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Muslim and Jewish groups form coalition to fight bigotry

Jewish and Muslim women gathered at the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Leadership Conference at Drew University in Madison, N.J., on Sunday.Yana Paskova/New York Times

Days after the election, a leading Jewish advocacy organization and a prominent Muslim umbrella group announced a historic development: the creation of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, a bipartisan group that intends to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Yet its very existence has provoked condemnation by critics in both communities.

Plans for such an alliance, which aims to protect and expand the rights of religious minorities, had been in the works for months, but the debut could hardly have been more timely — especially for Muslims.

President-elect Donald Trump has appointed a national security adviser who once likened Islam to “a cancer.” Another adviser arrived at a meeting with the president-elect with proposals for limiting and monitoring Muslim immigrants, and a Trump surrogate in an interview cited Japanese internment camps as a precedent for a Muslim registry.


Interfaith allies could be critical roadblocks if Trump pursues some of the policies he floated during his campaign, such as extreme vetting of Muslim immigrants, enhanced mosque surveillance, and establishment of a commission on radical Islam.

And Jewish and Christian leaders could be influential at the local level. Mosque construction has encountered zoning roadblocks for years, and hate crimes — already in 2015 at their highest levels since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — have spiked since the election. In Wayland and Providence last week, mosques received copies of an anonymous hate letter sent to Islamic centers in seven states warning that Trump would do to Muslims “what Hitler did to the Jews.”

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, said he has been heartened by the outpouring of interfaith support since the Nov. 8 election.

“We had an attorney, a top, top attorney in D.C., write us a letter and say, ‘Look, I’m Jewish, I’m here to help pro bono if your rights are attacked,’ ” he said. But interreligious work can be as fraught as any other kind of political undertaking; it requires putting aside intensely felt differences to work on areas of agreement.


“Interfaith engagement is often like-minded people working together, which is not sufficient,” said Charles C. Haynes, chairman of the Committee on Religious Liberty, a 50-year-old interfaith organization, and vice president of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute. “We need interfaith engagement, or multifaith engagement, that crosses the boundaries of theology, ideology, and political difference.”

Denunciations from the left and the right swiftly followed the announcement of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which was founded by the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America.

FrontPage Magazine, a right-wing online publication, declared that the American Jewish Committee, which initiated the partnership, was cooperating with a Hamas backer. This was a reference to federal prosecutors’ inclusion of the Islamic Society of North America on a list of some 300 unindicted co-conspirators in a 2008 trial of the country’s largest Muslim charity. That charity was shut down by the federal government, and some its leaders were convicted of funding Hamas, but the Islamic Society was never charged with wrongdoing.

Robert Silverman, a veteran diplomat whom the American Jewish Committee hired to help build the alliance, said he is confident the Islamic Society is a mainstream organization.

“The trajectory the Muslim community is on is a very American trajectory,” he said. “It’s the opposite of scary.”


At the same time, on Twitter and Facebook, Muslims who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — a Palestinian-led rights initiative — issued scorching condemnations of the Islamic Society for partnering with a pro-Israel organization.

“You want to fight Trumpist policies and rhetoric? Ally with groups that aren’t promoting the oppression of a huge segment of your community,” one woman wrote. The Islamic Society of North America issued a clarification saying the interfaith council is separate and independent from the two organizations that founded it.

“This alliance is completely focused on domestic issues,” said Azhar Azeez, the president of the Islamic Society of North America. “This is something we strongly believe in.”

Silverman said the business leaders, politicians, and religious leaders on the council hope to promote the contributions of religious minorities, speak out against bigotry, and champion legislation supporting the right to the reasonable accommodation of religious practice in the workplace.

“It’s a very pragmatic group,” he said.

Conservative Christians, for their part, are likely to split over proposals aimed at restricting Muslims’ civil rights, said Timothy Shah of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. “Some conservatives will sympathize with the anti-Islamic posture, no question about it,” he said.

But he said many others see religious freedom as “a God-given inalienable right.”

Some on the Christian right who have fought Obama administration policies on religious freedom grounds feel their credibility is at stake, Shah said — that “if they don’t speak up now for the rights of Muslim Americans, then the rhetoric we have heard from them over the last few years about religious freedom will really be about self-interest rather than principle.”


Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote last June that the United States must “fight, and fight hard against radical Islamic jihadism,” but it “should not penalize law-abiding people, especially those who are American citizens, simply for holding their religious convictions, however consistent or inconsistent, true or false, those convictions are.”

Religious leaders often disagree, though, about how to balance religious liberty with other concerns. Progressive Christians and Jews, concerned about women’s health, did not back the US Conference of Catholic Bishops when it fought provisions of the Affordable Care Act relating to birth control that it saw as essentially forcing Roman Catholic institutions to violate church teaching. Divisions over whether religious institutions must accommodate transgender people remain largely unresolved.

Stepping beyond the politics of the rank-and-file could also be risky for religious leaders who sympathize with Muslims. A preliminary exit poll by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Catholics and 80 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump. It’s not clear how many Trump supporters would back, say, some form of a national Muslim registry. Throughout the campaign, though, the country rippled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, and two polls last spring found that about half the country supported a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants.


Another consideration: Even if religious leaders are united on any particular policy issue, it’s not clear how persuasive they would be to their membership. “If there is any lesson to be learned from this election, it’s that the rank and file of any group may not care what their leaders say,” said Thomas C. Berg, a scholar of law and religion of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

Despite all these difficulties, many of those who work on religious freedom issues say cooperation among interfaith leaders in this area is becoming more common.

Eric Rassbach, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, noted that a wide array of religious groups joined an amicus brief the Becket Fund filed last spring on behalf of a Muslim congregation trying to build a mosque in New Jersey. A similarly diverse coalition supported a Muslim prisoner suing for the right to grow a half-inch beard in an Arkansas prison.

“Some of the cooperation has been increasing because people are realizing that this principle of religious liberty for all is one that we should be embracing,” he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at