If you’ve had an opportunity to present a TED-style talk, you know that composure is critical to your ability to connect with the audience. But when the environment is not sterile and the audience is the subject of your remarks, a resonating delivery becomes all the more challenging.
Sheikh Omer Salem made his way to Ariel after a busy day of meetings with Muslim leaders in Ramallah and Nablus. He managed to stick to his labor-intensive schedule, until his uncomfortable encounter with the Israeli Defense Forces at a checkpoint on the way over.
As a visiting Egyptian Muslim cleric, Sheikh Salem didn’t quite have his geographical bearings. When his ride dropped him off at the wrong stop, he was jolted by the IDF’s swift response to his disoriented movements across an already tense intersection. What he considered an innocent commuter’s error, the IDF considered a security breach. It was an awkward introduction to a very different sort of disconnect.
Sheikh Salem had come to the region with creative ideas and ambitious goals. He was looking to advance peace by developing a religion-based dialogue. The TALK17 live audience, who shared an interest in constructive conversation, listened attentively. But there was something about his talk that didn’t go over smoothly.
Sheikh Salem set out to discuss the three obstacles to peace. In practice, he spent the bulk of his time discussing three types of Jews.
In order to overcome the obstacle of two communities which, for the most part, are patently unfamiliar with each other, the Sheikh gave the audience an insider’s perspective on how Muslims view Jews.
According to Sunni Islam, as he explained, Jews were once considered ‘People of the Book’. It was a status with a degree of respect, which affords both Jews and Christians who bear that title certain rights. The problem, however, is that it is no longer common for Muslims to view Jews this way.
Today, there are two ways for the Sunni Muslim to identify a Jew; either as a believer, or as an infidel.
The believer follows Jewish law, keeps the Sabbath, eats kosher and uses the ritual bath. He lives a conservative religious lifestyle, and he is party to what the Koran calls the Holy Land. This, explains Sheikh Salem, is a model of Judaism that Islam can live with.
The infidel, on the other hand, is not to be granted a foothold in the Holy Land. He is a foreign implant in the region, much like the American soldier in Iraq, who does not contribute to the spiritual landscape. In the extreme, Sheikh Salem adds, the non-observant Jew should understand why acts of violence are committed against him or his children in defense of Islam.
Sheikh Salem clarified that the goal of his personal work and scholarship was to shift the status of Jews living in the region from infidel to People of the Book. Needless to say, his noble intentions were met with mixed reviews.
As it turns out, some Jews take offense to being called infidels. Others are offended when their secular lifestyle is considered a validation of jihadist terrorism. For most, the paradigm shift that Sheikh Salem is working to affect seems like more of an internal dynamic within Sunni society than a bridge-builder between Muslims and Jews.
But there was an interesting experience, after Sheikh Salem concluded his remarks, that pointed to an ironic window of hope.
Although collected when speaking, Sheikh Salem was still shaken up by his run in with Israeli security forces earlier that evening. Most of the TALK17 participants shuffled past the classical music performance in the lobby as they exited the Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts, but Sheikh Salem decided to linger. It was a long day, and there’s nothing quite like an immersive musical experience to change a person’s mood.
The pianist’s audience was predominantly comprised of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, some of the best infidels Israel has to offer. Whereas his oral presentation proved somewhat disruptive, the Sheikh’s passive participation in a cultural event with residents of Ariel left everyone calm, positive and amicable.
Peacemaking in this region has not been an easy business; it often seems as though provocative statements and thoughtful policies are the only viable path forward. But sometimes, it really is much simpler. When perceived barriers couldn’t be higher, and elements of reality couldn’t be farther from carefully formulated principles, it may be best to focus on shared human experiences.
We wish Sheikh Omer Salem success in bringing the Muslim world to address the Jews of Israel with a greater degree of dignity. But, all things considered, we’re not waiting for a miracle. The doors of the Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts are wide open, and Muslims are invited to join us at their earliest opportunity.