The Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) is a programmatic experiment to build Muslim-Jewish relations in North America that enable individuals and communities to encounter the other authentically, with neither avoidance of complicated differences nor litmus tests for participation. The Shalom Hartman Institute embraced MLI because of a confluence of interests of both the Institute and the program’s Jewish and Muslim co-creators.
From the perspective of the Muslim leaders of the program, there was a self-interest in building deeper relationships with the Jewish community in North America, borne of a sense that many such relationships were adversarial (in the form of Jewish Islamophobia and Muslim anti-semitism) or superficial. The hypothesis behind the program was that in order to engage more meaningfully with the American Jewish community, the Muslim American community had to develop a deeper understanding of the role of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish peoplehood in contemporary Jewish identity. The assumption that Israel could be divorced from the conversation limited from the outset the pool of prospective Jewish allies and conversation partners, created suspicion between the communities as to the “acceptable” parameters of the conversation, and generated deep misperceptions in the Muslim American community about the depth of the role of Israel in contemporary Jewish identity. MLI and its educational journey (described in greater detail below) offered an opportunity to break new ground in Muslim-Jewish relations in America.
The Shalom Hartman Institute was driven by self-interests as well. At the Institute, we believe deeply in the intimate connection between Judaism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people, and we believe that a relationship to Israel constitutes a meaningful feature of a contemporary Jewish identity – both for Israel’s citizens of course and also for world Jewry. We are concerned about the ways that these features of a rich integrated identity are being divorced from one another, including in campaigns that minimize and disparage the Jewish people’s historical and religious relationship to Israel. The Hartman Institute seeks to tell this story and to enrich the conversation with our Jewish partners, and we seek to expand this conversation to leaders in other faiths.
Second, the Institute has a long-standing commitment to religious pluralism as a core feature of what it means to have a sincere religious identity in the modern world. We believe that a commitment to pluralism provides a counterweight to the ways in which religious fundamentalism in all our religions demands chauvinistic loyalty to one’s own faith and people and the demonization of the other. Our efforts at building cultures and conversations that foster religious pluralism seek to take seriously the full commitments of peoples of faith, which include political loyalties as well; and MLI was an effort to build the most robust possible interfaith encounter between Jews and Muslims by allowing for the complexities of political identity to constitute a central piece of the conversation. Building authentic relationships across religious borders cannot come with the expectation that the other will set aside what he or she regards as essential features of their religious identity.
Finally, both the Institute and the founders of the program are invested in reducing conflict and building more effective collaboration between Jews and Muslims in America specifically, where the Institute has a significant presence. North America may well be the only place today where conditions allow a better relationship between Jews and Muslims than anywhere else in the world. These relationships are, we believe, in the interest of both Jewish and Muslim communities, and empower Jews and Muslims to work together to improve the broader conditions for American democracy and the treatment of minorities. America should constitute a pilot site for a much more profound and promising theological and political relationship between Jews and Muslims that could have benefit for our broader communities.
We are straightforward about our self-interests – as Jews and Muslims – in entering into this relationship, and we have been candid with each other throughout the program. We have also been clear throughout that MLI is an experiment, which in turn has allowed the program to evolve as we learn from successes and failures.