Building Bridges Between Muslims and Jews

Queens College Magazine
04/01/2007

By BOB SUTER

The crowd in LeFrak Concert Hall on May 1 had come to hear Common Chords, a joyous concert of Klezmer and South Asian music. But first, they heard one of the saddest stories to come out of 9/11.

“A recent graduate of Queens College as well as a trained paramedic and ambulance driver, Mohammad Salman Hamdani saw the Twin Towers on fire and knew that he had to get downtown and try to save lives,” noted President James Muyskens on the stage of the silent hall. “Sal didn’t come home that night. No one saw Sal for days. Not too much later, the rumors began.

“The rumors claimed that Sal, a Pakistani-American Muslim, must have conspired in this outrageous act of terrorism, a charge that was unbelievable to anyone who knew him. I can’t imagine the pain his parents must have felt: raising their son to care for others, knowing in their hearts that he must be dead, and still having to deal with these whispers that Sal was an accomplice to an unspeakable crime.

“Finally, on March 21, 2002, Sal’s remains were identified at the site of the World Trade Center. Sal was no terrorist; he is a hero.”

On stage with Muyskens was Sal’s mother, Talat Hamdani ’98. Before presenting her with a memorial in honor of her son, the president noted, “When I think of Sal, I think of another exceptional Queens College student: Andrew Goodman. Both Andrew and Sal freely chose to go to one of the most dangerous places in America: Andrew to the Deep South in 1964 to help with the registration of black voters, and Sal to the burning World Trade Center on September 11. Both knew their decision might cost them their lives, and both paid dearly for their actions.

“Sal, of course, was a Muslim; Andrew was a Jew. How dare people say that our differences are greater than the things we have in common?”

FINDING COMMON GROUND

Finding what Jews and Muslims have in common has been the goal of the remarkable project The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds (see Q, Spring 2005, available online), of which that day’s concert was the final event of the semester. Begun in 2004 by Mark Rosenblum (Director of Jewish Studies and the Michael Harrington Center) and Michael Krasner (Political Science), the project examines the historically contentious relationship between Muslims and Jews with the aim of proving, as Muyskens noted, “that people of good will, with seemingly irreconcilable differences, can come together and understand each other better.”

The semester’s events reflected the lessons being explored in Rosenblum’s classroom, where Muslim and Jewish students have been learning “to walk in the other side’s shoes,” immersing themselves in the history and culture of the side antithetical to their own beliefs and advocating for that side’s position in the ongoing Middle East conflict.

In February the initial event in the series, Bridging the Cultural Divides, highlighted similarities in the Islamic and Jewish traditions. Nasser David Khalili ’74, an Iranian-born Jew who has amassed the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Islamic artifacts (see Q, Spring 2006), returned to campus to present an illustrated lecture on “The Art of the Possible.”

Khalili is co-founder of the Londonbased Maimonides Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting peace and understanding between Jews and Muslims. “The reason I have worked so hard to put the culture of Islam on the map,” he has said, “is because I have always believed that the real weapon of mass destruction is ignorance. Once you tackle that, you have solved a lot of problems.”

Khalili was followed by two musicians Rosenblum described as “rock stars” in their genres: Salman Ahmad, a native of Pakistan who founded the popular South Asian band Junoon, and fiddler Yale Strom, an American Jew in the forefront of the revival of the Hebrew music form Klezmer. Their groups played individual sets, then joined in an impromptu collaboration.

After the musical interlude, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and Sheik Ahmed Dewidar of the Islamic Society of Mid- Manhattan took the stage for an interfaith dialogue on the theme “A Search for Common Ground.” Following this, the audience was invited to sample foods from Kosher and Halal dietary traditions, offered under the banner of “Food for Thought.”

Rosenblum presented two other programs in March: “Building an International Community of Muslims and Jews with the Children of Abraham” and “Sesame Street in the Middle East: Paving the Road to Coexistence.” The latter featured Lewis Bernstein ’69, executive vice president for education, research, and outreach for Sesame Street Workshop and executive producer of its award-winning series “Sesame Street.” Bernstein also supervises the workshop’s global outreach programs, which includes a Middle Eastern version of the popular children’s show called “Sesame Stories,” broadcast in Arabic and Hebrew. “Sesame Stories” is credited with helping to break down stereotypes and fostering greater understanding among young Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians.

In addition to the performance programs, an exhibition of fine art photographs of objects from Khalili’s collection, The Grandeur of Islamic Art in Image and Object, appeared at QC’s Godwin-Ternbach Museum throughout the semester. “It is in the spirit of meeting of minds, rather than clash of civilizations, that we’ve organized this art exhibition and public programs, which celebrate our mutual achievements and probe our common challenges,” said Rosenblum of the ambitious effort that has been funded by grants from the Ford Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.

IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES OF PEACE

While deeply involved in organizing the semester’s programs, Rosenblum’s students saw their class undergo a change in focus, reflecting the shifting nature of the Middle East conflict. During and following the days of warfare between Israel and Lebanon last year, they monitored multiple Arab, Israeli, and American news media outlets online.

“The students got the media’s draft of history,” Rosenblum said, “saw where it was wrong, where it was right, with competing national and ethnic spins on it. They got an experience in the complexities of trying to nail down facts, which was a little bit like nailing Jell-O on a wall.”

From the outset, another important component of the Middle East and America project has been training public school social studies teachers to pass on the lessons of its unique curriculum. To date, over 300 teachers—who are in contact daily with over 40,000 students—have received the training.

Salman Ahmad of Junoon, who is also a visiting professor in the college’s Copland School of Music, joined Rosenblum in taking the curriculum and cultural programs to local high schools. This culminated in April in an exuberant musical performance and educational exchange at Forest Hills High School with over 700 students.

Many students were so moved by the program that they came by the busload to join the overflow crowd at the semester’s final program Common Chords, where Ahmad and Strom reunited for an extended concert. At the conclusion, with both bands on stage and many in the audience on their feet, Ahmad announced they would close the performance with “an old Sufi song,” referring to the Islamic mystical tradition. It turned out to be John Lennon’s anthem to world peace, “Imagine.”


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