On 10 December 2010 the northern edition of the Jewish Chronicle carried an article by Nathan Jeffay based on a telephone interview that I gave him. The JC has kindly made the article available as a PDF for my website.
I have also imported the text below to make it easier to read on screen. As often happens with interviews, I want to mention a couple of minor inaccuracies:
I am very grateful to the Jewish Chronicle for making its readership aware of the work of the forum.
Mohammed Amin: from halachah to holidays, a shared approach is best
It’s not on the syllabus for accountancy exams. Heter iska is the rabbinical contractual clause that allows banks to charge interest. And the recently-retired PricewaterhouseCoopers partner who explains it to me sounds as if he has several years of yeshivah study under his belt. But Mohammed Amin doesn’t have any background in Talmud.
Mr Amin, a Pakistani-born Muslim Mancunian, owes his expertise in Jewish law to the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester, which he set up five years ago and which he helps to direct today as a member of its executive. Back in 2005, he was frustrated that Muslim and Jewish Mancunians lived so close and yet had hardly any contact with one another. “I had lived in Manchester since 1952 and yet had never set foot inside a synagogue and I think that this is typical for Muslims,” says Mr Amin.
He wanted to promote a belief that the “natural state of affairs” between Jews and Muslims is not one of conflict, and highlight the fact that there are “very many practical issues relating to life in the UK where Muslims and Jews are in the same camp, both communities seeking to defend their practices in the environment of a predominantly secular society.”
The forum has held dozens of meetings, attracting up to 100 people and has a following of around 400 people. There have been talks on religious and cultural topics. Members have campaigned jointly on issues that matter to both communities, such safeguarding the right to religious slaughter.
In October, the group held a presentation by Esmond Rosen and Fiyaz Mughal, experts on the subject of Muslims who helped to save Jews during the second World War. As is often the case with the forum’s events, it drew local dignitaries, among them the Lord Mayor, Mark Hackett.
In September, the forum organised a charity gala at a Cheshire country club, attended by 600 people.
The gala raised £30,000, which went towards flood-relief in Pakistan and to Langdon, the Manchester Jewish special needs college.
One of the forum’s co-founders was David Berkley, Manchester barrister and president of the Zionist Central Council of Greater Manchester. The accountant-lawyer combination in the leadership has led to a natural focus on issues relevant to their professions.
Sessions with a specialist focus have included one on how Judaism and Islam permit borrowing and lending without violating their religious codes. There were speakers from Ansar Finance Group, which provides halal financial products and Bank Hapoalim, which operates in accordance with Jewish law. It was during this session that Mr Amin developed his interest in heter iska. In the legal sphere, there have been discussions of medical ethics and marriage and divorce in the two faiths.
In Mr Amin’s view, one of the biggest indicators of the closeness between members is their decision to share holidays. In May he went on a trip together with Jewish members to Grenada and Cordova, where they explored the local Jewish and Muslim histories. The previous year a Muslim-Jewish group went to Auschwitz. “At first we were complete strangers and we were always walking on eggshells,” says Mr Amin, who since his retirement last year spends much of his time on matters related to the Forum. “Now we know each other well and can speak openly and share jokes.”
Things have not always been plain sailing. During the second Lebanon War of 2006, Muslim attendance fell away with the exception of Mr Amin and his wife — though it recovered fairly quickly. As for his views on the Middle East, he describes himself as “very critical of Israel’s conduct” — but resolute on its right to exist.
Mr Amin feels that the forum has made a real contribution to Jewish- Muslim relations in Manchester. “It has an effect on the people who participate, as five years ago there was very little contact between the communities.” But his biggest hope is that it will impact beyond the people who attend. “Some of it does feed out in to the wider community — but I don’t want to overstate that and would like it to happen more.”