Rabbi Marc Schneier has a dream to bring together Jews and Muslims, to seek our commonality and especially in this country, to fight racism and discrimination. He has been successful in linking Jewish congregations with Muslim congregations in dialogue.
In Des Moines, we have had fewer opportunities than I would like to see in the future for interaction. Mark Finkelstein and I have made an annual visit, at least one, to the Islamic Center each year, usually around Ramadan. I have been the guest of the Muslim community and spoken at large scale Islamic celebrations here, at the Eid-al-Fitr festival and at Iowa Muslim Day celebrations. A couple of years ago, Ako Samad invited me to join with him and my state senator at the State House to deliver the invocation, the first time a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian had ever stood on the podium for the prayer in the history of the state.
We do have many things in common. We are minorities who wish to combat hatred and prejudice as well as to advocate for a separation of church and state. Religiously, we share many common beliefs and similar practices (though I would argue that Islam is FAR MORE closely related to Orthodox Judaism than to Progressive Judaism). We can certainly find commonality in our language, seeing relationships between Shalom and Salaam and other paired words from Hebrew and Arabic. Yet religiously, as a Progressive Jew and specifically as a Progressive Reform Jew, there are enormous differences in our beliefs and practices.
Discussing religious issues with religious Muslims is very similar to discussing them with Orthodox Jews or devout Catholics. We are on different ends of the spectrum on virtually the entire array of social issues from homosexuality and choice to the opportunity for women to be religious leaders. Additionally, when we deal with the history of the "Abrahamic Faiths" we run into problems. Why? Because while Muslims believe that they share our history and that of Christians as related in the Quran, Jews do not believe the history found therein. Worse, the treatment of Jews in the Quran is horrific. Thus, when we dialogue about being "Children of Abraham" we tend to avoid the stories of Mohammed's encounters with the Jews of Medina and we certainly avoid the more troubling statements in the Hadith. The reality is that there are significantly troubling issues that are almost universally avoided.
The reason for this is that while progressive Jews are willing to look at troubling passages in the Torah and other texts and attribute them to human origins and human prejudices, Muslims cannot. There is no Reform Islam. For all Muslim leaders with whom I have ever dialogued, Mohammed's revelation comes from Allah, not from Mohammed or other people. It is God's word, much in the same way that Orthodox Jews view texts in our tradition and fundamentalist Christians view them in theirs. Where we have had extreme difficulty is in finding Muslims who speak for Muslim organizations who are willing to express contrary views. Those Muslims who I know hold views on social issues similar to mine, such as marriage equality or choice, are secular Muslims. I know of no religious leaders who share them.
As Liberal Jewish institutions, it is not only with Muslims that we have this problem. We need to dialogue with Catholics, we need to dialogue with fundamentalist Christians, and we need to dialogue with Orthodox Jews. We differ on many of the same social issues. Building bridges to the broader community cannot be solely about doing the politically correct thing. We need allies across the spectrum. Having 14 million Jews serve as the mediators between 1.2 billion Muslims and 1.3 billion Christians has never been comfortable. Both sides have at times persecuted and massacred our people. On Israel issues, we find ourselves right in the middle with a giant target on our heads.
There is, in the West, a false assumption that all Muslims oppose Israel. This is largely the result of negative media coverage and propaganda. It is certainly true that Arab Muslims tend to oppose Israel and that Shia Muslims (Iran) do, but there are two very prominent groups that need to be mentioned as strong allies. First are the Druze, who consider themselves to be an Islamic reformatory sect. Israeli Druze are some of the strongest advocates for Israel, serving in its military in disproportionate high numbers as well as in its diplomatic corps. Second are Sudanese Darfurian Sufi Muslims, whose genocide at the hands of Islamist Arabist militias is the result of their being African rather than Arab in orientation. The conflict in Darfur is between black Muslims who follow African traditions and black Muslims who follow Arab traditions. Many of these Darfurian Muslims have come to see Israel as the Southern Sudanese Christians came to see them, namely as their protectors against raging evil. One could easily add progressive Muslims throughout the Arab world who are simply afraid to speak up. The Islamic Society of North America, the most progressive Islamic national organization, supports a two state solution to the crisis, but is not by any means a strong supporter of Israel's security needs as it negotiates with the Palestinians. ISNA advocates for the Palestinian side.
What I have found is that those sects that have been persecuted in the Arab and Persian world, the Druze, the Sufi Muslims (slaughtered by the Taliban in Afghanistan and in Darfur by the government there), and the Bahai (a new religion formed out of the Islamic milieu) are some of the strongest supporters of Israel. They see Israel as the defender of the weak, as the defender of religious freedom, as the beacon of religious tolerance and as a land of peace and prosperity. While perhaps the dream is better than the reality, many Darfurian refugees have found far better lives in Israel than any that they could have imagined in the Sudan, though admittedly things could improve still more.
Take the time to watch the trailer for B'nai Darfur http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHUoFVf5ZKk .
It lets the Darfurians speak for themselves about what Israel means for them.