The barbaric attacks at weekly satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and Jewish grocery, resulting in death of 17 people, have shook the Western world and sent a wave of fear amongst communities living in the West. Following these horrific event, Jews and Muslims – in different ways- feel under threat and are full of anxiety regarding their safety and security. British Imams, therefore, visited Muslims and Jews in France to show solidarity to those communities and assist with re-conciliation.
The visit offered a unique opportunity to meet those who have been affected -on both sides- as a result of the recent violence, and to reaffirm our own commitment to tackling hatred, intolerance and racism, and to encourage strong community relations between Muslims and Jews. The visit was the continuation of the efforts of British Imams to enhance Muslim-Jewish relationships and bring the good work that both communities do to the wider public’s attention.
During the visit, we talked to Muslim and Jewish leadership and people on the street to share their experiences, listen to their concerns and anxieties. The intention behind listening to each other was to share our pain and ask for reconciliation so that there can be cessation of hostilities and eventually peace and harmony can prevail.
Anxiety Amongst Jews and Muslims
The Muslim community in France, second-biggest religious minority, shared with us how they felt under threat because the Far Right groups were keen to blame the Muslim community for the acts of terrorists. A senior member of the far-right National Front (FN) representing the party in the European Parliament, Aymeric Chauprade, declared that France was “at war with some Muslims”. Accordingly, figure released, in early February, by the National Observatory Against Islamophobia revealed approximately 150 Islamophobic acts committed against Muslims since the despicable attacks. This figure does not include the latest statistics for Paris and surrounding areas.
The Jewish community talked about the trauma of the terrorist attacks, how it brought back painful memories of being under threat. The violent attacks have left the community scared and some have considered leaving France, we were told. The Jewish community has reported that the number of anti-semitic acts have doubled in 2014 compared with 2013.
Heightened security measures around Jewish and Muslim places of worship reinforced the sense of fear and anxiety that French Muslims and Jews had shared with us.
Despite the sense of fear and tension between communities, British Imams were warmly welcomed and hosted by CRIF, Council of the Jewish institutions of France. One of the key aims of CRIF are to ‘fight against any form of anti-semitism, racism, intolerance and exclusion’. An open and frank dialogue took place between members of CRIF and British Imams regarding the challenges that lie ahead and steps that need to be taken, jointly, to overcome those challenges.
Visit to Kosher Supermarket
Members of CRIF and French Imams organised a visit to the kosher supermarket where brutal attack had taken place. Pain, grief, disbelief, horror and fear were the emotions that enclosed Jewish-Muslim leadership whilst standing outside the kosher supermarket. This was an incredibly powerful and visible display of solidarity that was shared by both Muslims and Jews. The four lives that had been violently snatched away by poisonous hatred were very much in the thought of every single person standing in the rain outside the supermarket.
The psychopathic mentality and the brutality of the perpetrators really hit home when we saw the messages of solidarity and love on the cards attached to hundreds of flower bouquets laying next to the kosher grocery.
Imams – British and French- were resolute not to let terrorists dictate the course of history and divide communities. It were not the terrorists, who shed blood in Paris, but the Muslim worker in the kosher supermarket, Lassana Bathily, who was a hero of Muslims. Lassana helped shoppers ‘hide’ downstairs until the siege was over and consequently saved many lives. It will not be terrorists but Lassana who will continue to inspire generations.
Lassana’s act of humanity was a symbol of a Islamic teaching of peace, tolerance and protection. The mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was spreading love and peace and not inflicting harm or inciting hatred. He neither responded with violence nor gave permission for others to do so.
Visit to Grand Mosque Paris
One very important part of our trip was to meet French Imams at the Grand Mosque in Paris. The mosque was founded in 1920s as a token of gratitude to Muslims from French government for participating in World War I. The Moroccan style architecture of the mosque, with stunningly beautiful garden in the yard of the mosque, provided a very serene, calm and spirituality uplifting atmosphere. It provided time for profound reflection on our Jewish-Muslim solidarity trip and the role that this mosque had played in enhancing Jewish-Muslim relationship around 70 years ago and still continues to do so.
During World War II (when Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany), the Grand mosque of Paris served as a secret refuge for Jews. Accordingly to some reports, French Jews were provided shelter, safe passage and fake Muslim birth certificates to protect them from Nazi persecution.
At the Grand mosque, we were hosted by the Grand Mufti of France, along with senior Imams in Paris. The extraordinary leadership of Shaykh Mufti Dr Dalil Boubakeur has earned him the respect and the confidence of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. His humility, charisma and command of diverse branches of Islamic knowledge were apparent from our first meeting with him.
Discussion between British and French Imams
Intellectually stimulating and motivating exchange of views took place between British and French Imams under the leadership of Mufti Dalil Boubakeur at the Grand Mosque over a delicious meal, cooked in French-Moroccan taste. Challenges ranging from the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement of Young Muslims, development and empowerment of Imams, extremism to European identity of Muslims were passionately discussed amongst Imams. British Imams highlighted some of the best practices that are prevalent amongst British Muslims and their institutions. More importantly, what were the factors that made British Muslims proud of their religious and national identity; how they were proud to be Muslims and British?
Imams shared the concern that Muslims have suffered at the hands of violent extremists more than any other community and the scars of terrorism have disfigured the ‘Muslim body’. This calls for an intelligently devised robust strategy to defeat the toxic ideology intellectually as well as practically on the ground. It requires a creative cooperation amongst European Imams and ratification of goodness whether seen amongst themselves or others.
Mufti Dalil Boubakeur said that co-existence between different communities and ideologies is part of the Divine plan. Learning to tolerate and accept ‘the other’ is the chosen path of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and those who are breading hatred amongst young people are acting contrary to the Prophetic behaviour.
British and French Imams unanimously agreed that Muslims must reclaim true peaceful Islam from the tiny minority of fanatics that have ‘hijacked’ it.
British Imams also visited the heavily guarded largest synagogue in France, known as “La Victoire synagogue” Its spectacular dimensions and sheer magnificence was deeply impressive. The Chief Rabbi of France welcomed the British delegation and discussed both communities shared history.
As part of the visit, British Imams met Ministers and officials from French government and discussed the challenges affecting European Muslims.
After the end of World War II, Europe said ‘never again’ but it appears that Europe is again being plunged into the world of hatred, bigotry and prejudice by terrorists. Muslims and Jews have lived side by side for centuries; many shared the same skin colour, the same country and culture. History has recorded many Muslims, inspired by their faith and humanity, protecting Jews during World War II and saving them from acts of hatred and violence.
A geo-political and territorial conflict – Israel and Palestine conflict- has strained relationships between Muslims and Jews for decades. For both communities, this political conflict is deep-rooted and cannot be ignored but these communities living in Britain have no control over political and military outcomes. The political and emotional conversations around this conflict should not be allowed to result in prejudice and hatred of the ‘the other’ and violence against the other. British Muslims and Jews must not see each other only through the lens of Israel and Palestine conflict.
In Britain, many of the issues and challenges faced by Muslims, Jews and minority faith groups are similar. As there has been a protest against ‘Islamification of Great Britain, recently there has also been a call for a rally against the ‘Jewification of Great Britain’. We can only overcome challenges through solidarity and mutual cooperation For mutual cooperation to prevail over mutual hatred, education, not legislation is needed. On both sides, the urge to live and let live peacefully must prevail over any other sentiments.
By Qari Muhammad Asim MBE
Senior Imam – Makkah Masjid, Leeds