultural events, university student groups, visits to Mosques and Synagogues and women's groups provide a variety of forums for discussions and debate on shared historical, sociological and theological similarities. The major aim of these programmes is to encourage closer contacts and co-operation between the two communities.

Local community groups also provide opportunities for meetings. Often the Rabbi of a synagogue and Imam of the local mosque would get together and organise exchange visits between the two congregations.

The government encourages interfaith meetings as a corollary of a multi-religious and cohesive society. One of the best examples of such co-operation is the Imams and Rabbis Steering Committee which is supported by the Home Office.

In March 2006, the group organised a one-day conference in London where 100 representatives of Jewish and Muslim communities participated in workshops and discussions. The Minister for the Home Office addressed the conference, and the group is now in the process of organising its next three conferences, including a major one in Manchester.

However, having given you the positive perspective on the Jewish-Muslim relations in Britain, it is also my duty to mention the challenges that are facing that relationship.

Both communities are well aware that in order to move forward, we must face the reality of issues that divide us and cause animosity among us. This is where the true work of interfaith begins. Dialogue is neither dialectics nor disputation, rather, it is the ebb and flow of two people's conversation whose genuine intention is to understand each other, even when they may occasionally disagree with one another. Respecting the life, liberty and religious integrity of each other as equal citizens of a democratic society is axiomatic to interfaith relations. It is based on the universal principle of "Love thy neighbour as thyself, I am the Lord", often quoted by Jesus and commented upon by prophet Mohammad, but originally commanded to the Jewish people in the Book of Leviticus- thus shared by all three Abrahamic faiths- that we all step into the domain of dialogue.

While we fully appreciate that what happens elsewhere in the world undoubtedly does have an effect here and, that it should be discussed and debated, the aim is not to transfer that animosity into the society here, but work together towards its peaceful resolution. It must be emphasised that subjective denial of an historical fact, or the threat of wiping out an entire nation do not provide the tools for dialogue. It would be far better to work towards the building of Madineh Fazeleh, the enlightened city-state, as suggested by al-Farabi the great Muslim philosopher of tenth century, where according to him, citizens may find Kimyaye Se'adat, the alchemy of felicity.

So how do we do that ? According to the maxim of Hillel (one of the greatest Jewish sages who lived around the turn of the first century): "If I am not for myself, who is for me ? But if I am only for myself, what am I ? And if not to begin the task now, when?"

The British Jewish community looks forward to its continued interfaith relations and co-operation with the Muslim community and hopes to see it flourish, so that what we achieve here may be emulated everywhere else. So that we may fulfil the prophetic vision of prophet Jeremiah, who lived during the period of Babylonian exile and advised the Jewish captives "to seek the peace of the city in which you live, for in its peace depends your peace". But I wish to finish my talk with a line of poetry from Iran, my beloved country whose culture is my proud heritage and its beautiful language, the language of my soul. It is a line by Hafez, the 14th century master poet, and the equivalent of Shakespeare of Iran:

"Everyone seeks the Beloved, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Everywhere is the house of Love, whether a mosque or a synagogue."

Mehri Niknam MBE
Executive Director
The Joseph Interfaith Foundation