The Global Peace and Unity Event took place on the weekend of 23 and 24 October 2010. On the first day, in parallel with the GPU, there was an invitation-only conference "Moving beyond the Rhetoric: Increasing Trust and Respect between Faiths, Beliefs, Cultures and Communities.” While the conference was administratively supported by the GPU, the conference had an independent organising committee which I chaired.
After the opening plenary session, the conference divided into parallel streams, one of which related to "Experiences from the UK." I took part in that panel and spoke about The Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. Although I never write the full text of speeches, I did prepare an outline set of points. Accordingly, on this page using my outline and memory I would like to reprise what I said.
Before we set up the Forum, I had lived in the UK for over 50 years but had never set foot inside a synagogue. Similarly, I suspect that most Jews in Manchester had never set foot inside a mosque. I had Jewish colleagues at work, and when younger had Jewish friends at school and university. However as an adult I had no Jewish friends and in reality most Muslims and Jews in Manchester lived parallel lives.
Often when I mention the Muslim Jewish Forum, people assume that the natural state of affairs between Muslims and Jews is one of conflict. In reality, the Middle East is the only real issue on which most Muslims and most Jews take a different perspective. Conversely, 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. Some examples are:
Our key decision was to keep the Forum focused entirely on Greater Manchester. All of the organisers recognise that none of us had any power to influence directly what was happening in the Middle East. If we started debating the Middle East situation we would never have time to discuss anything else. Accordingly, non-UK matters were ruled entirely out of scope.
Despite being small and local, we structured the Forum very formally, incorporating it as a company limited by guarantee. This was probably influenced by the constitutional document being drawn up by myself (a chartered accountant and a chartered tax adviser) and by a Jewish individual who is a commercial barrister! Accordingly we always keep formal minutes of our executive meetings and file accounts at Companies House which are also available on the Muslim Jewish Forum website.
There are approximately 10 times as many Muslims in Greater Manchester as there are Jews. Accordingly, I had a personal concern that the Forum might be swamped by Muslims. In fact, we have almost always had more Jews at our meetings than Muslims. This is consistent with interfaith experience elsewhere in the UK; there are more Jews who want to have dialogue with Muslims than vice versa. I believe there are a number of reasons:
At times, the Forum has been adversely affected by external events. The Lebanon war of July 2006 took place relatively early in the life of the Forum. Muslim attendance at the Forum plummeted but we persevered and the Muslims returned. We had a similar experience in early 2009 due to Israel's operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
By 2009 the Forum was longer established and one of our newer Muslim members felt that we could not simply ignore what had happened in Gaza. Accordingly we arranged for Jane Clements, Director of FODIP (The Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine) to facilitate a structured listening event on a Sunday afternoon. This entailed an equal number of Muslim and Jewish participants sharing their personal feelings about Gaza. The other participants and audience were required to listen but there was no debate; this format achieved the sharing of personal understandings in a non-divisive way.
I now have a number of Jewish friends. Five years ago we were strangers and then acquaintances; and we tiptoed around any subjects that might be controversial. Over time we have grown to trust each other which enables us to speak with increasing frankness without risking accusations of bigotry. This is best illustrated by our ability to share jokes which we did not do in the early days of the Forum.
The existence of the Forum has led to me speaking before a number of Jewish audiences, either jointly with a Jewish speaker or alone, on a variety of topics such as how Islam sees Judaism, the Muslim and Jewish attitudes to conversion, the Muslim and Jewish connection with Jerusalem etc. As one gains trust, one is able to speak with increasing frankness.
We have of course held events to celebrate Muslim and Jewish festivals. Additionally we have organised many talks on issues such as Jewish and Muslim law on divorce and marriage; our next event was scheduled for the following day with the authors of a book on "The role of righteous Muslims" who had saved Jews during the Holocaust. Mixed Muslim and Jewish groups have visited Auschwitz, visited the Muslim and Jewish sites in Granada and Cordoba and have visited Israel and the West Bank. We are planning a trip during 2011 to places of interest to both communities in Morocco.
It is important to focus on what you can realistically do. We had the capacity to build connections between some members of the Muslim and Jewish communities in Greater Manchester and we have done that successfully. Conversely, as an organisation we can do nothing about the Middle East although individual members of the Forum have their own personal engagements with the Israel / Palestine issue.
It is also important not to be too ambitious. The Forum has progressed and grown slowly but we have always needed to be realistic about how much we could achieve.
Finally, it is possible to discuss the big sensitive issues. For example, during the talks that I give along with a Jewish speaker about Jerusalem we tackle some challenging questions. However before you can get to that stage you need to build trust and that takes time and extended contact and dialogue.